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

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