On May 27th, President Barack Obama visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, the first time a US President has visited Hiroshima. He spoke of the horrors of war – of nuclear weapons in particular – as he stood by the evidence of the destruction caused by the relatively small weapons (by today’s standards) used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back in April of 2009, in Prague, President Obama said, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
During President Obama’s visit, I recalled my own visit to Hiroshima nearly 40 years ago. I was travelling with my parents, who had been involved, along with two uncles, in the Manhattan Project. Despite receiving honors, my father rarely spoke about his involvement in the project that would produce the first nuclear weapons during World War II. My mother often told of the moment of realization of the weapon they were working on, and the horror of it, tempered only at the time by the sense of necessity due to the war.
As we walked around the city and visited the museum, my parents hardly spoke. Both were quite somber throughout the day. It was clear to me that they felt a sense of responsibility. That visit had quite an effect on me as well, even though I was not born until years after the bombing. In 2006, I joined the board of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR-LA), an organization dedicated to the prevention of nuclear war.
There are over 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today; 94% of these are in the US and Russia. Currently, the US plans to spend $348 billion over the next 10 years and a trillion dollars over the next 30 years in order to “modernize” our nuclear weapons systems. Russia has also been updating its arsenal, and has renounced the “no first use” of nuclear weapons. We are into a new arms race.
We have avoided nuclear Armageddon for 70 years; yet, there have been at least five events since 1979 when either Moscow or Washington prepared to launch a nuclear war under the mistaken belief that it was already under attack by the other side.
With today’s expansive weapons and arsenals, more people could be killed in hours than were killed during WWII. Even a limited war involving only 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, less than 1% of the world’s nuclear arsenals, could have devastating effects on the climate, could disrupt agriculture around the globe, causing a global famine that could kill 2 billion people, and triggering further wars for control of resources. If most of the weapons in the world’s arsenals were used, a global ecological collapse – a nuclear winter – would result.
Recognizing the grave humanitarian consequences of nuclear war, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the World Medical Association (WMA), the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA), and the International Council of Nurses (ICN), together representing 15 million health professionals, have called for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons worldwide. One hundred twenty-seven countries without nuclear weapons, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and civil society, have signed onto the “Humanitarian Pledge” to legally prohibit nuclear weapons.
During his visit to Hiroshima last month, President Obama said, “We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”
As President Obama said, “Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.” He spoke of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), and their efforts to turn their experiences into messages of peace.
The world is a dangerous place. Nuclear weapons do not make us safe. Instead, we are more at risk. It is an existential risk for our species, and for all life on the planet. As President Obama said, “The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
The United States cannot eliminate nuclear weapons alone. But, we can lead. It is our moral duty as the only nation to have ever used a nuclear weapon as an act of war. I know that is what my parents would want, and why they felt the need to take me to visit Hiroshima – so I could see the unparalleled destruction caused by these weapons, and understand that they must never be used again.