This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
I can’t help myself. I still think it’s worth bringing up, even for the 64th time. I’m talking, of course, about the atomic obliteration, at the end of a terrible, world-rending war, of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August 6 and 9, 1945, whose anniversaries– if that’s even the appropriate word for it–are once again upon us.
In this, at least, I know I’m not a typical American: Hiroshima and Nagasaki still seem all too real to me. As the child of anti-nuclear activists, I was raised to pay attention to two significant dates in American history–the day when the Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress bomber named after the pilot’s mother, dropped Little Boy, a five-ton uranium explosion bomb, on Hiroshima; and the moment, three days later, when another plane, jokingly named Bock’s Car (after the plane’s original pilot), dropped Fat Man (a moniker supposedly given it in honor of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill), a more complex plutonium implosion bomb, on Nagasaki.
When I was little, in preparation for those dates–and in this we were truly a minority of a minority in this country–we showed films documenting the aftermath of the atomic bombings. To this day, I can remember threading our old 16mm projector and then watching the shocking, shaky, grainy, black-and-white footage of ruined cities and ruined bodies filling the living room wall as one of those somber male over-voices narrated the facts.
So now, as the 64th anniversary of so many deaths approaches and thinking the unthinkable remains incomprehensibly in vogue, it seems worth the bother to recall one more time just what it means for the unthinkable to become reality.
The Death Count
In Hiroshima, Little Boy’s huge fireball and explosion killed 70,000 to 80,000 people instantly. Another 70,000 were seriously injured. As Joseph Siracusa, author of Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction, writes: “In one terrible moment, 60% of Hiroshima… was destroyed. The blast temperature was estimated to reach over a million degrees Celsius, which ignited the surrounding air, forming a fireball some 840 feet in diameter.”
Three days later, Fat Man exploded 1,840 feet above Nagasaki, with the force of 22,000 tons of TNT. According to “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered,” a web resource on the bombings developed for young people and educators, 286,000 people lived in Nagasaki before the bomb was dropped; 74,000 of them were killed instantly and another 75,000 were seriously injured.
In addition to those who died immediately, or soon after the bombings, tens of thousands more would succumb to radiation sickness and other radiation-induced maladies in the months, and then years, that followed.
In an article written while he was teaching math at Tufts University in 1983, Tadatoshi Akiba calculated that, by 1950, another 200,000 people had died as a result of the Hiroshima bomb, and 140,000 more were dead in Nagasaki. Dr. Akiba was later elected mayor of Hiroshima and became an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament.
Those who somehow managed to survive call themselves Hibakusha, which literally means “those who were bombed.” Most of the inhabitants of those two cities who miraculously made it through those hot and terrible August days are, if alive, now in their seventies or eighties, and they continue to tell their unique stories of horror, destruction, and survival. Their urgent pleas for peace, disarmament, and atonement often go unheard by a twenty-first century American culture that often seems to barely recall what happened last week, much less 64 years ago. Many of them have, over the years, traveled to the United States to tell their stories and show their scars, demanding that we never forget and that the world work towards nuclear disarmament.
Akihiro Takahashi is 77 years old now, but part of him will always be the 14-year-old boy standing in line with his classmates on August 6, 1945, less than a mile from where Little Boy detonated. He still recalls how he and his classmates were knocked off their feet by the blast. When he stood up again, he “felt the city of Hiroshima had disappeared all of a sudden. Then I looked at myself and found my clothes had turned into rags due to the heat. I was probably burned at the back of the head, on my back, on both arms and both legs. My skin was peeling and hanging.”
Since that time, Takahashi has endured many operations and spent countless hours in the hospital to repair the damage wrought in that single instant. On that August morning, he began to walk home–though there were few homes left in the leveled city–stopping to relieve the terrible heat and pain of his burns in the Ota River that flows through Hiroshima.
Along the way, he encountered injured friends, including a boy with terrible burns on the bottoms of his feet whom he half carried along with him. “When we were resting because we were so exhausted,” he related in an oral history, “I found my grandfather’s brother and his wife, in other words, great uncle and great aunt, coming toward us. That was quite [a] coincidence…[W]e have a proverb about meeting Buddha in Hell. My encounter with my relatives at that time was just like that. They seem[ed] to be the Buddha to me wandering in the living hell.”
Jigoku de hotoke ni au you is the phrase. In English, the equivalent would be “an oasis in the desert,” something rare that provides great relief. There were not many such oases in Hiroshima that day.
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.