After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6 each year, the world commemorates the dawn of the atomic age by remembering the obliteration of Hiroshima. In May, President Obama laid a wreath in the Peace Park that marks ground zero there.

This is also the time each year when politicians, historians, veterans, and peace activists revisit the decision to use this new weapon for the first time, then for the second three days later at Nagasaki. The rationales are familiar: nukes would shorten the war, save American lives, and demonstrate the country’s overwhelming military and technological superiority. It did not last long. Stalin mobilized Soviet resources to break the American monopoly soon after receiving intelligence reports on the successful Trinity test in New Mexico. The arms race began to sprint before the nuclear dust settled in Japan.

After laying a wreath in Hiroshima, President Obama said, “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. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe.”

Why, then, is he planning to develop a new cruise missile and to rebuild our nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years at a cost estimated at $1,000,000,000,000? Yes, one trillion!

No nation monopolizes “new and improved” weapons forever, no matter what lead it might have at any given time. Where is the consistency in the president proposing a world free of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and improvements on existing ones in Washington? Former Secretary of Defense William Perry says new cruise missiles reflect outdated, Cold War thinking and would be “a grave mistake.”

Since cities are the obvious target for nuclear weapons, urban dwellers are at added risk. Mayors for Peace, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) whose home is the same Peace Park that President Obama visited, understands this as well as military planners. It promotes solidarity among cities to abolish nuclear weapons completely. Steve Lepper, its former head, says: “mayors are ahead of national politicians. No municipality wants war in any form. This always comes from central governments. Cities are left to pay the price.” Mayors for Peace is now composed of more than 7,000 cities—more than 200 in the United States—from 161 countries. Reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons would be progress, but abolishing them is safer still: terrorists cannot steal what does not exist.

The U.S. entered World War II after Japan’s surprise attack on military targets at Pearl Harbor; it ended after surprise attacks destroyed two Japanese cities full of women and children. Of the nearly 100,000 humans who perished at Nagasaki, only 250 were military personnel. The ancient distinction between combatants and civilians—one a legitimate military target, the other not—had long since disappeared during what some call “The Good War.”

This remains the case today as mass violence is just as likely to be directed against civilians as soldiers even when rules of engagement pay lip service to excluding civilians.

Following a request from the United Nations General Assembly, the International Court of Justice offered an opinion about nuclear weapons in 1996: it advised that the mere threat of using them is illegal, let alone actually doing so. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, do stockpiles make any of us feel safer? I can conceive of no sane reason to waste billions modernizing weapons that should never again be used.