Remembering Hiroshima Rightly
Sixty-four years ago today, the United States dropped a uranium bomb called "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was the first use of nuclear weaponry in history. Three days later, the plutonium bomb known as "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki. Six days after that, the Japanese surrendered, and World War II ended.
There's little disagreement about what the bombs did: The two blasts and their immediate aftermaths resulted in 150,000-246,000 deaths.
The historical impact of the bomb, however, is another matter. Most Americans believe—with reason—that the bombings forced Japan's surrender, thus averting a planned invasion of the islands that would have taken a grisly toll on both sides.
Others contend that Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coming on the heels of a six-month conventional firebombing campaign, had less to do ending the war than did the successful Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria on August 9.
The debate still generates considerable heat, all the more so with nuclear weapons roaring back into public discussion.
In recent years, an unlikely coalition of former Cold Warriors has urged movement toward the global abolition of nuclear weapons. This position, which would have been dismissed as fantasy even five years ago, now has the support of two-thirds of the former secretaries of state, defense, and national security advisers, was endorsed by both presidential candidates in the 2008 elections, and has been adopted as policy by the current administration.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this position—and the presumed effect of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings is often cited as a reason to keep a sizable nuclear arsenal.
But—whatever the Bomb's role in ending the war—Hiroshima gives us no basis for rejecting current proposals for a nuclear weapons-free world.
Here are three reasons why:
(1) First of their kind vs. a proliferated world. The first nuclear weapons were unique, developed in utter secrecy. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, then a young Marine in the Pacific, recalls the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped, saying, "There wasn't anybody on the ship who had the foggiest idea what that was." This meant that retaliation in kind was literally unimaginable for the Japanese.
The same is not true today: nine nations possess a combined total of 20,000-plus nuclear weapons; more than three dozen countries are nuclear-capable; and the explosive devices that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the size of the triggers on some modern nuclear weapons, which are orders of magnitude more powerful. The use of a nuclear weapon today would almost certainly beget further use, sparking a chain reaction—the unpredictability of which would be exceeded only by its destructiveness.
(2) A world at war vs. absence of global conflict. The pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki managed to shock a world whose collective conscience had been callused by more than a half-decade of war. Yet the bombing was but one horror in an overall conflict that claimed 60 million lives.
That context matters. Despite the persistence of regional wars, we are now blessedly free of any global struggle—like the World Wars, or the Cold War—that would justify or even give meaning to such massive loss of life. There is no conflict today in which the use of a nuclear weapon could conceivably be justified as necessary or proportional.
(3) Wartime economies vs. a flat world. When the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, national economies were isolated and devastated by war. This meant that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for all their destructiveness, had localized consequences.