Caren Stelson



for all

Let Our Voices Be Heard


When I first received an invi­ta­tion to the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville to par­tic­i­pate on a pan­el titled, “Nuclear War: Survivors, Resistors, and Current Perils,” I hes­i­tat­ed. Of course, it would be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to share my book Sachiko with a new audi­ence. Amnesty International and the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice were spon­sors; Robert McAdams, President of the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, was the mod­er­a­tor, and authors Susan Southard (Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War) and Dan Zak (Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age) were the two oth­er pan­el par­tic­i­pants. The fes­ti­val would be held March 22–26. My cal­en­dar was blank that week. I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and agreed to go.

I was ner­vous about being on the pan­el, par­tic­u­lar­ly know­ing it would be tele­vised. What would I say? I’ve been car­ry­ing Sachiko Yasui’s sto­ry in my heart ever since I met her in 2005, the 60th anniver­sary of the atom­ic bomb­ings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a hibakusha, an atom­ic bomb sur­vivor, Sachiko had found her voice to speak out against nuclear weapons and for peace. I admire Sachiko for her courage and her voice. Today’s news is as con­cern­ing as it was before World War II or after. Terrorism, grow­ing right-wing extrem­ism, a North Korean nuclear threat in the Pacific region, and a Middle East in con­stant cri­sis are rat­tling the world. All this is made worse by a new­ly elect­ed American President who has declared war on sci­ence and pro­posed an over­ly inflat­ed mil­i­tary bud­get that will drain mon­ey from life-giving mea­sures of edu­ca­tion, health, research, the arts and human­i­ties. I want to scream. But scream­ing in the mir­ror is not the answer. Like Sachiko, I need to learn to find my voice and speak up.

The invi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate on the pan­el at the Virginia Festival of the Book would be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to prac­tice find­ing my voice and learn how Susan Southard, Dan Zak, and Bob McAdams have found theirs.

On the day of the pan­el, Bob McAdams asked each of us to share what brought us to the sub­ject of nuclear war and the peo­ple whose sto­ries we told. What sur­prised me was that all three of us spoke to our child­hoods as the latent spark for our research as adults.

bk_nagasaki_life-6970422In her care­ful­ly researched and well writ­ten book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, Susan Southard describes five Nagasaki atom­ic bomb sur­vivors and their strug­gles to over­come their phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds. What led Susan to write her book was an ear­ly expe­ri­ence as a sixteen-year-old exchange stu­dent to Japan and a vis­it to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

bk_almight_courage-4386468Dan Zak spoke of the deter­mi­na­tion of the three pro­test­ers he wrote about in his fas­ci­nat­ing book, Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. He was amazed by the courage of Sister Megan Rice who, with two oth­er pro­tes­tors, infil­trat­ed the Y‑12 National Security Nuclear Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Dan said Sister Megan Rice resem­bled no nun he had ever known attend­ing Catholic school.

I’m con­vinced the ori­gins of my inter­est in writ­ing Sachiko’s sto­ry are tan­gled in my child­hood mem­o­ries of my father’s night­mare screams that would shock me awake. Those screams and his WWII medals in his draw­er haunt­ed me enough to pay close atten­tion to war and the scars it leaves on hearts and minds.

Listening to Susan and Dan, I was remind­ed of the pow­er of our child­hoods to shape our adult­hoods. What would hap­pen if we har­nessed that pow­er and delib­er­ate­ly taught peace and tol­er­ance at an ear­ly age? If we want­ed to, could we as teach­ers and par­ents col­lec­tive­ly decide to shape the United States into a less vio­lent nation?

Yaeko Nagata Steidel and Caren Stelson

After the pan­el dis­cus­sion, a Japanese-American woman in the audi­ence stood up and intro­duced her 93-year-old moth­er, Yaeko Nagata Steidel, sit­ting next to her. Yaeko had been born in Japan and had lived through the American fire­bomb­ing of World War II. Her daugh­ter read from a slim pub­lished vol­ume writ­ten by Yaeko, titled Women and War.

“I can­not for­get my shock when I heard that my coun­try, Japan, had attacked Pearl Harbor. It was 1941 and I was 18 at the time. Four years lat­er, the United States dropped atom­ic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To me, it was beyond nations fight­ing each oth­er. I felt deep shame to be part of the human race. War has brought unimag­in­able dev­as­ta­tion and atroc­i­ties around the world. In my young heart arose a cry­ing ques­tion and a vow:  How can we human beings be so vio­lent toward each oth­er and bring such hor­rif­ic destruc­tion upon our­selves? From now on, for the rest of my life, I must live and work for peace.”

Yaeko’s dec­la­ra­tion of peace remind­ed me of Sachiko and a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.:

“The large house in which we live demands that we trans­form this world-wide neigh­bor­hood into a world-wide broth­er­hood. Together we must learn to live as broth­ers or togeth­er we will be forced to per­ish as fools.”

Another mem­ber of the audi­ence stood and asked the ques­tion we always ask: What can one per­son do for peace?

Dan Zak had a mem­o­rable answer. He sug­gest­ed to think about the mak­ing of the atom­ic bomb. From the ener­gy of split­ting atoms—the small­est ele­ment in nature—came the largest, most destruc­tive force ever pro­duced by human beings. Now think about one per­son talk­ing to one per­son, then anoth­er per­son, and anoth­er, we could cre­ate a grow­ing, explo­sive chain reac­tion for peace.

I agree with Dan and his analogy.

I agree with Bob McAdams when he says he speaks out for peace, moti­vat­ed by a bet­ter future for his chil­dren and grandchildren.

I agree with Susan Southard when she says we need to rec­og­nize the war wounds our nation brings upon others.

And I agree with Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”


C‑SPAN record­ed our pan­el, “Panel Discussion on Nuclear War,” from the Virginia Festival of Books. Watch it here.

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