The Path Forward: Young American in the Face of Hiroshima's Legacy

A letter from our intern, Dustin Hinkley, for the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


In May of 2019, I arrived in Hiroshima with a singular purpose in mind: to learn more about the atomic bombing that had destroyed the city over seventy years before and earned it an eternal place in global history.

I am an American, and growing up I learned about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I had learned in school that it was a very unfortunate decision, but also could not have been averted, and was maybe even justified. I was taught that it was what shocked the Japanese government into surrendering, and that it prevented an American invasion of Japan itself. Later, I would also learn that these claims were not entirely true and that Japan had made overtures to surrender. I would question whether it was needed after all, and if such an act could truly be justified. So I sought to learn more.

At the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima I did not learn about strategic calculations or the political maneuverings of a power whose victory was already assured. Instead, I learned about something much more important. The stories of ordinary people who reminded me of myself and were ordinary people much like me, except for the fact of their death by nuclear weapons. I moved through a darkened corridor with other people, we saw terrible pictures of a city laid to waste and the stories hung on the wall of a student whose classroom caved in around her, of someone who only survived because she had been in a basement at the right moment. I stayed fixed for a long time on the remains of a tricycle whose rider had perished, which felt so incredibly small and fragile that I could hardly believe it was still holding itself together.

Finally, upon leaving the indoor museum and emerging into the park outside I was confronted with the genbaku dome, the closest building to the epicenter of the blast to survive. Survive is a strong word in this case, what was once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall now stands only as a ruined stone and steel framework, held together by rebar and forbidden to trespassers. It exists as a metaphor to what is left behind when we commit ourselves to war, a lifeless husk that future generations will marvel at and wonder “what happened here?” before moving along.

Today, of course, Hiroshima is a thriving city of over a million people that is mindful of its past and committed to its modern identity as an international City of Peace and baseball powerhouse.

Around the time I went to Hiroshima I was confronting a personal struggle about what I wanted my career to be. This visit helped me decide on international relations and diplomacy, so I could learn more about the world and work to help make my own country and others better through cooperation, and to prevent wars like the Second World War and the terrible events that took place during it.

There were once many survivors of the atomic bombings, known as Hibakusha, who dedicated themselves in some way to carrying on the memory of those events and working to ensure that a similar calamity would never come anywhere else, partnering with those who have borne the impacts of nuclear testing or radiation. There are fewer of them now, and eventually there will be no more.

It is absolutely vital for a new generation of Japanese, Americans, and people from around the world, who have not experienced nuclear war firsthand but who know of its dire effects, to commit themselves to the pursuit of peace through diplomacy, activism, and international cooperation to carry on the legacy of the atomic bomb.

This is a large part of why I have come to seek a career in diplomacy, seeking nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, and risk reduction. In doing so I hope to help build bridges to prevent future wars that would see more terrible atrocities, the use of nuclear weapons, and the moral and physical destruction of humanity should they not be prevented. In international diplomacy, it is important to be able to build bridges between how you understand the world and how others do. I think that’s why going to Hiroshima to learn more about the atomic bombing had such a large impact on me, because I went in with questions and an open mind, and came away with a new understanding.

I visited the first city to ever be attacked with nuclear weapons, but I did not go to the second, and for now, the last. It is an indisputable fact that Hiroshima was the first place where nuclear weapons were used in war, but it is not certain that Nagasaki will be the last. It might very well be the last, and I hope above all that it is, but only if we make it so.

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