FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Autumn 2003
Volume 56, Number 3
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Front Page
The Real Terrorist Missile Threat and What Can Be Done About It
A Science-Based Workshop for Leaders of Environmental NGOs and GONGOs in China
Meeting Natural Gas Demand: Infrastructure is Important, Technology is Key
Curbing the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in Latin America
Hiroshima Survivors Visit the Federation
The Learning Federation: Progress Report

Hiroshima Survivors Visit the Federation

by Sharon Gleason and Ivan Oelrich

The Federation of American Scientists was founded by Manhattan Project scientists who had helped develop and build the first atomic bombs. It was appropriate and moving then, when survivors of the Hiroshima bombing visited the FAS offices on the 58th anniversary of the atomic bombings. Every year on the anniversary of the first, and thankfully so far only, use of atomic weapons in war, survivors come to Washington. To raise awareness of the realities and horrors of nuclear war, they visit the offices of members of Congress, make public appearances, and talk to the press.

Nuclear war is so horrifying in its reality that talk of it often flees to a vocabulary that is abstract, even mathematical, technical, and sterile. We are left with PSI, CEPs, and "overkill." During the Cold War, a small industry grew up creating computer models that calculated the optimal allocation of nuclear weapons against military targets and against "value" targets. "Value" targets was the name given to those things that a society values and threatening them will, so the theory goes, deter them from using nuclear weapons themselves. Ultimately these value targets are the people of the society, the homes they live in, the industry that provides their livelihood and keeps them warm and clothed and fed. It is all too easy to forget the human face of these targets when calculating a "laydown."

Ivan Oelrich with two survivors of the atom bomb

So what a shock to meet a real flesh and blood person who, on the morning of August 6, 1945, was asleep on a cot less than two kilometers from the epicenter of the Hiroshima atomic bomb blast. Masakazu Saito is the president of one of the local groups of hibakusha or atom bomb survivors. He was nineteen at the time, and described how his arms, back, and head were burned. He was able to escape the wooden barracks where he had been sleeping before it was engulfed in flames. In the chaos after the bombing, cleanup activities took place. Soldiers quickly piled up corpses to be burned, afraid that the radiation would somehow spread from these bodies. Assumed to be dead, Mr. Saito managed to crawl away from those slated to be burned. He saw sights that were too horrific for words.

Today, although near 80, he is in remarkable, vigorous good health. He has produced a series of shocking yet eerily beautiful watercolors of his experience. Even through a translator, his experience made real to all of us the horrors of actual use of a nuclear weapon.

An estimated 280,000 people survived the atomic bomb. Groups, like Mr. Saito's, have been organized to represent the interests of the survivors, who find themselves in a peculiar position in Japan. Not only did they suffer in the bombing, but even afterwards they were ostracized as sick, damaged and prone to producing genetically deformed babies. The survivors were not seen as desirable mates, partners or workers in a society that believed creating a family and working hard were the key to rebuilding Japanese society. Even now, decades later, they meet with various forms of discrimination. They are often denied health insurance, and employers are sometimes hesitant to take them on. Many survivors keep their experience secret to avoid the stigma of having been exposed to atomic radiation.

The hibakusha also, of course, have a very personal involvement in nuclear disarmament. They understand the reality that is often masked by analytical discussions of "mini-nukes" and "bunker busters." Their visit reminded us all why the Federation of American Scientists was founded, and what our mission is, and why we work so hard for what remains one of mankind's most important goals: to make certain that those two bombs, dropped decades ago, are the last. The hibakusha are welcomed back each anniversary because we cannot be reminded too often.