The 75th Anniversary of the Hiroshima Bombing: How the Threat of Nuclear War Influenced a Generation

The United States drops an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan three days after dropping one on Hiroshima. Japan would surrender five day later, ending World War II.

The United States drops an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan three days after dropping one on Hiroshima. Japan would surrender five day later, ending World War II. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

On this week in history, we gained the ability to well and truly commit suicide as a species.

By itself, the fission blast over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 was a historic wartime catastrophe, killing 80,000 people (followed by another 70,000 three days later in Nagasaki). But its aftershock would affect the everyday lives of billions for a half-century.

Fission was followed by fusion, hydrogen bombs hundreds of times more powerful than Fat Man and Little Boy, the Cold War, the arms race, and nuclear stockpiles that, it was estimated, could wipe out all life on the planet 100 times over. And the trigger could have been pulled at any time by either the Soviets or the West.

Nagasaki bomb
A mushroom cloud forms over Nagasaki after an atomic bomb is dropped on the Japanese city just three days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Photo: Corbis/Getty Images

And there was a generation — ours — that grew up with the constant threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation on any given day.

I remember the giant bomb-alert siren that was built atop my school in suburban Winnipeg in the early ’60s. My dad was a local alderman, and, as an elected official, was given a standard “survival kit” which hung on a hook in our basement. We had gas masks, gauze and bandages and sealed packages of what were supposed to be food of some kind.

These were nonsense precautions, of course. Films of houses shattering at test-sites were burned into minds early. We’d see the “Duck and Cover” films with Bert the cartoon turtle telling us to hide under our desks if we saw the flash, and they were a joke at first view. Surviving was a dubious option. As Nikita Khrushchev said, “the living would envy the dead” in a nuclear exchange.

At age four, I was as aware of the tension in our house over the Cuban Missile Crisis (details of which I’d learn about later) as I was a year later of the grief over JFK.

As the joke went, “What do you want to be if you grow up?”

You only know your own experience, so I’ve often wondered how living most of our lives with this existential threat makes us different than the generation that followed. Twentysomethings were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, and don’t remember a world with a single, identifiable enemy Superpower that targeted you 24-7 (and vice versa). This mass threat has been replaced by the vague concept of atomic terrorism, with nuclear bogeymen like North Korea and Iran becoming political footballs for demagogues.

President Trump — who, at the very least, is old enough to know better —  said in 2019 that,  “I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.”

He didn’t have to say the word “nuke” for everyone to know what this bellicose and belligerent foghorn was talking about.

Why is it important to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Because of statements like Trump’s. Time glamourizes the bristling of nuclear weaponry, distracts us from the concept of mutual annihilation (a capability we could reactivate far too easily).

The hit Netflix miniseries Chernobyl reminded me of how little the concept of nuclear catastrophe has popped up in pop culture in recent years, as compared to the era of On the Beach, Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove (in which George C. Scott got to utter the Trumpian words, “I’m not sayin’ we wouldn’t get our hair mussed — 10, 20 million casualties tops.”).

And then there was 1983’s The Day After, in which director Nicholas Meyer didn’t flinch from presenting explicitly the aftermath of an H-bomb blast on Kansas City, Mo. The movie traumatized many, among them President Ronald Reagan, who admitted in his memoir that it motivated him to sign a comprehensive missile agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

Indeed, many credit The Day After with playing a part in the end of the Cold War.

What’s interesting about the miniseries Chernobyl is that the worst nuclear accident in history does not impress with its human toll so much as its message about lying. The Soviet government in 1986 denied there was an emergency to the people who were there and who could see it with their own eyes (and who paid the ultimate price). It denied it to the world, which could detect the massive radiation leak. In these days of “fake news,” and mistrust in authorities, that message resonates more than ever.

If I’m to play amateur psychologist, I think one of our coping methods for a generation under a nuclear sword was to trust in the humanity of the people, on both sides, with their fingers on the button. Most imagined disaster scenarios involved an accident or a malfunction. And indeed, over the years, details of Cold War close calls were revealed that would have sent many of us out for anti-anxiety prescriptions.

We’ve discovered other, slower means to harm ourselves on a global scale since the Cold War, chief among them, climate change. And our trust in humanity has not aged well with our failure to address this.

Meanwhile, in the gun-crazy U.S., those duck-and-cover school
A-bomb drills have been replaced by lockdowns and “shooter” drills
(also practiced in Canada, where mass shootings are much rarer
but enough of a possibility to take seriously). It evokes a sense
of possible, random death in the young that seems familiar to
our generation.

The difference then was that, to save ourselves, all we had to do was nothing, to choose not to kill ourselves on any given day. Future generations will have other tests that demand more.

A version of this article was published on August 6, 2019.


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