For many ordinary Hiroshima citizens, August 6, 1945 began as just another day. Despite having received less than positive news from the frontlines of the Japanese Army, there was a sense of calm and relief for citizens. Hiroshima had, after all, been spared the US airstrikes that had hit other Japanese cities.
We would know later, of course, that the most destructive weapon known to humankind, code-named “Little Boy,” was about to be detonated over Hiroshima. It would obliterate the city and kill more than a hundred thousand of its citizens. Three days later, the city of Nagasaki would suffer the same fate — hit by “Fat Man,” an even more powerful bomb than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
That fateful week in August 1945, more than 250,000 people, civilians as well as soldiers, were killed. Japan was already weakened by its failing war effort, and the nuclear bombs detonated by the United States brought the country to its knees. That, combined with the Soviets having launched an invasion into Manchuria, motivated Japan to surrender unconditionally, signing a peace agreement in September 1945.
It is not possible to overestimate the immense legacy of that week’s events. The decision by US President Harry Truman to drop those two bombs ushered in the nuclear age, changing the world forever. The United States unleashed in one pivotal week weapons of mass destruction that wiped out two Japanese cities, and crippled the entire area with radiation poisoning for decades to come.
After the first atomic test bomb was detonated in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, lead physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer quite aptly quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” While Oppenheimer was at first relieved that his bomb functioned as designed, he also quickly felt the “blood on his hands,” expressing his hope that nuclear weapons would be banned.
Since those consequential bombings in 1945, the world has lived in the shadow of nuclear weapons and the potential of nuclear war. The Soviets developed their own nuclear weapons, as did the French and the British. The nuclear arms race became extremely tense in the 1950s, and the United States and the Soviet Union on three occasions came very close to nuclear confrontation — the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1983 Soviet false alarm incident, and the Able Archer exercises. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, with both the Soviets and the United States finally stepping back in recognition of the horrors that could be unleashed by the use of nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Multiple nuclear disarmament treaties were signed, most of them now close to expiring.
We are now living through a terrifying new period of nuclear history. 75 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world grows closer to a new nuclear arms race. Nuclear disarmament and nuclear proliferation treaties developed during the Cold War are close to expiring. US President Donald Trump has already withdrawn the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, citing Russian non-compliance.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, commonly known as SALT, is set to expire next year. Without a renewed SALT treaty, there is nothing to prevent the Russians and the United States from developing new nuclear weapons. Adding to the complications, Donald Trump is adamant that China’s nuclear arsenal be included in any future SALT treaty. President Trump is also planning to start testing nuclear weapons again, which the United States has not done since 1992.
In a video commemorating Hiroshima, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres said that “division, distrust and a lack of dialogue threaten to return the world to unrestrained strategic nuclear competition.”
With the world gripped by both a pandemic and unrest over racial equality, the threat of nuclear war has not received much attention these days. It surely should. There is a serious and deepening concern that, if left unchecked, the world could easily trip into nuclear war. Technology developments and cyberwarfare exacerbate the threat.
In his 1985 inauguration, Ronald Reagan remarked that “we seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.” It seemed for a very brief time that Reagan’s vision could realistically be achieved. But with Donald Trump as US President, and the emergence of a 21st century great power competition, it could be very difficult to implement a new nuclear weapons treaty. However difficult, it is the moral obligation of the leaders of nuclear weapon states to do so.
One has only to listen to the horrors described by first hand survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to understand the terror, suffering and destruction that stem from the use of nuclear weapons.