Nuclear War or Non-Nuclear Peace? The Need to Make an Educated Choice

Setsuko Thurlow

I am calling my remarks today ‘Nuclear War or Non-Nuclear Peace? The Need to Make an Educated Choice.’ By attending this National Model United Nations, you have all made clear your choice to care for your world, to help heal its many wounds, to take seriously your responsibilities as progressive, peace-loving global citizens, and to educate yourselves about the momentous challenges facing humanity. I applaud you all for being here and I wish you every success on your journey. I want to talk to you today about my own journey, and why I believe that one choice above all – whether we accept or abolish nuclear weapons – will determine the fate of the Earth.

I was 13 when a single Bomb – its explosive core not much bigger than an apple – destroyed my hometown of Hiroshima. Tens of thousands were killed instantly, tens of thousands more from radiation sickness, cascading through bodies and generations from that day to this. Seventy-seven years later (and sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis) nuclear brinkmanship and bravado runs the daily risk of more Hiroshimas, new Nagasakis, and even threatens what President John F. Kennedy called “the final failure” of a war ending life on Earth as we know and love it.

On September 30 this year, President Putin said the US atomic attack on Japan “created a precedent,” an example he is darkly threatening to emulate in Ukraine. But what those weapons really created was a hell. And the trauma and anguish of those of us who survived – living constantly with our ‘mission impossible’ of describing the indescribable – never stops. Bright morning light, extinguished by the firestorm breath of Evil. Ghostly processions, of beings who used to be human: burnt, blackened, swollen, flayed, disemboweled. Some, blinded by the flash, carried eyeballs in their hands. The word ‘water’ became a moan, swallowed by dead silence.

I know that on Monday, many of you went on what the Conference programme calls ‘the Hiroshima experience,’ visiting the Peace Memorial and Museum. I hope that what you saw and felt there will inspire you to dedicate yourselves to the great cause of consigning nuclear weapons to history. Countless numbers of people, from around the world, have been profoundly changed by visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of them is John Wester, the Catholic Archbishop of Sante Fe, the Diocese including the Los Alamos laboratory where the monstrous ‘Little Boy’ Bomb was built. Earlier this year, Archbishop Wester recalled:

“In September 2017, I traveled to Japan and visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a somber, sobering experience as I realized that on August 6, 1945, humanity crossed the line into the darkness of the nuclear age. We can now kill billions of people instantly and even destroy the world in a flash. The reality of this evil becomes very real as you walk through Hiroshima and Nagasaki today.”

“In one exhibit,” the Archbishop continued, “I read about school children in Hiroshima who on that fateful morning ran to the windows, attracted by a bright light. Little did they know that they were running to their deaths, either instantaneously incinerated or dying later in agonizing pain. Normally, light brings new life and clearer vision. Not that day. Sadly, the light generated by the first nuclear explosion used in war brought only destruction and death.”

It did indeed bring destruction and death, but I want to tell you not only about the darkness I experienced, but a light I saw that has guided me on my difficult and painful path ever since. Assigned to decode secret messages at Army headquarters, I had been temporarily blinded by an unnaturally intense, bluish-white flash from the window, then knocked unconscious by a ferocious shockwave. I woke in silence and darkness, bewildered and pinned under ruins, hearing faint, heart-rending cries – “Mother, help me. God, help me”: the cries of strangers, and of dying friends. And then – a miracle in hell – I felt a touch on my shoulder, and a man’s voice urging: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it as quickly as you can.” I did: I emerged: I stood, shaking, and looked around. The man had vanished. Hiroshima had vanished. The sun had vanished. And then I saw the ghosts, moving so strangely toward me, past me…

If you had stood there with me, President Putin, you would not have called what you saw a ‘precedent’. But is it any better to call such hellish violence – such unnecessary evil – a ‘deterrent’? To talk about ‘tactical’ or ‘strategic’ options for inflicting suffering on an equal or even greater scale, as today’s Bombs can kill millions in moments. Erase vast cities, like New York or Tokyo, in seconds. Poison the planet for years, triggering nuclear famine or winter.

Of course, with every fiber of my being, I abhor and reject nuclear weapons. But I also abhor and reject all war, and I sincerely believe that nuclear weapons, far from deterring armed conflict, only serve to generate it, emboldening bullies and encouraging military adventurism, in Ukraine today, in Iraq recently, and in so many other times and places since 1945. When I see such terrible images and hear such heartbreaking stories from Ukraine (the killing, the torture, the rape, the devastated cities and countryside, the forced conscription of so many young men on both sides) I see and hear, superimposed, the irradiated, dehumanized ghosts – the harrowing cries and the atrocious silence – of Hiroshima. I see the nuclear darkness that the madness of modern war will inevitably one day plunge us into. And I see, proven beyond doubt once again, the worthlessness of ‘deterrence,’ the dangerous, illogical delusion that only nuclear weapons, never nuclear disarmament, can prevent nuclear war!

So, let us not delude ourselves. It is not just Russia that has a ‘nuclear sabre,’ or just one leader who rattles it. The founding father of the atomic age, the United States, also has the perverse capacity to destroy life on Earth, and calmly claims the ‘right’ to do so in the name of that nuclear age oxymoron, ‘national security.’ In fact, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council – supposedly responsible for making the world a safer, not a diabolically more dangerous, place – ‘boast’ the power, and claim the entitlement, to inflict Apocalyptic harm. So do the other members of the Mushroom Cloud Club (India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea). And so do those 30+ ‘nuclear-endorsing’ states, almost all in NATO, who seek false ‘shelter’ under an ‘umbrella’ that will inevitably one day ‘go nuclear.’

The degree to which the unthinkable is being thought about, and the intolerable tolerated, breaks my heart. But despair will not deter ‘deterrence’ from destroying us all. We need an alternative. And, happily, we have one.

In 2017, 122 states – two thirds of the members of the United Nations – worked closely with survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing, as well as civil society groups and international organizations, to negotiate and adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), fulfilling the promise of the first ever UN General Assembly resolution to ‘ban the Bomb.’ The new treaty, succinctly describing nuclear weapons as “abhorrent to the principles of humanity,” was the culmination of a global ‘Humanitarian Initiative,’ inspired by a 2011 resolution of the International Committee of the Red Cross, insisting on a science- and facts-based approach to the real costs and consequences, human and environmental, of nuclear war. And this same insistence, that humanity be allowed to take an educated decision on its own future, also animated and inspired the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the global civil society coalition on whose behalf, together with ICAN’s Executive Director Beatrice Fihn, I was honoured to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in that momentous year of 2017.

In January last year, the TPNW entered into force, prohibiting not just the possession but the use, threat of use, testing, development, and production of all nuclear explosives. Crucially, the Preamble to the treaty stresses “the importance of peace and disarmament education and of raising awareness of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons for current and future generations”; recognizes that the “equal, full and effective participation of both women and men is an essential factor for the promotion and attainment of sustainable peace and security”; and acknowledges the unique role of survivors as educators and inspirers of change.

In addition, the treaty pledges assistance for victims of nuclear weapons use, development and testing, including commitments to help heal the lands and waters still-scarred by nuclear violence. At the successful first meeting of States Parties to the TPNW in Vienna in June, a decision was taken to establish an International Trust Fund to finally begin to provide such desperately needed help and relief. And I would like to appeal today directly to the governments of my homeland, Japan, and my home since the 1950s, Canada, to contribute significantly to this fund and this process, even before they make the educated choice (as I know they one day will) to sign and ratify the treaty.

The fight for the TPNW was long, hard, and lonely. For the first six decades of the Nuclear Age, the voices of its survivors and victims – in Japan, and in the many Indigenous homelands devastated by over 2,000 nuclear tests – were silenced or marginalized by the nuclear-armed states and their allies and accomplices. We continued, of course, to tell our stories and issue our warnings: in Japan and Kazakhstan; in the American Southwest and the Russian Arctic; in the South Pacific and Australia; and in all the other places – in North Africa, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea – poisoned, polluted, violated by nuclear imperialism. Our journeys, and our suffering, continued. And there were always people and states who listened; who understood; who cared. But it is only in the last 15 or so years that our voices finally broke through, and helped lead the way to the breakthrough of the TPNW.

To date there are 91 signatories to the Treaty and 68 states parties, with those numbers set to rise steadily. And even in countries outside the treaty it is having a galvanizing effect. In the United States, for example, five states and 64 cites (including New York, and Washington, D.C.) have called on the US sign and ratify the TPNW. And in December 2021, New York City voted to divest the Council’s pension funds from banks and companies investing in nuclear weapons production, part of a trend – a refusal to ‘Bank on the Bomb’ – spreading across North America and beyond.

As the advent of the TPNW shows, an educated decision has already been taken by a large majority of the world’s nations and peoples. The verdict is in: the Bomb is an abomination, and the evil must be eliminated. When the treaty was adopted at the General Assembly, I told delegates it was “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.” I am, though, only a survivor, not a prophet, and I fear that if we do not build on this beginning, what I saw in Hiroshima will prove the beginning of the end of the world.

But I do not want to end on a dark note, especially in this talk addressed to so many bright and committed young people. For many, many years, we survivors of nuclear violence have carried the torch of a non-nuclear peace. I myself have always heeded the advice of the man who encouraged me to struggle on, even in the hell of a devastated Hiroshima. I didn’t give up: I kept pushing for that sustainable peace that only nuclear abolition can bring. I have always worked to create an opening like our marvelous and beloved new treaty. Some of you, I hope, have been inspired by us. But now we need to be inspired by you. Now we need younger, stronger hands to pick up that torch, to raise it higher than it has ever been held before. So high, that the whole world will see the light. And make the right, educated choice.