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On 6 August 1945 the inhabitants of Hiroshima could hardly have noticed an American plane flying at a very high altitude in the cloudless sky. Directly above the city, the plane let fall a device not much bigger than an ordinary bomb. A few seconds later, a flash a thousand times brighter than the sun set the sky alight, followed almost immediately by an incandescent heat and a whirlwind that swept away everything in its path.

Some 80,000 people died at the moment of the explosion, and almost as many suffered serious injuries. Many were to die in the weeks and months that followed, in terrible agony from the burns they sustained or from radiation sickness.

It was 8.15 in the morning. The world had entered a new era, dominated by the nuclear threat. Three days later, another bomb, with the same horrific effect as in Hiroshima, destroyed the city of Nagasaki.

On 15 August Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan accepted the Allies’ ultimatum, and on 2 September General Torashivo Kawabe signed Japan’s unconditional surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri, as it lay anchored in Tokyo Bay. The Second World War was over.

Of all the National Societies, the Japanese Red Cross was one of those with the greatest available resources. Miraculously, the Red Cross hospital in Hiroshima had been spared, although the doors, windows and a section of the roof had been blown out by the explosion. Thousands of the wounded could thus be treated there.

As for the ICRC, from the beginning of the war it had maintained a small delegation in Japan which strove to aid Allied prisoners of war detained in the archipelago. On 29 August an ICRC delegate, Fritz Bilfinger, was able to reach Hiroshima. The telegram he sent to the delegation the next day gives some idea of the extent of the horror:

On 9 September the ICRC’s Head of Delegation, Dr Marcel Junod, arrived in Hiroshima with an initial supply of 12 tonnes of bandages and medicines.

In an appeal launched on 5 September 1945 — less than a month after the destruction of Hiroshima — the institution clearly questioned the legality of nuclear weapons and demanded that States come to some agreement banning their use. This appeal was reiterated in a resolution that was unanimously adopted by the XVIIth International Conference of the Red Cross which took placed in Stockholm in August 1948.

Today, fifty years after Hiroshima, the nuclear powers still maintain arsenals of weapons capable of destroying every vestige of human life on earth. While the threat of a widespread nuclear war has seemingly receded with the end of the cold war, the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons is, by contrast, greater than ever.

Visited Hiroshima thirtieth stop city wiped out eighty percent all hospitals destroyed or seriously damaged, inspected two emergency hospitals conditions beyond description fullstop...many victims apparently recovering suddenly suffer fatal relapse due to decomposition of white bloodcells and other internal injuries stop estimated still over 100,000 wounded in emergency hospitals sadly lacking bandaging materials medicines stop please solemnly appeal to allied high command consider immediate airdrop relief action over center city stop...



François Bugnion
François Bugnion is Deputy Director of Principles, Law and Relations with the Movement at the ICRC.

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