A Day That Lives In Infamy
Sixty years ago this month, the United States launched the world’s first and (so far) only) nuclear attack when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Born from fear that Nazi Germany would acquire this dangerous technology first, the American effort to develop and build nuclear weapons was a triumph of science and organization that persisted well after the German threat receded. History is filled with the debate over the justification for attacking Japanese cities with atomic weapons. Most military leaders of that era do not believe the bombings were necessary
The most compelling argument to many Americans is that the attack prevented the horrible casualties that would have resulted from invading Japan. This line of thought trades military casualties for civilian ones. The non-combatants (them) are killed in order to spare combatant lives (us). The trade off is an unfortunate inevitability of war, where force multiplies force in an ever widening cycle of destruction. In World War II, this cycle led the United States, the nation that first recognized the dignity of the individual, to become the first to use a weapon of such inordinately discriminatory destruction.
American fear further nurtured the nuclear to age as the United States and the Soviety Union sought to maintain a balance of terror during the Cold War. At the time we deeply feared Soviet might and nuclear weapons. The US was first to develop and implement virtually all of the nuclear technologies during the Cold War. The Soviets followed as best they could, maintaining at sufficient semblance of parity to keep the Americans looking for the next advantage. Along the way nuclear technology spread to other nations seeking to demonstrate their status as Great Power. We know now that the Soviet threat was largely hollow. However, the technologies we pioneered are spreading. As long as nuclear weapons are viewed as legitimate tools of war, all nations will seek to possess them.
The United States is in a unique position to stop the nuclear proliferation it initiated in the first half of the last century. The American military is pre-eminent in the world. No other military can seriously threaten the United States or its interests. Even without its nuclear arsenal, America can still manage any potential threat. The 60th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Japan would be a fitting time for the United States to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons and to call for a serious program to eliminate these weapons from the world’s arsenals.
Yes, I know that arms control has had limited, if any success, in controlling nuclear weapons. But these efforts have been focused primarily on managing these weapons and technology. No great effort has been made to “put the genie back into the bottle.” And this is one genie that should go back into the bottle. The destructive power of non-nuclear technology is bad enough but nuclear technology adds the threat of long-term environmental damage, sufficient to destroy the ability of this planet to support life.
Perhaps that is the inevitable fate of our species and the civilization we have created. I prefer to think otherwise. I want to believe that even though history offers little support for this belief. Twenty years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan briefly talked of eliminating their entire nuclear arsenals before their respective national security institutions smothered the idea. This anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an opportune moment to look for ways back to that path not taken. different direction