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
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.