Sixty years ago Miyoko Watanabe walked out of her house in Hiroshima and saw a flash of light and felt fire rolling toward her. It was the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped by the US Air Force plane Enola Gay.
Her father perished, along with some 140,000 citizens of Hiroshima, and 80,000 citizens of Nagasaki three days later. She survived, and as a 75-year-old recounted her story in Sunday's New York Times.
In a moving plea, along with thousands of other Japanese, she called for the elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020. While that goal may seem fanciful, she says, "we have to keep trying, one step at a time."
Whose heart cannot be tugged by such a cry from the only nation to have experienced the horrors of atomic warfare?
But the fact is, that with this weekend's setbacks of international attempts to defuse nuclear weapons development by North Korea and Iran, we are entering a new era of uncertainty in the nuclear age.
Since the fiery destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago, nuclear weaponry has proliferated. The blessed upside is that these weapons have been kept sheathed and not used in any of the wars that have sadly continued to roil our planet. The agony of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was too awesome for a reprise to be contemplated.
Though the weapons remained poised in their silos, or ready in their guarded armories, the world's leaders were tacitly bonded in a compact for their non-use. The weapons proved an effective deterrent against use by others, a constant lethal reminder of the price to be paid by any suicide-prone leader unleashing them offensively.
A string of American presidents, with the means to control these weapons a few feet away from their Oval Office desk, have pondered their destructive force and mused how to control or even eliminate them.
President Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace Program at the UN in 1953. When I served in the Reagan administration, Secretary of State George P. Shultz returned from one of his one-on-one meetings with the president to tell several of us aides that Reagan had a vision for the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.
"He can't do that," protested one of my colleagues. "Doesn't he know that conventional defense weaponry is immensely more expensive than the nuclear deterrent?"
"You guys," responded Secretary Shultz, "had better get on board. This president is serious."
Though the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia have been sharply reduced in recent years, nuclear missiles still threaten. While they remain in responsible hands, the world has been relatively safe from their use.
But with the acquisition, or pending acquisition, of nuclear weapons technology by such rogue nations as North Korea and Iran, the world faces new uncertainty. The problem is rendered more acute by the freelance trade of nuclear weapons technology by such private entrepreneurs as Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, and the interest of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and others in acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Last weekend, attempts to halt probable nuclear weapons development by two nations that consort with terrorists - Iran and North Korea - were dealt setbacks.
Iran rejected a proposal by Britain, France, and Germany, acting on behalf of the European Union, offering major economic and political and security incentives in return for Iranian cooperation in ensuring that its nuclear program would not be used for military purposes. The proposal was supported by the US. Iran deemed it "unacceptable," and vowed to continue uranium enrichment, which can be used for both peaceful and military purposes. European officials promptly warned that the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna would probably take up the matter.
Six-party talks that have been going on in Beijing in an attempt to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program fared little better. China, Russia, Japan, the US, and South Korea were unsuccessful in getting North Korea to join in a statement of broad shared principles.
As in the case of Iran, the North Koreans demand the right to continue peaceful nuclear development. The US is leery of this, arguing that the North Koreans have consistently used their nuclear energy plants for clandestine production of nuclear weaponry.
The exhausted participants in the six-party talks ended their discussions in impasse but have agreed to reconvene later.
If the actual elimination of nuclear weapons proves impossible, surely we must join with the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in their prayers and pleas that the weapons "never again" be used.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration.