Lessons from Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Michelle at the Nagasaki Peace Memorial, August 9, 2018
Michelle at the Nagasaki Peace Memorial, August 9, 2018

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of the Massachusetts Peace Action newsletter

In the sweltering heat of the Japanese summer, I toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. This park commemorates those who died from the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on August 6, 1945. Statues of women trying to protect their children from the bomb’s devastation were set near the epicenter of the blast site. A burial mound holds the ashes of at least ten thousand bodies. Later, at the Nagasaki Peace Park, I viewed images of infants, teens and adults burned beyond recognition, lying in the streets.

I was representing Mass. Peace Action, along with fellow member Jerry Ross, as part of a delegation of American peace groups participating in the 2018 World Conference Against A and H Bombs in Japan last August. It was a life-altering experience for me. For the next nine days, spent in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we listened to the voices of nuclear abolitionists from around the globe.

We met Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic attack, and heard their stories. They spoke of the deep, unabating grief they felt in the days, months, and decades since the attack. They described the shame of being a survivor; many were unable to marry, find jobs, or live any sort of normal life. They said many Hibakusha never speak of the day, instead choosing to suffer in silence. They told what it was like to be suddenly alone in middle age—to lose their parents, spouses, children, and livelihoods in a single instant. 

As we listened, my thoughts kept turning to my own country and my home town of Bedford, Massachusetts. The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons, and it has done so not once but twice. An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly in Hiroshima and another 40,000 to 75,000 in Nagasaki. Added together, a rough total of 145,000 people—similar to the combined populations of Bedford, Lexington, Lincoln, Concord, Carlisle, Billerica, and Burlington—died instantly. It is hard to imagine what it would be like if the people in all these Boston surburban communities near my home were incinerated in a moment.

Yet the madness of the Cold War nuclear arms race has not gone away. During the last phase of his presidency, President Obama initiated a $1 trillion nuclear upgrade and in 2018, Congress has bumped that number up to about $1.7 trillion. Millions of those dollars will flow to Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford to upgrade the Nuclear Command, Control and Communications System. In the last few weeks, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act; it includes funding for “low yield” nuclear bombs, which have a greater chance of being used. These low yield bombs have more destructive capabilities than the two dropped on Japan. Earlier this year, after Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review was released, the Doomsday Clock was moved to 2 minutes before midnight. It was the first time since 1953 that The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands so close to midnight: nuclear annihilation. 

It is time to put a stop to outmoded and antiquated thinking. It is time for total nuclear disarmament by all nine of the nuclear states. It is time for the United States to sign on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and to eliminate every single one of its 4,000+ nuclear weapons!

–Michelle Cunha is the assistant director of Mass. Peace Action.