August 6th marks the the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On August 8, 1945, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki City. To commemorate these tragedies, the Japanese people hold moments of silence, pray for those who died and float small lanterns on the rivers near ground zero.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs were the largest weapons of mass destruction ever used on human civilian populations. According to wikipedia, “Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day.”
It was a terrible tragedy, and afterwards many nations vowed not to use such nuclear devices, except as a last resort. But tensions developed between the Capitalist and Communist blocks and so began “The Cold War.” In reality, the military actions of that time were far from “cold.”
From 1948 until 1963, over five hundred nuclear bombs were exploded above ground, spreading massive amounts of nuclear radiation underwater and into the atmosphere. For anyone watching from space it must have looked like World War III, just that these bombs weren’t dropped on the population centers of “enemies.” Instead, each nation exploded bombs in their own territories, spreading toxic clouds of radioactive fallout out onto the farmlands, cities, towns and fishing regions of their own citizens and friends.
In the United States, the Nevada tests radiated more than 50% of the interior of the nation. In 1953, there was an event called “The Troy Incident” where radiation drifted all the way east, eventually raining down on the people of Troy, New York. While you’re not likely to find this story in any history textbooks, or even wikipedia, you can read about it here.
During the 1950’s the British began testing nuclear devices in Australia’s interior, spreading radiation over much of their ally’s continent. The French exploded bombs into the atmosphere of Algeria, while the Russians detonated their nuclear devices up north of Siberia and within the borders of the former U.S.S.R. The largest bomb ever exploded was by the Russians; it was nicknamed the Tzar bomb. It’s featured in this documentary of the era.
I mentioned that from outer space it must have looked like WW III. A Japanese researcher gives us that perspective in the following time-lapse video. Here he maps out the time and location of all atomic bombs exploded on our planet from 1945 to 1998.
As hard as it is to believe, there was radioactive fallout released into the atmosphere or oceans from each detonation up until October of 1963. After that, the U.S., U.S.S.R. and Britain moved all their tests underground. But quite a few countries never signed the treaty. France relocated their atmospheric tests (and radioactive fallout) from central Africa to the tropic islands of Polynesia.
According to wikipedia, “a total of 193 nuclear tests were carried out in Polynesia from 1966 to 1996. On 24 August 1968, France detonated its first thermonuclear weapon—codenamed Canopus—over Fangataufa.” France currently has the second largest nuclear arsenal on the planet. Here’s a video of the Canopus “test.”
China is another nation that declined to sign the treaty and conducted numerous above ground tests during the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. All were detonated within the borders of China, so the radioactive fallout fell on their own people, water supplies and farmland, as well as nations father east most probably, such as Korea and Japan.
Just exactly how much radiation was dumped into the oceans, forests, farmland and the atmosphere during the 20th century is unknown. If you find that someone has done the math, please let me know. How many people around the world were sickened, got cancer or died from all this radiation that was released is also unknown.
There have been some attempts to calculate the damage. In 1999, the U.S. National Cancer Institute completed a study and produced this map with calculations of I-131 radiation exposure to the continental United States. They concluded that “Americans born between 1936 and 1963, who were children at the time of testing,” are at higher risk of developing cancer.
People immediately to the north and west of the Nevada test site are often referred to as “downwinders” in the local news of their regions. I’ve been waiting to see the story shared on 20/20, 60 minutes, TIME or Newsweek but as far as I know it’s not something the U.S. national media wants to draw attention to. Search the Internet or youtube though and you will find quite a few local news stories, such as this one where Nevada downwinders tell how they used to go outside with drinks and food to watch the atomic bomb tests, the way people watch 4th of July fireworks nowadays.
There’s been many stories of hushed up nuclear accidents and disasters that I didn’t mention here, regions around the world where radiation releases have devastated communities or made the landscape uninhabitable. Most of the information is available on Wikipedia. Look up the Kyshtym disaster, the “Windscale fire, the Goiânia accident or the Hanford Downwinders.
When I present this information to my University students, they are shocked. Like most people around the world they assumed that Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only major incidents involving large releases of nuclear radiation that harmed people.
How (and why) we humans try to hide the truth and compartmentalize history like this has always amazed me. I wonder if – on some level – people in the 1950’s knew that the radiation from all those bombs was in their food, water and air?
Do a little digging, the information is available, none of these stories are conspiracy theories or secrets, they’ve just been ignored by the mainstream media. It’s not something people like to think about, or that the weapons industry and “leading nations” of the world want you to think about. See the 1935 classic “War is a Racket” by Major General Butler, for some thoughts on why this may be so.
Still, what happened to the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in August of 1945, was unique and horrific. Two nuclear devices were dropped on densely populated Japanese civilian areas by the United States- exploded directly above homes, schools, hospitals, shops, churches, temples and factories. This was followed by decades of massive weapons testing by the world’s most powerful and supposedly “advanced” nations, spreading still unknown amounts of radioactive fallout all over the globe.
Clearly, human beings do not think logically or thoughtfully in times of war and fear. We can see examples of this in the news, every single day. Hopefully, by recognizing our shared capacity for ignorance, and reflecting on our violent history as a species, we may grow wiser.
Creative Systems Thinking