Repetitive fears surface as life challenges each of us with anxiety over how we will deal with paying our bills, raising our children, advancing age, and general health. But for years, I have also been aware of what I call “background anxiety” as a result of a trip to Hiroshima, the site of the first use of a nuclear weapon on a population 65 years ago, resulting in as many as 140,000 deaths by the end of 1945, with many more dying in ensuing years from radiation exposure. The death count was lower in Nagasaki three days later, but there was the same overwhelming scope of annihilation and “psychic numbing”—a term coined by Robert J. Lifton. The majority of those who died in both cities were civilians. With names like “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the bombs initiated a new age in the capacity for mass death and destruction.
In 1972, as a young man of 20 who had taken a year off from college while looking for adventure and a sense of meaning, I joined a summer bicycle tour of Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. While searching for understanding of my religious roots and spiritual yearnings, I convinced the group to detour from our planned itinerary for a side trip to experience a piece of history I knew little about—the bombings of two Japanese cities on August 6 and 9 of 1945.
I can still feel the heaviness in my chest that I experienced that day as we approached the site of the world’s first use of a nuclear weapon on a human population. The sound and sight of careening pigeons over now pastel-colored gardens with fragrance wafting in the air as children played and ran to and fro from their parents was a bizarre contrast to the reality that nature and concrete had now covered over. One of the few remaining buildings from that day, August 6, is now a massive deformed dome of congealed metal. It is surrounded by the Peace Park, which features a visitor center with stark black and white footage of the aftermath—the ground leveled, survivors with burned flesh, corpses, and chaos. After seeing that film, I made the decision to prepare for medical school and, as a future physician, to teach and work to prevent the horrific consequences of another nuclear explosion.
As we stand at yet another anniversary of the bombs’ use, it is sobering to consider that the United States and other nuclear powers still maintain thousands of nuclear warheads, most of which are much more destructive than the bombs dropped on Japan. Taking steps to reduce the risk created by nuclear arsenals is part of creating a safer world. Fortunately, today in our own country there is bipartisan support for reducing our nuclear arsenal, as other nations take steps to reduce theirs. Respected military leaders, national security experts, and former government officials from both parties have endorsed this idea as part of a wise security policy.
In Des Moines, Iowa, the director of Catholic Peace Ministry, Jeffery Weiss, wrote to me:
With the executive branches of the United States of America and the Russian Federation signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), our expectation is that the U.S. Senate will get the 67 votes to ratify START. We hope this development (START) will create momentum when the Obama Administration decides to send the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the Senate for ratification (perhaps late 2010 or 2011). In other words, if the U.S. Senate ratifies START, it creates a positive environment for the ratification of the CTBT. The U.S. has not tested nuclear weapons for decades, but unless we sign this treaty, we are not getting anything from other nations, despite our behavior.
The CTBT is the most important nuclear weapons treaty in the world. It sets up an international regime of nuclear monitoring using improved sophisticated technology. Unless the U.S. ratifies CTBT, our country will have little legitimacy in asking other countries not to test nuclear weapons.
This anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offers an important opportunity to voice our concerns about nuclear weapons—and to advocate for deep reductions in nuclear arsenals, on the way to total elimination, and an end to nuclear weapons test explosions. The U.S. Senate can lead the way on non-proliferation by ratifying the CTBT when it comes up for a vote next year.
May the world never again face a nuclear explosion. This is my hope.