A Letter to Barack Obama from Hiroshima Survivor Setsuko Thurlow

August 7th, 2016 - by admin

Daniel Hogsta / International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons & Setsuko Thurlow, Hiroshima Survivor & Rebecca Johnson / Open Democracy – 2016-08-07 00:33:53


A Letter to Barack Obama from Hiroshima Survivor Setsuko Thurlow
Daniel Hogsta / International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

(August 6, 2016) —In June Setsuko Thurlow was awarded the Arms Control Person of the Year Award and a group of us travelled to Washington DC to celebrate with her. During this time she met with Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s speechwriter, who accompanied him to Hiroshima this past Spring. Setsuko and Ben had a friendly exchange of views, during which time she ask him to hand deliver a letter to President Obama.

Although she left the envelope open so Ben could read the contents before passing it on, he declined stating: “I want the President to be the first to read you letter and I promise to have it in his hands by late this afternoon.”

We still haven’t heard a response from Mr. Obama to Setsuko’s heartfelt critique of his Hiroshima speech and nuclear policy. While we wait, she wanted our ICAN colleagues to read the contents and see how each one of us inspires her continued passion and action for disarmament.

— Kathleen Sullivan, Hibakusha Stories

To Barack Obama
From Setsuko Thurlow

Dear President Obama,

Since your historic visit to Hiroshima in May, several people have been asking me to share my thoughts. What would I have said to you directly if we’d had an opportunity to sit down and speak face to face?

The first thing that comes to mind that I would have shared with you is an image of my four-year-old nephew Eiji — transformed into a charred, blackened and swollen child who kept asking in a faint voice for water until he died in agony.

Had he not been a victim of the atomic bomb, he would be 75 years old this year. This idea shocks me. Regardless of the passage of time, he remains in my memory as a 4-year-old child who came to represent all the innocent children of the world. And it is this death of innocents that has been the driving force for me to continue my struggle against the ultimate evil of nuclear weapons. Eiji’s image is burnt into my retina.

Many survivors have been passing in recent years with their dreams of nuclear abolition unfulfilled. Their motto was, “abolition in our lifetime”. The reality of our twilight years intensifies our sense of urgency, now met with stronger commitment. When you say: “it may not happen in my lifetime”, this gives us enormous grief.

I was not in Hiroshima when you visited, but I understand it was packed with media, and I could tell that of course your visit was carefully controlled and choreographed: who sat where; who were invited to approach you; the children and hibakusha who were hand-picked by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

But still you came. Your speech was heartfelt but it avoided the issue. I know from my personal experience as hellish as all war is nothing can be equivalent to nuclear violence.

You said, “Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.” To me your words echoed those of former German President Richard von Weizeker’s inspiring speech on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Germany’s surrender.

Many Japanese people were deeply inspired by the manner in which he confronted the past and dealt with wartime atrocities with integrity, when he said, “We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion . . . There can be no reconciliation without remembrance.”

The Japanese Government should emulate this profound sentiment in confronting the past and dealing with our as yet unresolved relationships with neighboring countries, particularly Korea and China. Tragically, the current Abe Administration is seeking to expand Japan’s military role in the region and forsake our much-cherished Peace Constitution.

And in the United States, as you are no doubt aware, an unfortunate remembrance has been underway. The National Park Service and the Department of Energy will establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Unlike the memorials at Auschwitz and Treblinka, the United States seeks to preserve the history of the once top-secret sites at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford, as a sort of celebration of that technological ‘achievement’. Among the first so-called ‘successes’ of this endeavor was creating hell on earth in my beloved Hiroshima.

Is this how we should ensure that the “memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade”?

As a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I witnessed my city of Hiroshima blinded by the flash, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb.

A bright summer morning turned to dark twilight with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud, dead and injured covering the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care at all. The spreading firestorm and the foul stench of burnt flesh filled the air.

Miraculously, I was rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building, about 1.8 kilometers from Ground Zero. Most of my classmates in the same room were burned alive. I can still hear their voices calling their mothers and God for help. As I escaped with two other surviving girls, we saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the centre of the city.

Grotesquely wounded people, whose clothes were tattered, or who were made naked by the blast. They were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with their intestines hanging out.

Through months and years of struggle for survival, rebuilding lives out of the ashes, we survivors, or ‘hibakusha’, became convinced that no human being should ever have to repeat our experience of the inhumane, immoral, and cruel atomic bombing.

And it is our mission, to warn the world about the reality of the nuclear threat; and to help people understand the illegality and ultimate evil of nuclear weapons. We believe that humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.

And still today, to paraphrase President Kennedy, the sword of Damocles dangles evermore perilously. Most experts agree that nuclear weapons are more dangerous now than at any point in our history due to a wide variety of risks including: geopolitical saber rattling, human error, computer failure, complex systems failure, increasing radioactive contamination in the environment and its toll on public and environmental health, as well as the global famine and climate chaos that would ensue should a limited use of nuclear weapons occur by accident or design.

Thus, we have a moral imperative to abolish nuclear arsenals, in order to ensure a safe and just world for future generations. As you said in Hiroshima, “we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”

Why then, with all due respect to you Mr. President, is the US government boycotting the United Nations disarmament negotiations born of the Humanitarian Initiative, the most significant advance for nuclear disarmament in a generation?

Within the last five years, I have witnessed the rapid development of a global movement involving states without nuclear weapons and NGOs working together to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. This movement has shown beyond all doubt that nuclear weapons are first and foremost a grave humanitarian problem, and that the terrible risks of these weapons cast all techno-military considerations into irrelevance.

Following three International Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons – inexcusably boycotted by your administration – 127 nations have joined the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. These nations are calling on Nuclear Weapon States and those who stand with them, to begin a process for nuclear disarmament.

To repeat the words of Richard von Weizeker: “We must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion.”

The truth is, we all live with the daily threat of nuclear weapons. In every silo, on every submarine, in the bomb bays of airplanes, every second of every day, nuclear weapons, thousands on high alert, are poised for deployment threatening everyone we love and everything we hold dear.

Last month in Japan you poignantly said: “That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love. The first smile from our children in the morning. The gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table. The comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here, 71 years ago.”

I beg you to reframe this profound sentiment to understand that the people we love, our smiling children, the embrace of loved ones, these precious moments and precious people are all under threat of annihilation because of the existence of nuclear weapons, and the policy of deterrence that you currently authorize and provide for nations under the US nuclear umbrella, including my home country Japan.

This perversion, in its truest sense, means that the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack in war now seeks its own protection through far more diabolical hydrogen bombs.

And you Mr. Obama, the only sitting US President to visit Hiroshima, came accompanied by a duty bound officer with the nuclear briefcase, should you need the codes to command a remote missileer to insert a floppy disc as a prelude to the end of life on earth.

If you truly wanted to hasten our “own moral awakening” through making nuclear disarmament a reality, here are three immediate steps:

1. Stop the U.S. boycott of international nuclear disarmament meetings and join the 127 countries that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to create a new legal instrument and new norms for a nuclear weapons ban treaty as a first step in their elimination and prohibition.

2. Stop spending money to modernize the US nuclear arsenal, a staggering $1 trillion over the next three decades, and use this money to meet human needs and protect our environment.

3. Take nuclear weapons off high alert and review the aging command and control systems that have been the subject of recent research exposing a culture of neglect and the alarming regularity of accidents involving nuclear weapons.

President Obama, you uniquely have the power to enact real change. This could be your legacy. To usher in an era of real disarmament where lifting the threat of nuclear war could ease all people to “go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child.”

Yours sincerely,
Setsuko Thurlow

Listening to the Hibakusha

From Hiroshima to Trident:
Listening to the Hibakusha

Rebecca Johnson / Open Democracy

“Humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist indefinitely. How much longer can we allow the Nuclear Weapon States to continue threatening all life on earth?”
— Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of Hiroshima

LONDON (August 6, 2016) — After two prototype atomic bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the “Hibakusha” who survived launched an emotional appeal — “Never Again”. Having warned for years about the “hell on earth” they suffered, only to see nuclear armed states continue to develop and deploy further weapons, these Hibakusha are joining with humanitarian campaigners to demand that governments now negotiate a legally binding international treaty to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Setsuko was a 13-year old schoolgirl in Hiroshima when a huge fireball incinerated most of her friends and family on 6th August 1945. Nicknamed “Little Boy” by its makers, the uranium bomb that engulfed her city 70 years ago changed the world for all of us.

Three days later, on 9th August , the Americans used a different design — a plutonium bomb they called “Fat Man” — to destroy the beautiful city of Nagasaki, renowned for Madam Butterfly and Japan’s oldest Cathedral, with many historic international connections.

War is always bloody and cruel. What really shocked people was the massive power of the destruction that just two bombs wreaked. The huge blast, intense flash and heat that killed over 100,000 people instantly, flattening buildings, setting off uncontrollable fires, and leaving many more with terrible injuries and burns.

Then news began to leak out about the silent killer — radiation from these new bombs that caused sickness, tumours and cancer, killing tens of thousands more over the next months and years.

Unlike previous weapons, the atom bombs produced radioactivity that maimed unborn babies and also seeped into the eggs and sperm of people who were exposed, changing genes and harming the health of future generations. The nuclear age had begun.

It was this awe-inducing power that excited some leaders, while making others fearful for the future. The UN General Assembly’s first ever resolution tried to address “the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”. Some of the scientists who had contributed to designing and making the first bombs had begged President Harry Truman to demonstrate their power but not use them on people.

After seeing the carnage wrought in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many more scientists joined doctors and women’s organisations to argue for all nuclear weapons to be banned. They wanted to prevent more being built, and called for stringent controls on nuclear technologies to ensure that no-one would ever use them for weapons again.

American leaders ignored these security appeals, choosing instead to conduct a programme of nuclear test explosions in the Pacific. The foreseeable, inevitable consequence was that the Soviet Union ploughed resources it couldn’t afford into building its own nuclear arsenal, followed in a few years by Britain, France and China, while the United States led its allies in NATO and the Pacific (including Japan) to participate in nuclear deployments under “first-use” doctrines of “extended nuclear deterrence”.

As the Cold War ended, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea gate-crashed the nuclear ‘club’, ostensibly to gain the same “deterrence” protections as claimed by the others. Hans Blix, who headed the International Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission from 2004, commented recently, “Rather than nuclear disarmament, the world is witnessing an upgrading — and, in some cases, expansion — of nuclear arsenals.”

This fact has caused great pain and disappointment to Hibakusha like Setsuko, “baring our souls with painful memories . . . to warn people about the hell on earth we experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.

Speaking at the third international conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons last December, Setsuko explained that:
“Through months and years of struggle for survival, rebuilding lives out of the ashes, we Hibakusha . . . survivors, became convinced that no human being should ever have to repeat our experience of the inhumane, immoral, and cruel atomic bombing, and that our mission is to warn the world about the reality of the nuclear threat and to help people understand”.

Her warnings were underscored by information on the many nuclear accidents, miscalculations and near-misses there have been since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, caused by human or technological errors. While we’re encouraged to worry about other nations’ nuclear programmes and support military action to force them to give up, “our” nuclear bombs are called “deterrents”. They are meant to keep us safe.

The stock justification is that they have kept “the peace” for 70 years. That’s not a convincing argument or timescale. Our history is littered with disasters that ensued because leaders chose to put their faith in certain weapons or rituals that were meant to deter enemies or ward off evil, rather than taking sensible preventive measures.

Calling a nuclear weapon “our deterrent” does not make it so. The weight of evidence and experience point to the opposite. They are not imbued with magical properties. From George W. Bush and Tony Blair to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, nuclear-armed delusions of power and deterrence have led to reckless military actions, dangerous political posturing and nuclear sabre-rattling, with unintended consequences. At some point our luck will run out.

For many, the humanitarian costs of the nuclear age have already been unacceptably high. Several generations have grown up in the shadow of nuclear nightmares, while our governments poured money into modernising weapons rather than pursuing disarmament. Children cowered under desks in ridiculously misleading nuclear drills at school, while nuclear weapons have continued to be driven along our roads and flown above our heads.

People in countries without nuclear possession have borne the toxic brunt and long-term harm to their health and home environments of the wider nuclear chain, from uranium mining to nuclear testing.

Nuclear weapons production requires large militarised infrastructures, investment and secrecy. Human rights have been violated to protect nuclear secrets and hide mistakes and accidents. Their own citizens suffered as nuclear dependant states have disproportionately militarised their economies, putting them at the forefront of arms production and sales around the world.

Separately or together, the nine nuclear-armed countries have driven, fuelled and contributed to most of the wars, invasions, ‘proxy wars’ and instability that have afflicted the world since 1945.

Noting that “humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist indefinitely,” Setsuko asked in Vienna “How much longer can we allow the Nuclear Weapon States to continue threatening all life on earth?”

Supported by the Hibakusha, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) the Red Cross and many others are now taking forward strategies that highlight the rights and responsibilities of nuclear free nations to take the lead on negotiating a nuclear ban treaty to add to international humanitarian law.

In May 2015, as 159 states signed a statement underlining serious concerns about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) became predictably deadlocked over nuclear rivalries in the Middle East.

By the time the NPT Conference was pronounced a failure, as the United States, Britain and Canada vetoed the draft text tabled by the conference president, 107 governments joined Austria and Mexico in endorsing a ground-breaking humanitarian pledge to fill the legal gap (and negotiate) as the next step. As of today, 113 are now on board.

Hiroshima’s Mayor, Kazumi Matsui, this year appealed to President Obama and other policymakers to visit “the A-bombed cities, hear the Hibakusha with your own ears, and encounter the reality of the atomic bombings.

Surely, you will be impelled to start discussing a legal framework, including a nuclear weapons convention.” Setsuko and many others are calling for leadership from the majority of non-nuclear countries to start “negotiations on a ban treaty . . . to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons”.

Recognising that Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have created a taboo against nuclear use, Hand Blix demanded “that the taboo be made legally binding”, and “become an international priority”.

Drawing from recent experience with other treaties where weapons possessors have resisted legal constraints, Dr Blix understood the importance of pursuing such treaties, which change states’ behaviour because they “serve as a constant reminder of what is expected of them”.

For these few days in August, even mainstream media talk about nuclear weapons. But sentimental expressions of sympathy are not enough. As Setsuko told me when we met in Dublin and Vienna, Hibakusha want us to learn from their suffering and take action to make it impossible for anyone else to suffer from nuclear weapons.

That means pursuing a genuine process to achieve a treaty that will prohibit the use, deployment, manufacture, acquisition, stockpiling, proliferation and transfers of nuclear weapons and require their complete elimination.

Setsuko said she couldn’t understand why British people were allowing our government to spend £100 billion to replace Trident. What is it for? This 70th anniversary is surely time to move on from Trident — time to stop proliferating and start banning all nuclear weapons.

Dr Rebecca Johnson, FRSA, is a UN-published nuclear analyst, feminist peace activist, and Green Party spokesperson on security, peace and defence. She sits on the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) and is Vice President of CND.

This article was first published on openDemocracy 50.50 on 6 August 2015. It is republished here on the 71st anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.