As Rebecca Gibbons walked through the preserved ruins of Hiroshima, she read the stories of the survivors and their unimaginable loss.
The memorial’s centerpiece is the Genbaku dome, iconic because it survived the catastrophic Aug. 6, 1945 bombing that leveled the rest of the city. It reminds visitors of both the fury of the bomb and of Japanese perseverance.
Visiting the site on the 74th anniversary of the bombing, Gibbons, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Southern Maine, thought about the personal stories of the victims, and wondered how much worse the devastation would be from a modern weapon.
She also considered the site from her specialty as an expert in the treaties and rules governing nuclear weapons.
“Everyone should go. Period,” she said. “Particularly those of us who are in the field should visit.”
A discussion of today’s nuclear weapons took her there, as she joined a group of academics, students and activists from around the world. Gibbons, who describes herself as “an academic, not an advocate,” lectured about the non-proliferation movement to the Hiroshima ICAN Academy on Nuclear Weapons and Global Security.
The native of Falmouth, Maine is currently completing a book on the role of the US in halting the spread of nuclear weapons.
Gibbons started out on a different path, earning a bachelor’s degree in Psychological and Brain Sciences from Dartmouth College. After graduation she went to the Pacific’s Marshall Islands to teach English.
There, she worked with people who were displaced from the Bikini Atoll, prior to the US decision to use the location as a nuclear test site.
“There were no outside communications,” Gibbons said. She worked to help children understand the politics that had taken them from their atoll. “I explained the Cold War to them.”
When she returned home, she enrolled at Georgetown University. She earned a master’s degree from the Walsh School of Foreign Service and continued at Georgetown to earn a doctorate in government.
Meanwhile, her practical experience grew.
“I have a soft spot for arms control,” she said.
She worked with a professor at Georgetown who was studying Iran’s nuclear efforts. She became a contractor with the US Air Force, researching and analyzing trends and challenges in arms control and nuclear proliferation. And in 2018, she became a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard. There, she worked on the Project on Managing the Atom & International Security Program, in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School.
Her visit to Hiroshima in August 2019 was her first. It came at the request of the Hiroshima Prefecture, which was gathering people for its Academy on Nuclear Weapons and Global Security.
She was already on the record as an educator and analyst on the issue.
“I wrote a paper two summers ago on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the TPNW,” she said. “It was negotiated by over 100 non-nuclear countries and very few US allies participated.
“I lectured about the development of the non-proliferation movement, from the academic, outsider perspective,” she said.
It’s the same perspective she brings to the classroom at USM, where she teaches Intro to International Relations, Global Order: 1945 to the present and works on the Model UN conference.
“I think my visit gave me a greater motivation to educate my students,” she said.
Story by Daniel Hartill, Photo by Alan Bennett / USM Office of Public Affairs