Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Legacy of Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament

Alexandra MacAuley Abdelwahab

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons

It’s been 73 years this week since the United States detonated atomic bombs over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during the final stages of World War II. The bombings happened on the mornings of 6th and 9th August, 1945 respectively. Today, they remain the only use of nuclear weapons in war. However, as the potential for a new nuclear arms-race grows, we cannot forget the real-life consequences of using these weapons.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Like today, 6 August 1945 was a Monday, and so while most industrial workers had already reported to work, many other workers, as well as almost all school children were out in the open when the first bomb, a uranium gun-type bomb known as ‘Little Boy’, went off at 8:15 a.m. devastating the city. The bomb caused a blinding white flash, followed by a fire-storm and then a tremendous blast. Between 70,000 and 80,000 people, about 30 per cent of the city’s population, died instantly, while another 70,000 to 80,000 people were injured. Nearly 70 per cent of the buildings were destroyed. Over the next few months, the number of dead would rise to an estimated 140,000 in the city. Since then, many survivors faced leukaemia and other cancers as well as other side effects from the radiation.

Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha or survivor of the atomic bomb, painted a vivid picture of the destruction in Hiroshima during her speech on behalf of ICAN at the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. Thurlow was 13-years-old during the bombing but still remembers the destruction:

‘At 8:15, I saw a blinding bluish-white flash from the window. I remember having the sensation of floating in the air. As I regained consciousness in the silence and darkness, I found myself pinned by the collapsed building. I began to hear my classmates’ faint cries: “Mother, help me. God, help me.”

Then, suddenly, I felt hands touching my left shoulder, and heard a man saying: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it as quickly as you can.” As I crawled out, the ruins were on fire. Most of my classmates in that building were burned to death alive. I saw all around me utter, unimaginable devastation.’ (You can read the transcript of her speech and watch the ceremony here.)

Three days later, a second bomb, a plutonium implosion-type bomb known as ‘Fat Man’, was detonated over Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m. killing at least 35,000 to 40,000 people instantly, and a further 35,000 to 40,000 people over the next several months as a result of burns, radiation sickness, other injuries, and malnutrition.

Personal effects from victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Personal effects left behind by victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on display at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, as part of the ‘Ban the Bomb’ exhibit. The items include a knapsack that belonged to Yukitoshi Masuda, a 13-year-old student killed in Hiroshima, a lunchbox that belonged to another student, Yuso Ikula, also killed in Hiroshima, a rosary and a wristwatch each found in the ruins of houses in Nagasaki. The watch stopped at exactly 11:02 a.m. and 1945, including from a 13- knapsack, a lunch box, a rosary and a wrist watch that stopped at exactly 11:02, the time the atomic dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Photographed by: Alexandra MacAulay Abdelwahab.

Never Again: A Timeline

In the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the world vowed never again to repeat the horrors of the bombings. In 1946, the first resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly established a commission tasked with eliminating nuclear weapons and ensuring the use of atomic energy only for peaceful purposes.

As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified in the years after World War II, fears of an unwinnable nuclear war led the United Nations General Assembly to unanimously pass resolution 1378 in 1959, which called for general and complete disarmament, describing it as the most important question in the world today.

Then in 1961, the McCloy-Zorin joint statement between the United States and Soviet Union set out a number of principles for a general and complete disarmament agreement. As Bolton (2016, p. 7) describes the UN General Assembly, endorsed this statement and created a disarmament committee, which later evolved into the conference on disarmament. However, these efforts soon stalled with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Throughout the 1960s, smaller states continued to push for nuclear disarmament, which lead to the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1967, as well as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968, in which non-nuclear weapon states promised never to undertake to develop or receive nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapon states promised to disarm. As Article IV states: ‘Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.’

Now 50 years later, overall discussions of general and complete disarmament have stalled and frustration over the lack of progress on disarmament by nuclear-weapon states led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by the United Nations General Assembly on 7 July 2017. The treaty will come into force once 50 states have ratified or acceded to it.

Yet, nuclear disarmament is unlikely if states believe it will make them vulnerable to conventional attacks. Similarly, states will not undertake conventional disarmament so long as nuclear weapons exist. With this reality in mind, SCRAP has proposed a framework for general and complete disarmament that bypasses real and diplomatic obstacles to disarmament. Our aim is to reinvigorate the global discussion.

Securing Our Common Future

On 24 May 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced his disarmament agenda. In it, he pointed out that the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki are considered low-yield today. In fact, some nuclear weapons today are estimated to be 3,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. An estimated 15,000 nuclear bombs remain stockpiled in nine countries (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea).

According to the report, there is ‘widespread perception that progress towards nuclear disarmament has stalled and there are troubling signs that the nuclear agenda is now moving in the wrong direction’ (16-17). So it outlines a number of action plans for resuming dialogue, extending norms against nuclear weapons and preparing for a world without nuclear weapons. As Dr. Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) at SOAS University of London explained, the ‘inspiring, visionary document’ was developed after extensive consultations with both governments and civil society. You can read a summary of all the report’s action plans here.

Discussions around implementing this agenda are happening in Geneva this month and next month and SCRAP will be attending the meetings. You can find out more details on our event page.

Alexandra MacAuley Abdelwahab

Project Assistant, SCRAP Weapons