Few survivors are left to mark the 70th anniversary of one of planet’s most horrific and historic events. On Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a second bomb fell on Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and wounded.
The bombs ended the world’s bloodiest war, but touched off a nuclear race with no finish line in sight — although many scratch their heads at the thought of imminent atomic danger at a time when the world’s nukes have been slashed from a dizzying high of 70,000 to around 17,000 today.
Most Westerners would be hard pressed to locate a bomb or fallout shelter, and American schools have long since ceased instructing children to “duck and cover” in case of a Soviet attack. A zombie apocalypse is more prevalent in pop culture than the nuclear annihilation of Dr. Strangelove’s 1960s.
The West’s attention has been diverted to the future dangers of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the implications of the recent deal to curb them. Meanwhile, the real and present risk of nuclear catastrophe by accident or intent remains so high that the venerable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock from five to three minutes to midnight this year.
Apart from unchecked climate change, it says, global nuclear weapons modernization and outsized arsenals pose “extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.” World leaders have failed to act speedily or effectively enough to prevent them from endangering every person on earth. In spite of deep cuts to nuclear arsenals there are still about 1,800 nukes on “hair trigger” alert.
There’s another caution. The last time the hands of the clock were so close to midnight, in 1984, it was because relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union had reached “an icy nadir.”
Fast forward to 2015, and U.S.-Russia relations are again in the cooler. As tensions reach post-Crimea-invasion highs, Russia is spending a third of its burgeoning defence budget on nuclear weapons, among them reportedly, a new generation of radar-evading cruise missiles and attack submarines equipped to carry them.
The Obama administration is also planning to boost its nuclear arsenal at a cost of $350 billion. Meanwhile, the hazards of its aging nuclear weapons infrastructure are increasing apace.
Those looming dangers overshadow moves by other members of the nuclear club, which also deserve attention. India plans to expand its nuclear submarine fleet, and has developed a new short-range missile to deliver nuclear weapons. Pakistan is stockpiling small tactical nuclear weapons for use on a prospective battlefield: another destabilizing move on the shaky landscape of South Asia.
Unpredictable North Korea is developing long-range missiles Washington believes could eventually hit the U.S. Under Kim Jong Un, the secretive country is diversifying its weapons and estimates of its nuclear stockpile have risen to 20 warheads.
No wonder, then, that there’s little progress toward the nuke-free world that a group of 300 world leaders aspired to in 2008 in a sweeping plan for steady and monitored downsizing of U.S. and Russian stockpiles that make up more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weaponry.
Years after “ban the bomb” demonstrations disappeared from the world’s streets, that plan remains the most visionary, and is still urgently needed.
The aging Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors remember why. “Many people were killed almost instantly,” one told the Washington Post. “The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and (it) spread over their entire bodies.” Today, above the din of politics and propaganda, their frail voices should be heard.