Hiroshima: Making the Sixty-fourth Anniversary Special

by Ivan Oelrich

Today is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, which was one of those rare events that divides human history into a before and an after.  That day was the beginning of the nuclear age.  There is nothing special about sixty-four, not like a fiftieth or a centenary.  But, years from now, the sixty-fourth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing may be seen as special:  there is a chance that people looking back on today’s anniversary will see this as the beginning of the end of the nuclear age.

The Cold War came to a close two decades ago but only now are national leaders seriously considering a world free of nuclear weapons.  Even those who see a global ban as a long-term goal can see that making serious progress in the direction of that goal will enhance the security of the nation and the world.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen dramatically from their frightening Cold War peaks.  This decline is not due primarily to arms control treaties or any sudden rationality of national leaders.  The numbers have gone down mostly because the missions for nuclear weapons —everything from nuclear torpedoes to nuclear land mines—have been taken over by militarily superior alternatives: advanced, guided, accurate conventional weapons.  Nuclear weapons have gone away primarily because they are becoming technologically obsolete.

Obviously, the end of the Cold War was important too.  The Cold War was a stand-off between two implacable ideologies, each of which felt it had a historic mandate to guide the future of the world.  Nuclear weapons, weapons of global destruction, might have seemed appropriate to an ideological struggle of global dimension.  But today, the stakes in play are smaller.  If ever there were a global political justification for nuclear weapons, it no longer applies.  Nuclear weapons are becoming politically obsolete.

Nuclear advocates, unwilling to admit that they are planning for the use of nuclear weapons, always talk in terms of deterrence, a term that has become so vague, misused, and overused that it barely means anything anymore.  Those wanting a robust nuclear force, who want to think it is useful, even crucial, emphasize that deterring some action by threatening retaliation requires both the ability to retaliate and the willingness to do so.  They make much of the need to constantly keep the perception of U.S. capability and willingness very high to deter any possible enemy.

There are three problems (at least three) with this use of the latent power of nuclear weapons.  First, history shows it doesn’t work.  Whether the U.S. in Vietnam or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or in a score of other cases, having nuclear weapons does not automatically deter wars between nuclear and non-nuclear adversaries or win them, if they are not deterred.  Second, nuclear weapons are so wildly destructive that the United States—and the other established nuclear powers—have destructive power at hand far in excess of any imaginable need.  There is no reason to worry about the details of our nuclear capability.  Finally, some nuclear advocates argue that we need to have smaller nuclear weapons to make our willingness to use them more plausible, so they will deter more effectively.  This is the sort of more-is-less upside-down logic that only nuclear theorists could hope to get away with.  But all the tweaking and fine-tuning of the nuclear arsenal will not change the plausibility of their use compared to one outstanding, and hopeful, fact:  nuclear weapons have not been used in war for sixty-four years.  If they were not used in Korea, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan, or the Falklands, or Iraq, their use is going to be even less plausible in similar conflicts in the future.  The logic is inescapable but nuclear advocates will not face it:  the only thing that can make the use of nuclear weapons significantly more plausible (and, thus, they argue, a better deterrent) is to occasionally use them.  If we want to frighten non-nuclear nations with our nuclear weapons, we have to bomb one of them every decade or so.  Mercifully, after sixty-four years, no nuclear power has done this.  Moreover, every year that passes without nuclear use further erodes the plausibility of future nuclear use for anything other than national survival.  The strategic leverage provided by nuclear weapons continues to erode.  Nuclear weapons are becoming strategically obsolete.

Finally, the moral question of nuclear weapons is often overlooked.  They have been with us so long, we have stopped asking the hard questions.  Nuclear weapons analysts, both pro and con, avoid the squishy problems of moral debate if they want to be taken seriously.  Yet, nuclear weapons force many of the moral concerns about war into stark relief.  The customary laws of war are that violent action should be proportionate to the threat and should, to the extent possible, distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.  Thus, what is moral depends in part on technology.  If no alternatives exist, then an indiscriminant weapon might be justified.  But today, alternatives do exist.  Nuclear weapons are becoming morally obsolete.

Today’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons is not a call for sacrifice.  It is not a call to accept greater risk for our country to improve the security of the rest of the world.  It is not a call to take a moral stand, rejecting something that is wrong, but admittedly useful.  The call for a nuclear free world is an acknowledgement that the curtain is starting to close on the nuclear age.  Battleships, the very epitome of great nation power, ruled the oceans for about the same length of time the Nuclear Age has lasted.  They arose, they had their day, and then a combination of changes in technology and global politics displaced those awesome, powerful giants and they were retired.  Nuclear advocates are fighting an aggressive and skillful rear-guard action, fueled by nostalgia for the certainties of the past and a lack of imagination about the future just as romantics wanted to keep battleships alive long after aircraft carriers, submarines, radar, and cruise missiles had made them obsolete.  Nuclear weapons are in the middle of this process of obsolescence.  It is better to speed the process along and reduce the risk nuclear weapons pose to world civilization, to explicitly reject them and plan for their demise than to continue to bumble through the danger we daily face but have become inured to.  For the first time since Hiroshima, the world seems ready to listen.  It may be, a generation from now, that sixty-four will be seen as a special anniversary.

4 Responses to “Hiroshima: Making the Sixty-fourth Anniversary Special”

  1. 3.1415 August 6, 2009 at 3:21 pm #

    Very eloquently written indeed! The challenge is to marshal all necessary supporters worldwide to march toward the goal of 0. A “war on nukes” is needed to excavate and expose the nuclear armchair worriers and profiteers.

  2. Robert Salas August 6, 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    I certainly echo your comments and hope for the obsolescence of nuclear weapons. We now have a new arms reduction agreement in principle but still needs ratification as I understand it. As it has always been since the first bomb was dropped 64 years ago, now is the time to step up the pressure for complete nuclear disarmament.

  3. Spiroline August 7, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    Very convincing indeed. Though I fear the US will go the way of Russia, and cling onto this last, final, irrational vestige of supreme power as China and India rise.

    Hiroshima at 64, yes. But the same is true of the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo in 1945, which wrought even more destruction.

    All go to show the beast in Man, and is one of those few lessons History may indeed offer: We are no better than our predecessors, and apt to do the same in similar circumstances. To me this is reason enough to get rid of the horrible things!

  4. Diomedes August 15, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    Thanks for your thoughts Ivan, great input for discussion. Before I ask you my questions, please allow me to comment a bit on your thought that in the future this year (64th) could signify the end of the nuclear era. In light of the recent positive developments in the disarmament world, optimism is certainly in place. However, exactly how probable is total disarmament? Even Obama admitted that it may very well be after his lifetime (i.e. in the unforeseeable future) that we would see global nuclear disarmament.

    Myself, I support calls for minimal deterrence and the steep nuclear reductions that would accompany such a shift in strategy. I remain skeptical, however, about total nuclear disarmament. Practical problems of verification and enforcement underlie my position. Both the past and present show how great a challenge these two factors are to any non-(nuclear)-armaments-regime. It leads me to believe that total disarmament is practically implausible.

    Looking at human interaction, I’m sure most of us welcome increased (economic) interdependence and a departure from zero-sum approaches. However, negative trends remain: strive on the individual level, “the great game” on the international level. Unfortunately, the will to dominate is a constant factor, and there is no reason to believe it will not play a significant role in the future. This factor compounds the problems associated with creating a robust, credible verification and enforcement regime and would actually make ‘zero’ a dangerous place. Past experience suggests that at some point people would be inclined to profit from the opportunity, starting the nuclear weapons race all over again.

    I am aware that major international treaties, like the NPT, specifically call for total nuclear disarmament. Forty years later, we have to be realistic about the extent to which nuclear states have been serious about total nuclear disarmament. At any rate, a troubling future scenario would be: how would the non-nuclear international community correct a state that has secretly developed nuclear weapons? Isolation, maybe, but DPRK and Iran today show the complexity of such a strategy. Suffice it to say that (e.g. American) total nuclear disarmament would be highly irresponsible as long as sound verification and enforcement instruments are not in place (as we do not want to be vulnerable to blackmailing etc.). In this regard I have not come across credible propositions that factor in the risks of defection etc, despite noble attempts by Ivo Daalder and others. (I would be surprised if you hadn’t thought these kinds of problems through, so I’d be interested in your thoughts/suggested literature on these matters)

    I would be interested to hear from you why, in this age of the moral, strategic, political and technological obsoleteness of nuclear weapons, states like DPRK, Iran, Syria, and Libya have been seeking to acquire nukes. In the same light, why do most expect Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in absence of strong foreign (e.g. American) nuclear guarantees, to react to Iranian nukes by getting nuclear weapons themselves? It seems to me that these dynamics contradict your statement that “nuclear weapons are in the middle of this process of obsolescence” and point to a quality of nuclear weapons that has not been (sufficiently) mentioned in your article.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents. I’d like to express my thanks to you, Hans and the whole crew for sharing your insights, analyses and research on the web. Much appreciated!

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