The Day the World Changed | Sojourners

The Day the World Changed

Marking 70 Years Since Hiroshima
Hiroshima, Japan after the atomic bomb was dropped. Everett Historical /

Pick any day on the calendar, and it most likely will mark the anniversary of significant events, from the profound to the puerile.

Aug. 6 is no exception. On that day in 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, intended to guarantee African Americans the right to vote (a right that, unfortunately, is still under attack). The day also marked the debut of cultural phenomena and figures from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (in 1996) to the births of Andy Warhol and Lucille Ball.

But it’s also the day the world changed. Seventy years ago, the city of Hiroshima, Japan, was obliterated by a single bomb. It was not only the first use of atomic weapons in warfare, but the beginning of the Nuclear Age — on which the world has spent, by some estimates, well over $6 trillion — that’s trillion with a “t.” And plans to “modernize” the U.S. nuclear arsenal (which is a euphemism for continuing to build state-of-the-art weaponry for the next 30 years) will likely cost another trillion or so.

The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by any civilized standards, represented one of the moral low-points in human history. After all, by very conservative estimates, 135,000 people died from the atomic blasts — most of them civilians, the victims of the intentional targeting of cities. Think about that — these weren’t military targets, but cities full of men, women, and children, going about their lives, destroyed in seconds by the most destructive weapons ever invented.

But the point of memorializing isn’t about the past. It’s about ensuring such things happen “never again.”

Which brings us to Iran.

Even now, as the debate heats up around the effort to rid Iran of its capacity to develop nuclear weapons, little attention is paid to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (“Hey pot! Who you callin’ black?”) Right now, Iran has zero nuclear weapons. The rest of the world has some 15,000 nuclear warheads — almost 94 percent of them are in the stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia. (And often omitted in the discussions about nukes in the Middle East is the existence of Israel’s not-so-secret cache of 80-odd nuclear warheads.)

Most of the world’s nations, including the nuclear superpowers, have signed on to a treaty intended to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons — and eventually help lead to their elimination. But a key premise of the non-proliferation treaty has been honored mostly in the breech: Non-nuclear countries agreed to forestall their own development of nuclear weapons, on the condition that the U.S., Russia, and the other nuclear powers would reduce and eventually eliminate their deadly arsenals. There are about 15,000 reasons to believe the nuclear powers have failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

There are, however, hopeful signs that the world may be ready to take a significant step away from these horrible weapons of mass annihilation.

President Obama, for his part, has declared his recognition of the “moral responsibility” of reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons and working toward their elimination—even while he signed the (contradictory) orders to spend another trillion dollars to modernize the arsenal. The major religious bodies of the world — recently joined, significantly, by the Vatican — have clearly and (mostly) unequivocally taken a stand against nuclear weapons. And as of July, 113 countries have taken a “humanitarian pledge” to forego any nuclear weapons on their own soil and committed to work for worldwide nuclear abolition. (You can read more about this movement, and the young activists who are providing its heart and soul, in the August issue of Sojourners magazine.)

If we seek to commemorate those who suffered the wrath of the weapons that fell 70 years ago, the best thing we can do is to look ahead. To honor them, and to ensure that such a calamity is never again possible, these awful devices must be rendered obsolete, a relic of a more-barbaric past and not a nuclear sword of Damocles dangling over our future.

This anniversary is an invitation, an opportunity to join the growing movement to abolish nuclear weapons. Don’t mourn — organize!

Editor’s Note: The August issue of Sojourners, “Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian,” highlights the global campaign for nuclear abolition.