Sixty years ago in the blink of an eye an estimated 147,000 people were killed when atom bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Beautiful cities were instantly turned into radioactive wastelands.
As is true in all wars most of the victims were women, children and the elderly. Those near the epicenter were the lucky ones. They were vaporized. Tens of thousands further from ground zero were burned alive, dying in excruciating pain and begging for water. Thousands more died in later months and years of a strange disease called radiation, and even today higher rates of cancer and leukemia prevail in the region. Survivors of the blasts, now in their seventies and eighties, carry monumental physical and psychological scars.
This August, on a peace pilgrimage, I returned to Japan, where I spent nine years (1965-1974) as a missionary. I attended the 60th anniversaries of two bombs that in the words of Einstein “… changed everything except the way we think, and we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”
I love the Japanese people. I salute the courage of the United Church of Christ in Japan that even today continues to confess its complicity with Japanese militarism in World War II. I grieve over the tragic use of atomic weapons on the peoples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m impressed that the Japanese people love their “Peace Constitution.” I had to add my voice for peace in a day when the whole world is threatened with nuclear extinction yet few really want to talk about it.
The catalyst for the trip was the “Peace Constitution” itself, so called because of article IX, which US Occupation Forces wrote in 1947, and insisted be a part of Japanese reconstruction.
1. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
2. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
At present, powerful forces both within Japan and the U.S. administrations want to repeal this principled and hopeful statement. Such folk evidently feel that in today’s explosive world scene, this affirmation of peace is naive or is no longer relevant or useful. The Fellowship of Reconciliation-Japan [FORJ], most of whose members are Christians, feel otherwise. In fact, they believe these articles are even more important in today’s dangerous world. They appealed for support in fighting repeal from their American counterparts in the FOR-US. We agree with their struggle.
The Board of FOR-US responded to their request for support by organizing a quick petition drive, which asked Japanese and American leaders to retain the peace clauses in the Japanese Constitution. FOR-US formed an eightmember delegation to present the 5,200 signatures to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s office. Copies were also presented to the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before we attended the unforgettable and gripping 60th anniversary ceremonies of the only two cities in the world to experience nuclear devastation. I was privileged to represent The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
On our journey we heard wrenching stories from hibakusha (the survivors of the atomic blasts whose average age today is 73.). We saw pictures and paintings they made of those events as children, now forever burned into their memories. We saw film of the wasteland created by these nuclear blasts, and we stood beside poignant reminders of the complete horror that is the stuff of nuclear weapons.
It wasn’t pleasant for me to be there, but I felt it was necessary if I wanted to be a Peacemaker in the name of Jesus Christ. I knew the quote, “the first casualty of War is the truth.” But I didn’t know the truth of that quote as I now know it. I am thoroughly convinced that it is impossible to wage war and tell the truth. I grew up believing that we were right to use the bomb. I accepted the rationale that it saved thousands, perhaps millions of young American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese homeland.
I know how deeply divided Americans still are about justification for using these bombs, but because of facts recently made public through the Freedom of Information Act, I am convinced that the use of the first bomb on Hiroshima was a cruel and colossal mistake. The use of the second at Nagasaki was demonic. On July 18, 1945, U.S. intelligence knew Japan asked Russia and Switzerland for help in negotiating an end to the war. We dropped the first bomb on August 6.
Not even God can change the past. It is done. Yet the question remains: “Where do we go from here?” If the planet is to survive, the world must agree never to use nuclear weapons on human beings again. It is wholly unconscionable. This story must be told. Every nation must understand that modern warfare involves the possible use of even more powerful nuclear weapons. Sometime ago I discovered this limerick.
There was a young woman from Mission
Who had an alarming suspicion,
That original sin, didn’t matter a pin,
In an age of nuclear fission.
It is precisely because of original sin, and the enormous capacity for human fallibility and mistakes, that we must do away with nuclear weapons before they do away with the human race.
The average U.S. nuclear warhead in our program of “Stockpile Stewardship” has a destructive power 20 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Even a decade after the Cold War, we maintain thousands of such weapons on a hair trigger. Robert McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense (1961-1968) wrote in July 2005, “The United States must no longer rely on nuclear weapons as a foreign policy tool. To do so is immoral, illegal, and dreadfully dangerous.”
Several times we heard distress in the voices of Japanese church and political leaders as they recited the promises of the nations that have nuclear weapons–they would engage in “an unequivocal undertaking for the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” Yet in May these very parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons met at the United Nations, but could report no concrete progress toward this essential goal.
In his Peace Declaration, Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Itoh, called nuclear nations to account: “The nuclear weapons states, and the United States of America in particular, have ignored their international commitments, and have made no change in their unyielding stance on nuclear deterrence. We strongly resent the trampling of the hopes of the world’s peoples.”
Itoh then addressed the citizens of the U.S.A.: “We understand your anger and anxiety over the memories of the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yet is your security actually enhanced by your government’s policies of maintaining over 10,000 nuclear weapons, of carrying out repeated sub-critical nuclear tests, and of pursuing the development of new ‘mini’ nuclear weapons? We are confident that the vast majority of you desire in your hearts the elimination of nuclear arms. May you join hands with the people of the world who share that same desire, and work together for a peaceful planet free from nuclear weapons.”
I was moved as the peace doves circled over the assemblies and glad to stand with thousands and vow: “No more Hiroshimas. No More Nagasakis. No more nuclear weapons. No more war.” But, I returned home shocked by a question from a fellow American. He was from a delegation of the sister city of Nagasaki, St. Paul, Minnesota. He excitedly told me of many creative programs his city was planning to promote peace and abolish these weapons. I asked, “Are you working with the faith community? He replied, “Do you think it would be okay to ask them to help us?”
JAMES E. ATWOOD of Springfield, Virginia, is a retired Presbyterian minister, and Presbyterian Peace Fellowship national committee member.