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On 6 August 1945, the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
On 6 August 1945, the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hiroshima: 70 years later

As devastating as the nuclear bomb was, the last 70 years have also demonstrated that nuclear technology can be harnessed for immense gains

Thursday will be the 70th anniversary of the worst civilian tragedy in modern world history—a very apt and grim reminder of the self-destructive potential of the human race; especially at a time when most nations are violently squabbling with each other or among themselves over myriad issues.

On 6 August 1945, the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. As a mushroom cloud rose into the Japanese sky, unprecedented devastation swept through the city—many were instantly incinerated by the heat of the blast and the survivors, mostly maimed, suffered the fallout of nuclear radiation. Three days later, another Japanese city, Nagasaki, was similarly devastated.

At the end of it, over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, were dead and countless survivors left to deal with the nuclear fallout. But more importantly, for the axis of Western powers led by the US, it forced the Japanese to surrender—bringing World War II to a gory end.

A timeline of global nuclear armament

It all started in 1938, when chemists in a Berlin laboratory discovered that by splitting the uranium atom, enormous energy could be released—which if harnessed could be made into a powerful bomb. The US was tipped off on possible plans by Germany famously in a letter to president Franklin Roosevelt from Albert Einstein. It culminated in the US government launching the Manhattan Project in December 1941 to develop the nuclear bomb.

To date, its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains the only instance of the use of a nuclear weapon by any country. No matter what the spin, the US can never ever explain away its decision to deploy the nuclear bomb. Presumably, the scope of the tragedy and of course its own insecurity has seen the country emerge as the leading voice against nuclear proliferation—the conclusion of the recent deal with Iran, through which it has capped the country’s immediate ability to acquire a nuclear bomb, is just another example of US intent.

For the Japanese, it has remained a permanent scar. It turned the nation into one of the biggest champions of non-proliferation. Predictably, therefore, they were furious when India conducted its nuclear weapons test in 1998—stoking fears of a nuclear weapons race, this time in Asia. They were torn between their long-term economic development commitment to India and the dread of a nuclear bomb. I recall how then finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia used his suave persuasion skills to fend off a Japanese decision to cut off development aid to India. The Indian economy then was a mere fraction of its $1.9 trillion size today and, hence, extremely vulnerable to such threats. Indeed it will be a poignant moment for Japan this week to recall its horrific past.

Sad as it is, the anniversary will, however, also serve as a reminder of the dual nature of things. As devastating as the nuclear bomb was, the last 70 years have also demonstrated that nuclear technology can be harnessed for immense gains. Its use has proliferated in medicine, agriculture, irrigation, industries and, of course, to generate electricity—something which is emerging as a central bulwark of the Union government to fulfil its commitment to provide 24x7 power for all and at the same time avoid expanding India’s carbon footprint. And Japan has acknowledged this by extending support to peaceful use of nuclear technology.

In an interesting coincidence, in a few weeks, it will also be the 70th anniversary of the formation of the United Nations. Global peace continues to be as elusive as it was seven decades ago—after the world had suffered a second global conflict. Worse, the cosy club of countries that effectively controls some of the most powerful bodies of the UN, such as the Security Council, look jaded and out of sync with the new global realities.

If there was a moment to reverse this drift, then it is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the creation of the UN coming up in September. A lasting solution to the threat of nuclear weapons needs a strong and revitalized multilateral body (reflecting the emerging new global order) like the UN.

The world owes it to those who died in the horrific tragedy 70 years ago.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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