The usual photos we see of Hiroshima are aerial, often shots before and after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 6, 1945. The “after” shots show a flat and bleak landscape, the city almost totally destroyed.
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, BBC this week warned of images that might be disturbing, but it was careful with its footage, which was limited mainly to destroyed buildings. One newscast, ironically, pointed out that for years US documentaries also did not show the human victims, only the devastation of infrastructure.
The effect has been a kind of global anesthesia, numbing the world to the human suffering that happened 70 years ago in Hiroshima and, two days later, in Nagasaki. An estimated 187,000 people, mostly civilians, died in the two cities, and many more were to suffer for years from radiation illnesses. I reviewed accounts of the bombings and was struck by one stark description of what had happened: People were burned alive. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not quiet after the bombs dropped.
For decades the bombings have been viewed mainly as the final blow that led Japan to surrender on Sept. 4, 1945. The world accepts without question that “fact,” sometimes accompanied by an assertion that the Japanese “deserved” the bombings. This feeling is particularly strong among other Asians—the Chinese, especially—who suffered grievously from Japanese wartime atrocities.
A more benign response has been one tinged with regret, and hope that such a drastic measure will never be resorted to again.
Our global anesthesia is hastening a global amnesia. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are fading from memory, and if we want long-lasting global peace, we need to to do a review, not just of the bombing of the two cities but also of the whole history of the development of nuclear weapons.
Rather than making a passing mention of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in history classes, we need to refer to the nuclear arms race in many other classes—political science, philosophy, religion, and, most importantly, in science, technology and society (or STS), a subject that will soon be required in all college degree programs.
We need to put together a narrative composed of many untold, some suppressed, stories, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the core, to include physical fallout (radioactive particles causing illness and death) as well as social fallout.
We have to go back to 1933 when physicist Leo Szilard, while waiting at a street intersection and seeing the stoplight turn green, had a moment of serendipity, thinking about how tremendous energy could be unleashed through a nuclear chain reaction.
He and other scientists began to look into how such reactions could be catalyzed. Sadly, when World War II broke out, the research shifted to looking into how nuclear chain reactions could be used for armaments.
The Allied forces nursed fears that the Germans were developing a nuclear bomb. It turned out that the Germans were not engaged in such research, but the Allied forces—the Americans in particular—were not about to take chances. The nuclear arms race had begun.
The year 1945 was ushered in with clear signs that the Allied forces were going to win. In May Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe. In Asia, the Japanese had suffered humiliating defeats, including the Battle of Manila, which was fought from February to March 1945 at the cost of the city’s almost total destruction and some 100,000 civilian deaths.
Shortly after the Battle of Manila ended, the Americans began Operation Meetinghouse, a massive aerial bombing of Tokyo that included napalm on the night of March 9. Some 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed. After Tokyo, the Americans continued with the systematic bombing of another 35 Japanese cities.
But as early as January 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had sent US President Franklin Roosevelt a long memorandum outlining five separate peace overtures from Japanese officials. More surrender feelers were sent after the Tokyo bombing, including one from Emperor Hirohito.
In July 1945, however, scientists in Los Alamos in the United States unveiled their atomic bomb. Roosevelt had died and the new president, Harry Truman, and his administration moved toward unleashing this new weapon on Japan.
The fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki has lasted 70 years in the form of a nuclear arms race. At the height of the Cold War, mainly between America and the Soviet Union, some 65,000 nuclear weapons were produced by five countries.
Listening to our humanity
But another kind of fallout happened. On March 1, 1954, the Americans exploded a new atomic bomb 100 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Code-named Castle Bravo, the detonation of this new bomb took place in Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. One Japanese fisherman in the area described the event as the sun rising… in the west.
Castle Bravo so alarmed the English philosopher Bertrand Russell that he convinced BBC to launch a public education campaign, including a special broadcast where he read out his speech, “Man’s Peril,” warning about dire consequences from the use of nuclear weapons.
The world took notice. In an editorial, the New York Times noted how the “sinister clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not dissipated” and had caused “psychological fallout … distressing the minds of men.” It praised Russell for his “global patriotism.”
Russell contacted Albert Einstein, seeking his support. Einstein wrote back, saying he concurred with Russell’s call. Einstein died shortly after but Russell was able to get a statement, now called the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, endorsed by nine Nobel Prize laureates. The most quoted passage reads: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? I appeal, as a human being to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”
As a result, a new project, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, was launched. To this day it continues to call not just for nuclear disarmament but also for the total abolition of war.
There are lessons to derive from the Hiroshima fallout, including how fear can drive humans to heights of destruction and, even as the enemy lies prostrate, to inflict more brutality.
Governments continue to propagate the same kind of fear and paranoia that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, exemplified by the invasion of Iraq ordered by US President George Bush after 9/11, to seek out “weapons of mass destruction” that turned out to be nonexistent. We still suffer today from the many new wars of retaliation and counter-retaliation that followed Iraq.
But all that may be too distant for our young students. If we are to learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we should find lessons for our own lives. Ask young people for examples of the “Let me drop the atomic bomb first” kind of thinking. Is it right for a frat to attack another frat because it suspects that it is about to be attacked? After Mamasapano, was it right to call for more force against Muslims in Mindanao, resulting in some 100,000 civilians driven from their homes?
At a very personal level, when people who have wronged us suffer misfortune, do we rejoice and find ways to make them suffer even more?
From some 65,000 nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War, about 17,300 are left today. I’m not sure I’m comforted, but that figure should also goad us to heed the Pugwash scientists’ constant call, “Listen to your humanity,” and act to convert the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki into a peace dividend.
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