Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Visit to Hiroshima

As President Barack Obama is planning a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, I reflect on my visit there many years ago and recent events in the world. Obama's visit will be the first time a US President has visited Hiroshima.

My visit to Hiroshima was nearly 40 years ago. I was travelling with my parents, who had been involved, along with 2 uncles, in the Manhattan Project. Despite receiving honors, my father rarely spoke about his involvement. 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 for their actions. That visit also had quite an effect on me, even though I was not born until years after the bombing. Now, I am on the board of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR-LA).

President Obama's visit is an opportunity to declare that nuclear weapons should never again be used. It is an opportunity to inform the world of the terrible reality of nuclear weapons, even of the relatively small weapons (by today's standards) used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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. 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 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 detonated over cities, less than 1% of the world's nuclear arsenals could cause cooling of the climate, disrupting agriculture around the globe and causing a global famine which could kill 2 billion people, 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.

This month (May, 2016), 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, called for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons worldwide.

President Obama can use his visit as a catalyst for change. He could meet with hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), hear their stories, and acknowledge their experience and contributions. He could challenge all nations with nuclear weapons to work toward a ban on nuclear weapons, joining the 127 countries without nuclear weapons, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and civil society, who have signed onto the "Humanitarian Pledge" legally prohibiting nuclear weapons. He could propose to curtail US spending on nuclear weapons. He could eliminate the "launch under attack" posture from US nuclear strategy and encourage other nuclear armed countries to do the same. He could announce that the US will reduce its nuclear arsenal below the New START limits and challenge Russia to do the same.

The world is a dangerous place. Nuclear weapons do not "make us safe." Instead, we are more at risk.

President Obama can rekindle the hope sparked by his Prague speech in April, 2009, when he 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."

The United States cannot alone eliminate nuclear weapons. But, we can lead. I know it's what my parents would want.

Photo by By Dariusz Jemielniak ("Pundit") (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Recently, a young woman who calls herself Jamala won Eurovision 2016 with a song called 1944. Here are the lyrics and links to video clips: http://lyricstranslate.com/en/jamala-1944-lyrics.html.

The song angered the Russians though it referred to her great-grandmother's deportation some 70 years ago. At the time, Stalin felt that Crimean Tatars might be disloyal and deported all of them to Central Asia. Members of Jamala's family had fought for the Soviets. This deportation echoes, for me, the earlier deportations of Poles from the eastern parts of Poland after the Soviets had invaded Poland while allied to Nazi Germany. In both cases, those being deported were treated inhumanely. Jamala's great-grandmother's daughters died during transport and her body was disposed of "like garbage" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamala). Again, Poles suffered similar treatment. Hence, it does not seem surprising that there was support for this entrant among those that has also experienced similar treatment.

Susanna Jamaladinova was born in what is now Kyrgyzstan After the deportation of her father's family from Crimea in 1944 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamala). Her family then returned to Crimea, though her parents had to divorce in order for her Armenian mother to buy a house in Crimea since Tatars were not allowed to own property in Crimea during Soviet times.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, more Tatars had returned to Crimea, and many were unhappy with Russian annexation (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/05/11/jamalas-ukraine-eurovision-song-stirs-up-russia/). To Russia, Jamala's song seems also to refer to the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia, yet the title and lyrics seem to refer to the earlier deportation (http://lyricstranslate.com/en/jamala-1944-lyrics.html). Russia has even proposed reinstituting Intervision to counter Eurovision (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/05/11/jamalas-ukraine-eurovision-song-stirs-up-russia/).

Like the dismantling of the gulags (http://blog.victimsofcommunism.org/perm-36-erasing-the-gulags/), the avoidance of discussion of the deportation of the Poles and Tatars and others to gulags or labor camps is not a solution. The memories will live on in the stories told to relatives and will resurface in songs such as 1944 and other ways of memorializing the victims. Yet, the world should remember that many of the victims were Russians, who are still caught in the forced silence, without a way to openly remember their families, as Stalin is rehabilitated as a hero. There is an ongoing effort to rewrite this history.

Thank you, Jamala, for putting at least part of it front and center.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A nation of refugees

I've grown up knowing that we are mostly immigrants in America. Perhaps all, if you interpret that to mean that all humans migrated to the western hemisphere. The early ones may simply have been following their prey or searching for new pastures. In a sense, they may have been the first economic migrants. But, they may have also been fleeing something. Rival clans. A several year drought. It's hard to know that far back.

More recently, there were certainly the adventurers, but also those fleeing religious persecution. The pilgrims of Massachusetts or the Catholics of Maryland, or the secret Jews of New Mexico, who may have sought to hide in a less populous region. Of course, those brought as slaves didn't have a choice in their transport.

In my own family, I know there were different types of migrants. My father's ancestors seem to have left Europe for primarily economic reasons, or adventure. My mother's relatives were a variety. Certainly some left for economic reasons--too many kids to divide the farm into useful bits. But others left after being involved in one of the many uprisings by Poles against the powers of Germany, Austria or Russia during the partitions. Some were displaced during WWII, when they were taken from their homes to become forced laborers, in Germany or Russia. And, later, they were unable to return to those homes.

Now the question is regarding Syrians. Zygmunt Bauman was interviewed for an opinion piece in today's New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/opinion/the-refugee-crisis-is-humanitys-crisis.html?_r=0). He simply stated, "refugees end up all too often cast in the role of a threat to the human rights of established native populations, instead of being defined and treated as a vulnerable part of humanity in search of the restoration of those same rights of which they have been violently robbed."

He discusses the limited options that many of these people had before making their choice to flee. And, how most of us would have made a similar decision. He sees the "refugee crisis" as a crisis in humanity. That we, in the west, often see refugees more as a threat to our comfortable security, rather than as people in need of security at its most basic level, that of life. 

Europe is not that far from being a "continent of refugees" after WWII, as populations were being relocated after the devastation of that war. America has been more protected by its relative isolation. But, we should all remember, as Americans, most of us came not only seeking something, but leaving something.