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Lest we forget: the lessons of Hiroshima

By Tony Smith - posted Thursday, 9 August 2007

On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Over the years, much has been written about the devastation caused by that explosion, and in particular about its impact on world affairs.

According to some accounts, this action ended the Pacific war by forcing Japan to surrender and so saved thousands of lives. Critics believe however that this first use of nuclear weapons was disproportionate and unjustified. They believe that it was not just a quantitative escalation but also a qualitative departure from military ethics by introducing an unprecedented weapon and targeting a civilian population.

Hiroshima Day has achieved special symbolic importance. Peace activists argued that the Hiroshima bombing was the first shot fired in the Cold War and that it was intended to demonstrate US superiority over the USSR.


During those years, the nuclear arsenals possessed by both sides made a thaw less likely as each superpower pointed to the weaponry of its opponent as proof that trusting the other would be foolish. The populations of both east and west blocs were caught in the international tensions, while trillions of dollars were diverted from projects that could have eliminated world poverty, one cause of conflict.

More than one American President seems to have believed that engaging the USSR in a costly arms race would bankrupt them and cause them to surrender. Certainly, around 1990 with the Gorbachev reforms in the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall, some American cold war veterans boasted that they had indeed “won” the Cold War.

For Australian peace activists, Hiroshima Day has always had special significance. During the height of the Cold War in the mid 1980s, Australian campaigns for nuclear disarmament focused on our unique opportunities. Our geographical location gave us a capacity for some objectivity and the potential to act as an honest broker between the nuclear superpowers. The Hawke Government’s Foreign Minister Bill Hayden appointed an Ambassador for Disarmament and as the International Year of Peace (1986) approached, organised a summit which promised to bring the superpowers together for rare talks.

Peace activists could claim much of the credit for such initiatives as pressure was brought to bear on the Government over Australia’s implication in nuclear war preparations. This involvement in two main spheres continues. First, Australian uranium has the potential to find its way into nuclear weapons, or at least, ensures that the world supply is such that weapons can be fuelled. Second, the Joint Defence Facilities in remote areas such as Pine Gap provide US military planners with data and signalling capabilities that remain vital to nuclear hair trigger strategies.

When the Cold War ended and the USA was left as the world’s only megapower in a unipolar system, attention was diverted from the threat posed by nuclear weapons. The beginning of the “war on terror” a decade later brought a new discourse about weapons of mass destruction. The terminology focuses on chemical and biological agents and dirty bombs that might be carried by suicide bombers. And so we seem to be returning to the Cold War numbness that led us to deny the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Rightly, psychologists characterised the absurdity of the system of “Mutually Assured Destruction” as just plain mad. It is an absurdity to rely on the possession of nuclear weapons to prevent their use when abolition is an available and effective alternative. Today, imagining that nuclear weapons can save us from terrorist acts is equally absurd.


Sure, President George W. Bush speaks about an axis of evil and points to the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. Certainly, there is a genuine concern that a “rogue state” might provide a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organisation, but there is a definite lack of will to pursue universal nuclear disarmament.

At the height of the Cold War 20 years ago, the explosive power of the world’s nuclear weapons had the potential to cause perhaps a million Hiroshimas. That obscene figure has barely diminished and deserves ongoing scrutiny, criticism and determined opposition. Indeed, there is a certain hypocrisy in demanding that states not acquire atomic capabilities while we live under the protection of a nuclear umbrella ourselves.

Cold War paranoia was such that to speak of peace required some courage. Peace activists were attacked as communist sympathisers. In 2007, the federal government is attempting to build a fear of terrorism that has the same potential to prevent rational consideration of the ways that the military hard men set the world’s directions. At the most basic level, marking Hiroshima Day serves as a reminder that people everywhere want to live peacefully. All too often, because of their own vested interests or megalomania, governments prevent people from reaching out to each other in friendship.

The Australian media took a low key approach to Hiroshima Day in 2007. But the call “Hiroshima Never Again” remains as relevant today as it was in 1945 or 1985. It should strengthen our determination that the ultimate standard in world affairs should be the advancement of humanity.

Except in the very short term, weapons have never contributed to human welfare but on the contrary, continue to threaten both our survival and the possibility of a just and peaceful world. Among the many negative effects of the US occupation of Iraq it seems that thousands of weapons have simply disappeared into the desert. Yet the Australian Government insists that the Iraq adventure makes us more secure.

We need genuine disarmament at a number of levels, but if we cannot achieve the eradication of nuclear weapons whose existence is so obviously unjustifiable, more general campaigns are doomed to fail. We must remember Hiroshima and renew our demands for nuclear disarmament.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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