“No More Hiroshimas”

The strange politics of memorialising the A-Bomb

Nick Irving
15 min readDec 20, 2022
Detail of Sadako Sasaki monument, Peace Park, Hiroshima. Image credit; Author

740m from the Hypocenter, the spot in Hiroshima above which “Little Boy” detonated, I encountered a Eucalypt that had survived the bombing. Transplanted from the land of my birth, it is a species renowned for its hardiness and known to use fire to propagate; a fitting survivor.

I have a distinct memory of reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in primary school. I was too young to fully comprehend what an Atom Bomb was, but I was confronted by the sinister and incremental wasting away of the vibrant young protagonist, and it left me with a lingering sense that if such a thing could happen then something was not right in the world. Growing up in the 1980s during the Second Cold War meant nuclear weapons were just ‘in the air’. The local council put ‘nuclear free zone’ signs up all over the streets around where I went to school. Where the Wind Blows was on prominent display in my school library (and turned my stomach when I read it as a preteen). I was too young and in the wrong country to catch the infamous 1964 ‘Daisy’ ad, but I must have seen it replayed at some point because the notion that something unbearably weighty might kill me with no warning is etched somewhere deeper than memory.

I distinctly remember one of my classmates who had been to Hiroshima regaling us with stories of a man who had “a fingernail with a vein in it” as a result of the bomb blast. For years I put it down to a childish misunderstanding of something he’d seen or been told. Even though I’ve now seen the very fingernail preserved in the Hiroshima Peace Museum alongside a card explaining that it has blood vessels running through it, it is still incomprehensible to me as an adult.

In Hiroshima, I stood at the junction of the distinctive T-shaped bridge that the bombardier of the Enola Gay used as a target. The bomb strayed 300m while in the air, a slave to the wind like all bombs, and detonated 600m above a hospital. Prior to this an observation plane had dropped three recording devices on parachutes to observe the effects of the blast, underscoring the cold political rationality behind the bombing. A similarly painstaking scientific rationality allowed Japanese researchers to locate ‘Ground Zero’ in the aftermath of the explosion using radiation levels and lines left in the ground by the shockwave. The ‘Hypocenter’ is marked by this plaque, set on an unassuming plinth on a nondescript backroad:

Plaque at the ‘Hypocenter’, Hiroshima. Image credit: Author

600m in the air. 3000–4000 degrees. 8:15am, August 6, 1945. For me, the numbers are as incomprehensible as the fingernail. Shorn of any meaningful context, presented without ceremony on an easily-missed plaque, they defied rather than empowered my ability to make sense of the magnitude of Hiroshima.

This, I have long felt, is what nuclear weapons do. They mutate the body beyond our capacity to recognise it as human, make a mockery of the ordinary exercise of rationality, and push us beyond our ability to express ourselves and comprehend others. There is an argument among historians, beginning with Horkheimer and Adorno, that modernity itself ended in 1945 with the discovery of the death camps and the dropping of the bomb. The memorialisation of both Hiroshima and the Holocaust are an attempt to respond to the disruptive forces unleashed by these twin events, and to find some sense among the ruins. They are also carefully curated efforts to ensure the events they memorialise are lodged in our consciousness as “global events”, not just parts of Japanese or German history.

But I have been primed to take an anti-nuclear position. My sense that the bomb is an unmitigated evil is the result of the concerted actions of a huge number of people, from the atomic scientists who started the Pugwash Conferences and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in the 50s, to the author of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, to the mayor of Hiroshima who coined the phrase “No More Hiroshimas” in the 1960s, to the librarian and teachers in my school library who chose to expose me to these materials and the local council that erected the signs. I’m grateful for their work. I firmly believe nuclear weapons and the technology they are built on are best forbidden and forgotten, crammed back into Pandora’s box as it were. But I must recognise that this is not a view arrived at in a vacuum, and the memorialisation of the bomb that left me with these views, like the bomb itself, has its hypocenter in Hiroshima.

This loosely affiliated global network of anti-nuclear activists has given us three ways to interpret the bomb:

  1. That the bomb is inexplicable. It unleashes forces of such magnitude that it cannot be made sense of regardless of the lens through which is it viewed.
  2. That the only comprehensible approach to the experience of the atomic bombing is to view it through the lens of collective trauma.
  3. That the bomb is a above all a global event. Though it is located very firmly in time and space, it is also sympathetically felt by all people everywhere.

The deliberate design at work in Hiroshima — the museum, peace park, individual memorials, the plaques throughout the city, and the various ephemera that collates it into an argument — prosecute all three of these interpretations at once, sometimes in concert, sometimes in tension.

The bomb as inexplicable

In a book on protest violence in the 1960s, James Rhodes argued that violence can only be invested with meaning after the fact. He was arguing that no amount of forethought can fully account for the chaotic effects of violence, because to be violent is to first cast off any limits implied by ethics, reason, or planning. He was also arguing that the political work of violence is not done by the violent act in the moment, but by political actors after the fact. This is the argument of the Hiroshima Peace Museum: that no matter how much sense the bomb made before it was dropped, it made no sense afterwards.

As the Museum’s exhibits point out, the scientific rationality of the bomb was perhaps the first to unravel. Oppenheimer’s utterance upon the first successful test is infamous: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” These are the words of a person recognising his limits only as he crosses them. The Museum contains a replica of a letter from Einstein advocating for the use of nuclear science to develop a more powerful bomb, and yet Einstein was a signatory to the anti-nuclear Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955 that founded the Pugwash Conferences. It was nuclear scientists that wrote the Frank Report as early as July 1946 — before the bomb had even been dropped:

We believe that these considerations make the use of nuclear bombs for an unannounced attack against Japan inadvisable. If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.

When I visited the small museum attached to the Hiroshima Monument — one of several memorials in Peace Park but distinct from the Peace Museum itself — there was a small exhibit of eyewitness accounts by photographers who had produced images of the blast and its immediate aftermath.

The one thing these accounts have in common is incomprehension. Japanese people in 1945 were familiar with US bombing raids and could name US bombers, but they’d never seen a B-29 flying solo before. They were also confused by the parachutes dropped by the observation plane. The eyewitness accounts also contain details no corroborated elsewhere. For example, one photographer saw a circular rainbow emanating from the blast, a feature that may have unconsciously found its way into Japanese popular culture.

This incomprehension followed the photographers into the city. The only photographer to take photos in Hiroshima proper in the immediate aftermath of the bomb took only five photographs. He recalls steeling himself for 20 minutes to take the first, which is a grainy street scene showing the wounded clustered in the rubble. He reported deep discomfort photographing them rather than helping them, and each successive photograph of the series has fewer and fewer people in it, with the final one being just an interior filled with rubble.

Filling the void left by photographers, there are artworks in the Peace Museum proper that were painted by eyewitnesses. In these, grisly details lodged in the memory of survivors are repeated until they fill the frame. In one, there are many people with eyeballs falling out of their sockets, in another, burn victims with their whole skins sloughing off.

I do not mean to suggest these things never occurred; the fingernail that disgusted me as a child is evidence that the bomb did strange things to human bodies. It is known that traumatic experiences warp and distends the memory and draws the focus to small details, reinventing them as talismans or investing them with ritual-like significance. The Museum argues — and I think it is right to do so — that we ought to believe these things that could not be photographed no matter how outlandish they seem. In fact, I would argue that their very outlandishness is the point.

See, for example, this infamous scene in Barefoot Gen (1983), animated by a bomb survivor:

Clip from “Barefoot Gen” (1983), from Youtube

The images in this scene contain many details drawn from artworks or eyewitness accounts held in the Museum, although they seem to be represented here as typical experiences when the accounts make it clear they were more likely unusual. Like the artworks in the Museum, the film repeats them over and over in an attempt to understand them or make them explicable to viewers. That the only response is visceral horror drives home the fact that the experience of Hiroshima will never make sense.

The military and political rationality of the bomb have been more resilient in the intervening 80 years. The military logic of airborne bombardment is linear: if a big bomb can have a measurable impact on the opponent, then a bigger bomb could obviously have a bigger effect, and it should be possible to build a bomb that was big enough to end the war. The political logics were slightly more complex, but ultimately also nakedly mercenary. Publically, the US government wanted to avoid the casualties implied by a seaborne invasion of Japan, with the trenchant myth of the suicidally tenacious Japanese defender playing a starring role. In the more callous realm of geopolitics, it is clear that the US government used the bomb primarily as a demonstration to the USSR that it had the bomb.

Hiroshima is not the only place that struggles with the simple story of the bomb as a military necessity. Across the Pacific, controversy attended the attempt to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing by having Enola Gay tour the US. At Stagg Field in Chicago University, site of the first successful nuclear pile, there is an eerily ambivalent monument that resembles a mushroom cloud from some angles, and a skull from others. When I visited it in 2008, someone had walked a peace sign into the snow in front of it, the peace symbol being originally derived from the semaphore signs for N and D — Nuclear Disarmament.

Monument at Stagg Field, University of Chicago. Image credit: Author

Though these narratives maintain their integrity in the comfort of my office on the other side of the world, reading them after walking through the darkened hall of images, eyewitness accounts and debris made it hard to consider them legitimate. Next to a child’s lunchbox containing rice that had been turned to stone by the blast, a shirt still marked with radioactive rain, or a black shadow etched onto the stone stairs of a bank by a body vaporised in an instant, they become incomprehensible. One of the Peace Museum’s great strengths is that it shows political and military logics can only hold up in a human vacuum.

The bomb as trauma

Walking through Peace Park it becomes obvious that the bomb violently sliced time itself into three parts: the endlessly-mourned time before the bomb was dropped; the infinite traumatic moment of detonation; and a present dominated by an attempt to return to the past. The schism is perfectly encapsulated by the memoir of a survivor, pregnant when the bomb went off, who raised her profoundly disabled son into his 50s and died only two months after he did:

I will never forget the taste of the breakfast on August 6, 1945. Did God know that bomb would attack us immediately after we enjoyed that breakfast?

I discovered our old disaster certificate. A night of memories. If only there had been no A-bomb; if only there had been no war. Sad memories fill my heart and come up ceaselessly.

Having deliberately destabilised our understanding of the Bomb by making it feel inexplicable through the logics of the war, geopolitics and medicine, the Museum then attempts to use the psychological logic of collective trauma to illuminate the experience. The moment of detonation itself is picked over almost obsessively in the Museum and its surrounds. It is supported by a doomed effort to recover the Hiroshima of before.

The Barefoot Gen clip above distends the instant of 8:45am on August 8, 1945 to a full two minutes of horror. So much of the built infrastructure of Peace Park is an attempt to make that moment infinite, in line with the infinite significance it had to people who lived through it.

Hiroshima Monument, a clock stopped at 8:45. Image credit: Author

The monument at the core of the park is a circular garden with a clock stopped at 8:45 in its center. In the memorial space underneath it, the clock is repeated, this time as a fountain that according to the explanatory pamphlet, “offers water to the A-bomb victims, many of whom died begging for water to quench their thirst.” Near the southern end of the T-shaped bridge, there is a clock that bears an eerie resemblance to both the twisted wreckage of Hiroshima and the towers used to detonate the earliest test bombs in the US which plays a song every morning at 8:45. The plaque beneath it reads:

Quarter past eight every morning, the mortal moment of the blasting back in 1945, the clock will chime its prayer for perpetual peace and appeal to the peoples of the world that the wish be answered promptly.

The ‘peace clock’ in Peace Park. Image credit: Author

Across the river is the A-bomb Dome, preserved exactly as it was the moment after the bomb exploded, its crumbling walls held up by a sophisticated metal skeleton and protected by a fence. The eternal moment of detonation is perhaps best summed up by the stone stairs in the Museum, transported from the Hiroshima streetscape because it bears the shadow of a man, permanently etched there by the bomb blast.

The A-bomb dome. Image credit: Author

Visitors to Peace Park can collect a small guide to “A-bombed buildings and trees”, complete with walking tours. Each building or tree is marked with a plaque that explains its distance from the hypocenter, the closest tree, only 300m away, is also graced with a black and white photo showing it standing amidst the wreckage. The guide itself is a perfect artefact of the anti-nuclear movement; it is printed on paper made from recycled paper cranes.

The final permanent exhibit in the museum is a collection of photographs of pre-bombing Hiroshima’s built environment. It is a small collection, some dating as far back as 1926, others imported from overseas collections, leaving the viewer with the sense that few such photographs have survived. I picked up two pamphlets from temporary exhibits on my way out — one a reconstruction of the pre-bombing suburbs, the other full of everyday photographs of the hospital at the Hypocenter. The lasting impression is that no matter how painstaking the attempt at retrieval, Hiroshima’s past was obliterated forever. Conversely, the moment of the explosion needs to be stretched out to fill the imagination, too large as it is to be contained by the mere seconds it took.

The bomb as global event

If the bomb cannot be understood as part of the War or Japanese history, and a political movement cannot be built solely on collective but localised trauma, then it must become a global event. The sense that Hiroshima is a legacy for all of us is everywhere in Peace Park.

The Sadako Sasaki monument is half surrounded by display cabinets containing hundreds of thousands of paper cranes. Mirroring and perfectly balancing the excursions I went on to the War Memorial in Canberra as a school kid, school groups from across Japan make pilgrimages to the monument to dedicate cranes to the memory of Sadako. The volume of cranes is staggering; within an hour I saw two groups deliver enormous bouquets of them, with two more lining up to take their turns. The solution is elegant: At either end of the semicircle of display cases there is a box containing thousands of bookmarks, made like the map from recycled paper cranes, encouraging visitors to take them with them. On them is printed what could be the manifesto of the anti-nuclear program: “Tell people what happened on August 6, 1945”.

Paper Cranes at the Sadako Sasaki monument. Image credit: Author

‘Peace’ — as opposed to ‘war’ — is hard to commemorate. While a war memorial can point back to a specific moment in time and dwells in the past, a peace memorial is implicitly directed at the unrealised future. As much as the park makes of 8:45, August 6, 1945, the bookmarks explain that “people of all generations” made the cranes “with wishes for peace and a hopeful future”. “No More Hiroshimas” is a future-oriented slogan.

If wars are inevitably fought by and between nations, then peace as a mission must take as its subject not nations but the whole world. While this framing takes advantage of the Museum’s careful work to disrupt the logics of war and geopolitics, it also offers the uncomfortable sensation of belief with no depth, a faith with nothing to anchor it to. This is the least convincing aspect of the memorial, because in the end, it memorialises an act not of peace but of war, against which peace must be sustained.

North of the Sadako Sasaki Monument and south of the Peace Clock is a bell that is not Buddhist, despite all evidence to the contrary. The plaque explains that you may ring it as a ritual and commemorative act. Unlike Buddhist temples, there is no time of day at which the bell is rung, and no restrictions on who may ring it. This is a democratising impulse, but one that nevertheless feels hollow because it refuses its only referent.

The peace bell. Image credit: Author

In a similar vein, the statue of Sadako Sasaki on top of the monument bears an almost certainly deliberate resemblance to Christ on the Cross. With her relics — cranes made by her hands that reside in the Museum — and rituals — the school pilgrimages — she is in every way a Saint, though a Saint entirely outside of the only religion that actually venerates Saints.

Saint Sadako. Image credit: Author

To create a peace movement that knows no history or geopolitics, the only option is to mimic the most prevalent transnational institution in our world: religion. But to behold these relics and rituals is to feel conceptually vertiginous, like the floor has dropped out from beneath your feet. As much as I was already an anti-nuclear convert, and as heavy as August 8 felt, I could not help but feel that the full weight of history was somehow missing from these parts of Peace Park.

This is partly because the project of Peace as a rejection of nationalism and war is infinitely radical and idealistically innovative. Peace has been contemplated by philosophers and prophets for millennia but the world has never achieved it as a permanent state. The memorials are perhaps designed to feel light because they represent hope.

It would have been so easy for the makers of Hiroshima to fall back on the bombing as a historically contingent event that impacted only Japan, and to commemorate it as a terrible tragedy that, while explicable by Japan’s deeds in the 1930s, was nevertheless a disproportionate punishment. In that alternate timeline, perhaps Hiroshima is the Japanese Rhineland, the epicenter of a resurgent and worse nationalist movement. In this alternate timeline it would be more in line with the ambiguous and confronting Yasukuni Jinja, which through a quirk in Shinto, immortalises and deifies six Class A War Criminals and still acts as a physical lightning rod for the militant right in Japan.

I think for all the flaws and tensions in Peace Park, we should be thankful to the Mayors of Hiroshima, the schoolchild pilgrims, and the makers of the museum and the myth. Without the work they have sustained over decades, we might still think that nuclear weapons made sense. Without their militant hope, I think the world would be a much darker place.



Nick Irving

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.