Honour the dead, ban the bomb
On August 9th, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a radio address from the White House. “The world will note,” he said, “that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base.” That bomb, the grotesquely named Little Boy, fell 70 years ago today and was followed by one in Nagasaki three days later – some 450,000 are believed to have died in the bombings and their lingering aftermath. On August 15th, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to a shattered nation.
Truman did not continue to insist on the “military” nature of the target as evidence of the scale of the inevitable civilian deaths began to come in, but would remain adamant that the bombs shortened the war and saved the half million US lives that an invasion would, he suggested, have resulted in. A panel of military experts set up by him, however, put the latter likely toll at some 40,000, while there have been strong suggestions that a Japanese surrender was imminent anyway.
In retrospect it would seem impossible not to see the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the mass indiscriminate killing of civilians – war crimes – and even at the time, although mired in a long and costly war, it is worth recalling that Truman was opposed by six of the US’s seven five-star generals and admirals. Admiral William Leahy considered the bombings “barbarous” and a violation of “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war.”
Have we learned the lessons? Hardly. The legacy of that day is still very much still with us, a deadly shadow over our world that during the Cuban missile crisis inspired a global fear of imminent nuclear annihilation. Nine states possess between them 15,695 nuclear weapons, the US and Russia, 14,600 . Three others appear able to develop them. Little Boy’s 15 kiloton destructive power has been multiplied a thousandfold in individual weapons – before the International Test Ban Treaty the US tested a 15 megaton bomb, while Russia (the Soviet Union), one of 50 megatons.
The fear today is less the likelihood of an exchange between the two giants, and more the proliferation of such weapons to “rogue” states like North Korea, the danger of them falling into terrorist hands, and the deeply destabilising effect on regional politics of the possession of weapons by states like Israel and Pakistan.
Ireland’s call, as part of the New Agenda Coalition (including Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa), for an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons was never more important. There are treaties prohibiting biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions, but none for nuclear weapons. There would be no more fitting tribute to the dead of Hiroshima than on this day to pledge a renewed commitment to kickstart the stalled international disarmament process for just such a treaty.