“He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way,” wrote John Hersey of Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto in 1946’s essay “Hiroshima” for The New Yorker.
“The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands,” Tanimoto saw.
“Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns — of undershirt straps and suspenders.”
Sunday marked the 72nd anniversary of the horrors Hersey described, the aftermath of the United States dropping a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the second bombing, which targeted the city of Nagasaki.
In the first strike, more than 100,000 people were killed from the initial effects of the detonation. In the second strike, more than 50,000. The overwhelming majority were civilians, especially in Nagasaki, and photos of the immediate aftermath are all the more devastating when you consider that many of the people pictured — women, children, the elderly and nursing infants — did not yet realize they had been exposed to a heavy dose of radiation that would soon prove incredibly painful if not fatal.
But nuclear weapons are in the news this week for reasons beyond this recent history. The isolated nation of North Korea has now tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the second of which U.S. analysts said appeared capable of striking the American mainland if carrying a light enough load.
That happened late last month. This Tuesday, sources in the U.S. intelligence community said it looks like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un finally has the full nuclear package, as his military is believed to have successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon, making it small enough for those ICBMs to transport long distances.
As I write this, U.S.-North Korea saber rattling is proceeding at a pace that would almost be comical were it not so grave.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” President Trump said Tuesday afternoon during a photo op at his New Jersey golf course. Kim “has been very threatening beyond a normal state,” Trump added. “They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Meanwhile, Pyongyang is reportedly considering a (non-nuclear) missile strike on the U.S. territory of Guam, where the United States has important military facilities. Oh, and did I mention one of Trump’s more prominent pastor supporters decided to announce that God supports Trump using “whatever means necessary” to “take out Kim Jong-un”?
The coincidence of all this nukes news ought to occasion caution and reflection — but in the Trump administration, at least, that doesn’t seem to be happening. So in light of this dangerous reactivity, I want to make three points.
First, having nukes is not the same as using nukes. This should be self-evident given that there are currently nine nuclear nations on the globe, counting North Korea, and no one has nuked anyone else in 72 years. In Kim’s case, there’s good reason to believe nuclear armament is primarily about regime change deterrence, not attack — for all its posturing, North Korea is playing a “huge game of blackmail,” says Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, in which the “principle objective is to remain in power.”
Second, American politics didn’t learn the right lesson from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We learned that nuclear weapons are something we don’t want used against us while rationalizing our own use of nukes using blatant historical revisionism that whitewashes the undeniable immorality of what our government did to Japanese innocents. It isn’t hard to see how that message of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ might undercut Washington’s attempts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear progress is all the more reason, as conservative Matthew Walther persuasively argues at The Week, to face the damning truth of what the United States did seven decades ago.
And third, we desperately need more diplomacy and less irresponsible talking. Loose presidential lips can sink a lot more than ships, and reckless provocation can and will make this situation worse. “Imagine if the North Koreans are looking for any signs that we’re about to attack as their signal that they have to go,” said nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis back in December; imagine if Trump “says the wrong thing” and “gives the impression that we’re about to act,” and Pyongyang does decide to strike.
This week, that’s a little too easy to imagine.