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Almost 70 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

No more Hiroshimas banner
A 1986 disarmament demonstration in Vermont. Photo: David McCauley
artwork showing victims of the Hiroshima atomic bombing
Artwork on display at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in June 2002. Photo: Ryan Poplin
People light and float luminaries on a river
A 2007 Hiroshima remembrance event in Austin, Texas. Photo: Adolfo Isassi

Joseph Gerson, AFSC's disarmament coordinator, answers questions about the legacy of the 1945 atomic bombings.

Why do people each year commemorate the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Commemorations of the first atomic bombings held across the United States and around the world provide a means to remind ourselves, our communities and elected officials that we continue to face the danger of nuclear annihilation, and that action for nuclear disarmament is an urgent necessity. Commemorations open spaces to educate the public—especially young generations—about the human consequences of nuclear war. They provide forums and encouragement to plan education and organizing in the year to come. In the United States, they also provide an opportunity to face and learn from one of the greatest war crimes in U.S. history.

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act,” President Obama has said. We must act to ensure atomic bombings never again occur.

Why should we care about the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that happened almost 70 years ago?

The bombings marked a critical turning point for the human species. As Einstein warned and the first atomic bombings demonstrated, a single primitive nuclear weapon could destroy an entire metropolitan region and devastate its people. Senior Manhattan Project scientist Arthur H. Compton observed that the atomic weapon “introduces the question of mass slaughter, really for the first time in history.”

There are now approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-weapon states, many of them 20 to 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs. Recent widely accepted scientific studies demonstrate that an exchange of just 50-100 nuclear weapons would result in nuclear famine, killing more than a billion and a half people in the Northern hemisphere. An exchange of hundreds of nuclear weapons could result in nuclear winter and the extinction of the human and many other species.

What were the impacts of those atomic weapons?

The atomic weapons that demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki had devastating effects on their populations at the time of the bombings and throughout the lives of those people who survived. In accounts by survivors, it is common to read of “inhuman” scenes that resemble “Hell on Earth”: an “inferno” of intense heat radiating from the hypocenter that reached several thousand degrees Celsius; human beings vaporized and horrifically burned; fires that spread for miles around where the bombs were dropped; and black rain—sticky, dark, and poisonous radioactive precipitation that fell from the sky and poisoned many thousands of people.

Within the first months after the bombings, approximately 130,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, in Nagasaki, 70,000. In the decades since, radiation emitted by the bombs has continued to scar and claim the lives of people who were exposed to the bombings. The medical issues facing A-bomb survivors have included cancer, birth defects, and radiation diseases in children born to victims.

Weren’t the A-bombings necessary to end the war against Japan, especially given Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor?


Prior to the bombings, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Leahy, advised President Truman that “a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted.”

 Understanding that Japan’s defeat was inevitable, in 1944 Emperor Hirohito had appointed Suzuki Kantro as Japan’s Prime Minister with the mandate to negotiate an end to the war with the United States. Japanese diplomats approached U.S. diplomats in Lisbon and the Vatican, and the OSS (the forerunner to the CIA) in Switzerland, urging a negotiated end to the war with the condition that the emperor be permitted to remain on his throne. With the Truman Administration’s commitment to unconditional surrender, these Japanese demarches were ignored.

In July, 1945 U.S. intelligence intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables indicating that the Japanese planned to send former Prime Minister, Prince Konoe, to Moscow to arrange Soviet facilitation of a negotiated surrender. When Truman met Stalin at Potsdam, they agreed that Prince Konoe would not be welcomed to Moscow.

After the bombings on August 6 and 9, 1945, and following Japan’s unconditional surrender, President Truman opted to keep Emperor Hirohito on the throne in order to maintain order in Japan.

The equation of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombings is an expression of vengeance, not justice. Japan’s shocking surprise attack against U.S. military forces in Hawaii was an illegal and deadly act of military aggression, targeted against military forces, and claimed 2,403 U.S. lives. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary to end the war and targeted against innocent civilians, more than 200,000 of whom died within a year following and many thousands subsequently dying from their injuries and radiation diseases.

It has been claimed that the A-bombings actually saved hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Japanese lives. Yes or no?

This propaganda understandably was widely believed by U.S. forces being prepared to risk their lives in an invasion of Japan, as well as by their families. It was launched by President Truman who claimed that the A-bombings saved half a million lives, a claim aimed at mitigating the political fallout as the world learned about the consequences of the A-bombings. Truman’s claim was embellished by others over the years. As noted above, at the time of the atomic bombings the Japanese government was pursuing a negotiated surrender on terms acceptable to the United States. As then General Eisenhower put it, “The Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

If one mistakenly grants that an invasion of Japan was necessary to secure Japan’s surrender, the best estimate of anticipated U.S. casualties can be found in the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint War Plans Committee. It estimated the invasion of Kyushu, the first of Japan’s main islands scheduled for attack, would have come at cost of 7,500 U.S. lives. Had Honshu, Japan’s most populated island been invaded in a follow-on attack, the estimate was that it would have cost the lives of 40,000 U.S. troops.

Who are the Hibakusha?

Hibakusha translates to “bomb-affected people,” and refers to the witnesses/survivors of the atomic bombings. Hibakusha are people who were exposed directly to the bomb; who entered the affected sphere within two weeks of the explosions; who were exposed to radioactive fallout, and who were exposed in utero,[1] although the label has come to refer to any person who has been exposed to and impacted by radiation through all forms of nuclear technology. 

There were hundreds of thousands of Hibakusha, including Korean forced laborers and prisoners of war. Many subsequently suffered deadly and debilitating diseases, depression, and discrimination based on their status as Hibakusha. Nihon Hidankyo (the Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Survivors) was established in 1956, and advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons, state compensation for Hibakusha, and further protection and assistance for survivors of the bombings. 

Today there are approximately 200,000 Hibakusha, whose average age is 78. They live in Japan, Korea, and other countries including the United States. Many have dedicated their often pain-filled lives to working for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons by sharing their experiences of the horror, destruction, and inhumanity of atomic weapons.

Who are today’s nuclear powers, and how many nuclear weapons remain in the world?

There are nine nuclear weapons states: United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel (undeclared.)  Following are recent estimates of the total number of nuclear weapons—deployed and stockpiled—of each of these nations*:

  • Britain: 225
  • China: 250
  • France: 300
  • India: 110
  • Israel: 80
  • North Korea: 6 to 8
  • Pakistan: 120
  • Russia: 8,500
  • United States: 7,700

Have nations used the threat of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki?

Nuclear weapons have been used as threats by each of the nine nuclear weapons states, most frequently by the United States. Daniel Ellsberg, a senior nuclear weapons advisor to three presidents, has explained that like a thief who points his gun at a victim’s head during an armed robbery, whether or not the trigger is pulled, US presidents have repeatedly pointed and used their nuclear “guns” during international crises, conflicts and wars. He also explained that nuclear “guns” are used in the same way that a gunslinger would use his six guns by ostentatiously displaying them as he sauntered down Main Street.

On at least 14 occasions, during crises and wars in the Middle East, the U.S. has prepared and/or threatened to initiate nuclear attacks. Similar threats and preparations were made at least four times each in relation to Vietnam and China, and the U.S. has threatened North Korea with nuclear attacks at least a dozen times, including B-2 and B-52 simulated nuclear attacks in 2013. Britain threatened Argentina during the Falklands war; France threatened Iran in 2006; and the Soviet Union went “eyeball to eyeball” with the United States with its preparations for nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis and threatened Britain and France during the Suez crisis in 1956. China made an implicit nuclear threat against the U.S. in 1996 during tensions over Taiwan, and Pakistan and India exchanged nuclear threats during the Kargil War of 1999.

What are today’s nuclear dangers?

The confrontation between Russia and the West over the revolution in Ukraine reminded the world that regional tensions involving nuclear powers carry the danger of escalation to nuclear war. Other potential flashpoints include Indian-Pakistani tensions, territorial disputes in Asia and the Pacific, and the continuing state of war on the Korean Peninsula.

Nuclear dangers are not limited to the catastrophic use of nuclear weapons in wartime. In addition to the dangers of nuclear weapons accidents and miscalculations, each step in the nuclear cycle (mining, power generation, weapons production, maintenance, disassembly, and waste storage) involves dangers to workers and surrounding communities. There is no way to eliminate the dangers of nuclear technology, as demonstrated most recently in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdowns.

Aren’t President Obama and the U.S. government working to create a nuclear weapons-free world?

In 2009, President Obama pledged that the “United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons…we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” In his next breath he warned, “Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

In the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review which followed, the commitment to work toward a nuclear weapons-free world was reiterated, but so was the United States’ first-strike nuclear war fighting doctrine.

The Obama Administration’s arms control policies have had two primary thrusts.  The first was the negotiation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. New START extended the mutual verification procedures whose term had expired, and provided minimal reductions in the size of the two powers’ deployed nuclear arsenals, down to 1,550 each. This is still more than enough to bring on nuclear winter. To win Republican votes needed to ratify the treaty, President Obama committed to spend nearly $200 billion to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems, ensuring that preparations and threats to initiate nuclear war remain a cornerstone of U.S. policies for decades to come. The Obama Administration has also boycotted numerous multi-lateral forums designed to accelerate the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons, most notably the Oslo and Nayarit conferences on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament.

The Obama Administration’s second thrust has been the convening and facilitation of three Nuclear Security Summits. The focus of these summits has been nonproliferation, not abolition, with the goal of securing and reducing the amount of fissile materials that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons by other nations.

How much does the U.S. spend to prepare for possible nuclear war?

Nuclear weapons take a little discussed toll on the U.S. because the billions go to those weapons, not to feed hungry children, house the homeless, ensure quality educations, and meet other human needs.

Because the Pentagon does not provide precise accounting for spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, we are dependent on estimates. The Stimson Center estimates that for the decade of 2013 to 2022, the U.S. will spend between $619.56 billion and $661.09 billion on its nuclear weapons programs. Between $351.9 and $391.8 billion will be spent “to sustain, operate and modernize the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal” during this period. The estimate for missile defenses, which have a role in first-strike nuclear warfighting, is between $95.9 and $97.4 billion.  Environmental and health costs, including “managing and cleaning up radioactive and toxic waste resulting from nuclear weapons production and testing” will cost $100.7 billion. Counter-proliferation programs are estimated to cost $62.7 billion and preparations for emergency responses to possible nuclear or radiological attacks in the U.S. are estimated at $.5 billion. 

Counter-proliferation, environmental, health and waste-related spending are obviously necessary. The grim reality is that    the International Red Cross testifies that it does not have the resources to respond to an attack on a city by a single nuclear weapon. This fact is the foundation of the International Red Cross’ campaigning for nuclear weapons abolition. This leaves between $447.8 billion and $489.2 billion that would be better spent decommissioning nuclear weapons, preserving essential social services, and building a green 21st century infrastructure that would ensure jobs and economic security.

What are the relationships between nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons?

The reaction involved in splitting uranium-235 atoms in nuclear power plants is the same as that which was used in the Hiroshima A-bomb. The dangerous radiation produced in each is also the same. Fallout from both bombs and power plant leaks result in cancer, leukemia, and deadly gastro-intestinal illnesses.

The Nagasaki A-bomb was fueled by plutonium. Plutonium is a byproduct of civilian nuclear power plants. A typical 1,000 megawatt light water reactor produces 400-600 pounds of plutonium each year, enough to manufacture between 22 and 33 nuclear weapons. Regarded as the most toxic substance, a millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause skin cancer. If inhaled, a fragment of plutonium the size of a grain of pollen will almost inevitably cause lung cancer. If ingested, plutonium will likely result in bone or other cancers.

Perhaps most dangerous are the roles that nuclear power plants play in nuclear weapons proliferation. As India, Pakistan and North Korea demonstrate, the knowledge and resources required to create and operate nuclear power plants can be used to move from power generation to the production of nuclear weapons.  Nuclear weapons are now 70 year old technology, and as one engineer put it, “they can be designed by any physics PhD. worth his salt.”  

What is being done to create a world free of nuclear weapons?

Even before the first A-bombs were dropped, senior U.S. nuclear scientists petitioned President Truman to prevent the slaughter in Japan and a catastrophic arms race. Within days of the A-bombings, AFSC and other religious organizations called for banning nuclear weapons. The first resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly called for complete nuclear disarmament.

In the decades since, popular movements forced the U.S., the Soviet Union, and other nuclear powers to halt nuclear testing in the atmosphere and to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In 1968 popular movements and non-nuclear governments won the negotiation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty rests on three pillars: 1) non-nuclear nations foreswear ever becoming nuclear powers; in exchange 2) they have the right to generate nuclear power for peaceful purposes; and 3) Article VI committed the nuclear powers to engage in good faith negotiations to completely eliminate their arsenals – a commitment that has yet to be fulfilled.

In the 1980s the movement to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race—better known as the Freeze Movement—forced President Reagan to begin the negotiations with Moscow, resulting in the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that marked the end of the Cold War even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Popular pressure has led to significant, but not sufficient, reductions in the sizes of the nuclear powers’ arsenals.

Initiated by NGOs, in 1996 the International Court of Justice issued its Advisory Opinion on the Use and Threatened Use of Nuclear Weapons, ruling that, “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and to bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” Building on the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion, in May, 2014 the government of the Marshall Islands courageously sued the nine nuclear powers in the ICJ and national courts for breach of contract given their failures to implement Article VI of the NPT and common international law.

In recent years the Non-Aligned Movement of Nations and other formations like the New Agenda Coalition have taken leading roles in pressing demands for the full implementation of the NPT’s Article VI. Model nuclear weapons abolition treaties have been developed by governments and NGOs. Intergovernmental Conferences on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, involving more than 100 countries - but not the P-5 nuclear powers comprised of these, Russia, Britain, France and China – have pressed the imperative of nuclear weapons abolition. The 2013 United Nations Open-Ended Working Group reaffirmed the goal of the complete elimination of the world’s nuclear weapons and presented the General Assembly with a wide range of recommended actions.

Why are AFSC and other international peace and justice organizations mobilizing to impact the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in April and May 2015?

The NPT Review Conference is held at the United Nations every five years. It provides a unique opportunity for the world’s governments to hold one another accountable to the treaty’s three pillars.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in 2010, governments and diplomats cannot succeed in eliminating the nuclear threat to humankind’s survival without the dedicated and active pressure from people’s movements. The nuclear powers have long resisted fulfilling their Article VI commitments to negotiate the abolition of nuclear weapons and have used the NPT to maintain a terrifying hierarchy of nuclear terror. There is growing disillusionment with the NPT, as many non-nuclear governments and leading nuclear weapons abolitionists increasingly doubt the commitment of the nuclear powers to fulfill their Article VI part of the NPT bargain.

If the 2015 conference does not result in commitments to begin negotiations for a nuclear weapons abolition treaty, the NPT may well be consigned to history, vastly increasing the dangers that nuclear war will again be fought.

For these reasons we are mobilizing to impact the Review Conference and to build the world’s nuclear weapons abolition movement for our longer term work win a nuclear weapons-free world.

How can I get involved in working for a world free of nuclear weapons?

Numerous organizations are working for the elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. For more information about the work by AFSC and its partners, contact:

Cambridge, Mass.

San Francisco, Calif.

Northampton, Mass.

Providence, RI

Chicago, Ill.

Des Moines, Iowa           

Pittsburgh, Pa.

Philadelphia, Pa.


Estimate from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2013, except for Korea

 Korean estimate from SIPRI: