By Susan Southard
In the face of powerful Goliaths, the Davids are the next generation of passionate, creative thinkers who single-mindedly refuse to let us forget or rationalize Nagasaki and Hiroshima, who believe in a world of safety without nuclear weapons.
Based on my book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, I often give talks in America about that unforgettable (or now often-too-forgettable) day when, for only the second time in history, human beings deemed it right to assault their own species with apocalyptic power. At these book talks, I’ve learned to be prepared for someone in the audience to say that the Japanese deserved what they got. It’s still hard to hear. […]
Still, so many decades later, in a world in which the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from a key Cold War nuclear agreement with Russia and the U.S. nuclear arsenal is being modernized to the tune of up to $1.6 trillion, it’s worth recalling the other side of the story, the kind of suffering the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings caused in August 1945 and long after. Within weeks, people in both cities began experiencing mysterious symptoms: vomiting, fever, dizziness, bleeding gums, and hair loss from what doctors would later understand as radiation-related sickness. Purple spots appeared all over their bodies. Many died in excruciating pain within a week of the first appearance of such symptoms. Fear gripped Nagasaki. From one day to the next, no one knew when his or her time might come.
In those first nine months, pregnant women suffered spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, or the deaths of their newborn infants. Many of the babies who survived would later develop physical and mental disabilities.
Five years after the bombings, thousands more began dying from leukemia and other illnesses caused by high-dose radiation exposure, initiating cycles of higher than normal cancer rates that would last for decades. The bombs had, from the survivors’ perspective, burned their bodies from the inside out. Parents exposed to radiation feared possible genetic defects in their children and hovered over them year after year, terrified that what looked like a simple cold or stomach ache would lead to severe illness or death.
Even today, radiation scientists are still studying second and third generation hibakusha (atomic-bomb-affected people) for genetic effects passed down from their parents and grandparents, reminding us how much we still don’t understand about the insidious nature of radiation exposure to the human body.
A David-and-Goliath Nuclear World
With that in mind, I returned to Nagasaki in November to participate in the city’s 6th Global Citizens Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Specifically, I was invited to present on a panel tasked with exploring ways to carry forward the hibakusha stories. What made the conference unique was the participation of both hibakusha and other citizens of Nagasaki, including high school and university students, scholars, activists, artists, musicians, writers, and interpreters. All of them were intent on exploring new ways to communicate stories of survival, from August 1945 to now, experiences that should remind us why the vision of a world without nuclear weapons matters.
Both panelists and participants again confronted the intensity of nuclear war. As hibakusha Kado Takashi, 83, prepared to stand before the assembly and tell his story for the very first time, he turned to me and pounded his heart with his hands to show me how terrified he was. Then, summoning his courage, he began to speak.
Yamanishi Sawa, 17 years old, tenderly told her grandmother’s story of survival and her own tale of teenage activism both at her school and in meetings with anti-nuclear activists in Geneva, Switzerland. Everyday citizens adopted the stories of hibakusha no longer with us, using the survivors’ own words to recall the hell — and humanity — of nuclearized Nagasaki. All of this, and more, reminded us of what those survivors have long known but the rest of the world seldom stops to grasp: that there’s nothing abstract about nuclear war and that nuclear weapons can never be instruments of peace.
They know what the world’s top nuclear physicists (and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists with its doomsday clock) have been telling us for decades: whether by intentional use, human error, technological failure, or an act of terrorism, our world remains at high risk of a nuclear conflagration that could leave Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the shade. Rather than a great power war, even a regional nuclear conflict between, say, India and Pakistan could create a planetary “nuclear winter” that might, in the end, kill up to a billion people.
Keep in mind, as these Nagasaki activists do, that today there are nearly 15,000 weapons in the nuclear arsenals of nine countries. Of these, almost 4,000 are actively deployed across the globe. Theoretically, they are meant to deter another country from launching a nuclear attack, but the success of such deterrence policies relies, in part, on both technological invulnerability and relatively rational decision-makers.