Nuclear Legacies: A Global Look at the 70th Anniversary of the Hiroshima Bombing

Sep 23 2015
By B. Rose Huber | 609-258-0157
Source Woodrow Wilson School

conference on Oct. 1-2 will bring together scholars to reflect on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, which – together with a bombing on Nagasaki – killed 129,000 people in August 1945.

The United States dropped atomic bombs on these Japanese cities at the end of World War II, effectively bringing the war to an end. To date, these bombings remain the only use of nuclear weapons for warfare. 

The conference, hosted by Professor G. John Ikenberry of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Politics and Professor Michael Gordin of the Department of History, will examine the significance and effects of the Hiroshima bombing over key historical periods during the last 70 years.

In the following Q&A, the organizers of the conference provide a snapshot of the content that will be discussed.

Q. How has the “meaning” of Hiroshima changed over the past 70 decades?

Gordin and Ikenberry: The “meaning” of the Hiroshima bombing – and the comparative neglect of the Nagasaki bombing which took place three days later – has changed substantially over the past 70 years and in different ways in different parts of the globe. The variety of reactions can be understood largely as a function of two factors: the interpretation of World War II (especially its conclusion) and the relevance of nuclear weapons to contemporary politics and military strategy.

As time has passed, the salience of the atomic bombings as the only combat use of nuclear weapons has receded, subsumed under more general arguments (pro and con) concerning superpower foreign policy, modernization and the ethics of warfare. The precise development of these debates – and how different they looked at various times in the Soviet Union, China, India, Europe, the United States and elsewhere – has been explored for individual locales but rarely together as a global conversation. That’s the goal of our upcoming conference: to bring together historians and political scientists with different specializations to come to a better understanding of the whole.

Q. How did the bombing transform the world’s view of nuclear proliferation? 

Gordin and Ikenberry: First, the bombings demonstrated that nuclear weapons were in fact possible, which set the position of nuclear weapons – a hypothetical notion only a few years earlier – on a new footing. Since then, the connection between Hiroshima/Nagasaki and proliferation has always been highly contingent. The decision to acquire nuclear weapons has always been linked in some way to a state’s understanding of the usability of these weapons: whether from the part of the proliferator or, more frequently, out of a desire of deterring their use from the proliferator’s nuclear-armed adversaries. Soviet proliferation in 1949 had begun before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but efforts were markedly accelerated afterward. As the only use of nuclear weapons in war, both the specific tactics of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and world reaction to them, have conditioned the deliberations among would-be proliferators.

Q. What lessons have we learned from the Hiroshima bombing that can be applied to today? How might we use the past to inform decision-making regarding the Iran nuclear deal and other non-proliferation efforts?

Gordin and Ikenberry: The last panel of the conference will focus on precisely these questions. Does Hiroshima still have significance – does it have lessons – for today’s global debates about nuclear weapons?  We are sure we will hear different views. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings certainly remain important as visual and historical reminders of the horrific violence that can be unleashed by modern war and the fragility of human capacities to live in peace. The 1945 bombings put on the world’s diplomatic table a question that governments have struggled with for 70 years: Can this new technology of violence be controlled? Hiroshima and Nagasaki may not hold specific lessons for leaders of today who are grappling with nuclear proliferation and arms control – but the memory of these bombings reminds us of the extraordinary stakes that are involved in this struggle to control these powerful weapons.

This event will be followed by a conference in 2017 in Hiroshima. An edited volume will be published to coincide with the evening of the 75th anniversary of the bombing in 2020.

Register by contacting Cynthia Ernst at This event is open to Princeton faculty, students and staff only.

Additional sponsors include the Wilson School's Future of Multilateralism Fund, the East Asian Studies Program's McCosh-Orita Fund, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, the Princeton-University of Tokyo Research Partnership and the University Center for Human Values. The Center for International Security Studies organized the conference.