Hiroshima’s fate, 70 years ago this week, must not be forgotten via The Guardian

Two outstanding works of journalism bookmark that 70-year period: John Hersey’s 1946 article, which reminds us of the horror of the bombing; and Eric Schlosser’s terrifying account of a break-in at a US weapons plant in 2012 – a warning, he says, about our current complacency


Of the two, the Holocaust – unprovoked and unremitting – is unquestionably the greater crime. So monstrous was the methodical murder of 6 million Jews that it’s hard enough to imagine that it took place, let alone that it will ever be repeated. “Never again,” is the near universal consensus. But Hiroshima is another matter. Its mushroom cloud remains a vivid symbol of Promethean hubris, of technology’s grim and uncontrollable potential. And it was repeated, just three days later in Nagasaki.

What’s more, many thousands of infinitely more powerful nuclear weapons were subsequently developed and there have been occasions when they have come catastrophically close to being unleashed. Hiroshima is the lesson we must continually relearn if we are to avoid Armageddon. As the author John Hersey wrote: “What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

For those of my generation, when tens of thousands of nuclear warheads were primed for the commencement of the third world war, Hiroshima retains a salutary potency. In my case its relevance was made all the more lasting by the fact that my father visited Hiroshima not long after the bomb was dropped.


Distinct from the question of the morality of atomic or nuclear weapons is the question of their utility, though the two are frequently confused. There are many observers who look at the horror inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki and conclude that not only was it wrong but therefore, almost by definition, unnecessary.

This line of thought tends to view the atomic raids on the two cities as if they had little or nothing to do with a desire to end the war with as few casualties – particularly American – as possible. Instead they are seen as a deliberately terrifying exhibition of American military might.


He points out that the Japanese killed an estimated 1 million Chinese civilians with chemical and biological weapons alone, and altogether killed between “10 and 15 million people in what is now considered an Asian holocaust”. So the Japanese leadership’s willingness to kill was not to be doubted, nor its determination to defend the country against invasion.

All of which means that those who say the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands more soldiers and civilians have, at the least, a respectable point. “But,” adds Schlosser, “I’m not celebrating it or saying it was justified.”


To think too much about nuclear armaments is to risk a lifetime of fear and paranoia, whereas to think too little is to fall into a state of denial. Somewhere between those two extremes is a space for rational discussion and debate. The problem is that when it comes to weapons that can kill billions and poison the planet for a generation all rational discussion sounds mad. But the alternative is irrational discussion and that’s unlikely to take us very far.

One of the key elements of an effective deterrence programme is to promote the belief that, when it comes down to it, the possessor of nuclear weapons is prepared to use them. But the lesson that Hiroshima, the victim of the most primitive nuclear technology, must teach us is that no one should be prepared to use them. And if no one is prepared to use them, that’s a good basis for the commitment that no one should possess them. Seventy years on, Hiroshima also deserves the promise: never again.

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