Did We Miss the Lesson of Nagasaki?

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Mr. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. He writes frequently on nuclear non-proliferation and U.S. nuclear policy.

It has been 62 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the moral and strategic lessons of those devastating acts have still not been fully learned.

Despite the efforts of scientists like Leo Szilard and diplomats like John McCloy to promote alternative means for ending the war, the bombings went forward. There are still debates among historians and the public at large about the primary rationale for the use of the weapons. Some interpretations accept the official claim that it was done as a way of ending the war as soon as possible, on allied terms. Others note that the intention of the Roosevelt administration had always been to use the atom bomb once it had been developed, and that in this sense President Truman inherited a policy that already had considerable momentum behind it. Other historians suggest that the bombings were aimed at preventing the Soviet Union from entering the war in the Pacific theater.

It is possible that all of these factors were at work to some degree, and they may constitute an explanation - though not a moral justification - for the attack on Hiroshima. But even if one accepts the rationales put forward for the Hiroshima bombing, the use of a second atomic weapon against Nagasaki just three days later seems like an act of gratuitous cruelty on a monumental scale.

We now know that Japanese leaders were still reeling from the impact of the first bombing when the second bomb struck. Debates over terms of surrender were deadlocked, but a few more days' time - especially in light of the Soviet Union's imminent entry into the war - may well have produced an agreement acceptable to the United States without the need to destroy Nagasaki. In addition, the sheer destructive power of the Hiroshima bombing -- killing tens of thousands of people immediately while turning the city into a pile of radioactive rubble -- should have raised qualms about launching another strike in such short order.

The Nagasaki bombing went forward in any case and subsequent efforts to curb the use of atomic energy for military purposes failed. President Truman apparently believed that the U.S. nuclear monopoly would last indefinitely, telling Robert Oppenheimer that he believed that the Soviets would "never" get the bomb. Just a few years later he was proven wrong, and the nuclear arms race was off and running. With so many factors at play, it is by no means certain that U.S. forbearance over Nagasaki would have changed this tragic outcome, but it might have at least opened the door to other possibilities.

Six decades later the United States remains the only nation to have used nuclear arms as a weapon of war. The absence of additional attacks has been driven in part by the moral opprobrium attached to the use of these weapons of mass terror, and in part by the fear of devastating retaliation by another nuclear power -- particularly on the U.S.-Soviet front. But despite this record, the foundations of U.S. nuclear policy remain morally suspect. There has not been another Nagasaki, but it is U.S. policy to engage in veiled threats to launch just such an attack, even if the target nation does not possess nuclear weapons.

The immorality of U.S. declaratory nuclear policy was made evident recently when Barack Obama asserted that "it would be a profound mistake to use nuclear weapons under any circumstance . . . involving civilians." This seemingly common sense statement was roundly criticized by rival presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd, who essentially argued that the nuclear option should never publicly be "taken off the table."

Not only is the prospect of using nuclear weapons in circumstances in which civilians will be killed immoral, but the threat of doing so violates international law, as expressed in an historic 1995 advisory opinion by the World Court.

This policy is also counterproductive at the strategic level. The threat to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is only liable to spur them to seek their own. Taking this stance toward Iran -- even if the actual use of the weapons is extremely unlikely -- will undermine prospects for negotiations to curb Teheran's program while giving leverage to officials within Iran who want to go from nuclear enrichment to nuclear weapons.

Short of getting a global agreement to abolish nuclear weapons -- a goal worth striving for no matter how difficult it may be to achieve in practice -- one of the most important steps the U.S. could take would be to adopt a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons against any nation that is not literally poised to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. This shift in U.S. policy would suggest that it is possible to reverse the mentality that led to the bombing of Nagasaki, even at this late date.

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    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    What, practically speaking, might be achieved by a policy of " 'no first use' of nuclear weapons against any nation that is not literally poised to launch a nuclear attack on the United States" ?

    Suppose, under the most optimistic of scenarios, such a policy were to be implemented in such a way as to lead swiftly to universal adoption by all other countries?

    Would that stop non-state actors from trying to get their hands on nukes?

    Would it mean that no country would ever cheat and launch a first nuclear strike despite agreeing beforehand not to?

    What about chemical or biological weapons?

    Surely, even by Hartung's own account here, the "mentality that led to the bombing of Nagasaki" was effectively extinguished 48 years ago already, when Truman's foolish belief "that the U.S. nuclear monopoly would last indefinitely" was "proven wrong."

    Surely there is much greater benefit in more effective limits on the development, stockpiling, sequestering and global spread of nuclear materials and delivery devices than on pious and dubious statements of "forbearance."

    We need to reinvigorate approaches such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, not torpedo them as the deceit-based and incompetent Bush administration has done, nor try to espouse pie-in-the-sky in place of them, as essentially advocated here.

    Donald E. Staringer - 8/23/2007

    Yes, we had only two bombs in the first week in August but would have many more prior to any invasion of Japan on November 1st. General Marshall ordered 7-9 bombs for the expected invasion. With 9-11 bombs non-military demonstrations could have been considered. The Russian entrance on Aug 15th plus time to negotiate the situation of the Emperor would have been a strong impetus for the Japanese to surrender without dropping the bomb on innocents. Some Japanese researchers put the number of deaths over the two bombs well over 200,000 and the number of deaths from radiation sickness were certainly higher than 1500! The tragedy of Hiroshima was the lack of consideration for the non-use of the bomb. We have learned in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq that we can drag wars on to get acceptable results. Too bad we could not get a more humane result in 1945.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/22/2007

    There were a good many people starving to death in Japanese captivity at the time, who would have died, but instead lived because the bombs were dropped. A good many Japanese would have been killed resisting an invasion of their home islands, not just invaders. Finally, the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is usually exaggerated by today's revisionists, and it is important to get the equation correct when weighing this question. Some Australian POWs not three miles from ground zero in Hiroshima are still alive today. The total killed by both bombs at both cities was almost exactly 100,000, including 2,500 or so "premature" deaths from radiation occurring years later. Failure to drop the bombs--and Japan was given time to surrender after the first one, and was warned the second was coming--could not have resulted in fewer than 100,000 additional deaths, and strictly on the basis of which course saved lives the decision to drop the bombs was the humane one. (We only had two bombs). All of our atomic secrets, of course, were delivered to the USSR by disloyal Americans in the FDR and Truman administrations, a fact which should always be mentioned whenever our temporary "nuclear monopoly" is spoken of. Truman was incredibly dense about that, too. The technology would have leaked out eventually, of course, but it didn't have to leak immediately and lead to a prolonged Cold War.

    Rob Ray Rhyner - 8/19/2007

    The article and comments are all admirable, and I don't wish to refute anything. But Paul Fussell's essay "Thank Gd for the Atom Bomb" has some personal resonance for me.

    My father had been a bombardier/navigator in US Navy patrol bombers in the Central Pacific from late 1942 through early 1945. In initial pilots' training, he had not demonstrated the level of skill needed to be sent on for further pilots' training. Yet, in 1945, he was sent to Pensacola to learn to fly Catalina flying boats, and barely passed the course.

    Years later, my good friend (whose father was during the war a lieutenant on a landing craft) and I were mulling over our fathers' experiences, and we came to the realization that neither of us might exist without those horrific bombs: his father would have been involved in the landings, and mine in the close-in rescues of downed pilots.

    For Paul Fussell, waiting at a port in France for transshipment to the Pacific, November did not seem far off.

    Finally, in regard to points made about the scale of civilian slaughter and the willingness of leaders to expand the scale of their barbarities, we should recall other (near)-"firsts" of that war: mass exterminations, area bombings of cities, wide-scale use of individual automatic weapons, the reduction of warfare to competition between industrial bases.

    In these large-scale wars, participants and victims feel compelled to accept what they understand to be the war's terms as given and unavoidable. That massive and horrible shift in sensibility is what some historians seem to overlook in discussions of the atom bombings of Japan.

    Rob in Madison, WI, US

    Donald E. Staringer - 8/19/2007

    To wish it were so does make it so. Regrettably people must defend themselves against others who would have them dead so they can enhance their own view of things. Do you respond to Pearl Harbor with paper? I think not. At the same time there must be balance between the means and the ends you are trying to achieve. The concept of a "just war" was negated by new technologies and advances in propaganda make "total war" a buzz word for the compliant masses. The lack of wisdom by American leaders in using the bomb under the circumstances prevailing in August,1945 was an opportunity lost. If by Nov 1, 1945, the Japanese had not surrended, the use of the bomb becomes much more justified. Pin Wang comments are thoughtful.

    Pin Wang - 8/17/2007

    Why put Hiroshima and Nagasaki into a historical ghetto like the holocaust already has been?

    It is well documented that the the civilian death rate in WWII approached two-thirds of the entire death total. The nuclear attacks on Japan are a symbol of the widespread destruction experienced by civilian populations all around the globe at the hands of the war powers. It does not take a rocket scientist or even a historian to realize that is a very, very, bad thing.

    Since when has killing massive numbers of people ever been an acceptable solution in the domestic affairs of any country? Has it ever been truly morally justifiable to kill large quantities of human beings simply because they are members of a different nationality? It is disheartening to see that the debates surrounding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which some still incomprehensively label as "necessary," fail to address the overarching message that those cities SHOULD represent.

    It seems to me that the lesson to be learned from Nagasaki is very simple: don't drop atomic weaponry on innocent people.

    The lesson learned from WWII is also very simple: war in our time means an incredibly high civilian casualty rate, and those civilian casualties are UNAVOIDABLE.

    What confuses me as a student is: if, as human beings, we decide that this cost of war is unacceptable (which it certainly is,) and avoidable (which it is by choosing to abstain from invading foreign countries,) how can so many scholars on the subject remain so neutral? How is it possible to ignore the incredible cost in human life, which is the result of nuclear weaponry and modern warfare, while discussing seemingly irrelevant details in politics and circumstance?

    I understand the importance of scholarship and vigorous historical analysis, but how can the need for that stand up to such basic truths as "dropping bombs on children is bad?"

    To be a pacifist (at least to a certain extent) at this point in history is not to be a radical or extremist; it is simply being historically accurate while keeping your own humanity in mind. It is our responsibility as human beings in this day and age to push the wealth of the west in the direction of global peace as opposed to self-preservation.

    Historians, who having the facts of history before them can see so clearly the ignorance that pervades popular perception of modern warfare, have an even greater responsibility to speak out against war. To not do so would be to stay in the past, and at this point, it seems historians are choosing to do just that, reaffirming to the world the stereotype of the profession.

    Donald E. Staringer - 8/16/2007

    Looking at history always requires a rewriting of history. Every generation must use its experiences and intellect to interpret what is passed down as the orthodox view. What interests me in all the discussion regarding Hiroshima/Nagasaki is lack of examination on the possibilities for the non-use of the bomb. The argument we must save lives and end the war quickly fails to take into account that the invasion of Japan was not to take place until Nov 1st. We had almost three months before American boys would have to die in an invasion. By that time the production of more bombs would have made an unmilitary use of the bomb more appealing, the Russian entrance and negotiation regarding the position of the emperor could very well have impelled the Japanese to surrender. Would a number of our boys die during the interium? No doubt, but as MacArthur said the job of the soldier is to protect the innocent. We have learned in Korea, Vietnam, and now in Iraq that prolonged periods of continued fighting can ensue while the politicans decide the final outcome. The real tragedy of Hiroshima was the inability of our wartime leaders, but not all of them, to view the bomb as just another weapon. The acceptance of total war and the killing of the innocent in a situation where the Japanese were moving to try and save face was wrong. We would never had needed to invade Japan, but if they would have surrendered without its military use the post war world might have been much different, Maybe, an America that used the bomb with circumspection would have taught our present leaders that force should really be the last line of defense.

    vaughn davis bornet - 8/14/2007

    I am pleased with the comments of this gentleman on the Nagasaki bombing, a point of view I expressed in summer seminars on this episode.

    At the same time, as one on active duty at the time, I can't understand why today's civilians are unable to grasp what contemporaries, especially servicemen and their families and friends, thought about Military Actions that all knew would stop the war in its tracks. The Franklin, the Indianapolis, the landings, Japanese horrors throughout Asia and the Pacific War, the threat of imminent invasion of Japan BY US for heaven's sake--it doesn't seem very important to today's educated commentators. Why the hell not? Not important enough to mention, anyway. Damn right we wanted to win and go home. The only good Japanese was a dead one, was the mood of August, 1945. I was there; can't intelligent, history trained, historians get There vicariously? Going on five years "in the war" must have sharpened our wits about WHY we used the bombs, for sure. Today, I too find it easy to be moralistic and judgmental; but then I glance through photos of my wartime correspondence I gave to the Hoover Presidential Library, and I wake up. Starting at Guadacanal, we went through hell against the heroic/obedient/militaristic/rughless Japanese military. It absolutely didn't occur to Anybody at NAS Alameda (where I then was) to say, in effect, "How we win is as important as the fact we win." Not then. If I had asked my parents, a continent away, from whom I had been separated for years, and who always feared I wouldn't survive, they would have said, "Just WHAT are you talking about? Of COURSE we want the war over, Now and Any Way You Can Do It!"

    Today, I can favor nuclear non-proliferation, remorse, empathy with those who suffered, alternate ways of waging WWII in theory, and so on. And I should! But I won't join in rewriting History; no way.

    Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D., CDR (USNR ret) Ashland, Oregon

    John D. Beatty - 8/13/2007

    The nuclear bombings didn't have that much to do with ending the war against Japan; that ended when the Showa emperor realized that he could no longer protect the sacred regalia, a duty he felt exceeded any others either to the Japanese state or its people.

    They had a great deal to do with stopping further Soviet incursion into already occupied or treaty-ceded territory, however.

    That the Soviets knew about the bomb is clear, but it is not clear to them that the Americans had got it to work, that they could deply it as a weapon, or that they would. Hiroshima and Nagasaki confirmed all three.

    Uninventing weapons? That's been tried before. Didn't work the, either.