New Delhi: On 6 August 1945, the US dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, destroying almost the entire city and killing thousands. Three days later, it dropped another nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, marking the second and last instance of nuclear use in human history.
Seventy-five years later, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to loom large over global affairs.
They unleashed a global race for nuclear weapons, which continues to this day, and triggered a simultaneous movement for global disarmament.
In Japan, the experience and memory of the two bombings bred a deep regard for pacifism, and Tokyo’s refusal to develop nuclear weapons is enshrined in the country’s constitution.
These are some of the ways the attacks — which killed 150,000 people and remains one of the most cruel moments of human history — continue to impact the world.
Nuclear weapons race
The US’ decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan forced the rest of the major powers to follow suit, unleashing a wave of nuclear proliferation.
Immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima, the erstwhile Soviet Union doubled down on its nuclear programme and managed to conduct its first successful test in August 1949. Soon afterwards, the United Kingdom developed nuclear weapons in 1952, France in 1960, and China in 1964.
India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, and gained recognition as a full-fledged nuclear power in 1998. That was the same year Pakistan successfully tested nuclear weapons.
Most recently, North Korea got nuclear weapons in 2017. Israel also possesses nuclear power, but has never publicly conducted a test.
Some countries acquired nuclear power but then gave it up. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons in 1993 following the end of the apartheid regime. Three post-Soviet states — Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus — inherited nuclear weapons after the dissolution of the USSR, but soon gave them up.
Over the past few years, the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea have emerged as major geopolitical flashpoints.
Global disarmament race
Close in step with the global arms race was a movement that called for complete nuclear disarmament. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a major advocate of global nuclear disarmament, and it became an important part of his foreign policy in the initial phase of his leadership.
This movement eventually led to the formation of the United Nations Disarmament Commission of 1962, and the seminal treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1970.
The treaty laid out that other than the five existing nuclear powers at the time, no other country would acquire the weapons. The treaty has 93 signatories, but India is not part of the NPT framework.
Japan became pacifist
The twin nuclear bombings fundamentally changed Japan’s collective psyche and it made pacifism a constitutional policy.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution states that the country “renounces war as a means of settling international disputes”, and is barred from “maintaining war potential”.
This constitution was drafted by the US in 1945 — Japan was still under Allied occupation then, in the immediate aftermath of World War II — but courts massive public support to date. Over the past decade, the nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has often talked about amending Article 9, but most Japanese reportedly oppose such a move.
In return for its pacifist constitution, the US has provided a security guarantee to Japan since 1946 — an external attack on Japan would be treated as an attack on the US.
Global nuclear taboo
According to scholars of nuclear power, the most significant and lasting legacy of the 1945 bombings has been the development of “nuclear taboo”. After 1945, no country has used nuclear weapons against an adversary.
Researcher Nina Tannenwald of Brown University, who theorised the concept of nuclear taboo, wrote in 2018, “Contrary to these early expectations, a 73-year tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons has arisen. This non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 is the single most important feature of the nuclear age.”
She describes nuclear taboo as “a normative inhibition against the first use of nuclear weapons” that “stems from a powerful sense of revulsion associated with such destructive weapons”.
“Since its rise during the Cold War, the nuclear taboo has been embraced by the United Nations and by leaders and public around the world as a norm of international politics,” notes Tannenwald.
Lives lost nevertheless
While no country has used nuclear weapons since 1945, many people have nevertheless died because of associated occurrences such as nuclear tests, radiation, and accidents at plants where nuclear energy is tapped to generate electricity.
According to some estimates, since 1945, more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted across the world, resulting in “tens of thousands of deaths around the world, along with displacement and environmental degradation that long remained secret and continue to affect communities today”.
Radiation exposure from testing has been associated with cancer.
Accidents at nuclear power plants in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan (following a tsunami), in 2011 have led to 110 deaths. The number of deaths caused by long-term radiation exposure in both Ukraine and Japan is being determined to date.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.