In 1945, the world’s largest democracy became the world’s first country to use weapons of mass destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An estimated 200,000 non-combatants were either killed immediately or afterwards. The bombs left a lasting genetic imprint on those exposed to its residual radiation.
Some argue that the bomb helped to save further loss of life. However, others have questioned whether the US had any moral authority for killing civilians. Recently, Roy Clouser of the College of New Jersey has argued that the US should have tried a lot harder to avoid using the bomb. The rationale for developing the bomb was to defeat Hitler. “But by August, 1945, Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered.”
Albert Einstein, whose theoretical research enabled the development of the bomb, was forever remorseful that his name was associated with the Manhattan project. In 1955, along with Bertrand Russell, he issued a manifesto that cautioned world governments to abolish nuclear weapons, since they would almost certainly be used during a future world war.
This Manifesto fell on deaf years. In November 1957, Mao declared his intention to fight a nuclear war. In the worst case, perhaps one half of the world’s 2.7 billion people would die. “But there would still be one-half left; imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.” Increasingly distrustful of the Soviet Union, China carried out its first nuclear explosion in 1964, leading India to carry out its first explosion ten years later.
The US and the Soviet Union became engaged in the world’s most expensive-and most dangerous-arms race. Henry Kissinger compared this arms race to a conflict between two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, “each believing himself in mortal peril from the other whom he assumes to have perfect vision. Each tends to ascribe to the other side a consistency, foresight and coherence that its own experience belies.”
Each superpower produced more than enough warheads to blow up the world’s population several times over. Hoping to secure itself against a Soviet attack that never came, the US spent five and a half trillion dollars on its nuclear program. According to one study, had the US spent even half of the amount on health, education and welfare programs, it would have permanently eliminated poverty and deprivation from American society.
In May 1998, as he witnessed India’s five nuclear tests, Dr. Abdul Kalam, now that nation’s president-elect, was elated: “I heard the earth thundering below our feet and rising ahead of us in terror. It was a beautiful sight.” The world’s first nuclear explosion in 1945 had elicited a much more appropriate comment from the architect of the Manhattan project. Robert Oppenheimer was moved to quote from the Bhagavad Gita, “Brighter than a thousand suns, I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds.”
India and Pakistan almost went to war this May. When war did not happen, hard liners on both sides credited its not happening to the presence of nuclear weapons. That may indeed have been the case, but no one can guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used in a future war. Since 1998, both nations have increased their spending on conventional weapons, and are simultaneously engaged in a nuclear arms race, belying the assertion that nuclear weapons restrain conventional military spending.
On August 6, the mayor of Hiroshima invited President Bush to visit Hiroshima “to confirm with his own eyes what nuclear weapons can do to human beings.” He lashed out at Washington’s go-it-alone stance. “America has not been given the right to impose a ‘Pax Americana’ and to decide the fate of the world. Rather, we, the people of the world, have the right to insist that we have not given you the authority to destroy the world.”
In a recent report, the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that ”America’s image problem is global,” and that ”it is essential for the administration to listen to the world, even as it defines American interests and defends and asserts them abroad.”
The Bush administration needs to encourage open debate among Americans, and to welcome dissenters who question whether current foreign policy is serving America’s national interests. That is the only way to do justice to the democratic ideals that are enshrined in the US Constitution, and to ensure that we will not follow imperial Japan’s path of wanton military aggression.
Ahmad Faruqui, an economist, is a fellow of the American Institute of International Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org