Seventy years ago nuclear weapons were used against two Japanese cities, Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and Nagasaki three days later. It is estimated that between ninety and one hundred and sixty thousand people were killed at Hiroshima and roughly half of that number at Nagasaki. Despite it seeming like humanity was on the brink of repeating the military use of nuclear power many times these two events remain the only time that nuclear weapons have been used in that way.
Confronted with the awfulness of the destruction, US President Harry S. Truman remarked on the day the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, “I realise the tragic significance of the atomic bomb… It is an awful responsibility which has come to us… We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.” Truman’s words invoke the very stark reality that despite the Nazi surrender on 8 May 1945 Japanese Imperial Forces continued the war in the Pacific. The war continued despite the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July when the US had called for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese armed forces with the threat of “prompt and utter destruction”.
Japan knew that even with conventional means the US had the capacity to project destructive force to the Japanese heartlands and had already experienced tremendous loss of civilian life in the firebombing of Tokyo over 9 and 10 March which resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people. They could not have anticipated the greater horror that nuclear weapons would bring./ It is important that we remember these events with proper respect and a sense of horror. Seventy years on there are fewer people with an experience of these times and those of us born since then run the risk of assuming that a world free from the use of nuclear weapons will simply continue into the future. Existing nuclear arsenals have the potential of destruction on an unimaginable scale. The military doctrines of some countries are reported to include the use of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons as a first strike option. In that environment we should not be casual about the risk we all face despite living with that risk now for seventy years.
President Trumann framed his response to the reality of nuclear weapons in theological language, counting their development as something for which he was grateful – because the brutal war in the Pacific could now finally come to an end – but also aware of the responsibility before God that the possession of such weapons demanded. His starting point is a good one for us as people of Christian faith especially as our country sits under whatever protection the nuclear deterrent confers on us. Australia is a major source of uranium and our Government has recently approved export to India which is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The vision of God’s peace where “the lion will lay down with the lamb” is vital for us to keep alive in a world which faces horror on a daily basis.
Join me in praying that we will be preserved in peace and that it will be possible for nuclear weapons to be eliminated.