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Business News/ Opinion / The burden on the US’s conscience

The burden on the US’s conscience

Hiroshima was the world's first atomic bombing, setting a precedent, and Nagasaki was a wanton act

Photo: APPremium
Photo: AP

Just as Hiroshima has become the symbol of the horrors of nuclear war and the essentialness of peace, the visit of the first sitting US president to that city was laden with symbolism, including about the ironies of human action. During his visit, Barack Obama called for “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening". But can there be a moral awakening when most of the nuclear-armed states today are expanding or upgrading their nuclear arsenals?

Obama has himself highlighted the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality. In Hiroshima, Obama said that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them". But at home, he has quietly pursued an extensive, $355 billion expansion of the nuclear arsenal.

Almost 71 years after the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and more than a generation after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons still underpin the security policies of the world’s most powerful states.

Seen from a historical perspective, two key questions remain unanswered: Why did the US carry out the twin atomic attacks when Japan appeared to be on the verge of unconditionally surrendering? And why was the second bomb dropped just three days after the first, before Japan had time to fully grasp the strategic implications of the first nuclear attack? Months before the nuclear bombings, the defeat of Japan was a foregone conclusion. Japan’s navy and air force had been destroyed and its economy devastated by a US naval blockade and relentless American firebombing raids on Japanese cities.

In the days before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the only question facing Japan was when to unconditionally surrender under the terms of the 26 July Potsdam Declaration. The signals the Japanese were sending that they were prepared to surrender were missed or ignored by America. The surrender was eventually announced by Emperor Hirohito on 15 August after US assurances on the emperor’s continued role—assurances that were not provided earlier to end the war without dropping a nuclear bomb.

After Hiroshima was nuked on 6 August, Russia took advantage of the situation by attacking Japan on 8 August, although the official declaration of war came a day later. Hours after news of Russia’s invasion of Sakhalin Island reached Tokyo, the Supreme War Guidance Council met to discuss Japan’s unconditional surrender. The nuclear bomb on Nagasaki was dropped as Soviet forces were overwhelming Japanese positions in Manchuria and Japan appeared set to surrender to the Allied powers.

In truth, Nagasaki’s nuclear incineration had no military imperative. If there was any rationale, it was technical or strategic in nature—to demonstrate the power of the world’s first plutonium bomb.

The bomb that reduced Hiroshima to ashes was an untested uranium bomb, codenamed “Little Boy". By contrast, the bomb used in the Nagasaki attack was an implosion-type plutonium weapon. Codenamed “Fat Boy", it had been secretly tested in the New Mexico desert on 16 July, a development that paved the way for the Potsdam ultimatum to Japan.

Indeed, US president Harry Truman intentionally delayed his Potsdam meeting with Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin until after the testing of the new weapon. Truman wanted the power of the new weapon to end the war in the Pacific. Anxious not to let the Soviet Union gain a major foothold in the Asia-Pacific, he sought to persuade Stalin at Potsdam to delay the Soviet invasion of Japan so that Moscow did not get the credit for forcing the Japanese to surrender.

The geopolitical logic of the nuclear bombings was to establish US primacy in the postwar global order. More fundamentally, the use of a technological discovery to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made possible by a widely prevalent political-military culture at that time that regarded civilian massacres as a legitimate tool of warfare. All sides engaged in mass killings in World War II, in which nearly 60 million people died.

History is written by the victors, and the vanquishers are rarely burdened by the guilt of their actions. Still, Hiroshima and Nagasaki will remain a burden on the American conscience—Hiroshima because it was the world’s first atomic bombing, setting a precedent, and Nagasaki because it was a wanton act.

Obama’s visit to the Hiroshima memorial should be seen in this light. He made no apology, yet he stated expressively: “We come to ponder a terrible force."

Nuclear weapons remain the toxic fruit of a technology that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II reached its savage end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only to spawn the dawn of a dangerous nuclear age. And the last strike of the world war, Nagasaki, became the opening shot of the new Cold War.

Nuclear-deterrence strategies still rely on targeting civilian and industrial centres. In fact, a wary US, a rising China and a declining Russia are currently developing a new generation of smaller, more effective nukes that threaten to increase nuclear-use risks.

Ominously, the world today has a treaty (although not in force as yet) that bans all nuclear testing, but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but remain legally unfettered to test the weapon by dropping it over some other state. The option of “doing a Hiroshima" on an adversary with an untested weapon must be foreclosed.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.

Comments are welcome at

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Updated: 03 Jun 2016, 03:01 AM IST
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