When I was young, to keep memory from "slipping," our family and friends marked the anniversary of those terrible days in a distant land with a demonstration or vigil. Often, we ended with a ceremony of remembrance, setting paper lanterns afloat on water in honor of those who died.
Admittedly, this would not pass for a carefree American summer evening, but even as a little girl I came to feel as if I knew some of the A-bomb survivors personally — the experience of Akihiro Takahashi, the photographs of Yosuke Yamahata, and perhaps closest to my heart, the story of Sadako Sasaki.
The children's book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, written by Eleanor Coerr, brought me close to one girl whose life was cut short by my government's A-bomb long before I was born. I was then a chubby, sedentary kid, and so found myself strangely intrigued and confused by Sadako's deep love of running.
She was just two years old when Little Boy exploded above her city, but eight or nine as the book begins, impatient and uncomfortable with all the obligatory ceremonies surrounding the anniversary of the bomb in Hiroshima. She did not like to look at the survivors or care to hear the terrible stories. All she wanted to do was run. Lithe, athletic, and popular, Sadako joined a footrace on the very anniversary of the destruction of her city and, when she found herself unable to finish, was taken to the doctor only to discover that she had "atom bomb sickness" — in her case, leukemia.
In the hospital, a friend reminded her of an ancient Japanese belief: if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, the Gods will grant you a wish. So with the help of her classmates, she began to do just that. Scrap paper, candy wrappers, fancy printed paper: all become tiny origami birds of hope.
With her as an inspiration, I learned to fold paper cranes, practicing until I could do so with my eyes closed and fold them as small as a pea. Childhood being childhood, what may have impressed me most was a friend of mine who could fold those origami birds with her toes.
On October 25, 1955, with 356 birds left to go (as Coerr tells it), Sadako died. Since 1958, a statue of Sadako holding a golden folded crane has stood in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, draped with small paper birds sent from children all over the world, a symbol of peace.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki Today
Sixty-four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we need more than symbols of peace. Folding paper cranes alone cannot, unfortunately, end the threat of nuclear war. Memories of the destruction fade, the hibakusha grow even older and die, the haunting pictures end up in books stored spine out on bookshelves.
Meanwhile, the terror of nuclear annihilation — so keen at certain moments during the long superpower Cold War stand-off — seems to have worn off almost completely. That's too bad, since the actual threat of nuclear war remains hidden but potent. The nine nuclear powers — the United States, Russia, France, England, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea — have more than 27,000 operational nuclear weapons among them, enough to destroy several Earth-sized planets. And in May, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that the number of nuclear powers could double in a few years unless new disarmament is a priority. Is it any wonder then that, according to a recent Rasmussen opinion poll, one in five Americans believe nuclear war "very likely" in this century, and more than half, "likely"?
The unthinkable is still under consideration — even as the Obama administration takes its first steps in the right direction. In an April speech in Prague, President Obama publicly embraced the goal of seeking "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." In its wake, his administration has begun taking still quite modest but potentially important steps towards that goal, including: renewed talks with Russia over mutual nuclear reductions, conversations initiated in the Senate about jump-starting the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban, stalled these last 10 years, and of negotiations for the also stalled Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, imagined as an internationally verified ban on the production of nuclear materials for weapons.
Right now, however, the American nuclear landscape — little acknowledged or discussed — remains grimly potent. According to the authoritative Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the United States still maintains a nuclear stockpile estimated at 5,200 warheads — of which approximately 2,700 are operational (with the rest in reserve), while the Obama administration will spend more than $6 billion on the research and development of nuclear weapons this year alone.
At some point early next year, the administration will complete a Nuclear Posture Review outlining the role it believes nuclear weapons should play in the American pantheon of power, and, if the president follows through on his anti-nuclear statements, perhaps that document will at least begin to limit the scenarios in which such weapons could be used. In the meantime, the policy of the United States remains no different than it was in 2004, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed the Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy. It said, in part, that the United States possesses nuclear weapons for the purposes of "destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world." Read that sentence again, and think, under such a doctrine, what might the United States not bomb?
Keep in mind as well that the bombs which annihilated two Japanese cities and ended so many lives 64 years ago this week were puny when compared to today's typical nuclear weapon. Little Boy was a 15 kiloton warhead. Most of the warheads in the U.S. arsenal today are 100 or 300 kilotons — capable of taking out not a Japanese city of 1945 but a modern megalopolis. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute and a former launch-control officer in charge of Minutemen Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles armed with 170, 300, and 335 kiloton warheads, pointed out a few years ago that, within 12 minutes, the United States and Russia could launch the equivalent of 100,000 Hiroshimas.
It is unthinkable. It seems unimaginable. It sounds like hyperbole, but consider it an uncomfortable and necessary truth. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the children of our future need us to understand this and act upon it — 64 years too late... and not a minute too soon.
Frida Berrigan, a Senior Program Associate at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative, is the eldest daughter of peace activists Liz McAlister and Philip Berrigan. The two met during the Vietnam War, founded the Jonah House community in the early 1970s and spent eleven years of their marriage separated by prison sentences stemming from their anti-nuclear and peace activities. Phil Berrigan died in 2002 at the age of 79.