Written by Bart Swinkels

The devastation of Hiroshima after the A-bomb.
Picture by US Air Force, retrieved from the US National Archives

August 6 1945, 8:14 AM. A city in southwestern Japan. Three aeroplanes appear in the sky, and from one of them an object drops down. 44 seconds later, almost 80.000 people are killed instantly, 12 square kilometres are reduced to rubble, and the few buildings that remain are engulfed in flames. In a desperate attempt to bring Japan to its knees and to end World War II, the American army detonated Little Boy, a nuclear bomb filled with 64kg of uranium-235 over the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, they doubled down by exploding a second bomb over the city of Nagasaki. These two atomic bombs – in Japan referred to as A-bombs – changed world history and permanently impacted the lives of countless people.

Since those gruesome days, 77 years ago, nuclear weapons have not been used against humans. Although mankind came close – the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction kept us away from a nuclear war and possibly World War III. By the 1980s, the gigantic stockpile of nuclear weapons on both the Western and Eastern blocs came under increased public scrutiny and after the Reykjavik Summit, an agreement was reached to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both NATO and the USSR. And, despite nine countries currently possessing nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK, and the USA), the global number of nuclear weapons continues to decline. Even though the increasing power of China and North Korea’s leadership could pose a threat in the future, most of these weapons continue to be an insurance of sorts and are therefore not so much of an urgent threat to most of the world population.

This was assumed to be the case at least, until earlier this year. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022, it only took a month until the Kremlin stated that it would consider the use of a nuclear weapon if there was “an existential threat for our country” the New York Times reported. Since then, there have been some remarks about nuclear weapons every few weeks, often re-iterating the ready- and willingness to use them if there were to be any threat to Russia’s territory – most recently by Putin himself in late September. How a threat to Russia’s territory is defined is anyone’s guess, but it is fair to assume Ukrainian efforts to take back Crimea would be regarded as such.

And that is not the only type of nuclear threat appearing in the conflict. A few weeks ago, the Russian minister of defence claimed – falsely – that Kyiv would be working on a dirty bomb. Although the Russian claims are widely debunked, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated this claim only means one thing: “Russia has already prepared this.” Although there is no need to panic over a nuclear world war breaking out soon, it seems the threat of something nuclear happening is more realistic than ever before. And that is why we have to talk about Hiroshima. Because the consequences of that bomb extended much further than the 80.000 people who died instantly.

Yoshikazu Okada and his mother Tame. Yoshikazu was born with significant mental disabilities in February 1946.
Photo by Masahiko Shigeta, courtesy of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

In the months following Little Boy, several tens of thousands of people – estimates range up to another 80.000 victims – died, many because of their burns and injuries, but countless others from direct exposure to radiation and acute radiation sickness. Although it was initially feared that the city would not be inhabitable for at least 75 years, and quite possibly would never recover, nature led the way to recovery and in the spring of 1946, the oleander flower bloomed in many places in the city, inspiring the people of Hiroshima to build back their city. Slowly, Hiroshima came back to life. But: the children of Hiroshima suffered. Growing up, surviving children showed growth deficiencies, and children exposed to the bomb while in the womb suffer from mental disabilities, smaller heads, and further growth deficiencies to this day – that is, if they survived beyond childhood. Because in the late 1940s and early 1950s, doctors in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, for that matter) noticed a significant increase in cases of leukemia amongst children, while other hibakusha (被爆者 – a Japanese term for people affected by the (exposure to an) atomic bomb) also faced a 10% higher chance of other cancers.

There is a chance that the children of Ukraine are at risk of the same happening to them. But: it is, of course, incredibly difficult to give any sort of realistic assessment of the risk of a nuclear weapon of any kind being used. Not only for me, but also for professional analysts, experienced political scientists, and even Kremlin-watchers. Nevertheless, we have to seriously think about these risks. The use of a nuclear weapon would not be a first, and we therefore do know what the possible consequences are. Aside from those who are killed, many will suffer from radiation-induced diseases, often developing in the years to come. Even the families that do survive will face hardship in a decade-or-so. Whether it would be a Little Boy-like devastating bomb, an attack with a small nuclear warhead, a tactical nuclear weapon, or even a dirty bomb, the consequences of any of these would extend beyond the initial death and destruction:

Let me then conclude with perhaps the best-known and incredibly heartbreaking story of such suffering, the story of Sadako Sasaki, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima at the age of two. She came away seemingly unharmed and continued to live in Hiroshima, becoming the fastest runner in her elementary school. Until she fell sick. In early 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She was admitted to a hospital and treated there, but there was little the doctors could do. For Sadako, August 6th 1945 was a death sentence executed in slow motion. It took ten years, but on October 25th 1955, Sadako’s name was added to the seemingly endless list of victims of Little Boy.

Two of the paper cranes folded by Sadako. Part of the permanent collection of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Photo by Bart Swinkels

Before she passed away, however, Sadako folded over a thousand paper cranes. These paper cranes were a symbol of hope: following an old Japanese story, one would be granted a wish after having folded a thousand paper cranes. She made her wish but continued folding, onwards to another wish. Despite knowing better, Sadako kept folding and held hope. Her perseverance resonated. Her 1300 paper cranes, and the countless more folded since, have become a symbol of the innocent children who were a victim of nuclear violence. Sadako has been immortalized in the Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima, a commemoration erected by her classmates. A plaque at the monument reads “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world”.

Aside from a memorial for Sadako and countless others, paper cranes have since become a symbol of nuclear disarmament. I won’t ask any one of you to fold a thousand cranes individually and wish for the abolition of nuclear weapons. But perhaps we can start thinking of Sadako and paper cranes every time the news mentions any sort of nuclear threat.

Sadako immortalized in the Children’s Peace Monument
Picture by Bart Swinkels

We may not know how large the risk of a nuclear war currently is, but we do know the consequences would be devastating. The pain will be deep and last for years. Let us hope those in charge have learned from mankind’s mistakes, and know how to protect us from our own cruel inventions. And if any of us makes it into a position of power, I hope we find some time to think about paper cranes, Sadako, and act in line with what the paper cranes stand for.

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