On October 20th, filmmaker and journalist Bob Frye visited a human rights class on the Newark campus of Rutgers University. He was invited by Professor Natalie Jesionka’s Human Rights class to show some clips from his newest documentary, In My Lifetime. The clips explored the aftereffects of nuclear destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and dipped into the current state of nuclear weapons. The clips elicited an impassioned response from the audience of students. Some expressed sentiments reflecting their disbelief that “these weapons could still exist today”, and their previous incomprehension about how those in the afflicted areas of Japan suffered post-attack. And although feelings of frustration and empathy are necessary to understanding any human rights issue, the concrete facts are also essential to coming to any resolution to that issue. It made sense that it was not until I sat down to watch the entire film – coming out a little “shell-shocked” myself – that I could fully comprehend the severity of the issue.
The Manhattan Project was a response to United States insecurity of the news that Nazi Germany was making attempts to purify uranium-235, the material that could be used to create the atomic bomb. The Project was launched to speed up research on how to develop the atomic bomb, as to make sure the Germans didn’t develop the bomb first. “The Gadget” was the first bomb developed at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, J.R. Oppenheimer, after observing the explosion quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, where he said: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Historic interview clips featured in In My Lifetime displayed Oppenheimer looking distressed and worrisome over his co-creation, despite being ecstatic at what he had made.
During World War II, the United States became the first and only country to use the bomb as a weapon of war. On August 6, 1945, the US air force dropped an atomic bomb code named “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan. It killed 140,000 casualties. Just three days later, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Despite the bomb being greater in magnitude, the causalities reached just 70,000. However, these are just the immediate casualties alone. Since that summer, no bombs have been used as weapons by any country.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left ecological, genetic and psychological effects on the country and its people. The film presented the “hibakusha”, which are the survivors of the blasts. The word literally translates to “explosion-affected people”; there is much discrimination against the hibakusha in Japanese society as there is a great misunderstanding about radiation sickness. Many incorrectly believe that it is contagious; many hibakusha never married and were often refused jobs. A hibakusha choir was featured in the film, singing in Japanese: “Please, don’t make anymore like us. / We don’t want any more hibakusha. / Those horrific days, please do not repeat.”
The hibakusha are living proof of the tragedy that nuclear war could inflict. In Nevada, the Native American Shoshone community also ran the risk of nuclear radiation risks. The Yucca Flats testing grounds were located right in the middle of the Shoshone land. Ian Zabarte, a Shoshone official, spoke out about the testing ground’s location at a NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) hearing. “Nuclear weapons threaten our people, violate our land,” Zabarte said, “and also we have experienced adverse health effects known to be plausible from exposure to ionizing radiation.”
Government officials around the world have acknowledged the dangers, and have established treaties to remedy the influence of nuclear weapons on our everyday lives. The Nuclear Disarmament Treaty was the first, three-pillared resolution that attempted to control nuclear arms. The three pillars are as follows: 1) Nuclear Non-Proliferation (preventing the spread of weapons) 2) Nuclear Disarmament (reduction and elimination of these weapons) and 3) Peaceful use of Nuclear Technology (i.e. energy). 190 parties signed onto the treaty, including the five initial nuclear weapon states, France, United States, Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and China – they are referred to in the film as “the P-5”. North Korea, which is one of the four other nuclear weapons states, was originally a signatory until it rescinded in 2003. The three other nuclear weapon states include India, Pakistan, and possibly Israel. These countries stand apart from the P-5 because they are not signatories on the NPT.
In 1987, the world came closest to eliminating nuclear weapons, in the Reyjavík Summit in Iceland, between the United States (President Ronald Reagan) and the Soviet Union (General of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev) in 1987. The result of the meeting was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and as Reagan made clear after the meeting, it was “the first time in
The grassroots activist movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons has been mobilized in various countries since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In My Lifetime focused in on the Aldermaston Women’s Peace Campaign in Britain, founded by Rebecca Johnson in response to the United Kingdom joining the arm’s race in the 1950’s. “We know throughout history,” Johnson said of the group’s philosophy, “whether it’s the suffragettes getting the vote or black people getting civil rights in the states, that the major fundamental shifts only really came about through grassroots action.” The campaign highlights the human rights aspect of the issue that it often lost as it often is in issues of war, and communicating that the presence of these nuclear weapons forces citizens to live in a constant state of fear.
There are many grassroots anti-nuclear war groups around the world, but one in particular is the World Citizens for Peace, which was founded in 1982 as a component of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in the United States. Much of their action is focused at the decommissioned Hanford nuclear production site in Washington State, as well as commemorations at the bomb sites in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1996, grassroots activists across the United States signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); the document came about through bell tollings and other events held to call attention to the need for further measure on nuclear disarmament. In My Lifetime also caught video of a group of Japanese students collecting names for a petition to abolish nuclear weapons and establish world peace.
The need for more comprehensive grassroots activism against nuclear disarmament was also the conclusion that a small group of students came to in a post- event discussion on that windy October 28 day. One of the students from the Center for Human Rights and Genocide who organized the event that day, put it eloquently in response to Frye’s question of why an activist movement was essential to promoting progress: “Because if we move together, there’s no impending harm.”
The topic of nuclear war has expanded to a scale that is unfathomable to most of us. It is no longer solely the threat of cities being extinguished, but countries. The international nuclear arsenal has the capability to – as Paul Shambroom, author of Face to Face With the Bomb, put it – “eradicate our species”. “But,” Shambroom continued in the film, “it’s [nuclear war] certainly not on the top level of our consciousness. For many people, they never really think about nuclear weapons at all in the United States. It’s just this sort of unseen presence.”
The prime base for activist action is in universities and high schools across the US, and hopefully throughout the world. The nuclear problem is leaving with the Cold War and World War II generation (which make up much of the current grassroots movement), and it is being passed onto the current generation of students, entering the modern world. If they don’t have enough of a connection with the problem, then it delays progress even further.
“Somehow the world’s perception of the nuclear threat receded after the end of the cold war,” said George Shultz, former US Secretary of State, in In My Lifetime, “Often problems are not given the attention they deserve until a tragedy occurs. We cannot wait for a nuclear Pearl Harbor or 9-11.”
The importance of grassroots activism in all areas of life, but especially in education environments, manifests itself in the need to communicate the urgency of the current magnitude of potential nuclear devastation. It’s a matter of telling the hibakusha’s story and painting the horrifying picture of the “pillar of fire” for those who only saw the “mushroom cloud”. It’s a matter of throwing out the cigarettes so that the threat of lung cancer goes down. And it’s a matter of demonstrating that it is not only important for the governments to recognize the severity of the issue at hand, but the people under those governments. It’s a matter of taking action to prevent the tragedy that George Shultz touched on, so that it cannot occur, and bringing the nuclear threat back to the most immediate level of consciousness of the world’s citizens.
What the film did for me is re-invite me to explore the history of nuclear war and disarmament, and remind me that it is one that both unites and divides us. It brings us back through the history of our world, from the breaking point all the way to the subtle divides that still exist in our daily lives today. At the end of the event on October 28, Frye said that this film was his “small contribution to the matter”, and that he hoped that it would inspire others to take action. This is my action, which is really a call for action.
For more information on the film, and the Nuclear World Project visit www.thenuclearworld.org
*Photos: US National Archives