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Hiroshima 75 years later: The fallout continues

Hiroshima 75 years later: The fallout continues
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Seventy-five years ago, the United States attacked two Japanese cities with nuclear bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and debuting to the world the terrifying possibility of instant mass destruction. And while the devastation wrought in Japan was truly unprecedented, the subsequent revolutions in international affairs owing to nuclear weapons would shape and scar the world for decades. Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, should rightly be etched into history not just as the closing notes of a world war, but as the first days of a terrible new reality for humanity that is still unresolved. 

But to most Americans, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have entered into the cultural consciousness as an abstraction: a fleeting lesson in history class, an intangible comparison for other nuclear weapons, or a glib stand-in reference for wanton destruction. Some Americans are even surprised to learn that both cities still exist today, and polls show a majority supports the option of future nuclear attacks on civilians.  

It is time to reform not just how we remember the events of August 1945, but how we consider nuclear weapons as a broader component of a nation’s security. 

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Too often, educators and journalists discuss the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki superficially, framing the attacks in terms of technology, as a long-distant historical moment, or worse, uncritically lauding them as a triumphant example of American strength and ingenuity. Such conceits (and omissions) have let us avoid full accountings of the attacks’ consequences, and of the systems that were built in the years that followed. When it comes to shaping ongoing nuclear policy, this lack of public reckoning, and thus oversight, represents a growing national security risk. 

Lost in our current teachings are the stories and perspective of not just the Hibakusha — the Japanese survivors of the nuclear bombings — but also the untold thousands of Americans who, as a consequence of the broader U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise, have suffered their own wounds. For such “downwinders” and other victims across the country, contamination from nuclear testing, dangerous engineering methods, and negligent mining, transportation and disposal operations have caused enduring pain and suffering across generations. Such victims — too often from the most underrepresented communities — represent a small fraction of the population, but speak boldly in their fight for recognition, restitution and change. 

Yet for the public, nuclear weapons remain a far away issue with little relevance to everyday life — a uniquely frustrating challenge for victims’ advocates and disarmament activists. As a result, the nuclear weapons enterprise has been able to direct its own, self-justifying evolution, largely free of oversight from a public that sees those weapons as arcane or immaterial. As the world appears to enter a new nuclear age with the tandem of emerging new technologies and the sharp decline of international nonproliferation efforts, it is critical to illuminate how nuclear weapons remain a present force in — and a constant threat to — public life. 

This year’s milestone anniversary is an excellent opportunity to seek out and uplift the voices of those most affected by these weapons, demonstrate new ways for people to recognize their proximity to them, and create effective new coalitions for political change. 

In a moment when many Americans are paying newfound attention to the racialized effects of state violence as enacted by police, we also must recognize the disproportionate harms caused by the nuclear weapons enterprise. Nuclear weapons, like policing, promise security through the threat of overwhelming violence, but in reality can steadily harm vulnerable communities (such as the downwinders) in ways totally disconnected from their stated mission. As we expand the national discussion about how our security services function, we should center the voices of those frontline communities that bear the greatest harms from nuclear weapons alongside those who face the most police bullets. Indeed, in many cases those voices will be the same. 

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Reframing today’s nuclear weapons enterprise as a higher expression of those ugly, ineffective and expensive authoritarian tendencies is a valuable first step to connect communities searching for allies and new approaches to effecting lasting change.  

To commemorate the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, hundreds of planned online events give people the opportunity to reflect on not just the attacks of August 1945, but also the enduring suffering of so many others in the years since because of nuclear weapons. To help make these important connections, experts and advocates have built a coalition of over 150 activist and victims’ organizations under the tagline #StillHere — a poignant recognition both of the victims still fighting and of the weapons still threatening us all. 

Andrew Facini is the publishing manager at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He lectures in Harvard Extension School’s nuclear deterrence graduate program, and helped lead the #StillHere coalition organizing around this year’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki anniversaries. Follow him on twitter @andrewfacini.