The bombings had terrible effects on the populations of these cities and played an important role in shaping the world we live in today

Tim Street

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima, taken from “Enola Gay” flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku

This August marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima (6th August) and Nagasaki (9th August) by the United States at the end of World War Two. The bombings had terrible effects on the populations of these cities and played an important role in shaping the world we live in today. An estimated 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 73,000 people in Nagasaki died immediately or in the following five months as a result of the bombings. In subsequent years, many of those who survived the attacks suffered from leukaemia, cancer, or other side effects of the radiation caused by the bombs.

The uranium bomb detonated over Hiroshima destroyed around 70% of all buildings and had an explosive yield of 15 kilotons, which is equal to 15,000 tons of TNT. Three days later, a plutonium bomb was exploded over Nagasaki. This bomb, which had a yield of 21 kilotons, devastated the city, with ground temperatures reaching 4,000°C and radioactive rain pouring down on the inhabitants. The US’s nuclear weapons today are immensely more powerful than those used against Japan. The most powerful missile warhead the US currently deploys has a yield of 455 kilotons.

The huge power of modern nuclear weapons is the legacy of the many nuclear tests the US conducted after 1945. Many of these took place in lands belonging to indigenous people, distant from the US, and caused long-lasting and severe damage to the health and environment of these communities. Some propose that the nuclear bombing of Japan should be considered a kind of test or experiment. Professor Shingo Shibata of Hiroshima University has argued that the US wanted to ‘obtain data’ on the impacts of nuclear weapons on humans, thus using the victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as ‘guinea pigs’ to inform the development of future weaponry.

The survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to be known as hibakusha. Their stories provide a living reminder of the horrors that nuclear weapons can unleash. Many hibakusha have campaigned for nuclear abolition, including Setsuko Thurlow, who delivered the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize lecture on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won it that year for its advocacy work on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Thurlow observed in her speech that ‘the development of nuclear weapons signifies not a country’s elevation to greatness, but its descent to the darkest depths of depravity. These weapons are not a necessary evil; they are the ultimate evil.’

The reality of what this evil looked like in Japan in August 1945 was related by John Hersey. His 1946 report Hiroshima records the hellish scenes following the detonation of the bomb in that city. At the end of his report, Hersey reflects on the ethics of the US using the ‘inhuman’ bomb, speculating that residents of Hiroshima may have been ‘too terrified by it to want to think about it at all’. The bombings had sent a clear and terrifying message to the world and its leaders, both regarding the new power that the US possessed and its willingness to use it to achieve its strategic goals.

The conventional justification for dropping the bomb is that it saved American lives and shortened the war. This narrative quickly took hold in the popular imagination; in 1945 the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki had significant support from the US public. However, historians such as Ward Wilson have recently drawn on evidence from Japanese government archives to assert that the use of nuclear weapons had little impact on Japan’s decision to surrender. Moreover, Gar Alperovitz notes: ‘Not only did most top US military leaders think the bombings were unnecessary and unjustified, many were morally offended by what they regarded as the unnecessary destruction of Japanese cities and what were essentially noncombat populations.’ Such accounts highlight how the real reasons for the bombings were not military but political. In part, this was because American leaders preferred to end the war with atomic bombs rather than a Soviet invasion.

Another important factor was the need to demonstrate the scope of US power to the Soviets during what Alperovitz describes as ‘the early diplomatic sparring that ultimately became the Cold War’. The atmosphere of fear and tension was, Howard Zinn argues, purposely created. The war-weary American public ‘seemed to favor demobilization and disarmament’; in order to maintain domestic political control, the Truman administration ‘worked to create an atmosphere of crisis and cold war’. The celebration of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the US thus helped cement what activists David Krieger and Richard Falk describe as an American attachment to ‘nuclearism’, which is embedded in the nation’s strategic thinking. If the political legacy of the Manhattan Project, which produced the US’s first nuclear bombs, included the creation of a culture of secrecy and the national security state, the legacy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the creation of a permanent war mentality that persists in the US to the present day.

This is shown by the US’s immense military budget, which is greater than that of the next ten highest-spending nations combined. In addition, the US plans to spend more than $1 trillion over the next thirty years to modernise its nuclear weapons complex. President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in 2016 to commemorate, but not apologise for, the atomic bombings, was a painful reminder of how wide the gap is between the rearmament programmes that the US and other nuclear weapon states are engaged in and the disarmament action that they are legally obliged to pursue under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The US government’s seemingly unbreakable nuclear addiction supports Elaine Scarry’s suggestion that a democratic revolution is what, in reality, is most needed if the country is to make substantial progress on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Short-term reforms towards the democratic control and ultimate dismantlement of the US’s nuclear arsenal have been outlined by Kennette Benedict, who writes that the US should place its nuclear weapons ‘on a much lower level of launch readiness, release to the public more information about the nuclear weapons in our own arsenals, include legislators and outside experts in its nuclear posture review and recognize Congress’ authority to declare war as a prerequisite to any use of nuclear weapons’.

In addition to such domestic reforms, it is vital that Washington focus on achieving a cordial and stable relationship with Moscow and Beijing to push the possibility of nuclear conflict to the margins. The deteriorating relationship between Russia and the US led former Defense Secretary William Perry to observe in 2017: ‘The probability of a nuclear calamity is higher today, I believe, that it was during the Cold War.’

The imperative today is thus for the nuclear powers, particularly the US and Russia – which possess approximately 91% of the world’s nuclear weapons – to declare that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. Yet, presently, the US under President Donald Trump is leading the way in nuclear rearmament, while also dismantling the architecture of arms control, lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and considering new nuclear testing. Meanwhile, the US’s containment of China threatens potential conflict, which could escalate in unpredictable ways. Given today’s extreme nuclear dangers, it is thus vital that the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki be used to inspire renewed efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

05 Aug 2020 by Tim Street

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