On 75th Anniversary of Atomic Bombings, Honor Memories with Action

Setsuko Thurlow, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

This post also appears on the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program’s website.

As a 13-year-old girl, I witnessed my beloved city of Hiroshima blinded by a flash of light, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius, and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb. I was rescued from a collapsed building, where most of my classmates were unable to escape. They were burned to death alive. I saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling away from ground zero—blackened, swollen, with skin and flesh hanging from their bones. Some carried their eyeballs in their hands.

I vividly remember that bright summer morning 75 years ago when daylight turned to dark twilight with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud. Dead and injured people covered the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care at all. There were fires everywhere. A foul stench of burnt flesh filled the air. Of my hometown population—roughly 360,000 mostly non-combatant women, children, and elderly—140,000 beloved human beings became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. As I use the numbers of the dead, it pains me deeply. Reducing individual lives to numbers seems to me to be trivializing their precious lives and negating their human dignity. Each one who died had a name. Each one was loved by someone. And still to this very day, people are suffering and dying from the delayed effects of radioactive poisoning.

Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. Credit: Bonnie Docherty, 2019.

Many experts agree that the nuclear threat is greater now than at any time in the 75 years since the dawn of the nuclear age. For example, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, a journal founded by Albert Einstein and others, announced on January 23, 2020, that their Doomsday Clock is now set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to nuclear catastrophe in the 75 years of the nuclear age. At the event, Dr. Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin, declared, “The current environment is profoundly unstable and urgent action and immediate engagement is required by all.”

Yet the unstable environment described in January has only increased. The Trump Administration is dismantling non-proliferation agreements that have taken decades to develop. The US has signaled that it will walk away from the START treaty, one of the last agreements that remains in Trump’s felling of minimal arms control measures that once stood as norms for nuclear armed states. If START is not renewed, this will be the first time in about half a century that the two major nuclear powers will not be bound by bilateral nuclear agreements at all.

We are in grave danger of reigniting a new nuclear arms race as the US is considering detonating nuclear bombs again, breaking a 28-year taboo that began when the US signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1992. I have recently been informed that Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, has introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, approved in a party-line 14-13 vote, that would make at least $10 million available to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.” 

Setsuko Thurlow accepts Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Credit: Jo Straube, 2017.

It’s not just the US, but every nuclear armed nation that is modernizing their arsenals. Earlier this year, for example, President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech in Paris offering France’s modern nuclear weapons in defense of Europe. It is shocking to witness a continued commitment to militarism in the midst of a global health crisis the world has not seen the likes of in 100 years. There is an urgent need to re-think the concept of national security in the 21st century and central to that is to demilitarize government spending. Nuclear modernization, nuclear testing, and military spending are diverting money desperately needed to address the coronavirus pandemic, climate chaos, and the destabilizing conditions of social and economic injustices made plain by COVID 19. We urgently need to re-direct taxpayer resources and human ingenuity to focus on problems that require our immediate attention— the global pandemic, climate chaos, extreme poverty, racial injustice, and many other pressing issues, including eliminating nuclear weapons.

Although we face so many problems, not all is lost. In fact, in many ways, never before in my lifelong work for nuclear disarmament have I felt such a sense of hopefulness and excitement as I do now. Why do I feel so hopeful? It’s because of the birth of a rapidly growing global movement that I am part of—the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Our campaign has been reframing the problem of nuclear weapons from deterrence credibility and techno-military issues to concerns over their humanitarian and environmental consequences.

Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims in Hiroshima. Credit: Bonnie Docherty, 2019.

Since 2010, we have worked with governments and the United Nations to push for a nuclear ban treaty, which we achieved on July 7, 2017. On that day, 122 UN member states voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Later that year ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for our work highlighting “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and for our “ground-breaking efforts” in the creation of a treaty for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. At the time of writing, we have 40 ratifications and 82 signatories. We only need a further 10 ratifications for the treaty to enter into force. It is my hope and belief that we will garner those additional ratifications before the end of this year wherein we recognize the 75th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once the treaty has entered into force, nuclear weapons will be illegal under international law.

We have to work hard to continue our struggle. Join together to demand that our governments fund human needs and take care of our environment instead of funding nuclear violence. Take action to ensure there will be no more hibakusha. Remember the victims and survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, honor our memories with action. This is our wish.