Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s efforts to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the cities had a noticeable sense of calm.
Bells marked the 70th anniversaries of the respective moments that Little Boy fell on Hiroshima and Fat Man exploded on Nagasaki.
White doves, an enduring symbol of peace, were released into the sky in both cities, while later on, paper lanterns, adorned with messages and drawings, were lit.
In Hiroshima, they bobbed along the Motoyasu river, representing a ceremony known in Japanese as “Tōrō nagashi” – an activity normally undertaken to guide the spirits of the deceased back to the other world.
It is a far cry from the events that took place in 1945.
On August 6 that year, those on the ground in Hiroshima reported seeing a blinding flash of light followed by a loud boom as a Little Boy uranium atomic bomb, used at the order of US President Truman, detonated directly above a surgical clinic with an explosion equal to between 12,000 and 15,000 tons of TNT, devastating an estimated area of five square miles, the bomb destroyed over 60% of the city’s buildings.
For those who had survived the explosion itself, further horror was to come, as the effects of radiation sickness – including nausea, bleeding, hair loss, fatigue, emaciation and death – set in, and other injuries were made worse by illness and malnutrition. In total, between 90,000 and 166,000 people were estimated to have died due to the attack.
Three days later, Fat Man, a plutonium bomb, exploded above a tennis court in the city of Nagasaki. The bomb had been dropped there because its initial target, Kokura, had been too obscured by cloud cover.
Its power was far greater than Little Boy at 22,000 tons of TNT, and between 39,000 and 80,000 people died in total due to the explosion and its consequences. Even if people overcame injuries sustained in both attacks, further trauma was possible – an epidemiology study by the RERF reported 200 leukaemia and 1,700 solid cancer deaths among the bomb survivors, between 1950 and 2000, from radiation from the bombs.
70 years on, the world’s relationship with nuclear weapons is highly complex.
Eight countries – the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea – are declared as possessing nuclear weapons, while Israel is thought to have them. While more recently the focus has been promoting disarmament, with initiatives including Global Zero and the NPT as well as the UN’s anti-nuclear stance (it prohibited their use in a resolution in 1961 and operates an Office for Disarmament Affairs), the nine countries are believed to still possess more than 15,000 nuclear weapons.
Yet no country has used nuclear weapons for warfare since the attack on Nagasaki. These are complex times for the world. With instability including North Korea’s taunts regarding its nuclear programme and the threat of terrorism including ISIS, some could argue that owning nuclear weapons serves as a deterrent – a body will surely be less likely to attack another in any form and for any reason if they know their opponent has the resources to retaliate with devastating force.
Yet, a plausible reason countries don’t push the nuclear button is the near-irrevocable repercussions, made clear by what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Soon after the attack on Hiroshima, the Manchester Guardian’s Our London Correspondence page commented on the atomic bomb: “…We have devised a machine which will either end war or end us all.”
With evidence from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki disasters, countries are fully aware that detonating something with the potential to end wars and defend countries also carries with it an assurance of mass destruction that may not be limited to the bomb’s targets.
First and foremost, the use of nukes in warfare would contradict many declarations and conventions formed around the basis of humanitarian law because, as shown by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they do not easily distinguish between civilian and military targets.
The ugly truth of the matter is that a nuclear bomb is designed to cause widespread damage – and this will often unavoidably involve civilians too.
Alex Wellerstien’s Nuke Map estimates that dropping Little Boy on London would kill 90,230 people, while Fat Man, dropped on the same city, would kill 110,000.
There are also worldwide environmental consequences of even a limited nuclear attack.
Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were contaminated with radiation for some time after the attacks. Nuclear bombs are thought to produce higher levels of radioactive fallout than nuclear plant accidents – important considering the Chernobyl disaster rendered five million acres of cropland contaminated.
A 2012 article by A. Robock and O. B. Toon suggested that dense smoke due to a nuclear war would block out light from the sun, causing the world to darken and provoking plant death, leading to mass starvation across the food chain.
According to the authors, even small-scale use of nuclear warheads could deplete the ozone layer, cause a temperature increase, speed up global warming and its effects and make the growing season shorter.
Another ominous consequence of nuclear detonation is a nod to those words in the Manchester Guardian in 1945 – in that it can “[end] us all”.
The doctrine of mutual assured destruction – the theory that extensive use of a high amount of WMDs by two or more sides would cause the full obliteration of both the attacker and the defender – was seen as helping prevent full-scale conflicts between the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
It is based upon and causes deterrence, in the sense that if one side threatens their potential to use nukes, it prevents the other side from using theirs, because of the sheer consequences of the weapons as outlined above.
Given the fact that nuclear weapons are owned by several of the world’s superpowers – the USA, Russia, China, for example – as well as shared with the USA by countries including Turkey, Germany and Italy, a desirable outcome for those attacking is limited when retaliation is so likely.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s legacy is that they have made us see that the potential for these consequences is not overestimated, nor purely the stuff of action movies or CGI documentaries. Back in eras that had only recently seen the First and Second World Wars, governments seemed to adopt a “make-do-and-mend”, optimistic attitude towards a nuclear attack. 1950s US public information films naively encouraged the public to “duck and cover” from an explosion, while the British government’s 1970s and 1980s civil defence series, Protect and Survive, suggested people create Anderson-like shelters in their homes and sit it out, eating canned food and waiting for announcements on the radio.
Yet, survival efforts, as well as contradicting the MAD doctrine, often left the public sceptical and are no longer being promoted in the way they were in, say, the 1970s or 1980s, because of the sheer destructive force of nuclear weapons – something arguably brought home by the images and stories filtered back of the sheer human and environmental catastrophes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If Little Boy and Fat Man have taught us anything, it is that, despite the amount of rhetoric used around nuclear weapons, the use of them causes real, undeniable, and sometimes irrevocable consequences to life in all forms.
The events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a warning to us all. What went on should not happen again, lest we wish to fundamentally alter our planet as we know it.