This week marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only use of atomic weapons in the history of warfare. Those 1945 bombings immediately caused some 200,000 casualties; thousands more hibakusha survivors eventually died from bomb-related cancers and other diseases in the years and decades that followed.
The uranium core atomic bomb, "Little Boy," that exploded over Hiroshima on Aug. 6 had a blast force equal to 12,000 tons of TNT; it destroyed five square miles of the city. The plutonium core atomic bomb, "Fat Man," that fell over Nagasaki on Aug. 9 had a slightly larger blast force, the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT. "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" would today be tiny compared to many of the weapons in today's nuclear arsenals. For example, the W88 warheads on US Trident II submarines have explosive forces of about 475,000 tons of TNT, some 30 times larger than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
In 1945, Akihiro Takahashi was 14-year-old junior high student. The morning of Aug. 6, he was waiting for school to begin, standing in line with his classmates less than a third of a mile from the epicenter. His account:
The heat was tremendous. I felt like my body was burning all over. For my burning body the cold water of the river was as precious as the treasure. Then I left the river and I walked along the railroad tracks in the direction of my home. On the way I ran into a friend of mine, Tokujiro Hatta. I wondered why the soles of his feet were badly burnt. It was unthinkable to get burned there. But it was an undeniable fact his soles were peeling and red muscle was exposed. Even I myself was terribly burnt. I could not go home ignoring him. I made him crawl using his arms and knees. Next, I made him stand on his heels and I supported him.
That same morning, Akiko Takakura, 20, was on her way to a bank 300 meters away from the epicenter. Despite more than 100 laceration wounds on her back, Takakura miraculously survived. Her account:
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Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I, I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away.
Thinking back over seven decades, this week's anniversary provides another fleeting opportunity to consider the impact of a nuclear exchange. Recent studies have shown no humanitarian organization is capable of responding to a nuclear exchange. Studies have also shown that an exchange could set off a nuclear winter with horrific ecological consequences, causing huge swaths of the planet to die slowly.
Some naively take solace in the fact atomic weapons have not been used in war for 70 years. They should not. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a strong risk that -- sooner or later -- they will be used, by nations or by mad terrorists into whose hands they might fall.
*Currently, nine states -- the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea -- are armed with approximately 15,850 nuclear weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2015 Yearbook report. Roughly 1,800 of these weapons are kept in a state of high operational alert. They are in effect on a hair trigger. This is madness.
For many years there was hope the 1970 United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would lead to total nuclear disarmament. The treaty requires the nuclear nations to disarm themselves of nuclear weapons in exchange for agreements by non-nuclear nations to give up ambitions to acquire these weapons.
Indeed, progress toward disarmament took place in the decades that followed, but in recent years this progress first slowed, and then stopped. No treaty is currently in place forcing more disarmament. Meanwhile, the world's nuclear possessing nations are moving to "modernize" their weapons and delivery systems to make them more effective.
The lack of will by the nuclear weapons nations to disarm has discouraged most other nations. At the recent NPT review conference in New York, 107 nations bolted and agreed to take an alternative route. They signed the "humanitarian pledge," agreeing to work toward a treaty banning nuclear weapons, making them illegal.
This pledge was initiated by Austria in December 2014, following a series of gatherings that explored what has now come to be called the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) project. The HINW project has highlighted the devastating impact that any use of nuclear weapons will have on human life.
Disarmament may still be a long way off, but at least the humanitarian pledge promises more than the nuclear weapon states in the Non-Proliferation Treaty have been willing to provide.
Pope Francis recently expressed his opposition to not only the use of nuclear weapons but also to their very possession. Archbishop Bernedito Auza, the Vatican's ambassador to the United Nations, stated: "Today there is no more argument, not even the argument of deterrence used during the Cold War, that could 'minimally morally justify' the possession of nuclear weapons."
Francis, meanwhile, views nuclear disarmament from the perspective of the poor. He wrote to the Vienna Humanitarian Conference in December 2014: "Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. To prioritize such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources, which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty."
The road to total nuclear disarmament will be arduous and will be possible only if ordinary people stand up and demand it from their leaders. U.S. citizens, as citizens of the only nation to ever use atomic weapons in war, should be the world's leading advocates for their abolition. Sadly, relatively few are speaking out as our nation's leaders plan to spend up to a trillion dollars in the next decade "upgrading" the U.S. nuclear deterrent system. We would be well served by following Francis' lead, while there is still time to do so.