Last week, I was walking through Ueno Park as part of my annual cherry blossom pilgrimage. Among the trees and temples, I came across “The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” I was deeply moved to read the story of Tatsuo Yamamoto, who went to Hiroshima in search of his uncle following the bombing and instead found a flame burning in the ruins of his uncle’s house. Yamamoto-san retrieved the flame and brought it back to his hometown of Hoshino-mura as a memorial. Over the years, the flame was preserved by the town and became a symbol of the desire to abolish nuclear weapons. In time, the flame was merged with another lit by the friction of broken roofing tiles of Nagasaki. That flame was then carried to the Third Special Session of the UN General Assembly for Disarmament. The next year, the “Association for the Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Lit at Ueno Toshogu” erected “The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Memorial” to permanently enshrine the flame in Ueno Park.
Over the last year, I have been privileged to meet victims of the Hiroshima bombing and work with academics helping to preserve the stories of fallout victims from the Pacific Proving Grounds nuclear tests. Unfortunately, many victims are now reaching the end of their lives. So too are their contemporaries who lived through the great World Wars. In the short-term, decisions on international security will be inherited by the subsequent generation, who experienced firsthand the very real threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction during the Cold War. However, in the not too distant future, my generation will take over the reigns of power without the benefit of those collective memories. So, it is critical that memorials like the one in Ueno Park are maintained. They provide the best mechanism through which to inspire future generations to learn more about the risks associated with nuclear war.
As my time at the Federation of American Scientists draws to an end, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge three people in my life who have served as my inspiration.
The first was my grandfather. A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, he never shied away from talking about war. As a former B-52 bombardier, he often talked about the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He loved to debate on the merits of those attacks. From his perspective, they were justified by the fact that they saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and prevented a future nuclear war with the Soviet Union. When challenged, he liked to point out to his grandchildren that there was a very good chance that he himself would have been killed in the battle for the Japanese mainland – thereby eliminating his children’s and grandchildren’s prospect for life. Yet, he often struggled with the moral basis of those attacks. So, we often debated the merits of nuclear war driving down the road in his pickup truck. In retrospect, one of the most important gifts that my grandfather ever gave me was his memory of war. Without it, I would not have appreciated its true nature from my textbooks on strategic studies. Nor would I have been prepared to deal with my own experiences as part of the War on Terrorism.
The second was my father. A businessman of great character, one of his favorite sayings was, “They can take everything away from you except your education.” He lived by this mantra and ensured that his children were provided a level of education that far exceeded our economic status. This included coursework in ethics from an early age. Unfortunately, such training is largely absent in middle and high school education in the United States today. Being forced to confront the classical debates on morality as an adolescent radically shaped my worldview. It also ensured that my views on international politics, including on war, were grounded in ethical positions. Whereas my grandfather had stressed the practical need to always win wars, my education suggested that how one wins is equally important. Yet, when I went off to university, I found that my undergraduate education in International Relations failed to build on this point. Ethics and morality were largely absent from the subject as presented by my professors. Had it not been for the early education provided by my father, I would have graduated from university with a very narrow understanding of international politics grounded solely in international and domestic law. And, in my case, that would have meant that I would have gone to work at the Pentagon with a worldview that failed to account for ethics, morality, and philosophy in the conduct of war.
The third was my professor at SAIS. Professor David M. Lampton was one of the greatest teachers that I have ever come across in higher education. His lectures inspired his students to care deeply about East Asian regional security. By forcing us to confront contemporary issues like the North Korean Ballistic Missile Tests, he prepared us to make immediate policy relevant contributions to the international security discourse. Perhaps even more importantly, he always took a personal interest in our success. Unlike many other professors in foreign policy graduate programs, he was a teacher first and a policy expert second. Long after graduation, he would still support his students’ career ambitions and remained in touch with many. In my case, Professor Lampton inspired me to pursue my own PhD. He motivated me to get involved in foreign policy exchanges on East Asian security. And, he always provided a sounding board for new ideas. In short, he exemplified excellence in teaching through his actions and intentions. For this, I am very grateful.
Unfortunately, not everyone has such inspirations in their life. They may not have had a chance to meet a victim of a nuclear bombing or someone who has participated in a nuclear war. They might not have been provided an education that exposed them to ethics or prepared them to be a subject matter expert on international security. For these reasons, we must do more to preserve the memories of those who have survived nuclear attacks. We must also strengthen our education programs to teach future generations about the full risks associated with nuclear war. If we fail to do so, we cannot hope that future generations will appreciate the consequences of nuclear war to the same visceral extent as their predecessors. And, as a consequence, we cannot expect them to make the best policy decisions with respect to international peace and security.
Of course, it is my hope that this world will never experience another nuclear attack. But, I must admit that I find that to be wishful thinking. As we saw in Syria, the temptation to use whatever capabilities are at your disposal to win a conflict means the ever-present possibility of a nuclear confrontation. That is why I believe our only hope is global disarmament. I say this as a realist not as an idealist. And, I believe this goal is achievable. Yet, as Dwight D. Eisenhower famously cautioned in his 1955 Geneva Speech, “The quest for peace is the statesman’s most exacting duty. Security of the nation entrusted to his care is his greatest responsibility. Practical progress to lasting peace is his fondest hope. Yet in pursuit of his hope he must not betray the trust placed in him as guardian of the people’s security. A sound peace — with security, justice, well-being, and freedom for the people of the world — can be achieved, but only by patiently and thoughtfully following a hard and sure and tested road.” I do not believe that we will ever rid the world of war. But, we can eliminate the possibility that any one actor can unilaterally bring an end to our planet’s existence. If we are to achieve this goal, we must remain patient, vigilant, and committed to the objective of disarmament. And, we must always employ use of force while respecting ethical and social needs.
Michael Edward Walsh is the President of the Emerging Science and Technology Policy Centre. He is also the President of Plan G Consulting. Since 2012, he has served as an Adjunct Fellow for Emerging Technologies and High-end Threats at the Federation of American Scientists. He can be followed on Twitter at @aseanreporting.