Thoughts on the 65th Anniversary of Hiroshima Day

08/07/2010 01:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed about Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk..."

On August 31st, 1946 the New Yorker devoted its entire issue to 'Hiroshima', John Hershey's account of six survivors of the first atomic bomb attack, which began with that sentence.

On September 11th, 2001, at 8:46am I was in my loft waiting for a conference call when I heard a plane flying overhead, too low. I told myself that it must be just my imagination, because if I was hearing a plane crashing the next sound I would hear would be a crash. The sound of the plane ended abruptly in an impact. I told myself that it must be just my imagination, because if I had just heard a plane crash in Manhattan, the next thing I would hear would be sirens. The next thing I heard were sirens. So I looked out of the window and saw one of the towers on fire. I called my father, with whom I had planned to see Apocalypse Now Redux that night. I told him that a plane had just crashed into the world trade center, and he told me that he was in a meeting. I looked at the tower and saw people jumping out. People who had just gone to work that morning. People like me, who might be my friends, or might not but could have been, but certainly hadn't expected to have to jump out of the towers when they had taken the elevator up to their office a few minutes ago. A plane had flown in and changed everything.

And I wondered: could a nuclear weapon ever attack New York, could the Manhattan Project ever boomerang back upon us to incinerate Manhattan?

And that is why, on October 11th, 2007, when I received a phone call from Participant Media, I told them that I wanted to make the movie about nuclear weapons now called Countdown To Zero, which premiered at Sundance film festival on January 25th, 2010 at Sundance Film Festival, screened in Official Selection at Cannes on May 17th, and opened wide in movie theaters across the USA on July 23rd, 2010.

On July 16th, 1945 the first ever atomic explosion was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico -- the Trinity test. In a TV broadcast in 1965 Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project and so-called "the father of the atomic bomb," recalled feeling that "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another."

By 9am on the morning of August 6th, 1945 the Tokyo control operator of the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation noticed that the Hiroshima station had gone off the air. He tried to re-establish his program by using another telephone line, but it too had failed. About 20 minutes later the Tokyo railroad telegraph center realized that the main line telegraph had stopped working just north of Hiroshima. From some small railway stops within ten miles of the city came unofficial reports of a terrible explosion in Hiroshima. All these reports were transmitted to the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff. Military bases repeatedly tried to call the Army Control Station in Hiroshima and were puzzled by the complete silence. A young officer of the Japanese General Staff was instructed to fly immediately to Hiroshima to survey the damage and report back to Tokyo. It was generally felt that nothing serious had taken place and that the explosion was just a rumor. The staff officer went to the airport and took off and after flying for about three hours, while still nearly 100 miles from Hiroshima, saw a great cloud of smoke from the bomb. A great scar on the land still burning and covered by a heavy cloud of smoke was all that was left.

Early on August 6th, 1945 General Leslie Groves called Robert Oppenheimer to congratulate him. Groves told him "Apparently it went with a tremendous bang" and Oppenheimer asked "When was this, was it after sundown?", knowing that people would be least exposed while inside their houses. "No, unfortunately it had to be in the daytime on account of security in the plane and that was left in the hands of the Commanding General over there" replied Groves.

At 11am, eastern standard time on August 6, 1945, President Truman was at sea a thousand miles away from the White House, returning from Potsdam, while his assistant press secretary Eben Ayers read the president's press statement to a dozen members of the Washington press corps, in an atmosphere so casual that the reporters didn't initially grasp it. It began: "Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British "Grand Slam" which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East."

On the night of August 6th, 1945 there was a party at Los Alamos. These scientists had ensured that Hitler didn't beat us to "harnessing the basic power of the universe" and that was something to celebrate. But the party fizzled. The scientists, famous for letting off steam on the dance floor, did not dance that night. Oppenheimer shared a telex he had received with damage reports from Hiroshima and left the party early. Later he often described walking home that night and seeing a young scientist throwing up in the bushes and thinking that the reaction had begun. Frank Oppenheimer, Robert's brother and also a physicist at Los Alamos, said that at first he felt "relieved" that the bomb was "not a dud". But later he said "we had somehow always thought that it would not be dropped on people."

On August 8th, 1945, newspapers in the US were reporting that broadcasts from Radio Tokyo had described the destruction observed in Hiroshima. "Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death," the Japanese radio announcers said.

On the morning of August 9, 1945, the US B-29 Superfortress Bockscar took off from Tinian's North Field airfield carrying the nuclear bomb code-named "Fat Man". By the time they reached Kokura, the primary target, a 70% cloud cover had obscured the city, prohibiting the visual attack required by orders. After three runs over the city, and with fuel running low, they headed for their secondary target, Nagasaki. After initially deciding that if Nagasaki were obscured on their arrival the crew would carry the bomb to Okinawa and dispose of it in the ocean, finally at 11.01am, a last-minute break in the clouds over Nagasaki allowed Bockscar's bombardier to visually sight the target as ordered and drop the"Fat Man" weapon, containing a core of 14.1 lbs of plutonium-239, over the city's industrial valley. It exploded 43 seconds later, generating heat estimated at 7,000 °F and winds estimated at 624 mph.

On August 10th, 1945, those in Hiroshima were still not sure what had happened. One theory was that it had not been a bomb at all, but a kind of fine magnesium powder sprayed over the whole city by a single plane, and it exploded when it came into contact with the live wires of the city power system.

By August 22nd, 1945 a Japanese wire service reported that "because of the uncanny effects which the atomic bomb produces on the human body, even those who received minor burns, and looked quite healthy at first, weakened after a few days for some unknown reason". Tokyo radio described Hiroshima's "ghost parade" of the living doomed to die. A rumor began to circulate that the bomb had dropped some kind of poison that would give off deadly emanations for years to come and there was a mass panic and exodus from the city. Japanese physicists, who suspected the radiation effects of fission, came to the city to measure and triangulate the prints of the shadows of buildings - and the human beings - created by the explosion to determine where the epicenter had been and what the radiation levels were.

On August 24th, 1945 Los Alamos scientists sent a telex to General Groves, saying they were "much concerned about Japanese broadcasts claiming murderous delayed radioactive effects at Hiroshima". Groves dismissed the reports of this feared post-explosion sickness as Japanese "hoax or propaganda".

On September 2nd, 1945 Australian reporter Wilfred Burchett took a morning train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, one of only two journalists to defy travel restrictions. He described Hiroshima as a "death-stricken alien planet" where those who survived the blast were suffering fever, nausea, and gangrene, with their heads framed with halos of hair that had fallen out on the mats on which they lay. He sat on a chunk of rubble and typed the following report: "In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are dying, mysteriously and horribly - people who were uninjured in the cataclysm - from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague... I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning in the world".

By September 11th, 1945, Father Kleinsorge, a Methodist minister living in Hiroshima, had a fever which kept getting worse. His colleagues sent him to the Catholic International Hospital in Tokyo with this message to the Mother Superior: "Think twice before you give this man blood transfusions, because with atomic-bomb patients we aren't at all sure that if you stick needles in them, they'll stop bleeding." When he arrived "he was pale and shaky. He complained that the bomb had upset his digestion and given him abdominal pains. His white blood cell count was three thousand (five to seven thousand is normal), he was seriously anemic, and his temperature was 104'. A doctor came to see him and was most encouraging "you'll be out of here in two weeks," he said. But when the doctor got out in the corridor he said to the Mother Superior, "He'll die. All these bomb people die -- you'll see. They go along for a couple of weeks and then they die."

On January 1st, 2008 I wrote the treatment for Countdown To Zero and at the top I quoted Einstein saying that nuclear weapons have "changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." My intention in making the film was to reverse this drift and avert catastrophe. I wished I had a superhero cape. Einstein said that "the public, having been warned of the horrible nature of atomic warfare, has done nothing about it, and to a large extent has dismissed the warning from its consciousness." I fear that we might all be like the "walking ghosts" of Hiroshima -- having survived the initial attack, we are the walking dead, unaware that we are doomed by these weapons to certain death, and alive only by virtue of a ghoulish time lag between the onset of the nuclear period and the full realization of its horrific consequences.

On October 16th, 1945 Oppenheimer retired from Los Alamos. He was given a pin engraved with an "A" and a picture of a bomb. His speech was troubling: "If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world... then the time will come when mankind will curse the name of Los Alamos and Hiroshima."

On October 19th, 1945 Oppenheimer met with Henry Wallace in Washington, who wrote in this diary that "I never saw a man in such an extremely nervous state as Oppenheimer. He seemed to feel that the destruction of the entire human race was imminent... He has been in charge of the scientists ... and all they think about now are the social and economic implications of the bomb... The guilt consciousness of the atomic bomb scientists is one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen."

In February 1946 the New Republic printed the eye-witness testimony of Phillips Morrison, a young Cornell physicist. "With the fire stations wrecked and firemen burned, how control a thousand fires? With the doctors dead and the hospitals smashed, how treat over a quarter of a million injured? A Japanese official stood in the rubble and said to me: 'All this from one bomb; it is unendurable... Even if the raiders were over Fukuoka, you, in Sendai, a thousand miles north, must still fear death from a single plane. This is unendurable.'"

On April 9th, 2009 President Obama made a speech in Prague calling for "a world without nuclear weapons." I hoped it was possible, and I thought about other intractable situations that had unexpectedly broken through in sudden paradigm shifts my lifetime -- the end of apartheid, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Arriving in Berlin on June 12, 1987, President Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate: "We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Reagan's speech seems prescient in retrospect, as he continued: "As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, 'This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.' Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom."

On November 9th, 1989, less than two years after Reagan's speech, I was a curious teenager in England when I heard the news that the Berlin Wall had fallen -- or at least that citizens were passing through the gates and chipping away at it without being killed by guards. My student brain tried to grasp what this meant and concluded that it was the most historic and fascinating and unexpected event. My homework for the week did not seem nearly as important or interesting as what was going on in Berlin. I persuaded three friends to join me and we purchased £50 student plane tickets.

So on November 11th, 1989 my friends flew to Berlin to find out for ourselves what was going on, chip off our own bits of the wall, and write about our experiences for the student newspaper. We didn't have any money for accommodation so we tried to stay up all night long drinking coffee in cafés and raving with the art freaks in abandoned soviet warehouses, but on the second night we couldn't stay awake anymore and slept on the subway. We spoke to as many people as we could, on both sides of the wall, and I remember each of those conversations to this day. Images stay with me of the people standing with the guards on top of the wall, the creativity of the graffiti and the samizdat flyers. I wanted to understand this most momentous moments in my lifetime, and to communicate it accurately, and this trip could mark the beginning of the next twenty years of my life becoming a documentary filmmaker.

On October 12th, 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, President Reagan and Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev met and proposed all-out disarmament. According to the transcripts Reagan said "it would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons." And Gorbachev responded, "We can do that. We can eliminate them." President Reagan continued to describe his vision of their meeting in Iceland ten years from now. He would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say, "Hello, Mikhail." And Gorbachev would say, " Ron, is it you?" And then they would destroy the last missiles. Ten years from now he would be a very old man. He and Gorbachev would come to Iceland and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them. Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world. Gorbachev said that he did not know if we would live another ten years. The President said he was counting on living that long. Gorbachev said that the President had gotten past the dangerous period and would now live to be 100, and later Reagan remarked that he would not live to 100 if he had to worry every day about being hit by a Soviet missile. Gorbachev replied that they had agreed to eliminate them.

Oh June 11th, 2009 I interviewed Gorbachev in Moscow and he told me that his greatest regret is that he and Reagan were not able to realize their dream on that timetable, and the "tremendous party for the whole world" may not happen in his lifetime.

On August 6th, 2010, 65 years after the first bomb was used in Hiroshima, I hosted a special screening of Countdown To Zero, and I told the audience that if the atom bomb was a human being, it would be the time to think about retiring, 65 years old that it is today. I read on Wikipedia that within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000-166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000-80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day, and of those 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. In both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of the dead were civilians.

Today and always I remember them, those in Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th, as well as those in Los Alamos and Tinian that day. As a child I feared nothing more than a nuclear attack, the unendurable death from a single plane. I hope our children will have less, and not more, to fear. I hope the atom bomb can retire and that 65 more years, and 650 more years, and 6,500 more years, will pass before another city is destroyed by a single bomb. I think of those in Hiroshima on August 6th and every day.