As President Donald Trump threatened North Korea last month with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” over 50,000 gathered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to recall that the world has in fact seen such horrific acts. Among them were survivors of the “fire and fury” that consumed the two cities 72 years earlier.
The survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, called hibakusha in Japanese, were small children at the time, octogenarians today. They are a living challenge to Trump’s bombastic remarks; many have dedicated their lives to abolishing nuclear weapons that killed their families and destroyed their communities.
This year, the hibakusha have a specific request for world leaders: sign the new nuclear prohibition treaty when it opens for national signatures on Sept. 20 in New York.
Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha who was 13 years old when she survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, declared that she had been waiting for this day for seven decades and was overjoyed that it had arrived.
“All of my memories and the images of those who were killed keep driving me to do what I do, to speak out for peace and a world free of nuclear weapons,” Thurlow remarked in an interview with Nola James, a 14-year high school student who reached out to Thurlow to ask her advice for the next generation of young people concerned about the dangers of nuclear weapons.
“In particular, I remember my 4-year-old nephew who kept asking for water after the bombing. He was just a chunk of flesh crying out for help and we could not do anything to help him. I still remember him very vividly. This little boy’s image has come to represent in my mind all the innocent children who could be wiped out if there was another nuclear war.”
The lack of progress made toward disarmament in recent years and the drastic humanitarian consequences of nuclear use prompted over 120 countries without nuclear weapons to negotiate a treaty on their prohibition worldwide. The treaty, adopted July 7, outlaws the use, possession, acquisition, and transfer of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance with a range of other banned nuclear activities.
Supporters celebrated the treaty’s adoption for sending a powerful normative message against nuclear possession and laying the foundation for the eventual total elimination of nuclear weapons.
On Aug. 9, the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, the mayor of the city, Tomihisa Taue, called on Japan to sign the prohibition treaty, saying “The nuclear threat will not end as long as nations continue to claim that nuclear weapons are essential for their national security.”
It was the point of view that these weapons are a necessary evil that framed the United States and other nuclear-armed states’ refusal to participate in the negotiations and to condemn the treaty before the ink was even dry.
“[T]his proposed treaty will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, nor will it enhance the security of any state,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert remarked. “No state that possesses nuclear weapons participated in these negotiations, and no US ally that relies on [the US arsenal for its own protection] supported the final text.”
The ambassadors to the United Nations from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—who together possess over 7,300 nuclear weapons—stated that they “do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to” the treaty.
In contrast, the hibakusha see a new path forward, away from a world where reckless narcissists could start a nuclear war.
As President Trump’s recent remarks make abundantly clear, it is neither safe nor responsible to count on the cool head or steady hand of any given world leader to control the world’s most dangerous weapons. The risk of accidental or intentional escalation into a nuclear war is too high.
As a first step toward disarmament, hibakusha urge world leaders to sign the nuclear prohibition treaty in September. Fifty countries will need to then ratify the treaty for it to take effect. In the months and years to follow, the treaty’s supporters will press additional governments to come on board, working toward its eventual universalization and worldwide adoption.
As the treaty moves forward, Thurlow has a unique message for Americans concerned about nuclear weapons:
“Citizens in the United States have a special role and responsibility because their country was the first to use nuclear weapons in war and because the United States is an influential country and is a democracy where its people have a strong voice in what its leaders do.”
Now is the time to work seriously and constructively toward nuclear disarmament and to heed the call of atomic bomb survivors for “no more hibakusha.” There are many avenues to disarmament and the prohibition treaty is not the only or final step.
But it is a good place to start.
Alicia Sanders-Zakre is a research assistant with the Arms Control Association in Washington, DC. She blogged and tweeted about the insider negotiations on the nuclear weapons prohibition talks in July. Read her reports on the Arms Control Association’s blog or @azakre.