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A Dangerous Nuclear Ignorance 

Photo by Steve Snodgrass | CC BY 2.0

Michael Shermer’s recent piece in Scientific American recalls the “necessity” of using atomic weapons against Japan and makes comparison to the current US-North Korea conflict. Rather than actually examine the roots of this conflict and the moral issues surrounding nuclear issues today, Shermer reduces Korea to four sentences and spends the remainder of the article in “counterfactuals and moral thought experiments” about Japan. Were there any actual history or arguments in these claims, scientists might learn something from reading the article. However, Shermer grossly distorts the facts and presents a dangerous invitation for scientists to excuse any future nuclear action to further US interests.

First, Shermer reduces scientific concern over the atomic question to “some of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project…expressed their reservations”. It’s hard to imagine a more whitewashed view. Nuclear issues distressed physicists worldwide from the beginning. Rutherford worried that “some fool in a laboratory, if he finds the proper detonator, might just blow up the universe unawares.” Otto Hahn, discoverer of nuclear fission in 1938, reported to Hans Geiger “If my work leads to a nuclear bomb for Hitler, I will commit suicide.” His co-discoverer Lise Meitner, living in exile and poverty in Sweden, refused an offer by Bohr to work with the Americans, saying she would never work on bombs. More examples abound. 1

Within the Manhattan Project, secrecy was so great that a grand majority of workers had no idea they what exactly they were working on until after news headlines and Japanese science reports revealed the brutal destruction. Leo Szilard’s famous petition, co-signed by 70 scientists at the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory, implored Truman to use the bomb in a demonstration rather than surprising the Japanese. Oppenheimer, chief architect of the bomb, had advocated from the beginning that the bomb’s existence and power should not be secret, as its deterring power was more than enough.

In 1945 – a month before the Trinity test – Oppenheimer was asked to advise the President’s Interim Committee along with Fermi, Lawrence, and Nobel winner Arthur Compton. The committee agreed that a public demonstration of the bomb’s power was enough, but feared that the prototypes might not work, defeating the whole purpose. Eventually, the scientific panel concluded to the committee that “It is clear that we, as scientific men, have no special competence in solving the political, social, and military problems which are presented by the advent of atomic power” and left the task to US leadership, a devastating decision he lamented for decades.

Scholars now know that numerous factors drove Truman’s decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their civilian populations. These include Truman’s political motivations leading to the 1948 election, vengeance, racism, institutional inertia, and callousness from already having burned more than sixty Japanese cities to the ground. However, the deliberate decision to target two Japanese non-military cities with “densely packed workers’ homes” points to a decision based on a desire for terrorism or as a nuclear test site. Contra Shermer, this renders Truman’s motives moot, either deliberately criminal or mechanically indifferent. Appropriately, Truman wrote in his diary: “I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries, and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll be no reason for any of it.”

Moreover, US leadership made a concerted effort to conceal details of this “moral act” from the general population. Japanese and other journalists’ film footage and photos of the destruction from the bombs taken days after the A-bombings, were seized by U.S. Occupation forces and locked in the Pentagon for more than two decades. In 1995, the Smithsonian Museum’s 50th anniversary exhibition was egregiously censored to prevent people seeing what the A-bombs inflicted on human beings. Also removed were U.S. Secretary of War Stimson’s statement to Truman that Japan’s surrender “could be arranged on terms acceptable to the United States” without the nuclear bombing. (That arrangement was later deemed acceptable – even necessary – by U.S. military occupation authorities.) The exhibit had also included quotations from wartime Admiral Leahy and General (later President) Eisenhower who thought, “It wasn’t necessary to hit [Japan] with that awful thing.”

Shermer is correct to think that Air Force Gen. Curtis Lemay’s continued firebombing would have been an atrocity. LeMay’s B-29 Superfortresses leveled 67 Japanese cities by July 1945, in one case burning more than 100,000 Tokyo men, women, and children in a six-hour time span, with him declaring “if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal”. Shermer makes the argument that allowing LeMay to continue would have been morally worse than the bomb. What Shermer leaves out is that the US government immediately endorsed LeMay’s brand of atrocity over the bomb, unleashing him a short while later on North and South Korea.

The Korea bombing was long, slow, and merciless, even by the assessment of American leaders. “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,” LeMay told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, later secretary of state, said the US shelled “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams, flooding farmland and destroying crops. That North Koreans have not forgotten this, and that this may be a driving factor behind the ongoing distrust of the US, is lost on Shermer.

Shermer’s statement that the bombs “very likely saved millions of lives, both Japanese and American” also ignores the long-lasting effects the bombs have had. Masao Tomonaga’s recent testimony at the breakthrough UN international nuclear weapons ban treaty detailed some of them. Childhood and adult leukemia rates began increasing among hibakusha (atomic bomb-affected people). By 1955, numerous other cancers also appeared at higher rates in hibakusha. Radiation continues to destroy the bodies of aging survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, who are developing a special type of leukemia, MDS (Myelodysplastic syndrome). Today, every person on earth lives with trace amounts of radiation, the result of decades of nuclear testing. Scientists are still studying second- and third-generation hibakusha for genetic effects potentially passed down from their parents and grandparents, reminding us of the insidious nature of radiation exposure on the human body.

This is all ignoring the sheer scale and power of nuclear development since 1945, which by now has reached a species-threatening level. A very important 2015 Rutgers study on the environmental effects of a “small” nuclear war described the effect of 100 Hiroshima-strength bombs detonating in a hypothetical India-Pakistan battle (less than 1 percent of the combined U.S.-Russia nuclear arsenal). Such explosions, the study reports, would push smoke into the atmosphere, where it would envelop the Earth in 10 days. This smoke would block sunlight, heat the atmosphere, and erode the ozone for many years, producing a literal “decade without summer.” As rains cease and crops fail worldwide, the resulting global famine would kill 1 billion people.

This is perhaps the most frightening aspect of Shermer’s Op-Ed, which leaves open the choice to use a nuclear weapon as a scientifically agnostic one, handing the task to the morals of those in power. It is hard to trust this judgment though, as Shermer refuses to even consider a proper course of action for the US-Korea conflict. The best Shermer can do is admit that “that does not mean that we should do the same with North Korea, of course” and “the nuclear option should always be last on the list of strategies”. Here he is washing his hands in the way Oppenheimer’s committee did 72 years ago and leaving the decision to others. As with Oppenheimer, we can predict the consequences.

Shermer quotes from the first paragraph of Chomsky’s famous essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” accusing him of not considering “when it is ever just” to nuke civilians. Were he to read the whole essay – the usual method in actual scholarship – he might perhaps recall Chomsky’s warning that “The question, ‘What have I done?’ is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities…as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.” Scientists must be concerned with the environment they live in, or else, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war?”

Writing in a publication by scientists, read by many scientists and lovers of science, Shermer is indeed apologizing for war crimes and providing a method for other scientists to treat this as a non-scientific issue. Decades of aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki sufferings tell us otherwise, and demand better from scientists. Currently, American denial of climate destruction and nuclear warfare are endorsed at the highest level of government. The US State Department is openly considering changing its stated priorities from “democracy” to “security, prosperity and interests of the American people globally”. American scientists cannot take a backseat and claim moral indifference. The species depends on it.

Jon Rawski is a linguist and neuroscientist, and a PhD candidate at Stony Brook University.

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