Outliving nuclear weapons


The only way to outlive nuclear weapons is to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is either them or us. So has the ongoing nuclear weapons standoff really prevented another world war, or are we just lucky so far?

By Adrian Glamorgan

When Nagasakai had been opened up to the British Empire by British commander-in-chief of the East Indies and China Station James Stirling – who signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty in 1854 – the ‘secret Christians’ had come out to show that they had maintained their faith for 250 years of isolation and persecution. Nagasaki’s Urakami Tenshuddo Catholic Cathedral was built as testament to many there who for generations had held faithfulness to the peace of Jesus. Throughout the Pacific War (1937-45), the people of Nagasaki might have allowed themselves the tacit hope that a shared faith with their enemy might have offered some leeway.

Nagasaki was not the atomic target earlier on the morning of August 9, 1945. Nagasaki had been conventionally bombed in a limited way several times before, and so the full effects of the blast might not be so easily measured, making it less attractive for demonstration purposes. Moreover, unlike the delta of Hiroshima, which had been flattened by the uranium bomb ‘Little Boy’, Nagasaki was set in a canyon and the impacts of an untried plutonium ‘Fat Man’ bomb would not so easily be measured because of that.

But as it happened, the primary target city of Kokura was covered by clouds and smoke from a major fire raid over nearby Yahata. The B-29 Enola Gay, used only a few days before to A-bomb Hiroshima, was now on weather reconnaissance duties, ahead of the B-29 Bockscar plane which carried a second kind of nuclear weapon, headed to that city. But given how much smoke cover there was, it would not be easy to drop the bomb on-target, or see its effects. Bockscar circled three times, battling with a mechanical problem and declining fuel, until it became clear that Japanese fighter activity was likely, and so, still weighed down by its lethal new weapon of mass destruction, Bockscar headed towards their back-up target.

Lessons from hibakusha

In 2016 I went to Nagasaki as a volunteer, to be a civil society presence and support for the City of Fremantle’s Mayors for Peace sponsorship of the last sculpture to grace Nagasaki Peace Park, which was to be Australian. In conjunction with Nuclear Futures, surviving families of Maralinga at Yalata/Oak Valley had designed and built a beautiful bronze sculpture, commemorating the event. Deputy Mayor Josh Wilson officially represented Fremantle, doing so with great dignity and sensitivity. 

To commemorate the Nagasaki installation, Japanese hibakusha (被爆者) – actual survivors of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki – had gathered to learn more about the forced displacement of the Pitjantjatjara Anangu from Maralinga. British nuclear testing, done in great secrecy and with little democracy, had given only token regard of the traditional owners and rendered their precious lands uninhabitable for 26,000 years. Nuclear Futures was a three-year program of arts activities originating in Australia that extended across six countries and supported artists working with atomic survivor communities, to bear witness through creative arts.

Taniguchi Sumiteru ( 谷口 稜曄) was amongst those present. On August 9, 1945 Taniguchi-san, only 16 years old, was riding his bicycle through Nagasaki as part of his normal postal duties. Above the clouds overhead were a handful of allied planes, but there was no alarm sounded: the Japanese assumed that the Americans were only doing reconnaissance.

But in the sky with their fuel running low, the Americans in Bockscar found they could not get a visual on the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works, their official secondary target. Then a gap, good enough, came, and the 5kg bomb was let go, 3km northwest of the actual intended hypocentre. The power of a thousand suns came. Near the hypocentre, twelve hundred or so children were instantly killed, and as the circle of horror moved out, so too did a wave of death, scything tens of thousands down on the hillsides of the Urakami valley, burning up their city and turning those areas of the city into mere rubble. 

The details of the horrors of the blinding flash, heat, blast, and radiation are too gruesome to share case by case, and yet if we avert our eyes totally, we cannot know why nuclear weapons must be banned. Taniguchi-san was relatively lucky. He was riding away from the bomb when the blinding light flashed from the hypocentre. The heat that came instantly burned him all over the back, and as he was thrown off his bicycle to the ground, the blast did not kill him. Although his whole back was scorched the burns caused him little pain, because his nerve endings had been scorched away. The pain would come later, as his wounds became infected. Like many who survived on the day, their whole life would be cast in doubt, by complications caused by a wide range of cancers, cardiac problems, and immune diseases. Social exclusion by people who feared atomic contagion, or would not marry a survivor because of genetic problems, also became a bitter, ongoing, genocidal incidental of that day.

Australian POWs at Nagasaki survived, including two from the Fremantle district. So they too saw the horrors. One of them, long-time campaigner Tom Uren, committed to peace for the rest of his life. When these collateral survivors emerged from their underground slave labour, they saw the city was now smashed to pieces and on fire and those who lived were surrounded by a nightmare. No emergency services then, as now, could meet the demands of a nuclear attack. It was a descent into hell. In an all-out nuclear war, there will be no rescue.

Thus Taniguchi-san’s business card featured the famous photograph of him lying on his stomach, his back burned bright red, with the damage done in a single moment in time and putting his future in doubt. His business card read “I want you to understand, if only a little, the horror of nuclear weapons.” 

Taniguchi-san and his colleagues understood the horror of nuclear weapons. When I met them in 2016, they urged us all to give deep commitment to the world adopting a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

A hundred seconds to midnight

In the tales of the horror of the world’s first nuclear attacks, Nagasaki is often an afterthought. But it should stand beside Hiroshima as a reminder that any city can be a target, if on the day things don’t work out. Plans are made, but sometimes they do not work. Proponents of ‘extended mutual deterrence’ keep the matter away from the public gaze, tucking their promises that we are made ‘safe’ by nuclear weapons in the Australian Department of Defence 2016 White Paper. Without consultation, the Australian Government has made us a promise that a nuclear war won’t come, because we have planned it so carefully never to happen.

Instead, they are blissfully but dangerously ignoring the ‘broken arrows’ (nuclear weapon accidents), mistaken intent, cultural misunderstandings, or asymmetric command systems that could plunge the world into war. By accident. On the day. Today. Without Australia’s sovereignty being regarded. With Harold E. Holt Naval Communication, run by nuclear arms manufacturer Raytheon at North West Cape, helping launch a first-strike nuclear attack on Chinese submarines in the South China Seas. Or Pine Gap relaying information necessary for the US launches. Will we be asked? A party to genocide or crimes against humanity? By the time the questions are posed, civilisation may no longer exist.

For we are, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warns us, only a hundred seconds to midnight. Should this eventuate, too terrible to imagine fully, no government, no Red Cross, no volunteer services, no neighbour, no rescuing country can save us from it, because all will be engulfed. It will be the first day of humanity’s descent into centuries of misery, if we are able to survive the radiation, the famines of nuclear winter, or a precipitated Ice Age, at all.

Even if they are never used, you cannot imagine the cost of nuclear weapons buried in their silos. The cost of the US nuclear weapons program 1940-1996 based on Office of Management and Budget figures was calculated by Stephen I. Schwartz in The Hidden Costs of Our Nuclear Arsenal: Overview of Project Findings to have:

“Exceeded the combined total federal spending for education; training, employment, and social services; agriculture; natural resources and the environment; general science, space and technology; community and regional development (including disaster relief); law enforcement; and energy production and regulation. On average, the United States has spent $98 billion a year on nuclear weapons.”

There’s an ethical issue in deterrence too. It relies on us threatening each other with destruction, in order to establish a peaceful international order. It is akin to us telling our neighbours that we are their friends, but if we don’t like what they do, we can destroy their house and families completely.

What next?

But one day as I spoke with hibakusha, we were discussing all the near misses – of when nuclear wars have almost happened, and humanity has only narrowly avoided catastrophe. You can look them up – the false alarms, the accidents in the nuclear silos, the jeeps driven over the top of them to stop firing a Titan II, the depth charging of Soviets in submarines leading them to think the nuclear war has already started. It has been a miracle we haven’t had a war yet, they said. In fact, they couldn’t work out why it hadn’t happened.

The only way to outlive nuclear weapons is to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is either them or us. That is the Green message, but it is also the message of five very hardnosed men who know what nuclear weapons promise to do, and understand all their actual limitations: ‘The Partnership’ signed up for disarmament, and they included former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger; former Secretary of State George Schultz; former Secretary of Defence William Perry; former Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn; and former director at Los Alamos National Security Sidney Drell. But their calls have been ignored, and the threats of proliferation and foolishness, of narcissism and simple bad luck, means now it’s up to us: people in civil society. We need to outlive nuclear weapons. What was done by the peace movement in the 1980s, to resist the currents taking us to nuclear war, must be done again – but more decisively.

We have been lucky thus far. To outlive nuclear weapons, now it is up to us to be the miracle the world needs. For Australians, that means signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and stopping the exporting of uranium where it can be misused or subject to accountancy deceptions. For any of that to happen, we need to do what Greens like first Senator Jo Vallentine have done from the party’s inception – campaign for peace, on the streets, and in the chambers of parliament.

But to outlive nuclear weapons, we also need to rise above the fear they generate. Nuclear weapons and the systems of ‘mutually assured destruction’ rely on a picture of humanity at our worst and most despairing. Outliving nuclear weapons means being a picture of hope and determination, of intellect and good humour, of persevering witness, and with attention to detail, with effort and a steady gaze that no Australian diplomat or government minister can avert. The hibakusha have shown us what is at stake. Now, in being the best of what it is to be human, we will show the hibakusha that we understand, act, and live in peace.

Adrian Glamorgan is a writer, facilitator, presenter of the weekly environment program on Perth’s RTRFM 92.1, and active in Mayors for Peace.

A version of this article first appeared in Green Issue. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Greens.

Hero image: Pixabay.

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