Seventy years on from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is important to be reminded of the suffering and destruction caused. Survivors’ testimonies and drawings confront us with graphic representations of what occurred on those days, and in the months afterwards. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s 1967 book Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima examined the psychological impact of the bomb on those who survived the events for which there was no precedence. In one recounting of the immediate aftermath, a Hiroshima grocer explained:
“The appearance of people was… well, they all had skin blackened by burns… They had no hair because their hair was burned, and at a glance you couldn’t tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back … They held their arms bent [forward] .. and their skin – not only on their hands, but on their faces and bodies too – hung down… If there had been only one or two such people… perhaps I would not have had such a strong impression. But wherever I walked I met these people … Many of them died along the road – I can still picture them in my mind – like walking ghosts… They didn’t look like people of this world… They had a special way of walking – very slowly… I myself was one of them.”
The 1977 book Unforgettable Fire is a collection of survivors’ drawings, with many of these and other artworks also displayed at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Manga and anime have also been employed in informing Japan’s youth of what occurred in the cities, not shying away from the horrific consequences of the bomb in their graphic portrayal of the explosion and its aftermath. Barefoot Gen started out as a comicbook series in the 1970s, telling the tale of the war, the atomic bombs and the trials of a young Hiroshima survivor, and was released as an animated movie in 1983.
While the horrific consequences of the bombs are not in doubt, debate still lingers as to whether their use was justified in bringing Japan to surrender or was in fact a war crime; revenge for Pearl Harbour or purely a callous scientific experiment responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Even at the time, the US justification that the bomb was necessary to bring a swift end to the war was being questioned in its own media. In an article in the Chicago Tribune on 19th August 1945, evidence was presented that Japan had made an offer of surrender much earlier that year. It was turned down due to its clause protecting Emperor Hirohito from prosecution, a condition which was granted anyway in the accord signed after the bomb in August. Two of the US’s own World War 2 generals have since openly questioned the need for the bombs. In 1963 General Dwight Eisenhower said ” The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing … I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon“. Commander of US Army forces in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur stated on several occasions that he believed the bomb was militarily unnecessary as, “my staff was unanimous in believing that Japan was on the point of collapse and surrender.”
In the museum in Hiroshima which commemorates the detonation of the bomb and the destruction of the city, arguably one of the most affecting exhibits is not one graphically illustrating the death and destruction caused by the bomb, nor of the timeline and politicking which led to its use, but that of a display of letters. Since 1945, the mayor and citizens of Hiroshima have written, on the occasion of any test of a nuclear weapon or the development of any nuclear weapon programme, to the nation concerned, reminding them of the impact such weapons have on people and appealing for a stance of non-proliferation. Such a letter was sent to President Obama on the anniversary last August.
“We citizens of Hiroshima sincerely hope you will come. We also urge you to acknowledge that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was a crime against humanity involving the indiscriminate mass killing of civilians. Accordingly, we urge you to offer an official apology to the victims of these war atrocities. We are convinced that an American apology is vital to achieve the abolishment of nuclear weapons. We also sincerely believe that doing so will increase pressure on the Japanese government to acknowledge its own war crimes of the 1940s.”
The letter acknowledges the direct link between both Japan and the US failing to recognise and apologise for their own war atrocities. In fact, it has been suggested that Obama was ready to apologise to Japan during his visit in 2009 but that the Japanese government asked him not to. The letter ends:
“We strongly believe that in order to abolish nuclear weapons, it is essential to recognize that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes against humanity. One major reason that nuclear weapons have proliferated rather than been abolished in the nearly 70 years since that nuclear holocaust is that this fact has been ignored. We feel strongly that a contributing factor is the failure of the U.S. government to seriously scrutinize and act upon its responsibility for this criminal act.”
Perhaps what is most poignant about Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s, letter-writing campaign is that, 70 years on, their appeals have actually had very little impact. We are told that an awareness of our history is vital in helping us to avoid mistakes in the present but, despite what we know of the terrible consequences of such weaponry, we still fail to fully condemn their use and halt their continued stockpiling and proliferation.