Growing up in 1950s and ’60s suburban London, my room was nestled at the top of a tall Edwardian house with a door leading to an unused attic.
One day, at around 5 years old, and despite a steady diet of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I cautiously opened that door and peered in.
Scattered across the floor was a pile of battered signs reading “Ban the Bomb.” The slogan had a nice alliterative ring to my childish ears. But otherwise it meant nothing.
I never asked about those posters, even though every time a particular couple walked past our house, my mother would cheerily proclaim, “There go the Ban-the-Bombers!”
Who were they? I still don’t know. But I concluded later – particularly after my father became vice chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) – that my parents, too, must have been Ban-the-Bombers.
The Ban the Bomb movement gained its early notoriety with the 1960 Aldermaston March, when tens of thousands walked from the the atomic weapons plant based there to London’s Trafalgar Square.
In the depths of the Cold War, the birth of a movement
It also gave birth to what is now one of the world’s most recognizable logos, universally known as the peace symbol. It was actually created for CND in 1958 by graphic designer, Gerald Holtom. Despite much creative speculation, Holtom said it was simply the superimposed semaphore letters for N and D.
Later, Holtom elaborated on the symbol’s creative genesis: “I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”
CND and the Ban the Bomb movement were products of the Cold War of course and the insane American-Soviet atomic arms race that threatened to destroy the world at any moment.
Alas, the pleas of CND founders Bertrand Russell and Canon John Collins, and many after them, fell largely on deaf ears. Although the global atomic weapons stockpile is smaller today than during the height of the Cold War, the now nine nuclear weapons states collectively still possess 15,375 nuclear weapons, 7,300 in the hands of Russia and 6,970 belonging to the US.
The horrors that these weapons could deliver are of course etched in the minds of all those who either remember or have viewed images of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Now, almost 71 years since that moment, the first sitting US President is about to visit Hiroshima itself, on May 27th. (As The Atlantic reminds us, Jimmy Carter visited on May 5, 1984, long after he’d left the White House, and Richard Nixon went on April 11, 1964, four years before he won the presidential election.)
Obama – make your visit mean something!
Obama’s decision has sparked a roiling controversy from almost every quarter. Non-proliferation groups urge him to make the visit meaningful and less hypocritical by renouncing his plan to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years on refurbishing and upgrading the US nuclear weapons arsenal.
They would like to see him remove the US nuclear arsenal from high-alert status and lead the world in actual global nuclear disarmament, among other demands.
Some veterans and conservatives have decried the mission, demanding that it should go forward only if it includes an apology from the Japanese for the barbarities committed against World War II US prisoners of war. Meanwhile, some Japanese commentators view Obama’s visit as a tacit apology for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, even though the White House insists there will be no overt apology.
Saying sorry, apparently, is out of the question. But why? Would it really be so terrible to apologize for searing human beings into dust and submitting tens of thousands more to an agonizing death by radiation sickness? Would it be it so terrible to apologize for leaving children with the hideous memories of fire storms that wiped out their entire families?
What became of ‘to err is human, to forgive divine?’ For a country that professes to be 75% Christian, what happened to the notion of humility and forgiveness? Imagine the nobility in apologizing for the US atrocities while forgiving the Japanese theirs?
This could all be done without the politically unpalatable admission of the now widely held view that the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t necessary at all since the Japanese were already beaten and poised to surrender.
Obama could apologize without conceding that Japanese children, women and men were used in a vile experiment, a substitute for the defeated Germans, and served up as a warning to Stalin’s Russia – even though it would probably be better if the US came clean on that as well.
Time for America to come to terms with its own crimes
A US apology for the almost instant annihilation of at least 225,000 civilians – generally considered to be a conservative estimate – would of course unleash a fresh firestorm of controversy across the country, and of Biblical proportions.
It would shatter the façade of pseudo-Christianity behind which lurks homophobia, xenophobia and racism and a healthy appetite for grudge-bearing and vengeance.
It might be good news, therefore, to those who stand firm in the denial of the US wrongs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that new research, which contradicts earlier notions, now suggests that refusing to apologize can actually enhance happiness.
They can sleep peacefully, deaf to the impassioned warnings from the remaining Hibakusha (survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that nuclear weapons “could wipe out the human race and all other creatures. They could destroy the environment and turn the globe into a dead planet.” This, wrote the Hibakusha in their international appeal to eliminate nuclear weapons, is “the cry of our soul.”
Obama, however, might be listening. A week before the historic visit, Obama’s speechwriter on this issue, Ben Rhodes, told the Kyodo news service that, “We have to recognize the awful toll that atomic weapons, nuclear weapons, take on people”, in hinting at the likely content of Obama’s planned remarks at Hiroshima.
Perhaps Obama will be able to stand at the Hiroshima memorial site for one brief moment as a man, rather than as a politician, and acknowledge the inhumanity of nuclear weapons. But what will matter afterwards is whether, as a world leader, he will then take meaningful steps to get rid of them.
If he does, in the short time remaining in his presidency, he could help raise those arms on the Ban the Bomb symbol, changing its message from despair to his signature rallying cry: hope.
This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.