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Why the Horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must never be repeated

Address at Opening of Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition, Menzies Library, Australian National University, Canberra, 5 September 2022

I first went to Hiroshima nearly sixty years ago, in 1964, as a twenty-year old student, and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Throughout my early years I had been vaguely conscious, like everyone else, of the shadow of nuclear war hanging over us all. But nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of standing at the epicentre of that first nuclear bomb strike, and being overwhelmed by the almost indescribable horror of what had occurred here just two decades earlier.

There is one particular exhibit in the Hiroshima peace park museum I saw then that I have never been able to get out of my memory: a granite block, part of the front steps of a bank building, against which someone had been sitting when the bomb exploded early that bright sunny August meeting. Starkly visible on that stone was the shadow of that man or woman, or maybe teenager, indelibly etched there by the crystallisation of the granite around his or her body as it was, in an instant, incinerated by that terrible blast.

I thought then of the millions of real human beings who would be vaporised, crushed, baked, boiled or irradiated to death if a nuclear war ever broke out. And it seemed to me then that I had to do whatever I could, using whatever opportunity my professional career allowed me, to try to rid the world of these horrifying weapons, the most destructive and indiscriminately inhumane ever devised.

That was my dream then, and it remains my dream now, as I hope it will be the dream of anyone who visits those sites in Hiroshima or Nagasaki now – or who visits now in Canberra this moving and challenging exhibition, sponsored by the two cities who suffered so much, which so graphically and effectively captures the horror of their experience. I know how much organizational effort, over how many months, went into putting this exhibition together, and we are all in the debt of those on both the Japanese and ANU sides – in particular Kahori Wada and Lauren Richardson – whose energy and commitment made it possible.

That dream of mine, shared I know by so many others, of eliminating these terrible weapons from the face of the earth certainly does not look very possible right now. At the very time that the world should be redoubling its efforts to move not just towards much stronger non-proliferation regimes, but towards complete nuclear disarmament, we are in fact moving in the opposite direction.

Despite the big reductions which occurred immediately after the end of the Cold War, and the continuing retirement or scheduling for dismantlement since by Russia and the United States of many more, over 13 000 warheads are still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of close to 100 000 Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-sized bombs. Around 6300 nuclear weapons remain in the hands of Russia, 5600 with the United States, and around 1300 with the other nuclear-armed states combined (China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Israel and—at the margin—North Korea).

In our own Indo-Pacific region, delivery systems are being extended, weapons are being modernised and their numbers are increasing. A large proportion of the global stockpile—nearly 4000 weapons—remains operationally available. And, most extraordinarily of all, some 2000 of the US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each president of four to eight minutes. Moreover, here are alarming signs that the nuclear taboo which has been an important inhibitor of aggressive first use of nuclear weapons in the past, is weakening – with Russia’s President Putin talking up the useability of nuclear weapons, including so-called tactical weapons, in language not heard since the Cold War years.

Of the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it – climate change, pandemics and nuclear war – the one about which both policymakers and publics, here and abroad, appear to be most complacent, is that flowing from nuclear war. On the face of it, that complacency is extraordinary. Nuclear weapons are not only the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised but the casualties that would follow any kind of significant nuclear exchange would be on an almost incalculably horrific scale. Not just from the immediate blast and longer-term radiation effect – as the testimony we are about to hear from a Japanese hibakusha, Mdm Yoshiko Kajimoto, will movingly remind us – but from the catastrophic starvation-guaranteeing nuclear-winter effect on global agriculture.

And there is every prospect that, within the readily foreseeable future, those weapons will actually be used. The ‘Doomsday Clock’, published each year by the globally respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, currently has its hands at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest they have been in the clock’s long history. The fact that we have not had a nuclear weapon used in conflict for over seventy-five years is not a result of statesmanship, system integrity and infallibility, or the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence. It has been sheer dumb luck.

Given what we now know about how many times the supposedly very sophisticated command-and-control systems of the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy, given what we know about how much less sophisticated are the command-and-control systems of some of the newer nuclear-armed states, and given what we both know and can guess about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber-offence will be in overcoming cyber-defence in the years ahead, it is utterly wishful thinking to believe that this luck can continue in perpetuity. These weapons may never be used coldly and deliberately to wage aggressive war. But there is a very high probability that they will, sooner or later, still be used.

The nuclear-armed states do acknowledge that there are risks associated with nuclear weapons. They talk constantly about the necessity of nuclear non-proliferation—the necessity to avoid the risks associated with new players joining the nuclear-armed club. And they talk constantly about the nuclear security risks associated with the acquisition of nuclear weapons or fissile material by rogue states or non-state terrorist actors. But they also constantly downplay the most immediate and real threat of them all: the risk of use by the present nuclear-armed states of their own existing arsenals—either with deliberately aggressive intent or, much more likely, as a result of accident or miscalculation, through system or human failure. And these are risks that can only be countered by the world’s policymakers getting serious not just about nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security, but nuclear disarmament.

It is this test that Australian Government policymakers, with only a handful of exceptions over the decades, have essentially failed. Successive governments have been actively committed supporters of non-proliferation through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its associated International Atomic Energy Agency–administered safeguards system. We have supported the creation of Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones, and joined that in our own South Pacific region. And we have made it abundantly clear that our proposed acquisition of nuclear-propelled submarines under the AUKUS agreement will be managed consistently with our non-proliferation responsibilities, and is in no way a prelude to Australia becoming nuclear-armed. But we have simply not been consistently serious about nuclear disarmament.

Various Labor governments have at least tried to move the dial, and I hope very much our new Albanese Government will do the same. In 1996 Prime Minister Paul Keating and I initiated the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. With an all-star international cast, including from the United States Robert McNamara and the former strategic air commander general Lee Butler, this was the first international blue-ribbon panel to make a compelling case for the outright elimination of these weapons. Its central mantra was ‘So long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them. So long as any state retains nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used. And any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it’.

And this mantra has been repeated by every high-level international panel since then which has addressed these issues. Including, in 2009, the jointly Australia–Japan sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament initiated by Kevin Rudd and co-chaired by me with former Japanese foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, which not only made a strong case for an ultimate elimination agenda, but mapped a realistic ‘minimisation’ (or risk reduction) path to get there.

But there has been no consistent follow-up to either of these initiatives, internationally well received though both were. Non-Labor governments have generally remained unhappily lovesick about nuclear deterrence, and the joys of sheltering uncritically under whatever nuclear umbrella the United States might be inclined to hold up for us in a crisis. Canberra has constantly taken its cue from Washington as to how far we can go. We have rarely added our voice to those arguing that the nuclear weapon states party to the NPT have a real obligation under that treaty to take serious steps toward disarmament. It is very hard to avoid the label of hypocrisy when you take the position that your own security concerns justify nuclear weapons, but others’ concerns do not.

Australia, again uncritically following the United States, refused under previous governments to have anything to do with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), but we have now at least started to participate as observers in meetings of its state parties. This treaty, negotiated with the support of a large majority of UN member states and now in force, is a big normative step forward in delegitimising nuclear weapons, albeit binding only on those states joining it, which none of the nuclear-armed states are remotely likely to do.

There are technical weaknesses in the TPNW treaty text (including the absence of any provisions for verification and, especially, enforcement), but the bigger problem has been a dogged belief by all the nuclear-armed states, and their allies and partners, in the continued utility of nuclear deterrence. There has been a total unwillingness to accept—as those hard-line Cold War realists Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn and the late George Shultz have done, in their famous series of Wall Street Journal articles since 2007—that in today’s world the benefits of nuclear deterrence have been vastly oversold, and that risks associated with nuclear weapons possession far outweigh any security returns.

In an environment where the achievement of ‘Global Zero’ remains manifestly out of reach for the indefinitely foreseeable future, it makes sense for those advocating a nuclear-weapon-free world not to make the best the enemy of the good. Rather, we should focus on nuclear risk reduction, finding common ground with those policymakers who may be uncomfortable abandoning what they still see as the ultimate deterrent and security guarantor, but nonetheless understand all the risks involved with nuclear weapons possession and want to minimise them.

The most commonly proposed risk-reduction measures—and central elements in our Australia–Japan commission’s ‘minimisation’ agenda—may be described as the ‘4 Ds’. They are Doctrine (getting universal buy-in for a ‘No First Use’ (NFU) commitment), Deployment (drastically reducing the number of weapons ready for immediate use), De-alerting (taking weapons off high-alert, launch-on warning readiness) and Decreased numbers (reducing the overall global stockpile to less than 2000 weapons). A world with low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few of them physically deployed, with practically none of them on high-alert launch status, and with every nuclear-armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use them, would still be very far from perfect. But one that could achieve these objectives would be a very much safer world than we live in now.

What has been most depressing about Australia’s performance in recent years, which I hope very much will now change, is that even these realistic objectives have not been actively supported. Australia’s status as a close US ally and, as such, one of the ‘nuclear umbrella’ states—together with our periodic high-profile international activism on arms-control issues—gives us a particularly significant potential role in advancing some key elements of the risk-reduction agenda just described.

One especially important contribution would be to support the growing international movement for the universal adoption of NFU doctrine by the nuclear-armed states. Our new Australian Labor Government, At the NPT Review Conference concluded in New York just a few days ago (which ended, almost inevitably, with no consensus on a final statement, Russia opposing any reference to the nuclear risks involved in its invasion of Ukraine), a great deal of support was evident for such NFU commitments as part of a larger risk reduction agenda. But the delegation of our new Labor Government made no contribution to that debate. I live in hope that that position will change.

I am acutely conscious that achieving a safer, saner, nuclear-weapon free world will be a long and difficult process. It will mean energising, and re-energising, efforts both top-down from policymakers and bottom-up from concerned publics. It will mean uniting around a common, realistic disarmament agenda that does not make the best the enemy of the good. And it will mean harnessing the power not only of reason, but emotion. The strong emotion that I experienced at Hiroshima all those decades ago – that sense of anger, outrage and distress at the sheer inhumanity of what I saw. And the emotion which I know will be generated among all those who visit this not only very informative, but deeply moving, exhibition we are opening here today.