When I was a teenager in the 60’s I had a small collection of pen-friends, scattered around the world. This was well before the Internet/E Mail age. In those days we wrote real letters to each other. I had pen-pals in Northern Ireland, Sweden, the USA and Japan. It is the Japanese friend, a girl called Junco Fujii, who has stuck longest in my mind. She was a serious girl who wrote sober letters. She was from the city of Hiroshima, which meant nothing to me at the time. While my American pen friends from Cleveland and Pittsburgh wanted me to send them Beatles memorabilia or wanted to know whether I had been to The Cavern or who my favourite “mop top” was, Junco sent me pictures of white doves and was always asking whether I was in favour of world peace. Sometimes she sent me pictures of peace memorials in her city, of which there seemed to be quite a few. Being a naïve, ignorant 15 year old, I was at first bemused by this obsession with “peace.” As far as I knew, the world WAS at peace, except for the war in Vietnam of which I was only vaguely aware of at the time. Then the penny dropped — Hiroshima was the first city to have a nuclear bomb dropped on it, on August 6th, 1945. Three days later, Nagasaki, also in Japan, became the second city to receive such a nuclear attack. The two cities suffered horrifying consequences, both at the time and for many years to come. It had obviously left a deep scar on Junco’s psyche. I wonder how many of her family perished on that fateful day?
The devastating bombs were dropped by the USA and the received wisdom is that they were justified because they led directly to the Japanese surrender, finally bringing the Second World War to an end. It is argued that the nuclear bombs probably saved many lives that would have been lost in the battle to conquer Japan. This conclusion has been challenged however. Some think the nuclear bombs were dropped as a massive, horrific scientific experiment, using tens of thousands of Japanese civilians as human guinea- pigs. The Soviet Union was about to join the war against Japan. As this development would almost certainly have brought about a swift Japanese surrender, it is argued that President Truman and his advisers dropped their nuclear devices in haste, before the justification for using them was taken away. The arguments about whether the nuclear attacks were morally acceptable have raged back and forth over the subsequent decades. Many have quite rightly pointed out the atrocities that the Japanese carried out during the war, especially in their appalling prisoner- of- war camps. My own great Uncle William was reduced to eating grass and although he survived, he could never eat properly again. However, can it be comfortably argued that revenge was an acceptable reason for dropping the bombs? As my grandma always taught me: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It is not the purpose of this blog to come to a definitive conclusion however. I don’t have enough relevant information anyway and the Americans have made sure their motivations and discussions have remained strictly classified. ( I wonder why?) What I can write about are the consequences of those first, and so far only, nuclear attacks, both for the World in general and on my life in particular.
I was born in 1949 and in some ways you could say I was lucky as I had missed the horrors of the Second World War. However, what I didn’t know was that I had entered a savage new age — the Nuclear Age. Now, for the first time in history, it was possible to kill and maim indiscriminately on a colossal scale. 90,000 people were killed instantly at Hiroshima, and another 70,000 died or were seriously injured at Nagasaki. Nuclear bombs were the most destructive explosives ever invented. A whole city could now be obliterated with a single bomb. Radiation poisoning could then kill or deform many others in the years to come. Even the unborn were to become its victims. So I had been born into a world of fear rather than one of hope. Luckily, in my childhood innocence I didn’t know that. President Harry Truman, the man who had catapulted the world into this frightening state of affairs, was rather proud of his achievement. He boasted: “We have spent more than 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history and we have won.” That sort of gives the game away. The Americans probably dropped the nuclear bombs as a scientific experiment rather than to bring about a Japanese surrender. President/ General Dwight D Eisenhower stated in his 1963 memoir – “Japan was already defeated, so that dropping the Bomb was completely unnecessary.” But as I said, we cannot reach definitive conclusions until the US government declassifies the relevant documents, and I don’t think they are going to do that until we are all dead and nobody cares about what happened in 1945 anymore.
Despite all this, I had a happy childhood, blissfully unaware of the threat to the world I lived in. The Soviet Union, Britain and France quickly followed America as so called “Nuclear Powers.” Other countries, such as China, India, Pakistan and Israel, followed. Nuclear proliferation was inevitable as the Bomb was seen as the ultimate status symbol, enabling a country to be known as a “Great Power”. Possessing a terrifying weapon that could destroy the whole planet was thought of as essential by countries and leaders who wanted to have a big say in world affairs. It seemed that they were quite content to hold the rest of us to ransom in exchange for power and influence. In 1955, while I was playing out with my friends and starting primary school, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his last “great” speech to parliament. In it he chillingly stated that we had “reached a stage where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival, the twin brother of annihilation.” He probably thought that sounded pretty impressive at the time, almost as good as his “Iron Curtain” speech at the end of the 40’s. But was he really happy with a situation where many of his people were terrified of a Third World War and where everything and everyone could be annihilated at a moments notice? ( i.e. at the press of a button by an unstable leader.) I’m pleased I was still living in blissful ignorance, thankfully unaware of the grave potential danger the world now faced.
By the early 1960’s I was growing up, entering my teens, and slowly becoming more knowledgeable about of the world. A first big clue to the dangers we all faced was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. Suddenly all the newspapers were full of gloom and doom about a confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union which could lead to a nuclear war. I didn’t know the precise details at the time but I clearly remember the fear and tension. Dire headlines dominated my dad’s Daily Mail, though he never discussed any of it with me. Maybe, quite rightly, he wanted to preserve my innocence for as long as possible and for me to continue to enjoy my youth. Afterall, I was only just 12. My voice had not even broken yet! Yet my young life was being played out under a nuclear “sword of Damocles.”
Apparently, an American U2 spy plane had discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, Russia’s communist ally in the Caribbean. They were within easy reach of all of America’s great cities. The American President, John F Kennedy saw this as a dangerous and unacceptable situation for his country. The Soviet Union and the USA had been sworn enemies in the so-called “Cold War” since the conclusion of the Second World War. So now places such as New York, Chicago and Washington DC could suffer the same fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki 17 years earlier. Understandably the Americans didn’t like the feeling of being potentially on the receiving end of their own terrible invention. When the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev refused to remove the missiles , Kennedy initiated a naval blockade of Cuba, which raised the tension considerably. What Kennedy didn’t reveal was that the USA had already placed similar missiles in Turkey, its NATO ally. They were near to the Russian border and were trained on Russian targets. So Kruschev and his colleagues probably argued that they were merely acting in self defence. For 13 tense and terrible days the 2 leaders faced each other like 2 rutting stags, posing and strutting their macho stuff as the rest of the world waited in fear. It was like a massive game of “chicken” with potentially dire consequences for everyone . Thankfully Kennedy and Kruschev saw sense and the offending missiles in Cuba and Turkey were removed. Kennedy was hailed as a hero who had faced down the Soviets and saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe. However, he never told anybody about the American climb-down in Turkey, a secret that was kept for 25 years. I’m surprised Kruschev agreed to keep this quiet, but maybe he had bigger problems to deal with. Kennedy was allowed to pose around as a great strong leader without revealing the full truth.
So the world was saved from a nuclear holocaust because one of the great powers was willing to back down and lose face. However, even though the world had escaped unscathed this time, the message was clear for all to see — trying to keep world peace through the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction was a very fragile and highly dangerous concept. It could so easily have come unstuck, with disastrous consequences in 1962. The acronym of this policy is very apt I think — M.A.D. Already many people in the world were campaigning for nuclear weapons to be destroyed and abolished. The CND movement held many protests and marches in Britain in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Again, I was vaguely aware of all this through the press, but was more concerned with listening to pop music, trying to get a girlfriend and studying hard at school.
In 1964, just as The Beatles and Rolling Stones were hitting their stride, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was elected to power in the UK. Part of its manifesto was to unilaterally disarm Britain of its nuclear arsenal. However Wilson, surprise, surprise, promptly broke his election promise and instead his government started to develop a full nuclear weapons programme despite widespread public protest. The Labour government then leaned heavily on the BBC to stop it screening a drama/documentary by Peter Watkins called “The War Game” in 1965. It set out to show in a terrifyingly realistic manner, just what might happen in Britain if it was subject to a nuclear attack in a future war. It depicted mass deaths through blasts and hurricane speed firestorms. It showed large scale sickness and death caused by radiation poisoning. It examined the psychological impact of such an attack leading to a big rise in suicides. It depicted a breakdown in law and order and the shooting of looters by police. In other words it wasn’t the usual comfortable or escapist TV fare. The government pressurised the BBC to ban “The War Game” because it didn’t want the public to see the possible results of its own “defence” policies. By being a nuclear power we made ourselves into a prime nuclear target. The film was not shown until 20 years later to mark the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until that time, much of the population was kept the dark.
Again I was only slightly aware of the fuss about Watkins’s film, not being told at home or at school what was really happening. I was too busy watching football, experimenting with a new “Mod” hairstyle and hanging around with my mates. But full realisation was to come and it came suddenly through my old friend, Bob Dylan. I had already sung along to Barry McGuire’s hit single: “Eve of Destruction” without bothering to engage with the Doomsday lyrics it contained. Now at the age of 17 or 18 I at last started to listen seriously to early Dylan. His 1962 song “A Hard Rains’ A-Gonna Fall” from the “Freewheelin” album, had such vivid , powerful, evocative lyrics that listening to them for the first time was like receiving an electric shock. They talked of “crooked highways”, “sad forests”, “a dozen dead oceans”, walking “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”, “blood drippin'”, and “A young woman whose body was burning”. This wasn’t the usual “I love you and you love me” of your average pop songs. Dylan’s lyrics were deliberately ambiguous and were open to all sorts of interpretation. But to me they were clearly about the aftermath of a devastating war. And what was the “Hard rain” that he finished every verse with? Although he denied it in an interview, many people interpreted this as a reference to deadly nuclear fallout. Irrespective of Dylan’s denial, I believed this interpretation and it led to me growing up very fast. I read about nuclear warfare and learnt all about the lethal effects of long term radiation, a silent killer. Bonny Dobson’s “Morning Dew” which I heard via Tim Rose’s recording, also referred to radioactive fallout, being a dialogue between the lone man and woman left alive after an apocalyptic catastrophe. So I had entered serious territory here — contemplating the end of the world!
I was really frightened, if not terrified by all this. It was a lot for a 17/18 year old to take in. My previous childhood innocence had well and truly been blasted away.( an unfortunate verb I know.) This all led to me having an enhanced awareness of my own fragile mortality. I started to fear death! This in turn developed into me being strongly against any unnecessary death. I became anti- war except in the case of self- defence. I did not want animal’s lives to be deliberately ended just to fill a hole in my belly. It was a formative period of my life. I became a pacifist and a vegetarian. I argued with my history teacher about the War in Vietnam. Yes, the Americans were sadly at it again — bombing, napalming and slaughtering people in a far away Asian country. Luckily they didn’t use nuclear weapons this time but I know that President Nixon actively thought about it. As a student I went to London and took part in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1968, including a night long sit-in at the LSE. I manned the barricades, ate vegetarian food and watched films about American atrocities in Vietnam. I suppose you could say that I was being radicalised.
In the 1970s I got married and became a father twice over. A third child arrived in the early 80’s. I was also, busy working of course, so no longer had much time for demonstrations or activism. However, the arrival of my three lovely children gave me a sharp reminder that they had been born into a dangerous, precarious world. Their birth gave me a second, massive wake-up call. I suppose this is why, in my thirties, I became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ( CND.) Thus it was a decade of protest marches, torchlight processions, vigils, debates, doorstep canvassing, writing letters, signing petitions, lobbying MPs and singing songs of solidarity. The issue which re-energised the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980’s was the arrival of American Cruise Missilles at British sites such as Greenham Common. It seemed to many that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was making Britain even more of a target in the event of a nuclear war. We already had our own nuclear weapons — Polaris and then Trident — but now we were letting the Americans bring there’s along too. For me it wasn’t a time to remain apathetic and to sit on the fence. It was a time to stand up and be counted. The campaign against Cruise missiles was long and hard but in the end they were removed. However we remained a nuclear state and after 4 consecutive election victories for the Conservatives, the position of the Peace Movement seemed hopeless. I personally lost heart and started to feel burnt out. Finally, reluctantly, I dropped out of active participation in CND, turning my attention to the environment and becoming a member of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.
In the 80’s there were, thankfully, reductions in the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, negotiated and cemented by treaties. This multi-lateral disarmament was welcome but the world still retained enough of these weapons to destroy itself several times over. Also in the 1980’s we had a belligerent Prime Minister ( Thatcher) dubbed the “Iron Lady” by the Soviets, and we also had an American President, Ronald Reagan, who could joke ” let’s bomb Russia” when he thought the microphone had been switched off. With leaders like that it was a very worrying time for lovers of Peace. Apologists for the Nuclear weapons say they have kept World peace for over 60 years since the end of the last World War. However, this conveniently ignores the constant smaller wars that have occurred in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central America and even in Europe ( Yugoslavia and Ukraine.) The Nuclear age has been anything but peaceful. I still cannot understand how any sane person can think that having weapons of mass destruction is the best way to preserve world peace. The Nuclear Powers of the West know this full well as they are desperate for them not to fall into the hands of terrorists or states they don’t like, such as Iran. If nuclear weapons are safe and necessary for our security, why deny them to the Iranians? This smacks of gross hypocrisy .
So the nuclear debate goes on. On the 70th anniversary of the atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Prime Minister has twice called for the World to give up its Nuclear Weapons. Japan, by the way, is still a pacifist state. The leading candidate in the British Labour Party leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn, is in favour of Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. Even though he is derided by the right wing press as a left wing extremist, he is extremely popular with many people, especially the young. I still fear for the world and am worried for my children and now my grandchildren. I have been living under a terrible nuclear shadow all my life and it has not been pleasant. I may be thought of as a naïve idealist but I still dream of genuine world peace and of a planet free of weapons of mass destruction. I have recently rejoined CND and plan to be a more active campaigner again. I wonder what Junco is doing now? Maybe she was at the recent ceremonies in her home city and saw the release of the doves of peace. Maybe, like me she is still clinging on to hope and trying to conquer the fear of living in the Nuclear Age.