August 8, 2015 — Mary Burton Risley — Op/Ed: Silver City Press
In August of 1945, I was a saucy three year old, daily comic relief for my eight month’s pregnant mother, my grandmother and my already war-widowed aunt, all of us living in Roswell with my gravely ill elderly grandfather.
As a career Marine officer, my father had already fought in the bloody South Sea Island battles of Guadalcanal, Saipan and Tinian and was training for the planned invasion of Japan at Kyushu.
Then, on August 6th and 9th our country detonated the first atomic weapons ever used over the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Estimates of the death toll during the first days and months after the explosions range from 225,000 to 240,000 human beings. The visual target building at Nagasaki was the city’s Urakami Cathedral, in which 6,000 of the city’s 12,000 Roman Catholic parishioners were worshiping, all killed instantly by the explosion. People died horribly for years after, as well, from radiation-induced cancers.
Unbeknownst to me, my world changed forever on those two days, the world of all living earthly beings changed, because the government of President Harry Truman had demonstrated that human ingenuity, desperate effort, pride and fear could now destroy life as we know it on our planet.
At the time, the justification for using the bomb was that it would end the war and save the lives of Allied and Japanese people. But this was actually a lie.
The Japanese had already sued for peace in two telegrams, one delivered to Josef Stalin on July 18th (three weeks before Nagasaki) asking only the one condition which we ultimately granted them: surrender while keeping their Emperor.
Even at the time, there were doubts expressed. General, later President, Eisenhower, Admiral William Leahy, Chief of Staff of the Armed Services, General “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces and many other dignitaries have written that the Japanese were beaten and would have surrendered without the destruction of so many lives. (See https://libcom.org/history/1945-us-responses-atomic-bombing-hiroshima-nagasaki for more supporting quotes).
There are many historical theories about the real reason the bombs were dropped. Truman had served on the Senate Committee which oversaw the secret “black” budget and he knew that there would be hell to pay were the millions spent on developing the bombs not “justified.” Stalin’s Red Army was racing across Siberia to enter the Pacific War Theater, and having just given the Communists half of Europe at Yalta, Truman did not like the prospect of sharing Asia with him as well. The great majority of the Manhattan Project scientists who had worked so hard for three years developing the bombs supported their use on Japan.
Anyway, the deed was done and cannot be undone.
After 1945, the world witnessed a stupendously expensive Cold War arms race, in which at one point the U.S. and the Soviet Union possessed over 70,000 nuclear warheads. The cost of making nuclear weapons is not measured only in money and productive capacities diverted from constructive work to meet human needs. Nuclear weapons kill before they are exploded. Tens of thousands of uranium miners have died around the world, uranium and plutonium workers at weapons factories have died, and downwinders from atmospheric test sites have also died from radiation exposure- caused cancers in all the countries which have chosen to build and deploy nukes.
I have stood at an intersection in a residential neighborhood in Los Alamos from which 5 people died of brain cancer within 8 years.
In 1968, the United Nations-sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force, in which the technology to make electricity from a nuclear chain reaction would be shared with countries who would pledge not to develop weapons, but also in which nuclear weapons states pledged to work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.
The NPT has not succeeded – there were 5 weapons states in 1968, now there are 9 with precious little progress on disarmament as well. In the recent START II Treaty, the U.S. and Russia committed to reducing their stockpiles to just over 3,000 each by 2022, and most of the other nuclear weapons states – Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel – have restrained their inventories as well. But there will still be enough nuclear bombs on earth to poison the planet many times over.
So, yes, my life and your lives were changed in August of 1945 and we are all still threatened by the presence on earth of nuclear weapons.
I hope many people in Silver City will take an hour this Sunday to join in moments of remembrance. May our leaders, all the leaders of the nuclear weapons states, show wisdom and compassion in the future to bring us into a world without these terrible weapons and the threat they represent.