In the United States, debate about the impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is often stifled by highly polarized opinions over whether the bombings were necessary to end World War II. The result is that, regardless of the historic questions that still surround these events, those who work on nuclear weapons policy avoid the topic.
However, occasionally the modern debate on nuclear policy comes face-to-face with the real-life impact of nuclear weapons. This happened last week at an event in Nagasaki, Japan, commemorating the 65th anniversary of the city’s destruction by an atomic bomb dropped by the United States. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon delivered a speech calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons and, although the message was not new, the timing, location, and language of the speech made it unprecedented.
As the first U.N. Secretary General to speak in Nagasaki on the actual anniversary of one of the bombings, the event had symbolic significance, drawing global attention to the potential consequences of possessing nuclear weapons. Also, as the former Foreign Minister of South Korea, Ban’s presence at the event could be interpreted as an attempt to draw attention, in a reconciliatory way, to the Korean victims of the atomic bombings. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, more than 600,000 Koreans were forced into labor in Japan, many in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of the 263,000 people in Nagasaki on the day of the bombing, approximately 12,000 to 14,000 were Korean. Of those people, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 died. In Hiroshima, where the casualties were greater, an estimated 30,000 Koreans perished. Following the bombings, Korean victims received little support from either the Korean or the Japanese governments. To this day, most people do not know about the Korean victims. Almost as if his intent was to be reconciliatory, Ban did not distinguish between atomic bombing victims.
In his speech, Ban said that his goal was to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons in his lifetime:
Sixty-five years ago, the fires of hell descended upon this place. Today, one fire burns, here in this Peace Park. That is the Flame of Peace—a flame that will remain lit until nuclear weapons are no more. Together, let us work for that day in our lifetime, in the lifetimes of the survivors. Together, let us put out the last fire of Hiroshima. Let us replace that flame with the light of hope. Let us realize our dream of a world free of nuclear weapons so that our children and all succeeding generations can live in freedom, security and peace.
Ban’s choice of words seemed to be a deliberate reference to President Obama’s previous statement that achieving a world free of nuclear weapons might not happen in his lifetime.
Ban also addressed the United States – as well as the other nuclear weapons states – when he stated that the momentum to eliminate nuclear weapons must not diminish. And he specifically referenced efforts to ratify New START, which was particularly important because Ban was speaking one day after Senator Kerry decided not to vote out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the resolution for ratification of the treaty.
The speech was delivered at the Urakami Cathedral. The Cathedral, located approximately 500 meters from the hypocenter of the explosion, was completely destroyed by the atomic blast. All of the approximately 30 people inside the church were killed. At the time, the Cathedral was the largest Christian church in Southeast Asia. Some people in Nagasaki thought that, because of Nagasaki’s large Christian population and connection to the West, they had been spared from the U.S. aerial bombings that destroyed most other Japanese cities. Of course, the reality was that U.S. war planners wanted to detonate the bombs over unblemished cities to assess their destructive power.
This location has personal significance for me. As a student in Japan, I visited the rebuilt Cathedral and spoke with one of the priests. During our conversation, he removed a cloth wrap covering part of a wood statue of the Virgin Mary. The remaining statue fragment was Mary’s face, scarred from the destruction caused by the atomic blast. It was one of the few items recovered from the church following the explosion. Even though it was just a statue, looking at it led me to visualize the faces of the victims of the atomic bombs. This experience played a big role in convincing me to come back to the United States to warn people about the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
Whether intentional or not, Ban Ki Moon’s speech served as a powerful reminder. It reminded President Obama of his pledge to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It reminded the world about the diversity of victims of the atomic bomb. Finally, as New START takes a back seat to politics in the Senate, it was a reminder to me why this work is needed.