atomic bomb

Pope Francis on the Anniversary of the Bomb: ‘A Lasting Warning to Humanity’

REUTERS / Tony Gentile / RNS

Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer from the window of the Apostolic Palace in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican August 9, 2015. Photo courtesy REUTERS / Tony Gentile / RNS

Seventy years after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, Pope Francis on Aug. 9 described the bomb as a “lasting warning to humanity.”

Speaking to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square, Francis recalled the “horror and repulsion” aroused by the twin bombings of Nagasaki on Aug. 9 1945, and Hiroshima, three days earlier.

“This (event) has become the symbol of mankind’s enormous destructive power when it makes a distorted use of scientific and technical progress,” he said.

The Day the World Changed

Hiroshima, Japan after the atomic bomb was dropped. Everett Historical /

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.”

10 Things We've Learned about Nukes Since Hiroshima

natrot / Shutterstock

natrot / Shutterstock

Like many of my millennial peers, I was barely in diapers when the Cold War ended, never practiced fallout drills in school, and only recently learned what those yellow-and-black signs on old buildings meant. As a kid, if I thought about nukes at all, it was in a passive tense, World War II-history sort of way. In other words: not my problem.

But as we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — when U.S. aircrafts dropped bombs on two Japanese cities, killing 135,000 people, by conservative estimates — I spent some time in the Sojourners archives trying to fill the gaps in my nuclear education. Here’s what I found.

'I Was Told It Was Necessary'

In August, 1945, Fr. George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Army air force, was stationed on Tinian Island in the South Pacific. He served as priest and pastor for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the next 20 years he gradually began to realize that what he had done and believed during the war was wrong, and that the only way he could be a Christian was to be a pacifist. Some time later, Zabelka reached the conclusion that the use of violence under any circumstances was incompatible with his understanding of the gospel of Christ.

When this article appeared, Fr. Zabelka was retired, gave workshops on nonviolence, and assisted in diocesan work in Lansing, Mich. The following is a 1980 interview with Zabelka, conducted by McCarthy for our August 1980 issue. — The Editors, August 2015

#BlackLivesMatter and the Bomb

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world waits to see if the Iran deal will come to fruition and thus avoid war. Once again, the debate about nuclear weapons appears at the forefront. At the same time, inside the U.S., the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to make clear it will no longer be politics as usual as activists organize, protest, and fight every day to destroy institutional racism. However, it is no coincidence that these events are all happening simultaneously as they have always been and continue to be inextricably linked.

'War is Terrorism'

ONE DAY, WHEN I was a student at Christ the King Elementary School in my hometown of Richland, Wash., the nuns gathered all the kids, two by two, and walked us outside to the parking lot. There sat a mobile van emblazoned with the logo of the Atomic Energy Commission and the words “Whole Body Scanner.”

One at a time, we were led into the van, where we laid on a white-sheathed table beneath a large, (scary), medical-looking machine. There was a whirring sound, and after a minute or two we were told to get up and make room for the next child. We weren’t told what the process was for, but it’s safe to assume that the government was interested in the effects of radiation on those of us who were “downwinders” from one of the nation’s largest nuclear complexes.

Richland was (and is) the bedroom community for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford was built in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, the massive wartime program that led to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Hanford’s role was the production of plutonium for the world’s first nuclear weapon, the “test” bomb detonated in New Mexico a few weeks before Hiroshima, and for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later.

Those weapons were dropped 69 years ago, but the debate about their morality continues. It emerged again this spring when the two Missouri senators proposed renaming D.C.’s Union Station after Harry S. Truman, who authorized history’s only nuclear attack on people. One commenter in a related discussion wrote, “I have a problem with judging past cultures by today's standards. To end WWII we dropped bombs on cities filled with innocent civilians. By today's standards that would be condemned. Are you willing to say we should not have done that to end WWII?”

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Freedom from Nuclear Weapons

Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Paper lanterns float on the Motoyasu River in front of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Sixty-seven years ago today, at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, it was a sunny morning in Hiroshima, Japan, a city of more than 300,000 people. Some were on their way to work, children were playing in the streets. Suddenly the sky exploded in a brilliant and hellish flash of light as a 15 kiloton nuclear bomb was dropped from a U.S. plane in the sky overhead. More than 70,000 people were instantly killed, some with their bodies etched into the pavement like eerie shadows. By the end of the year, as many as 140,000 had died, after five years, the toll was estimated as high as 200,000. Three days after Hiroshima, on August 9, 1945, a second nuclear bomb was used against Nagasaki, Japan. An estimated 75,000 people were killed in that explosion.

Today, according to the Associated Press, the annual ceremonies held in Hiroshima’s peace park to commemorate the bombing were attended by 50,000 people, including representatives from 70 countries. Two Americans with family ties to the bombings also attended.

In The Stacks: Friday, March 9, 2012

Photo by Tischenko Irina/

Photo by Tischenko Irina/

Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written. 

Here are my picks in this week’s books of interest: