In late August I made my first ever visit to the city of Hiroshima.  As a student of nuclear weapons, I had been wanting to make the trip ever since reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima as a college student.  In the book, Hersey graphically recounted stories from survivors of the first use of an atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945.  His detailed narrative of the horrific consequences of the attack made an outsized impression on me and played an important role in motivating me to find a way to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used again. 

My limited understanding of the city was further informed by numerous WWII-era photos of the immediate aftermath of the attack – Hiroshima as a blackened, smoldering wasteland with buildings reduced to rubble.

Given my dated reference points, I was unprepared last month to discover a city of stunning beauty, built on the delta of an inland sea, filled with many small islands, all surrounded by lush green mountains.  The WWII-era photos captured none of the serene beauty of Hiroshima’s natural setting.  Of course I knew that the city had been rebuilt after the war. Hiroshima’s rebirth into such a vibrant, modern, thriving city today is a testament to the resilience and hard work of its people.  But the Eden-like beauty of its natural surroundings felt incongruous to me after so many years of envisioning this city as hell frozen in time. 

Even more impressive than the physical rebuilding of the city are the efforts of its leadership to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again.

One such leader is Hidehiko Yuzaki, the Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, the state in which Hiroshima city is located. 

Governor Yuzaki has steadily increased the role of Hiroshima Prefecture over the last several years in leading international discussions on nuclear threat reduction and disarmament and in stimulating international cooperation to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. 

His invitation to participate in a roundtable discussion was the reason for my visit to Hiroshima.  The Governor brought together a group of global experts to explore ideas for reducing the nuclear threat in North Korea, as well as for moving nuclear weapon states away from the practice of relying on the threat of use of nuclear weapons (nuclear deterrence) for their security.  Both topics generated a spirited debate and exchange of ideas about the best way forward.  The second topic in particular – the relationship between nuclear deterrence and disarmament – raised open questions about the ongoing credibility, effectiveness, and desirability of nuclear deterrence in a world where new technologies (like cyber), irrational actors, and increasing risks of miscalculation and technical failure all increase the chances of nuclear weapons use.  

A key finding of the roundtable experts was that it’s time to undertake a realistic reexamination of nuclear deterrence as a sustainable foundation for our security.

Questions about the credibility of nuclear deterrence as a sustainable and effective security strategy are gaining currency.  Among other things, nuclear deterrence has come under increasing scrutiny by advocates of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, and other leaders who have led in rebuilding an understanding of the dire humanitarian consequences of nuclear use. 

How could it possibly be consistent with international laws of armed conflict, they ask, to use a weapon that does not discriminate between civilians and combatants, and that causes damage and suffering far beyond the intended military target and that may not even be necessary to achieve the military objective? 

Is it moral to threaten the use of such a weapon to prevent its ultimate use?  How realistic is it to expect that these weapons will never be used, on purpose or by accident, if we keep them indefinitely deployed and ready to use in large numbers? 

Our proximity to the consequences of nuclear use in Hiroshima sharpened our focus on these fundamental questions.  In Hiroshima, nuclear use is not academic, it’s personal.  While the number of atomic bombing survivors (Hibakusha) is rapidly dwindling, there is still a visceral understanding of the bomb.  Today’s “Hiroshimans” have learned directly about the inhuman consequences of nuclear use either through direct experience, or from the stories of parents and grandparents who survived the attack.  Together with Nagasaki, the people of these two cities occupy the unique ground of physical, personal and experiential understanding.

Hiroshima has done a wonderful job of building a beautiful and fitting memorial to the tens of thousands of lives lost during the attack of August 1945.  What was once shattered earth is now the Peace Memorial Park and Museum.  The tree-lined park sits just below the nexus of two rivers in the heart of the city, at the epicenter of the detonation that instantly eliminated the then-bustling business and industrial district located there.  Walking paths cut through the park, as well as small pavilions, sculptures and a memorial that contains the names of the victims of the attack along with the inscription, “Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil.”  Benches along the paths give visitors a place to rest and reflect.

Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park

The iconic and haunting skeleton of the Genbaku Dome building (the ruins of Hiroshima Prefecture’s former Industrial Promotion Hall) sits just across the river and looms as a reminder of the devastation.  The Peace Park is, in fact, quite peaceful and succeeds in inviting contemplation of existential questions about life, sudden death, lingering death, war, the resilience of the human spirit, and fundamental values around human dignity, rights and morality that are at the core of what it means to be human.  There is a palpable sense of the horror and anguish of the attack in this park but also of the triumph of hope and life.

On the other hand, the Peace Museum (which sits within the Park) invited many of the same questions, but it is far from peaceful.  The images, artifacts, and videos of the immediate aftermath of the attack are disturbing.  There are powerful first-hand stories of survivors on video. There is no way to “dress up” the horrors of a nuclear detonation, and one is left wondering how it is that 73 years after the attack on Hiroshima, we have made so little progress in eliminating the threat that a nuclear weapon could be used again?  Against that backdrop, a display on the history of arms control left me with a depressing sense of the glacial pace of progress in constraining nuclear dangers.

One set of images from Hiroshima is particularly searing:  photographs of the shadows of people and objects that were burned into concrete by the flash of light and heat of the bomb.  Like photo negatives, images of objects and people were etched instantly into the surfaces surrounding them even as the living entities disappeared into those shadows at the same instant.  One of the most famous is known as “the nuclear shadow of death” – the shadowy image of a person sitting on the steps of a bank when the bomb hit. Over time, those shadowy images have gradually disappeared, erased by nature’s gentle scrubbing from rain and wind. 

The remaining human witnesses, and their voices, are also gradually disappearing into the shadows and beyond.  I can’t help but wonder, how do we keep the knowledge of nuclear consequences alive, current, and urgent long enough to ultimately eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons? 

Hiroshima’s people help show us the way and provide tremendous inspiration.  They have shown us how to bear unimaginable suffering and yet hold onto the hope and belief in the future that was needed to rebuild; they continue to bear witness to the consequences of nuclear use to inspire progress toward nuclear disarmament; and through their political leadership, they are working to project the lessons of their experience internationally to ensure that “we shall not repeat the evil.” We should all learn from Hiroshima, before it’s too late.

Read the Chairman’s Statement of the Hiroshima Roundtable here

September 18, 2018
Joan Rohlfing
Joan Rohlfing

President and Chief Operating Officer, NTI


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