As we approach the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, there is a spate of new television programs that tell the story of the development of the bomb, its use on these two Japanese cities, and the complicated nuclear history since then.
Having worked in the security field for nearly 30 years, I’ve heard most of these stories time and again. But last month I heard a story that was new to me.
I was in Nagasaki, Japan, for a meeting we organized on technical issues of security and arms control. As part of the meeting, our local host—the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA) at Nagasaki University—arranged for a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing to come tell us his story.
A Nagasaki Hibakusha
This experience was moving both because of the slice of history this person offered us, and because the living links to that history are becoming increasingly rare. The survivors, called Hibakusha, are dying or becoming too frail to tell their stories. Yet some, like Mr. Yoshiro Yamawaki who talked with us, see it as their mission to continue to talk about their experiences as long as they are able.
Mr. Yamawaki was 11 at the time of the bombing. His mother and younger siblings had moved to a relative’s house outside of Nagasaki as the Pacific war moved closer to Japan and people began to fear that the U.S. would drop conventional bombs on the city. Nagasaki was a natural target since it was an active port and home to four military plants owned by Mitsubishi. Mr. Yamawaki, his twin brother, and their 13-year-old brother were living with their father at their house in Nagasaki, just over two kilometers from what would become the epicenter of the atomic blast.
He and his brothers were lucky on the day of the bombing: They escaped serious injuries since they were outside their house, which spared them from falling debris, and were shielded by the walls of the house from the intense heat and blast of the bomb. But their luck ended there. Mr. Yamawaki’s story of roaming through the ravaged, body-littered moonscape with his brothers, looking for their father at his flattened factory near the epicenter gives some small sense of what they and others went through. A video from 2008 of Mr. Yamawaki presenting a version of what he told us is available here.
What it means for today
In one sense, Mr. Yamawaki’s story is not unique to Hiroshima and Nagaski but is a story of the horrors of war—and other disasters. The fire-bombings of Japanese and European cities during World War II, for example, caused similar tragedies.
The radiation from the atomic bombings sets them apart from other weapons, of course. Many tens of thousands of those who escaped the immediate effects of the bomb died later due to radiation exposure or battled with cancer caused by the radiation. Mr. Yamawaki is one of those.
But the biggest difference is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the beginning of a new scale of warfare—arguably beyond what people then and perhaps even now can comprehend. A single bomb dropped by a lone bomber could destroy a city and kill or injure hundreds of thousands of people.
That is the real lesson for today of the bombings that took place 70 years ago. The scale of devastation that the United States, Russia, and a handful of other countries can deliver, and deliver in less time that it takes Mr. Yamawaki to tell his story, is difficult to fathom. These weapons cannot be considered to be just another weapon.
While the U.S. and Russia have cut their nuclear stockpiles dramatically since the end of the Cold War, each currently has some 4,500 weapons in their arsenal—deployed and in storage—with each weapon from 5 to 40 times as powerful as the Nagasaki bomb (100 to 800 kilotons). To appreciate what that means, you can see the effect of just one of these weapons on your city here.
If more than one weapon was used, the effects could be much worse than just the damage done on the ground. Research shows, for example, if India and Pakistan used 100 weapons, the smoke released into the atmosphere would cool large parts of the globe for a decade, limiting agricultural production and threatening a billion people with starvation.
Reducing the risks of nuclear use
Understanding this lesson has two clear implications. First, the U.S. and Russia should continue to make deep cuts to their nuclear arsenals, while working to keep other countries from acquiring weapons or building up existing stockpiles. The Pentagon has told President Obama that—independent of what Russia does—the U.S. can cut its arsenal below the limit set by the current New START treaty, down to about 1,000 deployed weapons. The president should order that reduction. Given economic pressures in Russia, it is even likely that Russia would make a similar cut. Russia is in the process of retiring its Soviet-era weapons and would need to build fewer to replace them.
Second, the kind of devastation discussed above should be incredibly difficult to unleash. Yet both the U.S. and Russia keep many hundreds of their nuclear-armed missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched in a matter of minutes. This policy is a holdover from the Cold War, and it increases the risk of the accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. A surprising number of incidents over the past decades—including both human and technical errors—have shown that this is not unthinkable. And increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks add to these concerns.
Indeed, some experts estimate that today the greatest risk of nuclear use is from an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized launch.
Some of the Hibakusha have voiced their regret that the abolition of nuclear weapons will not happen in their lifetimes. But the U.S. can begin to take serious steps to reduce the risks of nuclear use today. As a start, Mr. Obama should take U.S. land-based missiles off hair trigger alert—something he can order as commander-in-chief of the military. That would be a great way to increase U.S. and international security and show that we have begun learning the key lessons from the bombings in Japan.
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