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Why the 71st Anniversary of the Atomic Bomb Matters

The moral and historical debate of the atomic bombs continues.

The Hiroshima Memorial Park is an expansive park in the center of Hiroshima, Japan, located where the first atomic bomb denoted above the Earth. The park is dedicated to the legacy of the bombing, offering visitors a place to memorialize victims and to think about peace. The skeletal remains of the Atomic Bomb Dome watches over the park and is a gripping reminder of the severe devastation. The structure stands exactly as it remained after the blast exploded overhead, destroying nearly every building within 1.2 miles of the hypocenter. The dome is a powerful symbol of the most destructive force ever created by humans, and it now stands as a symbol of peace.

On May 27, 2016, President Obama traveled to Hiroshima. The president did not offer an apology on behalf of the United States, saying it is not his job to question the decision, but he did lay a wreath at the Peace Memorial Park, and he delivered a speech with the famous Atomic Bomb Dome in the backdrop. He called for a “moral revolution” to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was unique because he is the first sitting president to visit the city since it was devastated 71 years ago. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each visited Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter visited Hiroshima after his presidency, but no sitting president had ever visited Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The visit generated very little fanfare in the United States, but in Japan, it was a widely observed event. Thousands of Japanese people were in attendance, including survivors of the bombings, and millions watched on television. In the US, nuclear weapon usage in World War II is a historical fact that is easily forgotten or completely ignored, but it is a large part of the Japanese national consciousness.

The park is also home to the Hiroshima Peace Museum, which has had a dramatic increase of foreign visitors since Obama’s visit in May. The number of foreign visitors is up 55 percent from a year ago. I was one of those people. In July, I visited Hiroshima, walked around the Memorial Park and visited the Peace Museum. I have never been more moved by a museum. It reveals the somber story of those who lost their lives in a matter of seconds. Visitors learn about the history of the bomb and witness the physical and psychological effects it had on ordinary people, including present-day survivors. There are photographs of the city before and after the blast, and exhibits include pieces of buildings that were damaged miles from the explosion. There are burnt clothes, ashes from someone’s lunch in a tin can and a charred watch that stopped instantly at 8:15 am. The museum describes Hiroshima before and after the bombing, and it illustrates how the entire city was virtually leveled in an instant.

While walking around, I was reminded of Obama’s speech during his visit a few weeks prior to mine. He asked, “Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima?” His answer is profound and worth thinking about. “We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past.” He continued:

[We] force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

The Atomic Bombs

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 am, the Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In a flash of light, buildings and human beings were turned into dust. The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” exploded 1,968 feet above a hospital, unleashing an enormous fireball that exceeded a million degrees. The initial blast killed thousands of people instantly, and thousands more died from radiation poisoning, cancer and severe injuries. In all, 140,000 people died.

Three days later, a mushroom cloud could be seen over Nagasaki after a second bomb was dropped. Again, thousands of people were killed instantly. Many more died a slow death from injuries, and those who lived were dismembered and had their clothes and skin burned. Over the next five years, a combined total of 250,000 people died from the bombs.

Most of the photographs of Hiroshima before and after the bombing are black and white, giving the impression that it happened a long time ago. In truth, World War II did not happen long ago; the Holocaust, fascism and the attack at Pearl Harbor happened a generation ago, and their consequences are still with us today. World War II was by far the deadliest war in history. More than 60 million people lost their lives as the distinction between civilian and military life was completely blurred in what is known as a “total war.” Over 100 million soldiers were mobilized to fight, cities were destroyed, millions of people were systematically cremated and atomic bombs were dropped.

The atomic bombs are often justified as retaliation for the attack at Pearl Harbor, and necessary for preventing an invasion on the Japanese mainland, which would have undoubtedly cost many Japanese and American lives. Yet the broad range of estimated casualties are unsubstantiated, and there is ample evidence that Japan was going to surrender anyways. The bombs effectively ended the war, but because Japan was already in a weakened position, many critics argue the bombing was a tremendous display of power that was meant to be a clear signal to the Soviet Union, thus starting the Cold War.

Proponents also argue the bombing was part of destroying fascism, but Jim Crow and racial inequality that existed in the United States cast a shadow on that idea. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement and racial inequality around the nation is a legacy from that time, and the rise of Donald Trump exposes an undercurrent of fascism in the United States today. If Adolf Hitler dropped atomic bombs, they would be considered weapons of fascism, but because the US dropped them, the official narrative is that they saved lives. The idea that killing people saves lives is antithetical. It is the basis of American exceptionalism.

The moral and historical debate of the atomic bombs continues. However, our discussions often fail to include the perspective of those killed or injured in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Roughly 180,000 survivors are still alive, many of whom suffer from physical and psychological side effects. Our perspective should include their perspective. We should commemorate the 71st anniversary of the bombing by honoring the hibakusha(surviving victims), with their average age being around 80 years old.

On August 6 of every year since 1947 (with the exception of 1950), the mayor of Hiroshima reads a Peace Declaration on the anniversary of the bombing. The entire city pauses for one minute of silence as part of a peace ceremony that reaffirms the city’s commitment to peace and a world free of nuclear weapons. We too should remember and reflect on the use of atomic bombs in World War II, not only on the anniversary, but also on a regular basis. The parallels between the dropping of atomic bombs and the use of drones today are apparent, and nuclear weapons pose a grave threat to all life on Earth.


Drones are used to hunt down and kill suspected terrorists for the same reason the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indiscriminate killing of thousands of ordinary people in Japan was seen as a way to prevent an attack on the Japanese mainland. Preventing a full-scale invasion, the argument goes, would save American lives. Similarly, the same justification is used for operating unmanned aircraft today. Drones are used in situations where it may be too risky to send in US personnel, thus saving their lives.

About 250,000 people lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were targeted because of their high civilization populations. Signature-strikes by drones have surely killed terrorists, but there is little doubt that innocent civilizations have also been killed. While the number of people killed from drones pales in comparison to the number of causalities in Japan, the effectiveness and the moral implications of the drone program is difficult to debate because of the secret nature of the program.

In October 2015, The Intercept, an online investigative news outlet founded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, published a set of documents detailing the US military’s drone program. The documents, known as “The Drone Papers,” were released by an anonymous whistleblower inside the intelligence community. The documents provide a window into the US policy of assassinating suspected terrorists with drones. There is information about how President Obama authorizes strikes, which are often based on unreliable intelligence. As a result, many people are killed who are not intended targets, and their identities are unknown. Everyone killed is labeled an “enemy killed in action,” unless evidence posthumously proves they are not terrorists. This makes it difficult to know who is actually being killed by drones, and it leads to inconsistent statements from the White House regarding the number of innocent people killed.

On July 1, 2016, roughly nine months after the release of The Drone Papers, the White House publicly announced that at least 64 to 116 civilians have been killed in 473 strikes by drones since 2009. Independent reports put the number much higher, and according to The Drone Papers, the equation the military uses to determine the number of innocent people killed virtually guarantees that everyone killed is a “terrorist.”

President Obama claims the drone program creates a cleaner, smarter “war on terror,” but it is difficult to measure its effectiveness because drone strikes happen in places that go beyond stated battlefields, and the program is shrouded in secrecy. Congress has little oversight and there is no transparency with the public. To Obama’s credit, he has spoken about this publicly, and he has worked to improve the program by establishing a “playbook” for how and when drones are used. In May 2013, the White House released standards and procedures for the use of drones, but critics claim it is not working and that future administrations will abuse it.

In addition to drones, all types of airstrikes should be questioned. In his 2010 book, The Bomb, Howard Zinn writes about the vicious reality of aerial bombings, which he says are military operations devoid of human feeling. He says most people in the United States see them as nothing more than “a news event, a statistic, or a fact to be taken in quickly and forgotten.” Statements like these hold true for both the past and present.

In February 1945, six months before the bombings in Japan, British and US warplanes firebombed the German city of Dresden. No one knows for sure how many people died, but estimates are between 35,000 and 135,000. The intended targets were not military, and even so, air raids at that time were extremely inaccurate, especially from high altitudes.

We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that surgical strikes today do not result in the death of ordinary people. Thousands are not killed in a single attack, but the innocent are still caught in the crossfire. On October 3, 2015, an airstrike by an AC-130 gunship destroyed a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The incident killed more than 42 patients and staff. The hospital was supposed to have been protected by international law, and many declared the attack a “war crime.” After weeks of investigation and a rare official apology by President Obama, who promised to compensate the victims’ families, it was determined the attack was caused by “unintended human error and equipment failure.”

Targeted assassinations by drones and aerial strikes of all kinds should be questioned, because innocent people are often killed no matter the circumstances. War is far too dangerous to be treated like it was in the past, especially with large stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons

Society widely recognizes that nuclear weapons create peace between nations, and they give world leaders incentive to engage in diplomacy and to be cautious. This is a valid argument. Nuclear armament during the Cold War did not lead to annihilation, but that was the past and the future is unknown. As long as these weapons exist, the danger exists.

Nine countries now possess them, and they are far more powerful than the ones used in 1945. The inevitable consequence of nuclear weapons is the indiscriminate killing of ordinary people. We should look at nukes with skepticism. It is not irrational to be afraid of nuclear proliferation, and it is not idealistic to say the world should be free of them. They pose a grave danger to all life on Earth. There could be a nuclear attack by a rogue nation, a terrorist group could obtain a dirty bomb, or there could be an accident with apocalyptic consequences. In his book, Command and Control, investigative journalist and author Eric Schlosser details the mishandling of warheads and inefficient maintenance of nuclear weapons. Nukes pose a threat just by existing.

It is easy to list what is required to create a nuclear-free world: countries with them should safely disarm them; countries without them must not get them; terrorists must not get them; and multilateral treaties must be respected. The difficult part is having the moral and political willingness to do these things. The difficult part is creating a peaceful world where no one feels like they need weapons of mass destruction.

In April 2009, just after taking office, Obama gave a highly publicized speech in Prague, where he said, “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He followed up his visionary statement by saying, “I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime.” Indeed, Obama has taken tangible steps to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons with the Iran nuclear deal and the biannual Nuclear Security Summit, and he set aside money to make US weapons programs safer. But critics say it is not enough. The history of atomic bombs in World War II teaches us that we should address nuclear weapons with a sense of urgency.

Japan has been completely rebuilt, and today its citizens enjoy a high standard of living and one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were forever changed in August 1945, but as Obama said during his visit to Hiroshima, “The children of this city will go through their day in peace.” He said this is a precious thing worth 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 71st anniversary of the bombings offers an opportunity for this awakening.

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