For the Sixty-Fourth Time: No More Nuclear War | The Nation


For the Sixty-Fourth Time: No More Nuclear War

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Imagining Nagasaki

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Frida Berrigan
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Program Associate at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative (ASI). She is...

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World War II defense spending helped pull us out of a depression, but don't count on that happening this time.

Akihiro Takahashi's story (of which the above was but a small part) is just one of so many thousands--and hardly one of the grimmest. Of course, 80,000 to 140,000 stories went with their potential tellers to their graves that day. Along with the stories that could be told, there were also the photographs to help us imagine the unimaginable.

Yosuke Yamahata was 28 years old and working for the Japanese News Information Bureau in August 1945. Along with Eiji Yamada, a painter, and Jun Higashi, a writer, he was dispatched to devastated Nagasaki by the Japanese military just hours after Fat Man exploded and instructed to "photograph the situation so as to be as useful as possible for military propaganda."

Their train arrived at the outskirts of the ruined city in the middle of the night. Here's how Yamahata describes the scene: "I remember vividly the cold night air and the beautiful starry sky....A warm wind began to blow. Here and there in the distance I saw many small fires, like elf fires, smoldering. Nagasaki had been completely destroyed." By the time the sun rose, Yamahata had made his way to the center of what was no longer a city. As the day went on, he retraced his steps, along the way taking photographs of the carnage and destruction until he was back at the train station.

All in all, he took 119 photographs that day, capturing some of the most haunting and enduring images of the atomic age. In one, a bloodied boy holding a rice ball stares, his head covered with an air raid hood (a dark cloth that the Japanese military handed out to civilians telling them it would protect them from American bombs); in another, an exhausted-looking woman nurses a badly burnt baby.

In almost every image, the ground is littered with burnt bodies and unattached limbs, household items, rubble, and timbers. As he walked through the missing city, people cried out for water or for help uncovering bodies buried in the rubble. "It is perhaps unforgiveable," reflected Yamahata, "but in fact at the time I was completely calm and composed. In other words, perhaps it was just too much, too enormous to absorb." Returning to Tokyo, Yamahata took advantage of the general confusion that surrounded the Japanese surrender to the Americans and managed to hold on to his negatives, rather than turning them over to his superiors.

A handful of his images were published in Japanese newspapers at the end of August 1945, before the American army arrived and the US occupation began. In October 1945, occupation authorities imposed a ban on photographing the atomic sites and on the publication of all atomic-related stories (and the images that went with them). Most of Yamahata's photographs from Nagasaki were not seen until 1952, after Japan was once again an independent nation and Life Magazine published a few of his Nagasaki photos. That same year almost all the Nagasaki photographs were published in Japan under the title: Atomized Nagasaki: The Bombing of Nagasaki, A Photographic Record. The book includes sketches by Eiji Yamada and an essay by Jun Higashi, his two companions in Nagasaki that day.

In the introduction, Yamahata wrote: "Human memory has a tendency to slip and critical judgment to fade with the years and with changes in life style and circumstance... These photographs will continue to provide us with an unwavering testimony to the realities of that time."


When I was young, to keep memory from "slipping," our family and friends marked the anniversary of those terrible days in a distant land with a demonstration or vigil. Often, we ended with a ceremony of remembrance, setting paper lanterns afloat on water in honor of those who died.

Admittedly, this would not pass for a carefree American summer evening, but even as a little girl I came to feel as if I knew some of the A-bomb survivors personally--the experience of Akihiro Takahashi, the photographs of Yosuke Yamahata, and perhaps closest to my heart, the story of Sadako Sasaki.

The children's book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, written by Eleanor Coerr, brought me close to one girl whose life was cut short by my government's A-bomb long before I was born. I was then a chubby, sedentary kid, and so found myself strangely intrigued and confused by Sadako's deep love of running.

She was just two years old when Little Boy exploded above her city, but eight or nine as the book begins, impatient and uncomfortable with all the obligatory ceremonies surrounding the anniversary of the bomb in Hiroshima. She did not like to look at the survivors or care to hear the terrible stories. All she wanted to do was run. Lithe, athletic, and popular, Sadako joined a footrace on the very anniversary of the destruction of her city and, when she found herself unable to finish, was taken to the doctor only to discover that she had "atom bomb sickness"--in her case, leukemia.

In the hospital, a friend reminded her of an ancient Japanese belief: if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, the Gods will grant you a wish. So with the help of her classmates, she began to do just that. Scrap paper, candy wrappers, fancy printed paper: all become tiny origami birds of hope.

With her as an inspiration, I learned to fold paper cranes, practicing until I could do so with my eyes closed and fold them as small as a pea. Childhood being childhood, what may have impressed me most was a friend of mine who could fold those origami birds with her toes.

On October 25, 1955, with 356 birds left to go (as Coerr tells it), Sadako died. Since 1958, a statue of Sadako holding a golden folded crane has stood in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, draped with small paper birds sent from children all over the world, a symbol of peace.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Today

Sixty-four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we need more than symbols of peace. Folding paper cranes alone cannot, unfortunately, end the threat of nuclear war. Memories of the destruction fade, the hibakusha grow even older and die, the haunting pictures end up in books stored spine out on bookshelves.

Meanwhile, the terror of nuclear annihilation--so keen at certain moments during the long superpower Cold War stand-off--seems to have worn off almost completely. That's too bad, since the actual threat of nuclear war remains hidden but potent. The nine nuclear powers--the United States, Russia, France, England, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea -- have more than 27,000 operational nuclear weapons among them, enough to destroy several Earth-sized planets. And in May, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that the number of nuclear powers could double in a few years unless new disarmament is a priority. Is it any wonder then that, according to a recent Rasmussen opinion poll, one in five Americans believe nuclear war "very likely" in this century, and more than half, "likely"?

The unthinkable is still under consideration--even as the Obama administration takes its first steps in the right direction. In an April speech in Prague, President Obama publicly embraced the goal of seeking "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." In its wake, his administration has begun taking still quite modest but potentially important steps towards that goal, including: renewed talks with Russia over mutual nuclear reductions, conversations initiated in the Senate about jump-starting the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban, stalled these last ten years, and of negotiations for the also stalled Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, imagined as an internationally verified ban on the production of nuclear materials for weapons.

Right now, however, the American nuclear landscape--little acknowledged or discussed--remains grimly potent. According to the authoritative Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the United States still maintains a nuclear stockpile estimated at 5,200 warheads--of which approximately 2,700 are operational (with the rest in reserve), while the Obama administration will spend more than $6 billion on the research and development of nuclear weapons this year alone.

At some point early next year, the administration will complete a Nuclear Posture Review outlining the role it believes nuclear weapons should play in the American pantheon of power, and, if the president follows through on his anti-nuclear statements, perhaps that document will at least begin to limit the scenarios in which such weapons could be used. In the meantime, the policy of the United States remains no different than it was in 2004, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed the Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy. It said, in part, that the United States possesses nuclear weapons for the purposes of "destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world." Read that sentence again, and think, under such a doctrine, what might the United States not bomb?

Keep in mind as well that the bombs which annihilated two Japanese cities and ended so many lives 64 years ago this week were puny when compared to today's typical nuclear weapon. Little Boy was a 15 kiloton warhead. Most of the warheads in the US arsenal today are 100 or 300 kilotons--capable of taking out not a Japanese city of 1945 but a modern megalopolis. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute and a former launch-control officer in charge of Minutemen Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles armed with 170, 300, and 335 kiloton warheads, pointed out a few years ago that, within twelve minutes, the United States and Russia could launch the equivalent of 100,000 Hiroshimas.

It is unthinkable. It seems unimaginable. It sounds like hyperbole, but consider it an uncomfortable and necessary truth. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the children of our future need us to understand this and act upon it--sixty years too late...and not a minute too soon.

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