On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It was the first time an atomic bomb had ever been exploded outside of testing. Three days later, the United States dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki. An estimated 110,000-210,000 people died in these attacks that changed the course of human history.
In 2021, the solemn anniversaries of these events are set against a concerning backdrop, particularly in Japan. The country has entered a new, “extremely frightening” stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese Health Minister Norihisa Tamura told Reuters last week. Daily cases in the country recently surpassed 10,000 for the first time. Meanwhile, Olympic athletes have traveled to Japan from around a world in which vaccine distribution is deeply unequal; only 22 percent of Japanese citizens are vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with 57 percent in the United States and 72 percent in Canada. Yet the athletes are not the only ones who may set records; as a result of climate change, the Tokyo games are on track to be the hottest summer Olympics ever.
In this perfect storm of public health and climate disasters, how can the world’s citizens reflect on humanity’s past and ongoing engagement with nuclear weapons? A few suggestions:
Keep people, not politics, at the center of remembrances. A majority of Japanese citizens did not want the Olympics to be held in Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, plowed ahead with holding the games in Tokyo this year anyway. He then visited Hiroshima to mark the first day of the Olympic Truce—a tradition dating back to ancient Greece—during a state of emergency and without having quarantined for two weeks. More than 70,000 people signed an online petition protesting his trip.
“It’s inevitable that [Bach’s] trip will be criticized as being taken for political reasons,” the Hiroshima Congress against A- and H-bombs said in a statement.
Bear witness to survivors’ testimony about the effects of nuclear weapons. Direct, first-person accounts help convey the human toll and “remove any euphoria or sanitization” from discussions about nuclear weapon use.
“On that day, August 6th in Hiroshima, the sun and the earth melted together,” Hideko Tamura wrote in Hiroshima Memories. Tamura was a young girl, reading a book in bed, when the bomb hit. “My father brought Mama’s ashes home in his army handkerchief.”
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum educates visitors about the 1945 bombings and offers an understanding of the realities of nuclear warfare. The sobering exhibits merit in-person visits, though travel has been curtailed in 2021 due to the pandemic. Interested readers will find atomic bomb survivor testimonies online at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and in stand-alone articles.
Consider historical nuance. Some argue that the United States needed to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. However, the United States might have considered other options, including “negotiations, a demonstration of the atomic bomb in an uninhabited area, continued strategic bombing short of the use of atomic weapons, continued economic blockade, and waiting for the Soviets to declare war against the Japanese empire,” according to some experts. This article does not profess to settle the matter. Rather, this article seeks to highlight the need for nuanced discussions of history.
Foster a culture in which politicians listen to scientists. When the Truman administration planned to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, some prominent nuclear scientists advised against it; they wrote in the Franck Report that doing so would “precipitate the race for armaments and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.”
The United States ignored the scientists’ prophetic advice, and the bombings ushered in a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union that defined the Cold War.
“The war is won, but peace is not,” Albert Einstein said in his 1945 Nobel Anniversary address.
More than 75 years later, that observation still appears to be true. Earlier this year, experts at the American Federation of Scientists wrote: “Despite progress in reducing Cold War nuclear arsenals, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level.” As of May 2021, there were an estimated 13,100 nuclear weapons in the world; approximately 91 percent of these warheads are owned by Russia and the United States.
Scientists often organize to offer advice about how to confront the lethal treats posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, and pandemics. For example, interested policymakers can access information from the Union of Concerned Scientists, founded in 1969 by scientists and students at MIT to “share information, seek the truth, and let our findings guide our conclusions.”
To understand what nuclear risk might look like today, read (or re-read) two of the Bulletin’s most-read articles. To be sure, neither “What would happen if an 800-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated above midtown Manhattan?” nor “City on fire” are for the faint at heart. These direct, science-based narratives help readers “see” the effects of a nuclear bomb against a modern backdrop of landmarks that are familiar to many US and non-US citizens, including the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, and the White House.
“The warhead would probably be detonated slightly more than a mile above the city, to maximize the damage created by its blast wave,” the authors of the first article write towards the beginning. “Within a few tenths of millionths of a second after detonation, the center of the warhead would reach a temperature of roughly 200 million degrees Fahrenheit (about 100 million degrees Celsius), or about four to five times the temperature at the center of the sun.”
Likewise, “City on fire” gives the vivid details of the physics of mass fires, describing what would happen immediately after the detonation of a single nuclear weapon, second-by-second—the resulting shockwaves, winds, and overpressures.
Stigmatize nuclear weapon possession and work toward abolishing them. Most of the nuclear weapons that exist today are more powerful than those that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nuclear states continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals. The threat of nuclear catastrophe endures, especially as history is rife with examples in which human error nearly caused accidental nuclear wars. Also, the United States president—even an unstable one—retains an ability to act alone and order a nuclear weapon strike directed at tens of thousands of civilians.
Arms control agreements are not magic bullets to avoiding nuclear catastrophe, but they can forestall nuclear exchange, according to the Bulletin’s president, Rachel Bronson. For example, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force earlier this year, has attracted 54 parties and 32 signatories, although no nuclear-armed country has signed the treaty. Nonetheless, the treaty may help stigmatize nuclear weapons “with the kind of fervor previously attached to anti-personnel land mines or blinding lasers.”
Remember the ongoing existential threat of nuclear war, even while monitoring other existential threats. Admittedly, this last suggestion is hard to swallow. The delta variant of the COVID-19 pandemic is surging. Climate change is wreaking havoc around the globe. This inheritance of world problems is real, immediate, and difficult. But on the solemn anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thoughtful individuals might also contemplate the chaos and loss of those who were killed or harmed by the atomic bombs detonated by the United States. And on the broader topic of nuclear risk, they might ask with renewed urgency: What has humanity gotten wrong about nuclear weapons, and where can we push back in the hope of making improvements now?
To read from the Bulletin’s collection of past articles on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, click here.
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