71 Years since Hiroshima: History, Politics, and Envisioning a Post-Nuclear World

In the 4.543 billion years that planet earth has existed, the atomic bomb has only been used in wartime once: 71 years ago. It was August, 1945. The Second World War had ended in Europe in May, but Japan and the United States continued to battle in the Pacific. American President, Harry Truman, warned that “if they [the Japanese government] do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on earth.” On August 6, 1945, Truman gave orders to drop an atomic bomb for the first time during combat. Bombs had been tested on a smaller scale that summer, but the long-term effects were unknown. The decision to use an atomic weapon that day has been debated ever since, and has led to an international arms race in the last 71 years.

The bomb,  nick-named “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima by a crew flying the Enola Gay B-29 bomber.  Hiroshima was chosen because it was densely populated. At 8:15 am, 80,000 people lost their lives almost immediately after the detonation. On August 9th, U.S. forces dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki; about 60,000 people died in that attack. Exact numbers for both cities will likely never be known, but it is estimated that over 200,000 people perished as a result of the bombs. Japan unconditionally surrendered on August 15th, describing the devastating power of “a new and most cruel bomb”. The war was officially over.

The Development of the Atomic Bomb and the Manhattan Project

The devastating casualties in the days and weeks following August 6, 1945 speak for themselves. Over 100,000 people died from the sheer force of the explosion, and thousands more died of acute radiation poisoning in the months that followed. But even years later, data has shown an increase in blood disorders, cataracts, and cancer in Japan.  Survivors of the attacks continue to be tested in medical trials, while the atomic energy of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” continue to set the standard for scientific research into “safe doses” of radiation  for the development of x-rays and security scanners.

The Nuclear Weapon Discussion 71 Years Later

Though the use of the atomic bombs is still considered by many to be one of the United States’ most shameful acts, no apology has ever been issued. For every person who considers the decision to be shameful, another believes that it was an unfortunate, but necessary action to end the war. In May 2016, Obama became the first sitting President to visit Hiroshima. However, he went with the intention of offering a “forward looking vision” of a non-nuclear world, not to issue an apology for the decision to use the bomb in 1945. The visit spurred a great deal of discussion around Obama’s intentions to promote a non-nuclear world while presiding over an administration that will spend more than $ 1 trillion upgrading, modernizing and expanding U.S. nuclear arsenal.

One of Obama’s missions as President has been to prevent nuclear terrorism by preventing dangerous terrorist networks from obtaining nuclear weapons. In addition, he assures the world that the United States and Russia remain on track to meet the New START Treaty goal of reducing the level of nuclear warheads to “1950s levels”  by 2018.  Suggested policy changes such as a “no first use” policy for the United States’ nuclear arsenal would be a significant step toward Obama’s goal of reducing nuclear arms and uniting the international community against the spread of nuclear weapons.  It’s hard to say what will come of this vision when Obama’s successor takes over in a few months.

Meanwhile, on Saturday August 6th, 50,000 people quietly mourned the victims of the 1945 bombings at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.  A moment of silence was observed at 8:15 am, and visitors left behind long strands of origami paper cranes, which were bunched into colourful bouquets for those who perished at the end of the war.  Behind the cenotaph, an eternal flame burns that will only be extinguished on the day when the last nuclear weapon has been destroyed.


It is estimated that 15,000 nuclear weapons currently exist in the world, 10,000 of which belong to the U.S. and Russia alone. At the ceremony, the Mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, quoted Obama from his visit in May, saying that “among those nations… that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them.”

The 71st anniversary of the bombings reveals the fascinating intersection of history, politics, and the ways in which events such as the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be used to re-write history and influence current politics. Hiroshima has become an international symbol for peace, much to the dismay of Chinese leaders who have accused the Japanese of casting the victimizers of WWII as victims (excluding the thousands of innocent men, women and young children who died in the explosions). Obama’s visit to Hiroshima gives clout to his push for new anti-nuclear policies.

The subject is heavy and loaded with controversy, but it’s a conversation we can’t ignore.  In 71 years, the world has created, tested, and stockpiled over 15,000 nuclear weapons. The world has existed without them for more than 4.5 billion. We can’t go back, but can we envision a post-nuclear world?

Further Reading:

How the Hiroshima bombing is taught around the world, by Herman Wong. The Washington Post, August 6, 2016.

After 71 Years, Hiroshima’s Message of Peace Faces New Challenge, by Jane Darby. The Huffington Post, August 5, 2016.

No More ‘Pokemon Go’ at Hiroshima atomic bomb memorial, dna, August 8, 2016.

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