I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.
~ Michael R. Burch, “Epitaph for a Child of Hiroshima”
The 1945 atomic bombings of Japan changed the course of history. They mark the beginning of the insanity that is the global race for nuclear proliferation, an insanity which we must resist at all costs, as if the fate of the world depends on it–precisely because it does.
Hundreds of thousands of lives were snuffed out by the bombs’ immediate impact, as well as the effects of nuclear fallout in the weeks and months that followed. Another 650,000 were identified as hibakusha–the Japanese word for surviving victims of the attacks, whose descendants have experienced increased rates of cancer deaths and birth defects due to long-term radiation poisoning. Reflecting on the devastation caused Albert Einstein to lament that, “Our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
Yet out of this tragedy came another legacy, one that exemplifies the resilience of the human spirit. An impassioned worldwide social movement began, which sought to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In Japan, survivors-turned-activists such as Sumiteru Taniguchi and Setsuku Therlow have devoted their lives to informing people of the consequences of the atomic bombing and campaigning against nuclear proliferation. Another hibakusha activist, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, miraculously survived the impact of the bombs in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki before dedicating his remaining years to the goal of a nuclear-free world.
All around the world, the threats we face from militarism and war have not subsided, but the enthusiastic resistance from those dedicated to eradicating nuclear weapons have managed to keep pace. One such individual was Concepción Picciotto, who began camping in front of the White House in 1981 to protest nuclear arms, and remained there until she passed away in 2006 at the age of eighty. Her twenty-five year vigil against nuclear proliferation became the longest continuous act of political protest in US history.
On July 7, 2017, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which, upon ratification, would become a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the United States (along with all nine of the nuclear-armed countries) boycotted the vote, releasing a statement that they “do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it.” While the treaty will have no direct impact on the short-term behavior of countries like the United States, the treaty is an important step in taking the disarmament agenda out of the hands of the nuclear-armed powers (as 122 nations have voted in favor of the treaty) and in changing how societies think about nuclear weapons and notions of security. These spaces for imagining alternatives to nuclear weapons are slowly opening, reminding us of the words of a recently passed sage:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Barack Obama, the first American president to visit the impact site in Hiroshima, acknowledged the event and laid a wreath at the memorial. But the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president went no further, and the United States has yet to apologize for the bombings, which Former Nagasaki mayor Hitoshi Motoshima called, “one of the two great crimes against humanity in the twentieth century, along with the Holocaust.”
The destructive power of today’s nuclear weapons dwarfs that of the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Even today, our government seeks to upgrade our nuclear arsenal to the tune of a trillion dollars, all the while dismissing other priorities (such as healthcare-for-all, universal higher education, or the repair of our crumbling infrastructure) as luxuries we cannot afford. This is nothing less than a perverse betrayal of human values. “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything,” said Einstein, except for “our modes of thinking,” causing us to “drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” How far we have come, and how far we still have to go.