It’s an evolution fuelled by one singular belief — that no one should ever endure the “massive and grotesque scale of death and suffering” caused by an atomic bomb. Today, she is 86 and has told her personal story countless times, in dozens of countries.
In sharing her experience, she has put a human face to the destructive force of nuclear weapons and made it harder for audiences to turn away. That’s been her lifetime goal: to keep talking until the world listens.
And sometimes it does, as was the case last December, when she travelled to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The global coalition of non-governmental organizations helped lay the groundwork for the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted last July. It was a major victory for Thurlow, who was instrumental in creating the treaty. “I’ve been waiting for this day for seven decades,” she said after the historic vote.
Although Thurlow has told her story around the world, tonight’s Toronto audience is special. The crowd includes students, staff and alumni from the University of Toronto’s faculty of social work, where she received her master’s degree more than 60 years ago. She has fond memories of those years and her successful career as a social worker with the Toronto YWCA and the Toronto Board of Education.
As she begins, Thurlow confesses that she forgot to finish writing her speech. Then she jokes, “But you have no choice but to listen.” The audience laughs. It is the only light moment in her talk.
For 45 minutes, she stands strong at the podium, her voice never faltering. The passage of time hasn’t lessened the emotional impact of the bombing. She tells us the horror of what she experienced has been crystallized in a single memory — the image of her four-year-old nephew, who was transformed from an innocent child into a charred, blackened and swollen chunk of flesh. He begged for water, she says, until “his death finally released him from his agony.” She stares out at the crowd. “His terrible image has come to represent my life.”
In the aftermath of the bombing, “people had to endure the physical devastation, the starvation, homelessness, total lack of health care, rapid spreading of disease,” says Thurlow. Many of those who survived the initial blast suffered deaths from radiation poisoning, which caused painful nausea and purple lesions. “In those days, we had to examine every part of our body before we got dressed to make sure there were no purple spots, to make sure we would live another day.” The dead were thrown into pits by soldiers, then doused with gasoline and set on fire.
Although the American government sent medical authorities to Japan, Thurlow says their purpose was to study the effects of radiation on human beings and not to treat the injured. “Needless to say, the survivors felt treated as guinea pigs, first as the target of the atomic bombings, then as the subject of the medical research.”
The U.S. authorities also censored newspapers to stymie media coverage of the suffering. They confiscated personal items, including diaries, telegraphs, medical records, films and haiku poetry to further stop any information from getting out, remembers Thurlow.
Canada also had a part in the atomic bomb, she tells the audience. The uranium used in the bomb was mined and transported by people near the Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. “They carried sacks of radioactive uranium on their backs along rivers, rapids and portages, and many subsequently died of cancer.”
It was 1954 when Thurlow first talked publicly about nuclear weapons. She was 22 and had come to the United States on a scholarship to study at Lynchburg College in Virginia. During an interview with the local media, she freely expressed her opinions about America’s actions. She was stunned when she later received a barrage of hate mail.
“When I came to the U.S., there was a totally different perception of the bombings,” says Thurlow in an interview. “They said those bombs ended the war quickly so [their] GIs could come home sooner than expected.”
Becoming a Christian would also play a role in finding her life partner. In her third year of university in Japan, she took part in an educational experience for young Christians at Kwansei Gakuin, a United Church-affiliated school not far from Osaka. Some 30 students from universities around the world lived in a shinto shrine for the summer.
That’s where she met Jim Thurlow, a young man from St. Thomas, Ont., who was teaching history there. They began dating and married two years later in 1955. Setsuko was then 23 and in the graduate social work program at U of T. The couple lived in Toronto for two years before moving back to Japan, where they both worked at Kwansei Gakuin. In 1962, with two sons in tow, aged one and three, they returned to Toronto on sabbatical. After a short time, they decided to stay. Jim became a high school history teacher, while Setsuko pursued her career in social work. They attended a number of United churches over the years but came away disappointed. Most were more interested in raising money than in social activism, Setsuko says.
Thurlow regards Jim, who died in 2011, as her “soulmate.” Throughout their life together, he was a huge support, helping with everything from organizing events to founding anti-nuclear groups. In 2007, she became involved with ICAN and took part in negotiations toward an international agreement banning nuclear arms. The group’s efforts paid off last summer, when 122 countries — almost two-thirds of the total United Nations membership — moved to adopt the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Thurlow was present for the vote and describes it as “the greatest reward.” Five months later, she and Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization.
“Today, I want you to feel in this hall the presence of all those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Thurlow told the audience at the Nobel ceremony. “I want you to feel, above and around, a great cloud of a quarter million souls. Each person had a name. Each person was loved by someone. Let us ensure that their deaths were not in vain.”
While Thurlow says the Nobel “belongs to everyone” who has campaigned against nuclear weapons, her fellow activists laud her dedication to the cause. Ray Acheson, director of the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, another ICAN partner, describes Thurlow as a powerful presence in the anti-nuclear movement. “Her commitment to the pursuit of nuclear abolition is unparalleled. She provides a voice of reason, experience and purpose that few others could hope to emulate.” Thurlow’s story has inspired hundreds of thousands of people, adds Kathleen Sullivan. “Future generations will say her name in gratitude.”
Soon after the attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, bringing about the end of the Second World War. Many westerners at the time believed the bombings were necessary; however, over the years, many more have questioned whether the costs in both human lives and on the environment were too high.
A Gallup poll taken in 1945 right after the bombings showed that 85 percent of Americans approved of using atomic weapons on Japanese cities. By comparison, a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 56 percent of Americans believed the use of nuclear weapons was justified. The numbers may be shifting because people now recognize that the horror of an atomic bombing can linger for decades due to the genetically damaging radioactive fallout.
Despite the deadly consequences of atomic war, nine countries still possess over 14,000 nuclear weapons. Leading the way are the United States and Russia, who together have about 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert status, which means they are ready to be launched within minutes, according to ICAN. Most of those bombs are more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan in 1945, and the strongest could kill millions of people with a single nuclear warhead.
And while 122 nations voted to adopt the UN treaty, only 10 have actually ratified the agreement so far (it will come into force when 50 countries approve it). Thurlow was deeply disappointed when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to participate. She does not accept the claim that America’s nuclear weapons are essential for deterrence.
Despite the lack of support for the UN treaty from Canada and its NATO allies, Thurlow tells the audience at her U of T talk that she is more optimistic than ever about the future. “I have never felt as hopeful as I do now because I see the countless younger activists, so bright, energetic, creative and politically savvy.”
She herself has no plans to stop. Tonight, she ends her speech like she has done many times before — with a plea for people to get involved. Contact your representative, she says. Tell them that Canada must reverse its decision and sign the UN treaty. “We must seize this opportunity and make this work for us and for the world,” Thurlow urges. “I would like to know that my time here has been well spent.”
This piece first appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Observer under the headline ‘No human being should ever have to repeat our experience.’
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