The whole world should thank President Barack Obama for visiting Hiroshima while in Japan later this month. He won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Nobel Committee attached special importance to his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” It is now incumbent on all to continue with this work at the G7 economic summit that Obama will attend while in Japan.
The global economy will not survive even a limited nuclear war. Obama’s visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial will focus worldwide attention on the unimaginable horrors of nuclear war, and it should push the community of nations to work to banish all nuclear weapons for eternity.
Our national security and the world’s security demand a dramatic break from previous U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons policies of “mutually assured destruction” that put civilization as we know it at risk multiple times due to computer glitches and false alarms.
As a citizen member of a nine-member legislative Task Force to Study Maine’s Homeland Security Needs after 9/11 and former medical director for Maine EMS Region 4, I know of no conceivable medical system that could handle more than a tiny fraction of the people exposed even peripherally to an attack with one nuclear bomb — even a primitive one such as the bomb used on Hiroshima.
My childhood was haunted by photos of the aftermath of Hiroshima on the walls of my father’s office at Yale Medical School. These appeared later in his book “Encounter with Disaster: A Medical Diary of Hiroshima, 1945.” My father, Averill A. Liebow, was a pathologist dispatched to study the medical effects of the atomic bomb, shepherded from police station to police station, and arriving well in advance of the U.S. Army. He worked arm in arm with Japanese doctors who felt so respected by him that they subsequently worked on the science of radiation exposure with him for decades.
I remember those pictures vividly. I saw the shadow of an unknown man on a bicycle burned onto a concrete bridge and people with the patterns of their clothes burned into their skin. I learned elsewhere of lines of burned parents and their children waiting dutifully in patient lines for medical care. Corpses were found with their eyes literally boiled and falling out of their sockets. As body fluids oozed out of radiation-damaged blood vessels, a primary symptom was overwhelming thirst. People drinking out of dirty rivers died suddenly and were floating in rafts like bloated logs.
Mothers didn’t even realize they had dead babies feeding at their breasts, and dead mothers had live babies still suckling. Only later did I read of the implacable slow death of radiation sickness, from internal bleeding and overwhelming infection, caused by destruction of vulnerable bone marrow and intestine; of lifelong disfigurement and disability from burn scar contractures; and of the eternal worries about delayed cancers and birth defects that haunted survivors, the Hibakushas, treated forever as social pariahs because their countrymen thought they, and even their children were radioactive.
One question always haunted me. I understand the argument of the time — that the bomb’s demonstration of overwhelming force led to an immediate surrender, preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths, both Japanese and American. But why did we have to drop the bomb on civilians? Why not on a military target that would be even more symbolic, especially in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor? I have never seen any answer to this question.
I strongly encourage the president to read my father’s book. I would be most happy to accompany him to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in memory of my dad, and hear concrete proposals to turn the world away from the dangerous new nuclear arms race seething around our world.
I also remember one of his pictures of a small green sprout bursting out of an incinerated stump, the shadow of the dead mother plant burned into the telephone pole behind. There is still hope.
Dr. Paul Averill Liebow of Bucksport worked 30 years as an attending emergency physician at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. He is a member of the Maine Physicians for Social Responsibility Board of Directors.