Fall­out from the bomb­ing of Hiroshima


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, the 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 U.S. doc­u­men­taries also did not show the hu­man vic­tims, only the dev­as­ta­tion of in­fra­struc­ture.

Anes­the­sia, Am­ne­sia

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 lon­glast­ing global peace, we need 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 U.S. 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 the 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 U.S. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. 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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