On Nov. 24, Pope Francis visited the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to renew his call for the global elimination of nuclear weapons.
“Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction, or the threat of total annihilation,” proclaimed the Pope at Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park.
With his visit, the Pope reminded the world that nuclear weapons are not only costly and dangerous, but unequivocally immoral as well. He focused on the stories of Hibakusha—the survivors of the United States’ two atomic attacks—to humanize the devastating impact of these weapons. In Hiroshima, he invited Yoshiko Kajimoto, who was 14 years old when the blast struck less than two miles from her, to describe her experience on that tragic day:
“There were more and more people coming by. Their bodies were so burned and totally red. Their faces swollen to double size, their lips hanging loose, with both hands held out with burnt skin hanging from them. They no longer looked human.”
Stories like Yoshiko’s are often forgotten in today’s numbed nuclear policy discourse of deterrence gaps and credible, second-strike capabilities. But these testimonies are crucial because they return us to the true product of nuclear warfare: a horrifying power that incinerates and irradiates all God-granted life in its destructive blast.
The Pope’s message reminds us to remain focused on Hibakusha, whose numbers must never again be increased.
Quakers, of course, are no strangers to the faith-guided pursuit of nuclear disarmament. In the September 1945 “Washington Letter”—the first after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—FCNL Executive Secretary E. Raymond Wilson wrote: “Perhaps nothing since the outbreak of the war has so stirred and aroused the American people to the necessity for the complete abolition of war as the use by the United States Army of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Yet nearly three-quarters of a century later, the U.S. continues to invest billions of dollars to upgrade its nuclear arsenal and develop new, even more dangerous nuclear weapons, while neglecting and abandoning treaties designed to lower nuclear tensions.
Disarmament advocates can easily get lost in all the policy arguments over particular steps toward abolishing nuclear weapons. The Pope’s message reminds us to remain focused on Hibakusha, whose numbers must never again be increased; to reject deterrence as a permanent, accepted status quo, and to instead urgently advocate for all proposals that advance the end goals of abolishing nuclear weapons and war itself.
“Future generations will rise to condemn our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act to bring it about among the peoples of the earth,” warned Pope Francis at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. “May the abyss of pain endured here remind us of boundaries that must never be crossed. A true peace can only be an unarmed peace.”
The Pope spoke from two locations where, over 74 years ago, humans proved just how easy it is to destroy. Humanity must now urgently learn the much more difficult—and essential—task: to create and to sustain peace. No other human invention so intentionally and indiscriminately threatens all life. So long as nuclear weapons exist, the world will never know true peace.