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Alternative Culture Articles

March 12, 2002

The First Ground Zero
By Royce Carlson

The site of the World Trade Center in New York has become known as Ground Zero ever since the two towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001. But there was another, far more devastating, ground zero.

With two bombs in 1945, the United States military killed 90 times as many people as died in the World Trade Center attack last September. Ninety times! This is especially important to remember as the Bush Administration creates contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against seven countries (China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria). What are they thinking?

Until last year the term "ground zero" applied only to nuclear bomb detonations. As we remember the terrible events of 9/11 let us also remember the first ground zero – Hiroshima, Japan, and the arms race it spawned.

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 in the morning an atomic bomb called Little Boy was dropped over the city of Hiroshima by a B29 bomber called the Enola Gay. The 15-kiloton nuclear device was detonated about 2000 feet above the city immediately generating temperatures in the millions of degrees and sending a fireball out in all directions. Even though the explosion was 2000 feet up, the temperatures on the ground below it reached 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, melting tile and glass and instantly burning anything combustible. The blast generated winds up to 620 miles per hour and destroyed most houses and buildings within a mile and a half radius.

The men, women and children who were not instantly incinerated by the blast were badly burned and exposed to very high levels of radiation. Most died within a few months. It is estimated that 140,000 people died by the end of that year. Subsequent deaths from radiation poisoning brought the death toll to somewhere around 200,000. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki killing an additional 70,000 people bringing the total from both bombs to 270,000 people. Some were soldiers but most were civilians – including students, teachers, mothers, fathers, children and the elderly. That was the last time a nuclear weapon was used in a conflict.

After that, the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear capabilities and an arms race began that continued for 20 years. At the height of it in the 60’s I remember drills at school where we would "duck and cover" and people were digging bomb shelters in their backyards. It was a frightening time when one wrong move by either side could have meant the end of life as we know it.

As more countries developed nuclear weapons and the number of weapons in the global stockpile increased, the world governments realized the extreme danger of this situation and began to negotiate treaties that would reduce the chances of nuclear annihilation. Non-proliferation treaties were written to stop additional countries from developing nuclear arms. START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was created to get existing nuclear powers to reduce the number of weapons they kept on hand, and nuclear test ban treaties were signed to reduce the amount of radiation put into atmosphere. The world’s efforts to reduce nuclear threat have now gone on for close to 30 years. The Bush administration’s new plans appear to undermine all this work and may throw the world back into a very dangerous arms race.

There are eight countries that currently have nuclear capabilities – China, Great Britain, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States. Two countries, North Korea and South Africa, know how to make them but have abandoned their nuclear weapons programs. According to Natural Resources Defense Council data, the world nuclear weapons stockpile is currently over 31,000 warheads.

Three of the nations on Bush’s new nuclear attack contingency list currently have nuclear weapons or the capacity to make them (China, Russia, North Korea) and two more countries on the list are known to be trying to develop nuclear weapons (Iraq and Iran).

How can the U.S. government assume that the people of other countries would respond differently than the people of the United States would when faced with a similar threat? If another country made threats against the U.S. would we not accelerate our weapons development? Of course we would and we are. I would not be surprised to see the other countries on the Pentagon list start nuclear weapons programs to defend themselves against the U.S.

The amount of devastation caused by even a limited nuclear exchange would make Hiroshima look like a small affair. The U.S. currently stockpiles nearly 10,000 nuclear warheads, some of them with yields greater than 1 megaton – 66 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Over 10 million people could be killed with just one well-placed bomb of this size! The United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in a war. The world must be terrified.

In our zeal to stop terrorism around the world, let us look back, before 9/11, to August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, Japan and remember that we must be careful to not become perpetrators of the kind of terror that we seek to destroy. The threat of nuclear weapons use is just that sort of terror. Let’s not go there.

What Can I Do to Help?

You can help stop this madness by letting President Bush and Congress know that you do not approve of creating new nuclear weapons and the government’s plans to use them. The Council for a Livable World was created by a scientist who was involved in the first nuclear tests. It functions as a watchdog organization to monitor nuclear weapons, arms control and weapons of mass destruction. They have an easy-to-use "e-mail activism" section that allows you to send pre-prepared e-mails to your congressmen and the President. Do it now!  -

The photos above are of various nuclear tests carried out by the United States between 1952 and 1962.

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Royce Carlson