Conversation: J. Robert Oppenheimer and Setsuko Thurlow
Your Majesties, Distinguished members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, My fellow campaigners, here and throughout the world, Ladies and gentlemen,
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It is a great privilege to accept this award, together with Beatrice, on behalf of all the remarkable human beings who form the ICAN movement. You each give me such tremendous hope that we can – and will – bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.
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I speak as a member of the family of hibakusha – those of us who, by some miraculous chance, survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For more than seven decades, we have worked for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.
We have stood in solidarity with those harmed by the production and testing of these horrific weapons around the world. People from places with long-forgotten names, like Moruroa, Ekker, Semipalatinsk, Maralinga, Bikini. People whose lands and seas were irradiated, whose bodies were experimented upon, whose cultures were forever disrupted.
In accordance with our discussions May 10th I am submitting the following brief summary of the radiological effects to be expected from the special bomb. This may be of use to the services concerned in the operations, and should probably be brought to their attention.
We were not content to be victims. We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up.
We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.
Today, I want you to feel in this hall the presence of all those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I want you to feel, above and around us, a great cloud of a quarter million souls. Each person had a name. Each person was loved by someone. Let us ensure that their deaths were not in vain.
A. The bomb under consideration differs from normal explosive bombs in that its detonation involves the production of radiation and of radioactive substances.
I was just 13 years old when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, on my city Hiroshima. I still vividly remember that morning. At 8:15, I saw a blinding bluish-white flash from the window. I remember having the sensation of floating in the air.
As I regained consciousness in the silence and darkness, I found myself pinned by the collapsed building. I began to hear my classmates’ faint cries: “Mother, help me. God, help me.”
1. The active material of the bomb itself is toxic. There is about 109 times as much toxic material initially in the bomb itself as is needed for a single lethal dose.
Then, suddenly, I felt hands touching my left shoulder, and heard a man saying: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it as quickly as you can.” As I crawled out, the ruins were on fire. Most of my classmates in that building were burned to death alive. I saw all around me utter, unimaginable devastation.
Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing. Flesh and skin hung from their bones. Some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out. The foul stench of burnt human flesh filled the air.
2. During the detonation, radiations are emitted which (unless personnel is shielded) are expected to be injurious within a radius of a mile and lethal within a radius of about six-tenths of a mile.
Thus, with one bomb my beloved city was obliterated. Most of its residents were civilians who were incinerated, vaporized, carbonized – among them, members of my own family and 351 of my schoolmates.
In the weeks, months and years that followed, many thousands more would die, often in random and mysterious ways, from the delayed effects of radiation. Still to this day, radiation is killing survivors.
3. After detonation, highly radioactive materials are produced. The activity decreases inversely with the time. One second after detonation there will be the equivalent of about 10 (to the 12th power) curies of radium. After a day this will fall to about 10 million curies.
Whenever I remember Hiroshima, the first image that comes to mind is of my four-year-old nephew, Eiji – his little body transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh. He kept begging for water in a faint voice until his death released him from agony.
To me, he came to represent all the innocent children of the world, threatened as they are at this very moment by nuclear weapons. Every second of every day, nuclear weapons endanger everyone we love and everything we hold dear. We must not tolerate this insanity any longer.
B. The circumstances of delivery of the bomb should not normally lead to the deposition of a large fraction of either the initial active material or the radioactive products in the immediate vicinity of the target; but the radiations emitted during the detonation will, of course, have an effect on exposed personnel in the target area. The actual physical distribution of the radioactive products is not known to us, since it depends in detail on meteorological conditions as well as on the specific air mass motions induced by the explosion; these latter have not been experimentally studied. It is, however, likely that most of the activity will rise to a considerable height above the target and will remain as a fairly compact cloud for a period of hours after the detonation. The subsequent history depends essentially on temperature and wind conditions. If the bomb is delivered during rain, or under conditions of such high humidity that it itself causes rain, it may be expected that most of the active material will be brought down by the rain in the vicinity of the target area.
Through our agony and the sheer struggle to survive – and to rebuild our lives from the ashes – we hibakusha became convinced that we must warn the world about these apocalyptic weapons. Time and again, we shared our testimonies.
But still some refused to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as atrocities – as war crimes. They accepted the propaganda that these were “good bombs” that had ended a “just war”. It was this myth that led to the disastrous nuclear arms race – a race that continues to this day.
C. In practice, the following three precautions will have to be observed:
Nine nations still threaten to incinerate entire cities, to destroy life on earth, to make our beautiful world uninhabitable for future generations. The development of nuclear weapons signifies not a country’s elevation to greatness, but its descent to the darkest depths of depravity. These weapons are not a necessary evil; they are the ultimate evil.
On the seventh of July this year, I was overwhelmed with joy when a great majority of the world’s nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Having witnessed humanity at its worst, I witnessed, that day, humanity at its best. We hibakusha had been waiting for the ban for seventy-two years. Let this be the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.
1. Aircraft must maintain a minimum distance from the detonation in order to avoid radiation. Taking into account the dilution of the atmosphere, this minimum distance is about two and one-half miles. Operations should be conducted so that this distance is exceeded of the operations proceed according to plan.
All responsible leaders will sign this treaty. And history will judge harshly those who reject it. No longer shall their abstract theories mask the genocidal reality of their practices. No longer shall “deterrence” be viewed as anything but a deterrent to disarmament. No longer shall we live under a mushroom cloud of fear.
To the officials of nuclear-armed nations – and to their accomplices under the so-called “nuclear umbrella” – I say this: Listen to our testimony. Heed our warning. And know that your actions are consequential. You are each an integral part of a system of violence that is endangering humankind. Let us all be alert to the banality of evil.
2. Following aircraft must avoid coming close to the cloud of active material, and monitoring to determine the extent and disposition of the activity will be necessary if aircraft are to enter the area within hours of the primary detonation.
To every president and prime minister of every nation of the world, I beseech you: Join this treaty; forever eradicate the threat of nuclear annihilation.
When I was a 13-year-old girl, trapped in the smouldering rubble, I kept pushing. I kept moving toward the light. And I survived. Our light now is the ban treaty. To all in this hall and all listening around the world, I repeat those words that I heard called to me in the ruins of Hiroshima: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! See the light? Crawl towards it.”
3. Certainly if there has been rain, and conceivably without this, some activity may reach the ground in the neighborhood of the target area. Monitoring will be necessary if this area is to be entered within some weeks of the primary detonation.
J. R. Oppenheimer
Tonight, as we march through the streets of Oslo with torches aflame, let us follow each other out of the dark night of nuclear terror. No matter what obstacles we face, we will keep moving and keep pushing and keep sharing this light with others. This is our passion and commitment for our one precious world to survive.
Setsuko Thurlow: Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2017.
I'm sharing this “conversation,” from my current Ghost Kimono series, to remember and commemorate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week.