At 83, Setsuko Thurlow is still full of passion and principle, but she’s had enough. “We have waited 70 years,” she said of her fellow hibakusha (atomic-bomb survivors). “I think the time has come.” Thurlow survived the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima when she watched her city of 350,000 shatter into heaps of bodies and rubble. She’s since traveled the world, speaking about the terrors of nuclear weapons and fighting for disarmament.
For her lifetime of efforts, Thurlow will be presented this Sunday with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Distinguished Peace Leadership Award. Earlier this year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She talked with me by phone from her home in Canada about why people aren’t more afraid of the big bombs, why they should be, and why the tide may finally be turning toward abolishment.
You’ve said the issue doesn’t get the attention it should. Why do you think that is? Generally, people feel powerless, helpless. They think, “Even if I oppose it, the government will do what it wants anyway.” And nothing has happened in the last 70 years. Because it is such a dreadful issue, people consciously and unconsciously put it out of their minds.
What in your message gets through to people the most? Sharing the massive destruction and death, the skeletons and blackened corpses, that I witnessed with my own eyes — simply and honestly telling about my experience and thoughts. It never ceases to be painful. I have to brace myself every time. But I feel I need to provide a human face to the abstraction of nuclear weapons.
Why do you feel compelled to fight for peace? The only way for me to live is to warn the world about the danger of nuclear weapons so that horror is never repeated. I believe no human being should have to go through what I and thousands of others did. As long as there are nuclear weapons, there is a danger.
How do you feel about the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park? I think it’s a repugnant thing. It’s glorification of “a great scientific triumph” your government achieved. But because the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki protested it, some U.S. officials involved in planning the park visited the cities and their museums to familiarize themselves with the human suffering.
Are you angry with the U.S. for what it did to your city? Well, let’s look at that. The American people were as much in the dark as the rest of the world about the Manhattan Project. The American people are not to be blamed for what happened, but a small group of people who made the decision to kill an entire city of men, women, babies, the elderly — all noncombatants. To feel angry about what happened is only a natural response, but we can use that anger for a positive force.
What can people do to actually make a difference? First, they need to take their heads out of the sand. Then create pressure to take action — write letters to politicians, to the president; stand up and be heard. Of the 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world, more than 90 percent belong to the U.S. and Russia. When Obama made his famous speech in Prague, he acknowledged that America is the only nation that has actually used nukes and that it has a moral responsibility to lead toward disarmament. The world rejoiced at that, but since then, there’s been no action. The hibakusha have been dying fast, and they’re dying with their dream of disarmament unfulfilled.
What makes you most afraid, and what gives you hope? I’m afraid a majority of people doesn’t realize we’re living in a nuclear age and what that means. First, we have to inform ourselves. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is an excellent resource you have. And there is a new movement around the world; a lot of young people and NGOs are involved. I see positive things on the horizon, and I am excited. I will be sharing this with the people of Santa Barbara, especially the young people. I hope they will see what I mean and share my concerns and take action.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation will host its 32nd Annual Evening for Peace at the Coral Casino (1260 Channel Dr.) on Sunday, October 25, at 5:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit wagingpeace.org.