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Last Updated: 03/19/2007
Missing from Your Curriculum?
Raymond G. Wilson

My first teaching responsibilities began in 1959 in the physics course of an Illinois high school that had been the recipient of a federal grant with official U.S. Civil Defense radiation detection equipment; "Teach the kids about protecting themselves in the event of a nuclear 'exchange'" …Well, O.K.; but what was it like for the people caught by nuclear war? All that had been mainly revealed by 1959 was what had happened to the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…and incidentally (it almost seemed) a lot of people died. But what really happened to the people? The Occupation had confiscated “all film and photos.”


            I am still puzzled by what it meant that the free Civil Defense course materials and equipment were designated for the school’s physics program. Why was it not made part of the general education program? Were we only to equip physics students for survival? Where is such government education support now? Are nuclear weapons no longer threatening?


            For the past 27 years Illinois Wesleyan University has been providing its students with an important course about which some students have remarked, “This should be required of everyone!” They are speaking of my general education course about the 1st nuclear war and world nuclear armaments, Problems of Nuclear Disarmament.


            Is a course like this missing from your curriculum? The topic seems sufficiently important. After all, these nuclear problems led to the creation in 1945 of a new journal, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, endorsed by many Nobel Laureates, including Hans Bethe, James Franck, Andrei Sakharov, Linus Pauling, Albert Einstein, and also Robert Oppenheimer and Leo Szilard.1 These nuclear problems remain largely unsolved; some have become more complex. Is your school helping to teach the next generations of politicians and decision-makers, citizens, to fully understand the nature of nuclear war and the importance of a solution to this problem? I think the people just mentioned would greatly favor that idea.


            In 1959, buried in the University of Illinois library stacks was Dr. Nobuo Kusano's book, Atomic Bomb Injuries.2  By now, 2007, you may be familiar with pictures of burns from the nuclear attacks and keloid (keloid) scars, but three photos from that book are etched in my memory; these are pictures of the corpse of a soldier who was not present when the bomb exploded but who had helped rescue people afterward the leukemic nodes plainly evident on his toes, fingers, eyes…From 1959 on, as student and later as teacher, I was more cautious in my nuclear physics laboratory work. My own instructor, a seemingly fearless but sensibly cautious soul, died of cancer some years later, a bit too early I thought. Radiation is not something with which you casually mess around. Just ask a member of the National Association of Atomic Veterans. There is no low level of nuclear radiation exposure below which there is no risk.


            Then on, teaching about nuclear energy, I began to show my physics students the results of the largest releases of energy man had ever produced. The physics would be done: show the areas destroyed, irradiated, and set ablaze, but also include what happened to the people. There were many pre-medical students in these classes. But perhaps all students should know about thermal and nuclear radiation doses, fission and fusion, radio-toxicity of plutonium, depleted uranium and reactor catastrophes. There is a lot of good undergraduate science here.


            As interesting as these physical problems might be to a scientist, one quickly realizes, I hope, that the overwhelming problem is far more important than any others; “How do you prevent this from ever happening again?” Students want to pursue that problem also.


            The 15 kiloton (TNT equivalent) Hiroshima Uranium-235 gun-type bomb of 1945 was the only one of its kind ever detonated. Back then, in 1959, world nuclear arsenals were approaching their maximum total yield of about 23,000 Million Tons (23,000 Megatons, 23,000,000,000 Tons), achieved in the early 1960s.3


            Twenty two years after 1945 in 1967 Erik Barnouw, professor at Columbia University and the first film curator at the Library of Congress, learned of the photographs and over two hours of movie film from Hiroshima and Nagasaki classified as “confidential,” stored in the US National Archives. Dr. Kusano had access to photographs of bomb victims and used them in a report at a medical conference in Vienna in 1953, and published in Japan that same year. (The Occupation ended in 1952.) Also included in his book are photographs by Shigeo Hayashi, E. Matsumoto, S. Kikuchi, Yoshito Matsushige, Y. Yamahata, Prof. Watanabe, H. Miyatake, and other unnamed photographers. Erik Barnouw obtained the film and, with Akira Iwasaki, created a sixteen-minute documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki, 1945. Here is a piece of narration from that film:


Hiroshima, on that day, there was no panic, only ghastly stillness, the quiet of death. People moved slowly along the roads like ghosts covered with dust and ash, who fell dead as they walked. By the river people were bleeding from their faces or hands and died without weeping. People trapped under fallen houses called patiently, meekly, “Help, if I may ask.” In Hiroshima on that day, half the doctors were killed. At the hospitals between three and ten thousand people came each day for help, and each day, 2,000 of them died. They were buried together, because there were too many to bury separately.


Thus the film attempted an impossible task, to tell the story of the more than 140,000 people killed in Hiroshima.


            About eight years later, the “Ten-Feet of Film” campaign was underway in Japan. Mainly Japanese people were asked to contribute 3,000 Yen which would allow the acquisition and return of ten feet of motion picture film from the US Archives, film from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be edited and made into documentaries, and a book, to describe the truth about the effects atom bombs have on people and cities. 85,000 feet of film was obtained. Three films were produced. “Prophecy” seems to be the most utilized and is expensive but available (VHS) at least at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum bookshop. Still images were taken from the films, and still photos that had been confiscated and also returned were incorporated in a book, Atomic Bomb Documents, Hiroshima.4 


            Hence, with Barnouw’s film and copied 35 mm slides I informed my students of nuclear physics about the ramifications of the use of the two small and primitive nuclear explosions above two Japanese cities. One of the pre-med students who explained afterward, he just could not handle burns, fainted briefly during one of the films. A rare occurrence in a physics class.


            Toward the end of the Carter presidency, my university chose as its January Short Term theme, “human rights.” However poorly conceived, I thought, if it was not, it ought to be, a human right NOT to have to live under the threat of nuclear incineration. Many people feel that way today. Thus was proposed and accepted an entirely new, experimental short term course, Problems of Nuclear Disarmament. It has continued and has always been well received by students. As one student wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, I can't believe how much conversation strikes up at the (dormitory) dinner table over this issue now that several of us are taking this class. I wish everyone had a chance to take a class like this. Maybe then the countries of this world would stop and take a look at what they are doing!...Can't wait to talk to you some more about this! …”


            In order to continue teaching about this topic I felt a personal imperative to be in Hiroshima; thus 1983 began the first of eight summers of study and learning in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During a term of US/Soviet nuclear one-ups-manship of the mid-1980s, the elective enrollment in my course went to 79 in a school of only 1,650 students.


            I always explain to my students that I could not continually teach such a course if I were not an optimist, and thought that someway a solution could be found to our nuclear problems so that there would not occur millions of more nuclear deaths. But I recall times, back then, when I really wanted to leave the room while 16 mm film was running. This is emotionally disturbing material when you really understand all that happened and why. Now the bombs are bigger, more accurate, and more deadly. And some world leaders have little conception of the troubles possession of them can cause. My optimism disturbingly wanes.


            I would be remiss if I did not mention one aspect of my teaching that has helped make the course popular and enjoyable for students, and somewhat a pleasure to teach. This aspect can greatly “lighten-up” the course. It must be obvious that the Japanese experience with nuclear war is a major element of our work. Several excellent films truthfully and personally portray the human experiences and suffering.


            A chapter from the BBC World at War: Japan 1941-1945, has Laurence Olivier narrating, with Japanese and non-Japanese people relating the significant inside-events in the last four years of Japan’s war.


            An excellent video, Hiroshima, is a Canadian/Japanese 1995 production directed by Spottiswoode and Kurahara, which commences with the death of U.S. President Roosevelt, and tells the story of the war’s end as experienced by both sides; the acting is exceptional.


            Black Rain, is an award winning Japanese film based upon real people, adapted from the book by Masuji Ibuse; it relates the human catastrophe of that day in Hiroshima as well as the radiation sickness which was still killing five years later.


            Barefoot Gen (from Japan) is based upon the 10-volume manga of Keiji Nakazawa. This is essentially the autobiography of Nakazawa. He was a schoolboy in Hiroshima surviving only by chance, but his father, sister, and younger brother were killed by the bomb. His infant sister, born that day, died shortly after, his mother died 21 years later. I have the details of Nakazawa’s actual circumstances.


            Through film we also consider the Japanese experience in America during WWII, i.e., the “relocation” centers, and their effects upon the lives of first generation Japanese in America, Issei, and second generation, Nisei, Japanese/American citizens, all interned in the early months of the war. I often use the film, Come See the Paradise.


            I have created exercises, personal problems, related to Gen (to Nakazawa), to the characters of Black Rain, and to other real people who were present in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here is just one example:


*  From your understanding of nuclear explosion effects, estimate the nuclear radiation dose received by 2-year-old Sadako Sasaki, on Aug. 6, 1945, in her home near the Misasa Bridge in Hiroshima, and try to determine if that radiation could have been sufficient cause for her leukemia and death at age 12. Take into consideration the family’s escape route and escape time. Are there limits to knowledge of physical cause and effect?  Compare her dose with the federally recommended standards for safe exposure.  Is there a low limit of nuclear radiation dose to humans, below which no harm will occur?  Should there be special limits for children? (Sadako Sasaki died October 26, 1955, age 12. She was the fourteenth death in her junior high school that year.5)


            Because of this in-depth look at intimate aspects of Japanese lives at that time and place, Physics 239, Problems of Nuclear Disarmament provides not only university credit as a physics “issues” course, it also provides “global diversity” credit; both of which are graduation requirements. Indeed, the films, above, provide some poignancy and even humor, without which in this three week concentration these topics could lean toward depressing. I recommend this approach using such presentations and events. If you attempt this I think you will find that such a course can become quite “popular.” Would you be prepared for large enrollments? Today’s students want to know about their possible futures. “What’s all the fuss about WMDs?”


            In the year 2007 the average yield of a nuclear weapon is about 10 times greater than the 15-kton Hiroshima bomb.  Throughout the 50 years following 1945, the average rate of creation of nuclear weapons in world arsenals was the equivalent of about 70 Hiroshima bombs per day, every one of those 18,250 days. Only 2 bombs were used for their intended purpose. Some people in Japan refer to it as the “era of nuclear madness.”  In the 21st Century it is still with us. In January 2007 The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” forward to only five minutes before midnight.


            Never really satisfied with workshops and seminars I had attended, in 2002 I began to guide a one-week summer workshop, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki for College Teachers,” available for others who wish to consider offering a similar course. The workshops have been supported by the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and by friends. There is a good description of the 2007 workshop at  My claim is that after the one-week summer workshop participants could be ready to begin their own course immediately.


            All workshop participants have thought highly of it. One professor created his own honors course and took his class to Hiroshima for “field work.” This is encouraged and facilitated by Hiroshima City. Indeed, Hiroshima City is prepared to provide some support for other teachers who wish to create or improve upon such Hiroshima-based courses; they refer to them as “peace” courses.


Teachers can obtain not insignificant returns, e.g., written to me in late summer: “…I have been meaning to email you about the May term class. I loved the class so much and I was so sad when it was over. The class opened my eyes to so many interesting things that I have never learned about…thanks again for a great May term; I never thought I could be so interested and excited about a class!”  How often do you hear that after a course you teach?


             Is your school helping to teach the next generations of politicians and decision-makers, citizens, to fully understand the nature of nuclear war and the importance of a solution to this problem? If not, who will? Should you join the workshop? I hope you will give the idea some consideration.

2 Atomic Bomb Injuries, Revised Edition compiled by Nobuo Kusano; Tsukiji Shokan Co., Tokyo, copyright 1953, 1995. One of the very first, if not the first after the American occupation, to let the world know what happened to the people of Hiroshima. Prepared originally as a report to a medical Congress in Vienna. ISBN 4-8067-4582-0 C3047.
3 The world's maximum nuclear arsenal - in terms of total megatonnage - was reached in 1960 when it peaked at about 23,000 megatons or so. The DOE report RDD-6, "RESTRICTED DATA DECLASSIFICATION DECISIONS 1946 TO THE PRESENT" lists the 1960 U.S. arsenal at 20,491.17 megatons. Add to that an estimate of Soviet and other nation’s megatonnage to get to about 23,000.
4 Atomic Bomb Documents, Hiroshima, (Genbaku no kiroku Hiroshima: beikoku henkan shiryo kara), collected from A-bomb case materials returned from United States of America, Publisher: Chugoku Shinbunsha (Chugoku Shinbun), Hiroshima, 1973. 310 p., ill. (some col.). Accompanying the book in a case were three 8 foot long photo panoramas of destroyed Hiroshima; Shodo no zenkei "Panoramic view of the scorched land" published as a supplement and issued with the main work in a case. (The Peace Resource Center of Wilmington College, Ohio, is the only source I know of in the U.S. that would lend this book.) At present the photo-panoramas are available here,
5 Takayuki Ishii, One Thousand Paper Cranes – The Story of Sadako and the Children’s Peace Statue, Dell Laurel-Leaf, New York, 1997. ISBN: 0-440-22843-3

Raymond G. Wilson is an Emeritus Associate Professor of Physics at Illinois Wesleyan University and has taught nuclear war issues for the last 45 years.