Planet Hiroshima 2010
When the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, two-year-old Sadako Sasaki was at home with her family. Unlike tens of thousands of others, she was fortunate enough to survive the immediate blast of the 15-kiloton Uranium-235 bomb.
But the young, athletic girl who liked to run could not escape the grim reality of what it meant to live through an atomic blast. Nine years later Sadako would contract leukemia, dying a year later in a Hiroshima hospital at the age of 12. In death she joined the legions of the hibakusha, the Japanese term for the victims of radiation poisoning.
An estimated 140,000 people died as a result of the Hiroshima blast, tens of thousands of them instantly or within the next few months and almost all of them noncombatants and children. Three days later at Nagasaki, another bomb was dropped, killing thousands more. Eventually over 200,000 people would die as a result of the attacks, either during the bombings or later from illness. By any objective measure the nuclear attacks by the U.S. military constitute the largest acts of mass murder in the history of the world.
They also constitute acts shrouded in lies. At the time President Truman told Americans the targets were military sites. It was necessary to use the bombs to force Japan’s surrender, he declared. The public was also told—falsely—that leaflets were dropped prior to the bombings warning people to leave. Later, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson claimed that the atom bomb saved the United States from an invasion of Japan that might have cost a million American casualties.
But U.S. official McGeorge Brundy came up with the million figure, based on nothing, as he later acknowledged. Consider only the assessment of Admiral William Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1945, who years later wrote: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” The admiral compared the use of the bombs to adoption of “an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”
The Age of ‘Collateral Damage’…
Truman indeed knew Japan’s surrender was imminent, according to now declassified records. But if nuclear weapons were unnecessary to end the war, they did send a forceful global message about which country would dominate the post-war era. Truman did not intend for it to be the Soviet Union. Thus, the dead and victimized of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not only the last casualties of World War II, but also the first casualties of the Cold War.
Dark ages, indeed. In our world the deliberate slaughter of civilians in war is very much the norm. The atrocities of the Nazis and Japanese militarists are well-known, but less so was the intentional targeting by Britain’s air force of the concentrated worker housing of Hamburg, Germany. Ignoring the factories and U-boat construction yards south of the Elbe, British bombers under the command of extreme reactionary Arthur Harris instead spent months dropping incendiaries and high explosives on Hamburg’s civilians. Some British military leaders did not support this policy, but it prevailed and was driven not only by strategic war aims, but also by what science historian David Bodanis in “Electric Universe” (Crown, 2005) describes as Harris’ acute hatred of the working classes.
More evidence. In the Errol Morris documentary, “Fog of War,” former Secretary of State Robert McNamara admits a reasonable case could have been made to have tried as war criminals the group of Americans who organized the mass death firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. It’s a significant admission since McNamara was part of that group. McNamara also acknowledges that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed by Congress, giving President Johnson the authority to unleash war in Vietnam, was based on a lie. The alleged torpedo attack by North Vietnam on the U.S.S. Maddox in 1964 never happened.
Fast forward 40 years. Other than the venerated thinkers at Fox News and their ilk, the whole world now knows the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on an equally fabricated justification: Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. They didn’t exist. Nor does the shining “democracy” whose exportation became the fallback rationale to justify Iraq’s ongoing occupation.
As the public policy group Just Foreign Policy reports, what does exist is as many as 1,366,350 Iraqis dead as a result of consequences directly tied to the 2003 U.S. military invasion, “A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi,” said one member of the Third Brigade, First Infantry Division, as reported to The Nation’s investigative reporters Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian in 2007. The GI was describing his impression of the general attitude among U.S. troops who operate the patrols and supply convoys, man checkpoints, and conduct raids and arrests.
…And Also Madness and Irony
What also exists is a Democratic president who declares he will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that support the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Formally, that’s a change from his Republican predecessor. But like his Republican predecessor President Obama also insists on retaining the American threat to use nuclear weapons first. Nor in its recent arms talks with Russia would the administration explicitly adopt language threatening nuclear attack only against nuclear threats.
Meanwhile, the White House employs favorable rhetoric for the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East—as long as Israel (and itself, for that matter) is exempted. Actually, at the moment “nuclear-weapons-free zone” just means no nukes for Iran. The latter remains a country within striking distance of U.S. nuclear-armed submarines.
Tellingly, during the 2008 primary race Obama briefly flirted with the notion of opposing use of nuclear weapons as a foreign policy option. Now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized her then primary rival. “I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons,” Clinton said.
Actually, yes they can. They can at minimum adopt a no-first strike policy. They can also work vigorously to eliminate nuclear weapons from their own and the world’s arsenals, instead of quietly reconstituting their nuclear stockpiles while talking “disarmament.” They can question why the United States arms itself with a military force whose budget equals almost half of all world military spending. Most important, they can repudiate a foreign policy tradition that takes as a given the American right to send troops and establish military bases anywhere in the world.
In 2008, Obama quickly scratched his electioneering inspired anti-nuclear thought, but kept the one about possibly invading Pakistan in pursuit of Al-Qaeda (and this is key), regardless of whether Pakistan approved. He has also since being elected proved—as he said all along he would—that his opposition to the Iraq war was more tactical than principled. Despite the high hopes of Move-On and other liberal voices that a “peace candidate” would occupy the White House, Obama wanted only to redirect the juggernaut of American military power toward Afghanistan. It’s a sad, imperial state of affairs when foreign policy fundamentals change so little from one administration to the next.
Sad, and also dangerous. Because 65 years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world remains perilously trapped in conflict. “In the year 2007 the average yield of a nuclear weapon is about 10 times greater than the 15-kton Hiroshima bomb,” wrote Raymond G. Wilson, professor emeritus of physics at Illinois Wesleyan University, for the Peace and Conflict Monitor. “Throughout the 50 years following 1945, the average rate of creation of nuclear weapons in world arsenals was the equivalent of about 70 Hiroshima bombs per day, every one of those 18,250 days.”
The threat of nuclear annihilation remains real. Yet the irony of our age is that for the first time in human history the science, technology, manufacturing and agriculture exist to eliminate all want. But in the context of a world also driven by the acquisition of corporate profits and entrenched class and nationalist divisions, the world’s people instead face an increasingly uncertain and violent future. Or even the possibility of no future.
When the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the famous physicist Albert Einstein publicly protested. The U.S. government responded by adding Einstein’s protests to his FBI file. Now U.S. Secretary of State Clinton leads the international campaign for tough U.N. sanctions on Iran for failing to prove it’s nuclear program is peaceful. Yet, no such campaign by the western powers has ever targeted Israel, which the Federation of American Scientists reports may possess roughly between 75 and 130 nuclear weapons or more.
No doubt there is plenty of reason to despair. But then there is also the story of young Sadako Sasaki, who did not deserve to die at age 12. Sadako’s story is only one among countless millions of tragic accounts of “man’s inhumanity to man,” of the innocents whose lives over the last century have been cheap fodder for the killing machines of state power, whether of the democratic, fascist, or other variety.
During her months of hospitalization, Sadako undertook a project to fold a thousand paper cranes in the hope that, according to Japanese legend, her prayer for life would be granted. It was perhaps just the wish of a child. But Sadako never gave up and folded the cranes up until the day of her death. In Japan, after her death young people inspired by her story organized to collect money to build a statue of Sadako, which was unveiled in Hiroshima Peace Park in 1958. There is also a statue of Sadako in Seattle’s Peace Park.
At the bottom of the statue in Japan of Sadako holding a golden crane is the inscription, “This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world.”
Sixty-five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, they remain words to remember and live by in this mad age.
[This is an updated version of an essay, "We Are All Living on Planet Hiroshima," originally published in 2007.]