04 August 2020

Have atomic
bombs taught
world nothing?


Rite & Reason

Seventy-five years
after Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, humanity faces
nuclear threat,
climate change and
cyber warfare

Over the next week, two anniversaries recall cataclysmic events in the closing days of the second World War: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.

There was added poignancy in Nagasaki as the city was home to one of the oldest and largest Christian communities in East Asia, and the cathedral was 500m from ground zero.

Compared with Hiroshima, Nagasaki is often forgotten and was not the first choice for the second atomic bomb. The Japanese city of Kokura was the initial target for the crew of the B29 bomber Bockscar.

But low visibility forced them to abandon that mission.They were flying low when they found a clear patch of sky unexpectedly. Below them lay the city of Nagasaki. They decided they had found the target for the world’s most powerful weapon, a 4.5-ton plutonium bomb called “Fat Man” – the Hiroshima bomb was known as “Little Boy”.

The bomb that day killed tens of thousands of people and wiped out the city in an instant. Urakami Cathedral, or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, had been at the heart of a vibrant Catholic community dating back to Nagasaki’s early days as a trading port and the arrival of St Francis Xavier and other Christian missionaries in the 16th century.

Generations of Christians in Nagasaki had suffered persecution for centuries. They had been tortured, banished and executed and forced to practise their faith in secrecy until the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873. The cathedral in Nagasaki was built between 1895 and 1925.

Cross in rubble

The bomb fell on Nagasaki just 20 years after Urakami Cathedral had been completed. It has since been rebuilt and a small piece of that history was returned last year: a cross, mostly forgotten, had been taken from the rubble by Walter Hooke, a former US marine who later gave it to Wilmington College, a Quaker-run liberal arts institution in Ohio.

Hooke’s son, Christopher, recalled recently that Bishop Aijiro Yamaguchi of Nagasaki gave his father the cross, perhaps in the hope that it might change Americans’ perceptions of the bomb.

“One of the things that always really bothered my father was that a Christian country bombed a cathedral that was a centre of Christianity in Asia,” Christopher Hooke said last year. “There was absolutely no strategic value in the bombing of Nagasaki. I think that was the point.”

The Nagasaki cross remained in Wilmington until last year when Dr Tanya Maus, director of the Peace Resource Centre at Wilmington, presented it to Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki – he had been exposed to radiation while his mother was pregnant in Nagasaki.

‘Human depravity’

“For me, the cross represents human depravity. The utter stripping away of values ... that keep human beings from killing each other and destroying each other,” Dr Maus told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

“Atomic bomb victims will die, but the cross will remain as a living witness to what happened in Nagasaki,” Archbishop Takami said when he received the cross from Dr Maus. “The cross is an embodiment of the brutality of war,” Dr Maus. “The cross is a cry to the US government and governments of other countries that possess nuclear weapons to stop the use of nuclear weapons.”

“The bomb that day killed ten of thousands of people and wiped out the city in an instant

As we come to the close of this year’s anniversaries, I find myself wondering what we have learned in the past 75 years. Earlier this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said the hands on the Doomsday Clock are now at 100 seconds to midnight, “closer to apocalypse than ever before”.

They say, “humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber- enabled information warfare”.

And they warn, “Civilisation-ending nuclear war – whether started by design, blunder or simple miscommunication – is a genuine possibility.” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has warned that: “The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is a priest in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Limerick and president of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

This ‘Rite and Reason’ column was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 4 August 2020 (p 14)

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