(August 6, 2020)
Seventy-fifth anniversaries are normally a time of celebration, because we tend to remember significant events that are important in our lives as individuals and as a society. Birthdays are generally something to celebrate, but not necessarily events in world history.
So far this year, we have celebrated V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe, and the signing of the United Nations Charter. Later this month, we will mark V-J Day, the end of the war in the Pacific, and then in October we will celebrate the founding of the United Nations.
But before these, we must today mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and on Aug. 9, the bombing of Nagasaki. There is nothing to celebrate on either of these days, as we think of the horrors inflicted on the people of those two cities, and the premature deaths from radiation poisoning of hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of people since that fateful month in 1945 when Pandora’s box of nuclear nightmares was opened.
The world certainly changed in 1945. People hoped that change was for the better, and so history was rewritten to make it seem that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, to turn the global page toward post-war peace and prosperity.
Since then, the evidence has only grown more compelling that neither atomic attack was warranted. The war was in its final days. American intelligence had known all along that the Japanese empire had never possessed any nuclear capability — in fact, we have since learned that the few Japanese physicists who might have had the ability to create an atomic bomb ensured the sabotage of any such attempt.
So imagine the Allied conversation behind the scenes, especially after the death of U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the elevation of Harry S. Truman, who supposedly was unaware of the Manhattan Project until FDR died. Of course, they wanted the war to end — but not too soon. What was the point of spending a lot of money to build a bomb you didn’t use? Besides, it was going to be used against the Japanese — and not against people “like us.”
Historians have long concluded that there was never an Allied intention to use atomic weapons against Nazi Germany, which at least attempted to establish a nuclear program, and certainly felt free to use V-1 and V-2 rockets against civilians in Great Britain. It is therefore very hard not to also conclude that racism was inherent in the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan — and chilling to realize that only two bombs were dropped before the war’s end because that was all they had.
If there had been 20 bombs, perhaps 20 Japanese cities would have lain shattered under the mushroom clouds that became horrifyingly familiar to the world after 1945.
Racism, xenophobia, colonialism and power were the Four Horsemen of the nuclear apocalypse from the start.
We think 2020 will be seen as a pivotal year in the 21st century, because of how much the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live together in a global society. But while the pandemic looms large in our field of vision, there are other events unfolding that might be more crucial for the future we hope our children will enjoy.
The United States is leading the way in dismantling the treaties that were efforts to make nuclear annihilation less likely. The year 2019 saw the U.S. withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. This year, the Trump administration has announced it intends to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows reconnaissance overflights to monitor military buildup on any side. The next Trumpian target is the New START pact that limits nuclear weapons platforms between Russia and the United States.
Ending these agreements makes the world a much more dangerous place than it was — or than it needs to be.
Seventy-five years after the mushroom clouds rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we need to remember that nuclear weapons today are larger and far deadlier than those first two small bombs. There are more than enough, on all sides, to mean the end of life on Earth, whether by radioactivity or by triggering a nuclear winter and dropping temperatures to levels too cold for vegetation and most animals — and people — to survive.
Even a small-scale, regional nuclear conflict could be enough to trigger catastrophic global climate changes, given that we are already close to tipping points because of how we continue to live against the planet by not cutting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.
In a nuclear age, facing climate crisis as well as a global pandemic, there is no place for “them” and “us.” We are all in this together.