Hiroshima Nuclear Bomb – Japan – August 6, 1945

Hiroshima, a city in the south of the main Island of Honshu, was the target in this first use. Most of the buildings were destroyed and 80,000 people were killed instantly.

The first atomic bomb to be used in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Few knew what the effects would be. There had been only one other bomb of this kind previously detonated. The destruction unleashed on the city was total. About 70 percent of all buildings and 80,000 people were obliterated in an instant.

Why was the bomb dropped on Hiroshima? There are many answers to this question because there were many people involved in the decision. The best estimate of why the decision was taken at that time related to strategic plans. The United States wanted to force Japan’s surrender as quickly as possible in order to reduce American casualties. Alongside that concern was the desire to prevent the Soviet Union becoming involved in the conquest of Japan. Up to that time, the Soviet Union had only attacked and occupied some islands north of Japan. Although an ally of the United States at the time, the dictatorship of the Soviet Union was not trusted by the United States.

Several voices, including that of Dr. Albert Einstein, were raised in opposition on ethical grounds, but they did not prevail. One of these came from Dr. Edward Teller, one of the designers of the bomb. He urged President Truman to drop the bomb high above Tokyo where it would be less destructive but where its destructive power could be felt by the Japanese but without loss of life. That may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but even atomic scientists could not have foreseen then that such an event could have been worse than a direct hit because radiation would have been distributed all over the city of Tokyo and its surroundings.

The history of the bomb tells quite a lot about the harmful influences of dictatorships on scientific research. In the years before World War II, several of the world’s leading physicists, scholars who knew most about how to make an atom bomb, lived and worked in Germany and Italy. As these nations became dictatorships and began to single out Jews for persecution, many of these scholars, fearing they might be targets for attacks by state officials, left their home countries and went to Britain and the United States. One of them, Leo Szilard, who went to the United States along with Einstein in 1940, persuaded Einstein, at that time the most eminent scientist in the country, to write to President Roosevelt proposing a research project to develop an atom bomb.

Roosevelt was not interested at that time. He saw no need for such a weapon, but changed his mind quickly a year later after Pearl Harbor and America’s sudden involvement in World War II. There was good reason for Szilard and Einstein to suspect that Adolf Hitler would attempt to develop an atom bomb. Later, during World War II, Britain discovered that Hitler was busy trying to do that. If he had not changed his country into a dictatorship with terrible murderous policies toward Jews he might have retained the services of the necessary experts and succeeded.

The United States went ahead with a research project for an atomic bomb within a month or two after Pearl Harbor and produced the first successful explosion in July of 1945. It was the costliest military project ever undertaken to produce one bomb. The bomb cost two billion dollars, weighed 4,000 tons, and had the power of 20,000 tons of TNT. The four-year project was located at a new specially constructed lab complex in New Mexico and code-named for secrecy “Manhattan Project.” Both British and U.S. scientists became involved in it. Once there was a successful explosion in the United States, action followed quickly to plan for the dropping of a second bomb over Hiroshima. Individual parts of the second bomb, each encased in a lead container, were shipped one at a time to Tinian Island in the Mariana group of islands.

From there the final flight would be made, a distance of about a thousand miles. In preparation for the flight with the bomb, the bomber crews involved had been doing extensive training and flying both at base in Tinian and in flights over Japan. It was during this period that some uncertainty developed over how best to load the triggering device into the bomb. The pilot of the plane that was to carry the bomb, after consulting with his crew, decided to do the loading while in flight. He reasoned that, if something went wrong, the loss of everything in flight would be better than totally destroying the Island of Tinian. It was a bold decision. Fortunately for him and his crew, the loading of the bomb in flight was successful and they arrived over Hiroshima early on August 6.

There were additional reasons for selecting Hiroshima as the target. The size and the nature of the surrounding terrain made this city suitable for discovering the destructive capabilities of the bomb, critical information that was not known at that time. A second reason was its concentration of military installations, munitions factories, and troop concentrations. There was also the advantage of surprise, an important consideration in a critical bombing mission, since no bombing had previously been carried out there. Hiroshima in August of 1945 was a city of 245,000 people, about 100,000 less than its population at the beginning of the war because many children and others had been evacuated to countryside locations for safety.

Almost all the dwellings were of wood construction, half of them single story and half one and a half stories. Fire-fighting equipment was antiquated but that, like all other public services, mattered little after August 6, 1945. The bomb was dropped around 8:00 A.M. and timed to explode close to the ground. The plane, Enola Gay, was nine miles away when the bomb went off. As the crew looked back at it from 30,000 feet up, and with special protective goggles, one man observed, “We’re looking into hell.”

The day after the bomb, President Truman broadcast news of the event to the United States in words like these: We have captured the energy of the sun in a new and terrible bomb and one of these has already been dropped on Japan. If they do not now accept our demand for unconditional surrender, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never before been seen on this earth. There was no response from Japan for two days and President Truman decided that the emperor was stalling for time in order to try to arrange something less than total surrender. The reality was quite different.

Protocol in Japan, unfortunately unknown in the United States, because the emperor was seen as God, required a few days for action. The emperor had already decided to surrender but he waited for the military leaders to agree. He knew that they would but not immediately. President Truman decided to launch a second strike. On August 9, Nagasaki was hit with an atom bomb, again from a plane that came from the Island of Tinian. U.S. estimates put the death toll at 35,000 but Japanese authorities later gave it as 87,000.

Everything within the city had been devastated by the bomb and people had to wait for help from elsewhere. For an area of four and a half square miles around ground zero, that is the point on the ground immediately below the bomb explosion, every living person or animal was destroyed. With an atom bomb explosion extremely high pressures and equally high temperatures are present, far greater than are ever experienced in industrial enterprises. The bomb was dropped from a high elevation and timed to go off as it neared the ground. Directly below the bomb everything was vaporized.

The metal framework of one building was all that was left and this became part of a museum that was built later in the center of the city. Beyond the vaporized zone, the supersonic blast of air and heat, releasing millions of degrees of heat, destroyed everything. People standing ten or more miles away were burned right through their skins. They died either immediately or soon afterward. Iron, stone, and roof tiles were twisted out of shape. Clothing, railway ties, and trees instantly ignited. At eight hundred miles an hour of speed and 9,000 degrees of temperature, the hot air created huge swirls of wind that circled back into the city to fill the vacuum initially created. Whatever remained was then destroyed.

The harm done to humans is quite a different story. In 1945, no one knew much about nuclear radiation or the cancerous and other diseases it would generate. Many of the people who were still alive after the bomb had done its work received heavy doses of radiation. Prior to August 6, 1945, there had been more damage and more casualties inflicted on Tokyo by all the bombing raids than was done on Hiroshima by the one bomb. However, the nature of the damage done to humans in Hiroshima was far worse, much longer lasting, and more psychologically harmful. Furthermore, the final death toll directly attributable to the atom bomb was far beyond the 80,000 who died on August 6.

Twenty years after that date the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation announced that the total number of deaths from the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was 240,000. People standing beside concrete walls when the bomb exploded left a silhouette on the wall. Everything else about them had vanished. Others were burned or cut by flying pieces of metal, wood, or glass. In the months that followed, large numbers of these people died from different illnesses and over a few years many more succumbed. Within two weeks after the bombing, those who had been within five hundred yards of the explosion, even if they were sheltered behind buildings, showed symptoms of deadly radiation sickness, vomiting blood and loss of appetite. Most of them died a week or two later.

By December of 1945 the death toll had risen to 140,000. Over the years since then casualty numbers have continued to mount but statistics are difficult to collect because of health complications additional to those caused by radiation. The special atomic bomb museum that now stands in the center of the old city of Hiroshima carries a detailed, visual documentation of the horror that citizens endured on and after 1945. Many thousands from all over the world visit this memorial annually.

At the present time, the people who were put through the terrible events of August 1945, and their offspring, are more closely monitored than almost anyone else in the world. This is the only place where the effects of radiation on the human body are evident. The relations between levels of exposure and epidemiological conditions are examples of the kinds of things that are measured. From such guidelines for safe exposure to radiation are deduced and employed around the world in the nuclear industry. One scientist believes that almost half a million workers in the radiation industry in the United States and at least that many in Europe have benefited from these guidelines.

There is a major concern about the survivors from the A-bomb as they get older. When they were exposed to the radiation, they suffered damage to their genes, with those closest to the center of the explosion the worst affected. In many cases their genes repaired themselves. It is possible that those repairs were imperfect, making it more likely that they will develop cancer in later life. The highest risk for A-bomb victims developing cancer is among the youngest victims. These people are now approaching an age where they would be more likely to develop a cancer naturally. New genome technology coupled with new methods of diagnosis and treatment offers the possibility of repairing cell damage. It is expected that the number of victims who were young in 1945 will peak in the year 2020 so there is time to develop this approach of cell repair.


Ukraine Catastrophe – November 1932

Stalin’s systematic slaughter by famine and control of movement of more than ten million people was the worst mass atrocity in Europe before World War II.

In November 1932, Joseph Stalin launched a campaign of terror against the farmers of the Ukraine to force them into joining a system of collective farming. The peasants, especially the owners of small farms, often referred to as the kulaks, opposed the plan for collective farming, so Stalin decided to starve them into submission by taking away their grain, their main source of food. Millions died from starvation in the year that followed.

In the aftermath of the Communist Revolution of 1917, peasants seized land from the owners of the big farms and Lenin allowed them to do this. He saw a period of small-scale free enterprise as a useful intermediate stage on the path to dictatorship. This stage went on for some time and farmers continued to work their land for profit. After Lenin died, Stalin came to power and, by the end of the 1920s, he decided it was time to abolish all private ownership of land and establish collective farms.

This decision was part of a much bigger plan to double the nation’s industrial output, a plan that was fully realized by 1932 at a time when the Western World’s economies were in disarray due to the collapse of the world’s stock markets. Stalin’s plan required total control of the country’s agricultural resources so that he could get adequate food supplies for the busy industrial cities at low prices, not the prices charged by the farmers.

The focus of his plan was the Ukraine where the best agricultural land of the nation was found and where he soon encountered the strongest opposition. The small-scale farmers, the kulaks, were determined to retain possession of their farms, and when they saw that Stalin was determined to create collective farms they decided to resist.

They killed off all their stock for food and held back as much of their grain crops as they could. In less than a year these moves began to starve the cities of their food supplies and Stalin’s drive for industrialization was threatened. In the two or three years before 1932 about twelve million new workers had joined the industrial enterprises around Moscow and farther east and most of these additional workers came from rural areas. Stalin felt he had to take drastic action.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have a long history. Historically, they were separate countries and after the Communist Revolution of 1917, which was a Russian revolution, Lenin was determined to make sure that Ukrainians supported the new dictatorship in Moscow. As early as 1918 a quarrel involving some Ukrainian farmers led to a response along the following lines from Lenin: These kulaks must be mercilessly suppressed. Find a hundred of their richest and hang them.

Publish their names as a warning to others. Stalin’s campaign took forms far worse than Lenin ever envisaged and it became even more violent after an incident in the Kremlin during the November 1932 anniversary celebration of the 1917 revolution. In the course of the evening his young wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, criticized Stalin publicly, an unthinkable act in that society at that time.

The reason for her criticism arose from her contacts with students who had been forcibly sent to the Ukraine to help with collectivization. Stalin had permitted her to study textiles at a technical school and there she met students returning from the Ukraine. She reported what she heard to Stalin—the mass terror, starvation, the bands of orphaned children begging for bread, even cannibalism. One student reported that he had to arrest two men who were selling corpses.

Alliluyeva was anxious to do what she could to alleviate the suffering and when she saw that her husband was not interested she criticized him in front of his closest colleagues. She did not know that Stalin was well aware of all that was happening and had deliberately instigated it. He told her she had been collecting gossip, that these stories were all lies. Determined to prevent news of the atrocities reaching the rest of the country he immediately arranged for the execution of all the students who had been working in the Ukraine.

Alliluyeva knew at once that she had violated the code of secrecy surrounding Ukrainian matters when she spoke out in the Kremlin. Shortly afterward she was found dead, shot either by her own hand or that of another’s. The evening’s celebration ended abruptly. Later, all who had been in attendance were shot except for one young woman who happened to visit the party for a short time on an errand, unknown to Stalin, and who was able to leave quickly after the news of Alliluyeva’s death.

Many more executions followed. Stalin’s whole character seemed to change. He acted in the most violent way against the slightest opposition from any- one. He intensified the campaign against the kulaks in a way that can best be described as extermination.

Stalin’s drive to complete collectivization of farms was speeded up. The slightest opposition meant either instant death or banishment to Siberia. The quantity of grain to be given to the government was suddenly doubled at a time when the existing quota was at the starvation level. What was left for the people of the Ukraine was insufficient to sustain life. Any who tried to hold on to grain and hide it were also killed.

Military units assisted by the secret police searched homes and the areas around them and shot anyone found guilty. These military units also guarded the government’s quota of grain, stored locally in elevators. Within one month of the incident in the Kremlin, Stalin instituted a new passport system in order to keep tight control of everyone living in the Ukraine, especially to prevent starving peasants going elsewhere in search of food. Those who tried to leave without permission were shot.

Other rules accompanied the passport decree. Not only was a Ukrainian unable to leave his territory to look for the essentials of life, he was not permitted to leave the collective farm and seek work in the big industrial enterprises without permission from the local party official. The high death rate and the large numbers that had been banished to Siberia left the collectives with a shortage of labor. No party official would allow a worker to leave for the city.

Alongside the needs of labor were the demands from Stalin to maintain secrecy about the devastation that had occurred and these demands were best met by isolating the Ukraine. Both the Ukrainian peasant as well as the former kulak, the owner of a small farm, had become serfs with no rights and no ownership of anything, just like the old days under the czar.

The New York Times reporter in Moscow in 1932, Walter Duranty, described the passport laws as popular and valuable in his dispatches to the United States. While he recognized that Westerners would see them as a shocking infringement of individual rights and freedom, in his view the Soviet worker sees them as a vigorous step toward the improvement of living conditions. Duranty, in his reports, stressed the value of the passports for preventing large numbers of agricultural workers leaving their communities.

That was exactly why they were introduced by Stalin, but Duranty failed to include the real reason, to prevent starving peasants finding food. In his reports to the New York Times he goes so far as to identify some of these people. He lists some as class enemies, such as kulaks who are opposed to the good work being done by the government. This was the kind of reporting that gave him a Pulitzer Prize, yet at that very time he knew that many millions had already lost their lives due to the forced famine.

Duranty blamed the famine stories of 1932 on people who were hostile to the Soviet Union and wanted to prevent the United States from recognizing the new Communist Government. Whatever may have been his motives in falsifying facts the results were very favorable to Stalin and he was duly rewarded with special privileges not granted other correspondents. His reports carried a lot of weight in the United States because of the newspaper he represented.

When, a short time later, the United States recognized the Soviet Union as the authentic government of the country, Walter Duranty’s news reports were described as enlightening and dispassionate. The worst case of falsification came later, in the 1940s, when Hollywood produced the film “North Star,” a Soviet collective farm run by well-fed happy peasants.

In the reality of 1932, village after village saw their infrastructures taken away as part of Stalin’s method of total destruction. Churches were set on fire because they were symbols of the old Russia, a relic of the past that might compete with the new Russia if left standing. Bureaucrats from the Communist Party were put in charge of huge farms, deciding what to plant and where, what machinery to buy and how to use it, all without any expertise.

The only sources of wisdom for this work were either dead or in Siberia. The inefficiency of the new system and its new managers, especially in the short term while the collectives were being organized, meant less grain for the cities. Hence Stalin demanded higher quotas and the cycle of starvation and death deepened. Cannibalism appeared here and there.

Students from the Soviet School of Mines in Moscow and other colleges like the one attended by Alliluyeva were sent to assist in the collectives because there were no peasants to do the work. Each group was allocated to a particular village but, as they traveled through the Ukraine, they noticed that there were no people anywhere. Sometimes they would arrive at a place that the map said was a village but nothing was there, only some bricks and weeds.

At one destination where they were expected to stay a group found only one young girl, the only survivor in the village. She was in a state of dehydration, barely alive, and beyond medical help. She was anxious to tell the students as much as she could. The only regular food they had for some time was a kind of pancake made from beet and cherry leaves. In other villages the students met similar devastation. Here and there they met individuals who were insane through hunger and were attacking anyone and everyone they met. Any student who reported in Moscow what he saw was immediately shot.

As hunger spread the violence increased. Whole villages were wiped out and their inhabitants shot at the slightest provocation. Hundreds of thousands were banished to Siberia to work in mines or forests. The slaughter could almost be termed a genocide because a whole ethnic group was seen as the enemy of the Soviet State. Millions died from starvation. The number is uncertain but many estimates give five million as the likely number, half of that number being children. It was similar to the Nazi Jewish Holocaust as far as numbers of people are concerned.

The reason the West knew so little about this holocaust compared with the German one is due to Stalin’s effective propaganda. No foreign correspondent was allowed to visit the Ukraine. He arranged special conducted visits for distinguished foreigners who were supportive of socialist ideas and made sure that they only saw what he wanted them to see. George Bernard Shaw, the well-known British playwright, was one of those. He returned to Britain and announced that reports of starvation and forced collectivization were, in his words, “nonsense.”

Certain villages with model collective farms were set up for the special visitors where everyone was well fed and well housed. Edouard Herriot, twice premier of France and also a strong socialist, spent five days in the Ukraine and stated that there was no famine there. Sir John Maynard Keynes, one of the world’s greatest economists of his time and an expert on Russian agriculture, visited the Ukraine and told everyone in Britain when he returned that reports of famines were totally unfounded.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, British social scientists, spent a lot of time in the Ukraine in 1932 and afterward published a massive volume on their research. In it the peasants are described as greedy and cunning, subject to drunkenness and laziness. They are seen to be hostile toward the good work of a government that only wants to see resources shared equally by all. With allies like these Stalin made sure that the West knew little about the terror-famine, the name given to the catastrophe by Robert Conquest in his book The Harvest of Sorrow.


St. Petersburg Revolution – Russia – January 22, 1905

A thousand of the workers were killed and thousands more were injured when the Czar’s soldiers opened fire on the protesters. The Czar of Russia had absolute power at this time and his cruel actions contributed to the bigger revolution that followed twelve years later.

Russia’s emperor in 1905 was Czar Nicholas II. As czar, Nicholas had absolute power. In other words the country’s form of government was an autocratic monarchy. Any protest that the czar disliked was met with force and as the country became industrialized the confrontations between impoverished workers and the state became more and more violent. Many were killed in the course of these protests and the number of strikes increased year by year. On January 22 1905, one hundred thousand workers, led by a priest, marched peacefully to the czar’s Winter Palace in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. They were demanding better working conditions. Instead of a friendly reception the workers met a volley of bullets. A thousand were killed and thousands more wounded. It was a turning point in Russian history.

The peaceful protests of January 22 at the Winter Palace in the nation’s capital of St. Petersburg were intended to resolve growing tensions without confrontation. The opposite was the outcome as extreme violence erupted. In the months that followed, Czar Nicholas II knew that he could no longer stop protests with bullets. That era of Russian dictatorship belonged to the past and he recognized the necessity of making some concessions. The wide publicity that had been given to the march made it different from others. If the czar’s representative had acted differently when the protesters arrived at the Palace, the bloodier events of 1911, the Communist Revolution, might never have taken place. As it happened, they were only delayed for six years.

The amount of concessions that the czar granted in the course of the year that followed were inadequate and they only ensured some delay before the bigger confrontation of 1911 became inevitable. On the Saturday evening prior to the protest, Father George Gapon, who organized the event, sent a letter to the emperor assuring him that everyone would behave peacefully. Gapon was well-known as a follower of Tolstoy’s creed of non-violence so there was every reason to treat his assurances as credible. Gapon knew that the czar had arranged for extensive military protection all around the Winter Palace so in his letter he urged him not to use force against innocent civilians. He said this because he was afraid the czar’s ministers might have given him false information about the protest.

He then made a special personal appeal to the emperor, asking him to receive his address of devotion which he was going to bring along with a statement of the people’s needs. His final words declared that he and all the workers with him would guarantee what he called “The inviolability of your person.” The origin of the march was unrelated to the various political groups that formed in the preceding years. Rather it was a reaction to the way management had victimized a group of workers for participating in a strike. Gapon felt that every worker had the right to strike and so he was convinced that a personal appeal to the czar would support his position.

Gapon was a priest and for a time had been a prison chaplain but his main interest was the ongoing fight for workers’ rights. He knew that the planned protest march to the Winter Palace was illegal. The police knew this as well but they did nothing to warn him. Even when Gapon sent the details of the march to the city authorities ahead of time nothing happened. The czar would not be in the palace on the day of the march so all decisions would be left to the Grand Duke Vladimir, the military commander of St. Petersburg. The marchers set out in five columns all moving toward the great square in front of the Winter Palace. The authorities knew their route because they had been given the details a day before. No one among the thousands felt concerned about the outcome. They felt that their peaceful purpose would be enough to prevent violence. As they marched through the city the police made way for them, holding up traffic where necessary to let them pass. Banners were held aloft, while holy icons and portraits of the czar were also prominent. Onlookers gave them respectful attention as they passed by. It was only as they came near their goal, the great square, that they encountered firm opposition and were told to stop. They continued to move forward but within a few minutes they were physically confronted and pushed back by a cavalry troop.

Clearly the soldiers had been given orders to stop the march. Gapon requested a hearing for the petition they carried but the response by the soldiers remained the same. No one and no petition would be allowed past the entrance to the palace. Meanwhile the crowd of 200,000 waited. Gapon, dressed in his golden vestments and holding aloft a crucifix, requested that the petition be forwarded to the emperor. The officer in charge refused. For a few moments, the mass of marchers stopped, then, after a few moments of discussion among themselves, they decided to oppose the order to stop and moved forward. A volley of shots rang out from the soldiers on guard, fortunately all blanks, but it was followed a moment later with live bullets. Within a minute there was a third volley of live bullets. Men, women, and children fell in heaps and those who could escape scattered in all directions. Father Gapon, who was not hit, stood still, aghast.

A thousand, maybe five thousand as was reported elsewhere, had been killed and thousands more wounded. Reports in U.S. newspapers on the following day contained accounts of the extraordinary strength of the protesters. Even after a violent attack on them by cavalry with horsemen wielding swords, they persisted in moving forward toward the palace, calling for the emperor and shouting abuse at the troops, yet avoiding any appearance of acting violently. Their form of passive resistance made little difference to the soldiers’ actions. Within half an hour of the previous violent assault on helpless citizens a second attack occurred on those who remained. They were told to disperse but before they could get away volleys of shots rang out.

Most were shot in their backs as they attempted to escape. Bodies were scattered over the sidewalk. A witness to the tragedy identified women, children, as well as men, among the dead. Splashes and streams of blood stained the snow. Only a very few survived because the volleys were fired from twenty feet away. Ambulances had little to do. Policemen found a large number of sleighs to carry off the dead. Cries of anguish and despair were mingled with shouts of “murderers, murderers!” Early in the morning of January 23 it could have been obvious to anyone that the military commander at the palace anticipated a major revolt, despite his recognition of Gapon’s opposition to any form of violence. What the commander was opposed to, obviously, was any form of protest, however harmless.

Every street and every bridge crossing the River Neva had been ringed with triple rows of defenses, as if an invading army was at the city gates. Because different things were happening in different places it was difficult to get an overall picture. Some days later it was discovered that large numbers of protesters in suburban areas had been shot before their procession began to move. On January 24, the military commander declared martial law and went on to station troop detachments at all strategic points around St. Petersburg. The New York Times, because of the time delay, was able to carry the previous day’s news on its January 23 issue. The front page was headlines with phrases like “Day of Terror in Russia,” and “Czar’s subjects arm for revolt.” Bloody Sunday, as the January 22 event was known, led to further unrest as people became radicalized by the treatment they received. In the weeks that followed disturbances broke out throughout the country.

In factory after factory close to half a million workers went on strike. Uprisings also took place in territories that bordered Russia and were part of its empire such as Russian Poland, the Baltic countries, and Finland. Sailors on one battleship mutinied. Maxim Gorky, the Russian novelist, took the side of the strikers. On Monday morning he spoke of the previous day as inaugurating revolution in Russia. He said that the emperor’s prestige had been irrevocably shattered by the behavior of the military units. Gorky was arrested in Riga, Latvia, two days later and held in prison for a month, after which he was released on bail. Gorky pointed out that Father Gapon persuaded the workers to believe that a direct approach to the one he called “Little Father” would be successful.

Now he and all with him have been deceived. Gorky went on to say that peaceful means of change will not work and therefore force must be employed. He insisted in speeches to large crowds that the country now has no emperor because too much blood lies between him and the people. Because of the great respect accorded him, Gorky’s words carried a lot of weight, especially when he urged his listeners to begin the people’s struggle for freedom. Some began an appeal for arms. Others proposed a letter condemning the soldiers at the Winter Palace while commending those in Moscow who had refused to fire on protesters. The czar knew for the first time that he could no longer solve peaceful protests with bullets; he had to make some concessions.

He faced what Vladimir Lenin would later call a revolutionary situation. His style of addressing the situation sounds strange to us but it underlines the reality of the absolute power he held. Even the smallest concession on his part would represent a major change for all of Russia. Eight months after Bloody Sunday he issued a proclamation to the country. In it he describes himself as “We, Nicholas the II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, Czar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland,” which is a strange way for a single individual to talk. He then went on to say how the people’s sorrow was also his and, therefore, that we, using that same word again, must do everything possible to bring an end to unrest. Maybe he was including his wife and children along with himself when he made the plural reference to the czar. There were three parts to the proclamation. First, everyone was assured civic freedom based on the integrity of the individual.

This included freedoms of speech, conscience, assembly, and association. Second, all those who were at that time deprived of their franchise would be given access to the country’s parliament, the Duma, and have an opportunity to vote in it. Third, the Duma would have full power to pass or reject whatever laws were proposed. Implied in these new freedoms was the right of work ers to form trade unions and peasants to create their own individual small farms. Up to that time all lands were held in common with no individual owning land. All of these changes, while modest as we might see them, changed Russia forever. Russia could never go back to being a dictatorship. The people’s revolution had succeeded in getting a constitution that gave them new and permanent rights.

At the same time, power remained in the hands of those who held the large tracts of land because this was still a rural society and whoever had most land got most votes in the Duma. Society became divided in a new way. No longer was it the people against the czar. Now two social classes appeared, the have-nots and the haves. In later years as the communist revolution of 1917 broke out and transformed Russia back into another dictatorship for seventy years, the revolution of 1905 was seen as its dress rehearsal. The many workers’ movements that emerged in the interim twelve years created opportunities for Lenin who was able to unite the most powerful among them. He then used these groups to set up the new communist dictatorship by force.


Bengal Famine – India – 1770 AD

British administration failed to prepare for times of inadequate rainfall so, when crops failed in 1770, no food supplies were available for the peasant farmers. Ultimately, the mass starvation of Indian peasants resulted from poor government administration.

In the summer of 1770, the northeast of India, a region we now recognize as Assam Bihar and Bangladesh, experienced a famine that affected the entire area. By the end of that year ten million of the residents had died from starvation. The explanation given by the ruling authorities was that the tragedy was due to natural causes, but a closer examination of the circumstances associated with the sudden loss of rice, the principal food of the native people, revealed that the tragedy was due to two things: first, ignorance of rice agriculture on the part of the ruling authorities and, second, removal of the basic necessities of life by the same rulers in order to export or sell the rice and make a profit for the British government. At this time in its history Britain had no clear policy for its relations with colonial subjects other than to maximize its exploitation of local natural resources.

The East India Company was the ruling power in India at the time of the famine. Its work in that country dated from 1600 when the British government gave it the right to capture and control as much of India as they wished. Gradually they expanded their territory until they were the effective if not the official government of the whole country. Numerous trading posts were established along the east and west coasts and a large number of people came from Britain to look after these trading posts. The largest ones were in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. A successful military campaign in Bengal by the British leader Robert Clive in the year 1757, in which the local emperor was defeated, gave the East India Company complete control over the best and most extensive agricultural land in all of India. Plentiful supplies of water from the Brahmaputra and other rivers coupled with extensive tracts of flat, rich, alluvial soils enabled this part of India to sustain a high density of population. Summers were hot, ideally suited to rice cultivation. In addition, every summer brought the monsoon rains, high levels of rainfall that ensured adequate supplies of water for the paddy fields.

If the two causes of the tragedy are examined in more detail, the way that events unfolded become clear. The monsoon rains were always the key to successful cultivation of rice in Bengal. They arrived in onshore winds from the sea early in the hot summer months and they persisted into the fall when a reverse, cold, dry flow of air from the continental interior took their place. These gigantic movements of wind systems affected a much wider area than Bengal and it often happened that climatic changes in more distant places delayed the arrival of the summer rains, even causing an almost total absence of rain in some years. Two years before the famine, one of these monsoon anomalies began to appear. In 1768 there was a partial shortfall of rain. As a result, there was a reduction in the amount of rice harvested and in the following year there was even less rain and therefore a correspondingly smaller harvest. By September of 1769 there was a severe drought, and alarming reports were coming in of rural hunger. Early in 1770, reports of widespread starvation began to arrive at the East India Company Headquarters and they were followed by news of a rapid increase in the number of deaths.

In the midst of the developing tragedy, local authorities maintained a strict control over agricultural output. Their income depended on either the sale of the rice they demanded from the local small farmers or on the taxes they levied on the people producing the rice. The people, however, who decided who would benefit from the harvested rice were unfamiliar with rice farming. They knew almost nothing about the vicissitudes of the monsoon rains and they were equally ignorant of local customs, including the traditional ways of dealing with years of drought. It was normal practice among the people of this area to have some rice in reserve because they knew that on occasion they would experience the kind of situation that developed in 1768 and 1769. Thus, they had a reserve of rice to cope with bad years. The British rulers made no arrangements for some rice to be kept for emergencies. Worse still, they prevented the local residents from having such a traditional reserve. As conditions worsened in the early months of 1770 and the death toll mounted the only response from the local authorities was that a natural disaster had occurred and nothing could be done about it.

It is even more astonishing that the leaders of the East India Company, educated people who had come from England where humanitarian concerns for neighbors in distress was almost instinctive, could be so indiffer ent to the suffering that was taking place all around them. Instead of reducing demand on the harvest of 1769 and using all of it to provide emergency food supplies for the starving residents, they went in the opposite direction and increased the demand on available supplies of rice while continuing to increase the tax on the harvested rice. All the authorities cared about was the need to demonstrate to the British government that they made a profit year by year. If natural conditions reduced the harvest then, in their minds, the obvious thing to do was increase the tax on people so that the profits would remain at a high level. That is what happened. From the beginning of their control in Bengal, the Company had raised land taxes and trade tariffs up to half of the value of the agricultural produce. In 1770, with millions already dead from starvation, it raised these taxes and tariffs by 10 percent so that their profits would remain high.

Famine was everywhere in 1770. Peasants tried to sell their possessions, even the ploughs and bullocks that they would need for their survival in the future. The price of rice, their staple diet, kept going up, and soon nothing that they could sell would pay for enough food. Children were sold to anyone who would buy them and some of them ended up as slaves in European and Indian households. Conditions deteriorated to levels of desperation that give rise to cannibalism and, at the same time, to an increasing spread of disease. At first the starvation and rate of death was in the rural areas, where the population as a whole depended on the rice crop. Then, as out-migrations accelerated, most people headed for the capital of Calcutta in the hope of finding relief there. There was little for them there and soon the streets of that city were full of dead bodies. One or two members of the East India Company were so moved by the horror of the situation that they left the country and went back to England. Later they recounted the events that had made such an indelible mark on their memories. They had seen human corpses mangled by hungry dogs and by jackals and vultures. When the situation became too great a danger to public health the Company employed a hundred men to pick up the dead bodies and throw them into the River Ganges.

As a result of the famine, large rural areas were depopulated and allowed to revert to natural jungle. Many cultivated lands were completely abandoned. Bengal, formerly the richest part of the nation, became destitute and the East India Company was no longer able to maintain its formerly profitable status. The British Government appointed a governor general to take charge and replace the Company. The famine had taken the lives of ten million peasants, about one-third of the total population of Bengal. The total may have been much higher; there had never been a census of the population and only the painstaking work of researchers in later years made it possible to confirm that the death toll was at least as high as ten million. The famine ended as quickly as it had begun. By the end of the year 1770 substantial rainfall ensured a plentiful harvest. The whole desperately tragic event needs to be placed in the context of previous and subsequent famines in India. Altogether there were about twenty-five substantial famines in different parts of the country during the period of British rule, some in the far south and several in areas west of Bengal. Estimates for the total loss of life in all of these exceeded thirty million. None of them was as catastrophic as the 1770 famine.

Famines were still present even in the final years before the country secured its independence from Britain in 1947. The last serious famine came in 1943, in the middle of World War II. Japanese forces had captured large areas of the south and the south east of Asia and they were advancing through Burma, at that time the largest exporter of rice in that part of the world. The British had encouraged the development of rice cultivation in Burma and, by 1940, was purchasing 15 percent of all India’s needs of rice from that country. Bengal, because it was so close to Burma, depended to a greater extent on Burma’s rice. About one person in every four of Bengal’s population relied on imports of rice from Burma. If anything happened to that source there would be another famine. True to its former neglect of retaining resources to cope with possible emergencies, the British once again had nothing in reserve. What military authorities did do, and what proved to be more disastrous than anyone imagined, was to introduce emergency measures all across the Bengal area. Large areas of rice cultivation near the Burmese border were destroyed in order to slow down the advance of Japanese armies, depriving the area of all local food resources in the process. At the same time, almost all the rice available was transferred to other parts of India and other theatres of war. The residents of Bengal were told that they had to cope with less rice because so many of their agricultural areas had been destroyed.

In October of 1942, the whole east coast of Bengal was hit by a powerful tropical cyclone and areas of land as far as forty miles inland were flooded. The fall crops of rice were washed away and lost. Small quantities of what was already a reduced harvest, the part of the harvest that always had to be retained as seed for planting in the months of winter that followed, had to be consumed for food. As the hot weather of 1943 appeared and there was nothing to eat because nothing had been sown in the winter growing season, famine appeared and before the year was out four million had died. The military authorities had made no provision for food emergencies. Furthermore, all the military commanders in that region were concentrating on the war and gave little attention to domestic issues. The government of India tried to get help to the stricken areas but no one seemed to care in far away Britain at a time when World War II was at a peak of activity. Subsequent records of rice production for the year 1943 revealed that there was enough available to prevent starvation if only the military commanders had chosen to divert supplies of rice to the impoverished peasants.

In the late 1990s, Indian author Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for his studies of the Bengal and other famines in India. His conclusions were a damning indictment of British administration in India. He showed that rice production in India during the years 1941–1943 were pretty much normal and were sufficient to provide food for everyone. The totals, year by year, varied only slightly from the normal: 1940, eight million tons, 1941, seven million, 1942, nine million, and 1943, eight million tons. Sen was convinced that the 1943 famine was caused, not by a shortage of rice, but by the removal of supplies from the stricken areas to meet the needs of fighting troops. His thesis went on to show that, while malnutrition and hunger remained a common condition in India, no major famine occurred in fifty years following independence. Yet, in those years, 1951–2001, the total population grew from 360 million to more than a billion. By contrast, in one fifty-year period of British rule, 1891–1941, the population only grew from 287 million to 389 million. Sen selected the fifty years from 1951 because the immediate aftermath of independence led to considerable strife and disruption of agriculture.


Tiananmen Square – 1989

Truthfully, what the world remembers best about Tiananmen Square in 1989 is one of the 20th century’s defining images: ‘Tankman’. Alone, he faced down a column of army tanks for half an hour, standing resolute and unmoving, until he raised his arm to extend a gauntlet of peace, a flower, to the muzzle of the cannon pointed straight at him. The world held its breath at his courage, not yet quite understanding that his gesture derived all its power from the violent confrontation that had taken place on the previous two days, and the massacre which still continued in the nearby streets.

Dissent had been rumbling in a China eager for liberal reform and by May 1989, regular demonstrations had grown into mass protests led by students but with tacit support from urban workers and citizens. Weeks of inconclusive marches brought up to a million protesters to Tiananmen Square, China’s most symbolic rallying point; and around 1,000 students began a hunger strike there. Government elders dismissed them as lackeys of ‘bourgeois liberalism’ and ordered in the troops. By June 2 both sides had resorted to violence as the army sought to clear Tiananmen Square. Casualties mounted.

In fact most students left Tiananmen Square voluntarily, trying to avoid a bloodbath. The massacre took place in the surrounding streets. Tanks rolled over bodies and soldiers kept up withering semi-automatic fire on packed crowds who had no chance of escape. Students fought back where they could – but though the Chinese Army (PLA) is composed mainly of draftees, who might be expected to be sympathetic, unarmed protesters were brutally suppressed. Using the excuse of martial law, and the cover of night, troops literally crushed what had become a rebellion.

Thankfully, as ‘Tankman’ proved, though the soldiers won the ‘battle’, they simultaneously realized they could not win the moral war.

When: June 2-5 1989

Where: Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Death toll: Exact casualty figures remain a Chinese state secret. Student organizations can name 1,100 dead known to them.

You should know: Workers and other civilians supported the protesters constantly with food, water, money and goodwill. Many times, rickshaw drivers braved the firing in no-man’s-land to pick up wounded citizens and students and get them to hospitals.


Darfur Conflict – 2003 onwards

Has it been a prolonged case of genocide or merely ongoing mass murder? The US government boldly announced it was the former, while the United Nations cautiously claimed that in the absence of ‘provable genocidal intent’ it was the latter. But semantics hardly matter to the devastated civilian population of Darfur, collectively the three Sudanese states of West, South and North Darfur, who have been subjected to a prolonged killing spree.

The relentless Darfur conflict began in February 2003 when the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) and JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) took up arms against the Sudanese government. Insurrection was caused by the Arab-dominated government’s perceived discrimination against the mainly black inhabitants of Darfur. This uprising was viciously countered by the government- sponsored Janjaweed militia recruited from nomadic Afro-Arab Abbala tribes. As always in such conflicts, it is hard to ascertain the truth with any certainty. Each side has accused the other of unspeakable atrocities, while the international community periodically indulged in futile attempts to mediate (over 50 peacekeepers have been killed in Darfur) – or even exert any influence over the Sudanese government.

At least two million Darfurian civilians have been displaced, many fleeing to neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic where they are sometimes pursued and attacked by Janjaweed fighters, exacerbating regional tensions. The combination of military engagements, malnutrition, disease and genocide/mass murder has taken a terrible toll. Just how terrible is a matter of conjecture. The Sudanese government claims a figure in the low tens of thousands, while other estimates go up to half a million. But all agree that a particularly unpleasant aspect of the conflict is the extensive use of rape by armed militias as a weapon of terror, underlining the Darfur conflict’s status as one of the 21st century’s most intractable humanitarian disasters.

When: 2003 onwards

Where: Western Sudan

Death toll: Unknown, but estimated at anywhere up to 500,000 fatalities from all conflict-related causes.

You should know: The ICC (international Criminal Court) at The Hague filed genocide, crimes-against-humanity and murder charges against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2008. But like the UN the court too, was uncertain about the use of the term ‘genocide’. When an optimistic arrest warrant was issued, the genocide counts had been quietly dropped for lack of sufficient evidence’.