70 Years on from Nuclear Devastation

Emily Watson
This week is a time to remember the tragedies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, with Hiroshima Day falling on the 6th August and Nagasaki day three days later on the 9th. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese atomic bombings, and in New Zealand and around the world, people have been gathering to commemorate the bomb drops and to reflect on peace and war. There have been a number of initiatives in our Wellington community which I want to write about today. Firstly though, to emphasise the significance of this event, I want to include an excerpt from the book “Warrior Without Weapons” by Dr. Marcel Junod. Marcel was an ICRC delegate from Switzerland in 1945 when he visited Hiroshima with a foreign investigation commission a few weeks after the bombings.

A Japanese soldier in Hiroshima after the bombings. (Boston.com)

Marcel was able to look at some of the makeshift hospitals in the city centre. He writes,

These ‘hospitals’ had been set up on the outskirts of town in the rare buildings which had escaped complete destruction and were regarded as ‘less damaged.’ Even if there was no roof and only the walls standing, scores and sometimes even hundreds of wounded had been carried there. There were no beds, no water, no medical supplies and no proper medical attention… One could go on indefinitely describing the horror of it all; the thousands of helpless, suffering bodies stretched out on the ground; the thousands of swollen charred faces; the ulcerated backs; the suppurating arms raised up in order to avoid contact with any covering.

Each of those human beings represented an infinity of suffering. Those disfigured masks would always retain the horror of what they had witnessed. What must they have been thinking when they saw the neat American uniforms passing through their ranks?

Drawing by a Hiroshima survivor. Many burn victims ran to the water, yet this could not save them. From “Unforgettable Fire.” (Skipschiel blog.)

At a speaker event yesterday, Matthew O’Meagher, an academic at Victoria University, spoke about the history of resistance to nuclear weapons in New Zealand. He explained that the Hiroshima bombings affected people in New Zealand and abroad in a range of ways. Some of the scientists who had been involved in designing nuclear weapons through the Manhattan project were shocked that their technology had been used to such lethal effect. Others were excited and proud. In New Zealand, some people were relieved that (apparently) WWII might finally end. Others were concerned that now such a dangerous weapon had been unveiled, warfare would never be the same. But in the years to follow, the Hiroshima event mostly blurred into the background of other wartime atrocities – of which there were so many. New Zealanders got on with rebuilding their lives and reflecting on (or trying to forget) how the war had impacted them personally.

Certainly on a global scale (I would add) there was a lack of critical analysis about the decision to drop the bombs. Often when people talk about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, they assume it was these actions which ended World War Two. (We are taught this line in school.) This is but one interpretation of history. It is a persuasive one, but it also the official one which the US government in particular would like us to believe, and it may not be a complete interpretation. There were alternatives to ending the war in the Pacific, such as threatening a bomb drop, demonstrating a bomb to the Japanese, extending diplomatic dialogues. The actual motives of the US government may have centred more on demonstrating American power to the rest of the world, in particular the Soviet Union, rather than punishing Japan.

Me and Tim Wright in front of children’s artworks for peace at the public library.

What’s been happening in Wellington?

I’m proud to say that Wellington has hosted a number of successful events for Hiroshima and Nagasaki Days. (Apologies in advance for missing events, these are just ones that I’ve heard about and participated in.) To start with, Tim Wright, the Asia-Pacific Director of ICAN: the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, has been touring New Zealand to raise awareness of the global movement for nuclear disarmament. Peace campaigners such as Robin Halliday and Laurie Ross organised a busy schedule for Tim, which involved Tim meeting with government officials, giving interviews and speaking to university students. On Monday evening Tim spoke to around thirty Victoria University students; explaining to us why the goal of disarmament is necessary and feasible. The students kept Tim on his toes with some good questions. Straight after, Tim headed to Radio New Zealand where he was interviewed by Bryan Crump for twenty minutes. I tagged along and watched through the glass of the adjoining studio (I’d imagined there would be just one main studio, but it turns out there are about five!) I reckon Tim responded really well to the questions, but you can decide for yourself by checking out the link above.
Tim is not the only one who has been giving speeches on the topic. As I mentioned before, Matthew O’Meagher, who has a background in History, spoke to students on Thursday evening about New Zealand’s nuclear-free history. He took the audience on a tour through the days of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, French testing and the Rainbow Warrior, up until the current time when he believes attention is captured more by climate change than by the nuclear threat. Matthew punctuated his presentation with a number of video clips and images. I’m always learning more about the nuclear issue (which is so multi-faceted and absorbing!) and I learnt in Matthew’s talk that a ‘Miss Atomic’ beauty pageant was run in Las Vegas in the 50s to amplify support for nuclear projects. Crazy!

The winner of the “Miss Atomic Pageant.” (Litteration.com)
Two commemorative events took place back-to-back on Sunday. The first was a relatively formal ceremony by the Peace Flame in the Botanical Gardens at which a number of local dignitaries, school students and others gave short speeches. Speakers included Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, the Brazilian Ambassador H.E. Mr. Eduardo Gradilone, the Japanese Ambassador H.E. Mr Toshihisa Takata and MP Grant Robertson (for Hon. Phil Goff who attended the ceremony in Hiroshima itself along with National MP Shane Reti.) I spoke about my impressions of the NPT Review Conference – how it revealed to me how urgent the global situation is, but yet how dedicated the peace campaigners are to making progress on disarmament. Common themes in the speeches included a recognition that the bombings caused horrendous suffering for the people of Japan (suffering which continues to this day for survivors and also affects second- and third-generation Japanese) and that this must never happen again. Anger was expressed at the international situation by which some states refuse to make significant progress towards disarmament in spite of legal obligations.

Students Betty and Nina of Samuel Marsden read messages from the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Peace Flame in the Botanical Gardens.

The Japanese Ambassador shared a moving story about one of his most popular primary school teachers, who was a very caring woman who also happened to be a Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor.) The students respected her greatly, but they were concerned to see that the bomb had made her very unwell; meaning that she tired easily and was frequently admitted to hospital. The teacher died in her 60s. Grant Robertson also started by talking about his teacher; in the 80s one of his teachers allowed students to investigate topics of their own choosing and this gave Grant an opportunity to explore the topical issue of nuclear weapons. The films “The Day After” and “Threads” had a significant emotional impact on him. School students from Hutts College spoke of the important influence of individuals, drawing on legendary figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior. Some positive recent developments mentioned included that: 114 states (excluding New Zealand) have now signed the humanitarian pledge, Wellington was involved in the recent global wave to symbolise the relinquishing of nuclear weapons and a parliamentary motion by Hon. Phil Goff was just passed (30 July) marking the bombings and urging states to follow up their obligations on nuclear disarmament.

Hon PHIL GOFF : I move, That this House, on the 70th anniversary of the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, calls on the nuclear weapon States to replace ongoing expenditure of more than $100 billion a year on their nuclear weapons arsenals with a programme to eliminate nuclear weapons, in accord with their obligations under article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Tim Wright, Mayor Celia Wade-Brown and one of the prize-winning student artists on Sunday’s event at the town library.

Shortly after this commemoration, another event kicked off at the town library. Organised by the Mayor’s Office and Soka Gakki International, the event comprised of a children’s art exhibition on peace, complete with a youth orchestra, speeches by a school student, the Mayor and Tim Wright, and commentary by an enthusiastic young MC. Celia Wade-Brown mentioned that Wellington is officially a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The decision was controversial when it was first adopted in 1982, but it has been accepted over time and in 2012 a ceremony celebrated 30 years of being a peaceful city. There are all sorts of monuments for peace around Wellington, like ones on the top of Mount Victoria or in the Botanical Gardens – you can look up information about the Wellington Peace Walk to find them all. The library event was extremely successful, with hundreds of children getting really engaged in the project and proudly bringing their parents and grandparents along to show off their artworks. The library was humming with conversation.

Finally, there was an event for Red Cross staff on Monday run by Marnie Lloyd, Legal and Policy Manager. The purpose was to keep staff informed about the relationship between international humanitarian law and nuclear disarmament. New Red Cross campaign materials for the 70th anniversary of the bombings were released. You can fold a paper crane in a gesture of peace and take a photo of yourself holding the crane to upload to social media, use #hiroshima70. The new posters look very sleek and there are also booklets with instructions on how to fold the cranes (useful for people like me!) Have a look at these materials on the Red Cross website here.

As you can see, there has been lots happening on the peace scene this week in Wellington. There are also lots of opinion articles to read on the web, but I’ve run out of space to mention them here. Hopefully these events and articles have inspired positive discussion. I’m going to finish with a few more images from the Sunday events at the Peace Flame and in the Public Library.

Rod Alley, former political scientist at Victoria University, speaks on Sunday.
The youth orchestra at the public library.
One of my favourite artworks, by Georgia Hewat.
* Emily Watson is an external contributor of this blog. The original post can be found from: http://www.politicspersonified.com/search?updated-min=2015-01-01T00:00:00%2B13:00&updated-max=2016-01-01T00:00:00%2B13:00&max-results=30