Heeding the Message of Nagasaki

At 11:02 A.M. on 9 August 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped a single bomb on the Japanese port city of Nagasaki.

The bomb, nicknamed ‘Fat Man,’ contained a baseball of plutonium surrounded by 64 packs of high-explosive, timed to compress the warhead to a critical mass. As Susan Southard details in her major new study Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War, the bomb’s “nose, sides, and tail were covered with the signatures and hometowns of ground and mission crew members, along with brief handwritten messages. ‘Here’s to you!’ wrote one soldier from Chicago.”

Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki after atomic bombing on August 9, 1945. Taken from the north west. Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Mushroom cloud above Nagasaki after atomic bombing on August 9, 1945. Taken from the north west by Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In that soldier’s mind, no doubt, the ‘you’ was a generalized, evil, stereotypical ‘Jap’ rather than a living soul ‘carbonized’ – turned into a shadow – by a blast more intense than the center of the sun. Three days before, a similar ‘message’ had been delivered to Hiroshima. A handful of former Nagasaki residents survived that attack; as ‘Fat Man’ fell, Southard recounts, “one man, who had dug into the ruins of his Hiroshima home to find the bones of his wife, now walked through the streets of Nagasaki carrying a wash-basin filled with her ashes to give to her parents.”

The 22-kiloton bomb – crude, primitive and low-yield by today’s multi-megaton standards – killed roughly half the city’s population (70,000 by the end of 1945, 140,000 by 1950), the same ‘kill ratio’ as Hiroshima. Yet Nagasaki has often, particularly outside Japan, stood in the shadow of the initial, August 6 attack, a violent aftershock of that terrifying Earthquake. Peace Quest Cape Breton, for example – a group I’m proud to belong to – though it always acknowledged the suffering of both cities, for years held a Hiroshima Day ceremony, never a Nagasaki Day ceremony. In one terrifying sense, however, ‘Nagasaki’ serves better as shorthand for the challenge we now face, for while we know Hiroshima was the first city to suffer the unendurable, we are very far, 72 years later, from knowing Nagasaki was the last.


‘All those kids’

This fear, that the August 1945 bombings were not just crimes against humanity but previews of its fate, has driven many of the ‘hibakusha’ (hee-bakh-sha, the ‘atomic bomb-affected people’), to band together to tirelessly repeat two messages of their own: the bomb should never have been used; unless it is banned and eliminated, it will be used again.

While it is possible to believe – as do, for example, former US Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz – that the atomic bombings were justified and that nuclear weapons should now be abolished, the two messages are intimately related. If any use, or even threat of use, of such weapons under any circumstances is considered a legitimate exercise of state power, it not only becomes harder to pursue radical disarmament but more likely that one day, somewhere, such ‘circumstances’ will arise again.

The official, strategic rationale for the 1945 attacks actually falls apart under close critical scrutiny, and that matters a lot; but what matters more is that no rationale for the mass annihilation and cross-generational poisoning of civilians can ever satisfy the standards humanity needs to set for itself to survive.

A hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, tells young people about his experience and shows pictures. United Nations building in Vienna, duringt the NPT PrepCom 2007. By Buroll (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, tells young people about his experience and shows pictures. United Nations building in Vienna, duringt the NPT PrepCom 2007. (Photo by Buroll, own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The authorized version of the bombings is that they ended the War and saved more lives than they took. In fact, the Americans were rushing to use both versions (uranium and plutonium) of  their secret, astronomically expensive Superweapon before a Soviet invasion triggered final Japanese collapse.

(The Nagasaki bombing was nearly aborted due to poor visibility; according to the rules of engagement, it probably should have been; without 1.6 million Soviet troops on the Manchurian border, it probably would have been.)

The bombings were also meant to ‘message’ Moscow about America’s intent – enjoying, it was assumed, a lengthy atomic monopoly – to dominate the post-War world order, a signal triggering decades of nuclear arms racing and hot and cold conflict.

As for lives saved, the Pentagon predicted total American land-invasion casualties (dead and wounded) of around 50,000, a far cry from the mantra of a ‘million’ (or more) later chanted to quell deep public unease. Under international humanitarian law, however, the mass murder of civilians can never be justified on the grounds of reduced risk to combatants, so in a related lie, the US claimed both targets were primarily military. But as Commerce Secretary and former Vice President Henry Wallace noted in his diary for August 10, “[President] Truman said he had given orders to stop the atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’”


‘Cloud of witnesses’

In recent years, as the ‘nuclear club’ has expanded to nine and the threat of nuclear use by design or accident has grown in Europe, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere, the idea that such unparalleled violence can form the basis of durable international security has fallen into fresh repute.

At the opening of UN talks to ban the Bomb in March this year – talks boycotted by the nuclear-armed states and their allies – an Open Letter from over 3,000 distinguished scientists listed the intolerable consequences of even “individual explosions” and noted that “unfortunately, such a war is more likely than one may hope, because it can start by mistake, miscalculation or terrorist provocation. There is a steady stream of accidents and false alarms that could trigger all-out war, and relying on never-ending luck is not a sustainable strategy.”

Nagasaki after the bombing. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Nagasaki after the bombing. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The hibakusha have been saying as much since their lives were ripped apart. Addressing the UN talks, which led to the adoption by 122 states of a Nuclear Ban Treaty, Hiroshima-survivor and now Toronto-based activist Setsuko Thurlow made an extraordinary appeal to delegates and nations “genuinely serious about disarmament”:

I want you to feel the presence of not only the future generations who will benefit from your negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, but to feel a cloud of witnesses from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The memories and images of those who perished have always supported and guided me. I think this is how many survivors have kept on living – to make sure that the deaths of their loved ones were not in vain.

Logically, legally, strategically, politically and morally, the only alternative to Armageddon is abolition. If we do not ‘sense the presence’ of the victims, and heed the calls of the survivors of the atomic attacks, we will inflict on ourselves again the radical, terminal absence described by US Navy Captain William C. Bryson on his entry into Nagasaki in September 1945: “A smell of death and corruption pervades the place,” Bryson wrote to his wife, “ranging from the ordinary carrion smell to somewhat subtler stenches.” But the “general impression, which transcends those derived from the evidence of our physical senses” is:

…one of deadness, the absolute essence of death in the sense of finality without hope of resurrection. And all this is not localized. It’s everywhere, and nothing has escaped its touch. In most ruined cities you can bury the dead, clean up the rubble, rebuild the houses and have a living city again. One feels that is not so here. Like the ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, its site has been sown with salt and ‘The Glory is Departed’ is written over its gates.


Worst yet to come?

Nagasaki did come back to life again, and stands with Hiroshima as a symbol of human resilience as well as savagery. But how breathe freely again until the threat of a return to that hell – or, unimaginably, even greater devastation – is lifted? This is the unbearable existential tension captured so perfectly by the American poet Carolyn Forché in The Testimony of Light (1994), written after visiting Hiroshima:

The trousered legs of the women shimmered.

They held their arms in front of them like ghosts.

The coal bones of the house clinked in a kimono of smoke.

An attention hovered over the dream where the world had been…

Muga-muchu: without self, without center.

Thrown up in the sky by a wind.

The way back is lost…

The worst is over.

The worst is yet to come.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.





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