Francis J. Gavin: Hiroshima -- An Uncertain and Contested Legacy





Dr. Francis J. Gavin is Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Robert S. Strauss Centerfor International Security and Law at the University of Texas. This article is drawn from a series on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "Perspectives on Hiroshima," published by the Federation of American Scientists. Read the full series here.

Sixty-seven years ago, an American B-29, the Enola Gay, dropped a gun-fission weapon made with U-235 on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing upwards of 100,000 people. Three days later, a plutonium device was dropped on the city of Nagasaki that may have killed as many as 80,000 people. That these two detonations transformed the world of politics and international affairs forever is universally accepted. The precise meaning and consequence of this legacy, however, is deeply contested. 

Why have these terrible weapons not been used since 1945, and how can we ensure at least another sixty-seven years without a nuclear attack?...

...Do nuclear weapons make the world safer or more dangerous? It is hard to imagine a more important question. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that despite bold assertions from scholars, advocates, and policymakers, we simply don’t know

What is rarely commented upon in the voluminous and often shrill debate is how consistently abysmal our record of explaining and predicting nuclear politics has been since the start of the atomic age. After the Soviet Union replaced the defeated Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany as America’s main foe, as early as 1947 a third world war involving nuclear weapons was considered all but inevitable. Once fears of a thermonuclear war between the superpowers abated (somewhat), concerns turned from “cascades of proliferation” to dozens of smaller, “less responsible” states that were unlikely to imitate the superpowers’ restraint. In time, non-state actors, including terrorist groups, would get their hands on these weapons, and some of our leading experts saw a detonation on American soil as a near certainty....



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