Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Hiroshima, Nagasaki and America's Immoral Addiction to Nuclear Weapons

by Walter C Uhler (August 06 2007)

Americans "were free to say what they think, because they did not think what they were not free to say". -- Leo Szilard

"Had Germany used atomic bombs on two allied cities [during World War II], those responsible would have been 'sentenced ... to death at Nuremberg and hanged ...'" -- Leo Szilard

America's immoral addiction to nuclear weapons was on display last week after Barack Obama demonstrated that rare ability to think and to say what most American politicians are not free to say, namely that he would not use nuclear weapons "in any circumstance" to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Almost immediately Senator Hillary Clinton put the use of nuclear weapons back on the table, when she asserted: "I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons". Poor Hillary!

By her willingness to contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, Senator Clinton appears ready, were she to be elected president, to add her name to the long list of presidents who have contemplated such use. As Joseph Gerson notes, in his recent book, Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World: "On at least thirty occasions since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every US president has prepared and/or threatened to initiate nuclear war during international crises, confrontations, and wars - primarily in the Third World". {1}

For perspective, consider that, in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed America's moral outrage, when he proclaimed: "The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of hostilities ... sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity". {2} Yet, within six years, Roosevelt would not only subject European and Japanese cities to such "ruthless bombing", his successor, Harry Truman, would do nothing to prevent America's technological utopians from turning mass murder into a one-brushstroke work of art - by exploding single atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In fact, Secretary of War Henry Stimson "confided to Truman that with the US fire bombings that had razed nearly every major Japanese city to the ground, and with the atomic bombings that were to come, the US could 'get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities'". {3}

On August 6 1945 - sixty-two years ago today - "Little Boy" exploded over Hiroshima. "People ... within a half a mile of the hypocenter were vaporized or reduced to lumps of charcoal". The city became a living hell. "Outlines of bodies were permanently etched as white shadows in black nimbus on streets and walls, but the bodies themselves had disappeared ... .there were innumerable corpses without apparent injury. Parts of bodies held their ground, like two legs severed below the knees, still standing. Many of the dead were turned into statues, some solid and others waiting to crumble at a touch." {4}

Six-year old Junko Kayashige was sitting by a windowsill when "Little boy" exploded. She survived, but found herself "walking on the roofs of houses which were smashed flat on the ground ... there were people staggering ... I could not tell men from women. The skin of their bodies and even their faces had peeled off and [was] dangling, looking like seaweed." {5}

On August 9 1945, "Fat Man" exploded over Nagasaki. Unlike in Hiroshima, where approximately 100,000 men, women and children died within weeks of the atomic blast - and another 100,000 during the next few months - the bomb over Nagasaki took but some 74,000 lives by the end of 1945.

Fourteen-year-old Senji Yamaguchi survived the Nagasaki blast to recount seeing the explosion "crush a pregnant woman against a wall and tear apart her abdomen. I could see her and her unborn baby dying. The blast instantly knocked down many homes and buildings as well. Mothers and children were trapped beneath the burning wreckage. They called out each other's names, and the mothers would cry out, pleading for someone to save their children. No one was able to help them, and they all burned alive." {6}

Sixteen-year-old Sumiteru Taniguchi was riding his bicycle when "Fat Man" exploded. Tossed into the air by the blast, he managed to drag himself into a basement, where he groaned in agony for three nights. "A grotesque photograph of Taniguchi's tortured and bloody body was taken by the US Army. Decades later, when his wounds had yet to fully heal, the heart-rending and now subversive picture {7} was banned from the Smithsonian Museum's 50th anniversary commemoration of the atomic bombings". {8}

Admiral William D Leahy, President Truman's chief of staff, opposed the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. So did General Dwight D Eisenhower. As Leahy wrote in his memoirs, "The use of the barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender ... In being the first to use it, we ... adopted an ethical standard common to barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children". {9}

During the war, General Eisenhower was given to "a feeling of depression" when Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed him that the bomb would be used. Writing in his memoirs, Ike asserted: "So I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives". {10}

The debate still rages about whether dropping the bombs was necessary to end the war. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa asserts in his recent book, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, "Evidence makes clear that there were alternatives to the use of the bomb, alternatives that the Truman administration for reasons of its own declined to pursue". {11}

In a thoughtful rebuttal, Barton J Bernstein asserts: "The basic decision on using the bomb flowed from overwhelming, long-held assumptions. To Truman and others, the bomb promised to help end the war earlier than otherwise, presumably to save some American and other Allied lives, possibly to force a surrender before the dreaded November invasion, and, as a potential bonus, conceivably to intimidate the Soviets in future dealings." {12}

Both scholars agree, however, that to explain why the bomb was used is not to justify its use. As Professor Bernstein notes: A "sustained effort at interpretation does not mean approving of the use of the bombs or refusing to make moral judgments - about the atomic bombing, and about the lack of a serious quest for likely alternatives." {13}

If, as Hasegawa suggests, Truman experienced guilt about the women and children killed by the atomic bomb, it didn't prevent him, in 1948, from warning the Soviet ambassador that "Soviet troops should evacuate Iran within 48 hours - or the United States would use the new superbomb that it alone possessed". {14}

Truman also authorized General MacArthur's successor, General Ridgeway, to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War. {15} The possible targets were "Chinese and Soviet troop concentrations, Shanghai, Chinese industrial cities, and four North Korean cities". Fortunately, Ridgeway "held his nuclear fire". {16}

Given the Truman administration's actual use of nuclear weapons and its willingness to threaten their use in 1948 and authorize their use during the Korean War, President Eisenhower could come to the presidency without his previous worries about "shocking world opinion' with such threats or actions. This nuclear "banality of evil" already had taken hold in the United States.

But "the banality of evil" only partly explains Eisenhower's "election campaign promise to bring the [Korean] war to an end on US terms by preparing, threatening, and if necessary proceeding with a nuclear attack". {17} For, as Gerson notes: Both Truman and Eisenhower "understood that the US had 'a commanding superiority over the USSR in strategic forces'". Moreover, "This nuclear supremacy soon came to permeate every dimension of US Cold War policy and practice. By 1953, the US had 329 nuclear-capable bombers that, from bases in Japan and Europe, could kill millions of people and eliminate the economic and military foundations of both Communist powers." {18}

As Eisenhower explained in 1963, "It would be impossible for the United States to maintain the military commitments which it now sustains around the world ... did we not possess atomic weapons and the will to use them when necessary". {19} Indeed, his administration adopted the doctrine of "massive retaliation" which linked "local conflicts to the specter of a global war of annihilation". {20}

Thus, in addition to threatening to use nuclear weapons to assure that "the Chinese, Russians and Koreans got the message", the Eisenhower administration also offered atomic bombs to the French in 1954, in order to break the Vietnamese siege at Dien Bien Phu. And it twice threatened China with nuclear attack during the 1955 and 1958 crises concerning the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

Months after the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis (recklessly initiated by Nikita Khrushchev), which had brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, the Kennedy administration approached the Soviet leaders about "'a joint US-Soviet preemptive nuclear attack' against the Chinese nuclear weapons installation at Lop Nor". {21} (That overture helps to explain why, in 1969, the Soviets could ask the Nixon administration whether it would object, were they to launch their own preemptive strike against Lop Nor.)

In 1965, President Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara gave "a background briefing to warn that the 'inhibitions' on US use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam 'might eventually be lifted'". {22} And in February 1968, General Wheeler "informed senators that the Joint Chiefs would recommend the use of tactical nuclear weapons, if they came to believe they were essential to defend the 6,000 besieged Marines" at Khe Sanh. {23}

By President Nixon's "own count, he seriously considered first-strike nuclear attacks on four occasions: in a 'massive escalation' if the Vietnam war, during the 1973 Israeli-Arab 'October War', during 'an intensification of the Soviet-Chinese border dispute', and during the 1971 India-Pakistan war". {24}

Gerson exempts President Gerald Ford from the line of presidents who have threatened to use nuclear weapons. But he notes that, in 1975, during the collapse of South Vietnam, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger "advised Ford that there was only one way to halt the North Vietnamese offensive: tactical nuclear weapons. Ford wisely decided not to pursue that option." {25}

In his 1980 State of the Union address, President Carter vowed, "Any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the interests of the United States and will be repelled by the use of any means necessary ..." {26} According to Gerson, "this policy was reinforced by Presidential Directive 59, which moved US nuclear war-fighting doctrine from mutual assured destruction to 'flexible' and more 'limited' nuclear war fighting". {27}

Surprisingly, Gerson has little to say about the Reagan administration, except to note how the Nuclear Freeze Movement forced the Reagan administration "to turn away from the rhetoric of 'winning nuclear wars' and engage in arms control negotiations". However, readers would do well to recall that Reagan "did not regard nuclear war as catastrophic", that officials in his administration contemplated "firing a nuclear demonstration shot", and that the Defense Guidance approved by Defense Secretary Weinberger "contained plans for fighting a 'protracted' nuclear war". {28} Recall as well that Reagan "once maintained that submarine-based missiles could be recalled". {29}

The first Bush administration threatened to use nuclear weapons against Iraq, if that country decided to use chemical and biological weapon against US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. {30} And when the US made its transition from the air war to the ground war, Defense Secretary Cheney publicly affirmed his belief that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima had saved US lives. {31}

Finally, President Clinton "threatened nuclear attacks against China, Libya and Iraq before surrendering the Oval Office in 2001 to perhaps the worst and most destructive president in US history, George W Bush". {32} "In its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, the Bush II administration reiterated its commitment to first-strike nuclear war-fighting, named seven nations a primary nuclear targets, and urged funding for the development of new and more usable nuclear weapons". {33}

America's belief in the utility of nuclear weapons, along with its hypocritical insistence that nearly all other nations abide by the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) while it ignores the NPT's Article VI obligation to engage in 'good faith' negotiation to completely eliminate such weapons, have persuaded other nations that nuclear weapons are desirable. Witness India, then Pakistan and, now, North Korea.

Moreover, continued US willingness to plan to use nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War ignores a July 8 1996, advisory opinion issued by the World Court, which concluded: "The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law". The court envisioned but one circumstance in which the use of nuclear weapons by a state might not constitute a crime against humanity: the "extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which its very survival would be at stake".

According to Gerson, among the principles from which the World Court drew "were that nuclear weapons are genocidal and potentially omnicidal; they cause indiscriminate harm to combatants and non-combatants alike and inflict unnecessary suffering; they violate the requirement that military responses be proportional; they destroy the ecosystem, thus endangering future generations; they violate international treaties outlawing the use of poison gas; and they inflict unacceptable damage to neutral nations". {34}

But, perhaps, George Kennan said it best in 1982, when he wrote: "The readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings - against people whom we do not know, whom we have never seen, and for whose guilt or innocence it is not for us to establish - and in doing so, to place in jeopardy the natural structure upon which all civilization rests, as though the safety and the perceived interests of our own generation were more important than everything that has ever taken place or could take place in civilization: this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity - an indignity of monstrous dimensions - offered to God!" {35}


{1} Joseph Gerson notes, Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Pluto Press, 2007), page 2

{2} Gerson, page 33

{3} Gerson, page 13

{4} Gerson, page 61

{5} Gerson, page 64

{6} Gerson, page 69

{7} See

{8} Gerson, page 68

{9} Quoted from Gar Alperovitz, "Enola Gay: Was Using the Bomb Necessary?" Miami Herald (December 14 2003)

{10} Ibid

{11} Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University Press, 2005), page 299

{12} See , page 16

{13} Ibid

{14} Gerson, pages 171-72

{15} Gerson, page 82

{16} Gerson, page 82

{17} Gerson, page 82

{18} Gerson, page 77

{19} Gerson, page 31

{21} Gerson, page 78

{21} Gerson, page 90

{22} Gerson, page 148

{23} Gerson, page 152

{24} Gerson, page 153

{25} Gerson, page166

{26} Gerson, page 205

{27} Gerson, page 204

{28} Frances Fitzgerald, Way Out There in the Blue (Simon & Schuster, 2000), pages 150-51

{29} Fitzgerald, page 150

{30} Gerson, page 216

{31} Gerson, page 217

{32} Gerson, pages 218-19

{33} Gerson, page 23

{34} Gerson, page 35

{35} George Frost Kennan, "A Christian's View of the Arms Race", The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age (Pantheon Books, 1983), page 207

Walter C Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).

Bill Totten


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