Time to Think About Hiroshima and Nagasaki Again

In 2018 the Trump administration published its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the highlight of which was the option of using low-yield nuclear weapons even in response to a non-nuclear attack.

While the NPR says the US will consider using nuclear weapons only “in extreme circumstances”, such “extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks”, including “attacks on the US, allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on US or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities”.

The US has manufactured a “low-yield” warhead, known as the W76-2, to be deployed on submarines carrying Trident II ballistic missiles.

The yield, or destructive power, of the W76-2 is classified. Experts suggest it may be about 5-7 kilotons, while the destructive power of the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in the final days of World War II was 15 kilotons, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

The W76-2, while not as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, is still going to cause immense destruction.

At the same time, Russia’s Avangard missile has been operational since December last year. It is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound, and carries a nuclear weapon of up to 2 megatons (2000 kilotons, or over 13 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb).

While in New Delhi a couple of weeks ago, I caught-up over dinner with fellow CounterPuncher N.D. Jayaprakash (“JP”).

JP is the Joint Secretary of the Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convener of Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (The Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims), and clearly an all-round force for good in a country where neoliberalism and globalization rule the roost in the name of “development” and “modernization”.

JP is also the author of The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki (1990), and tells me it is about to be reprinted.

This reprinting is to be welcomed.

Yes, we know the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was hellish, but how so and with what magnitude?

No, unless we take the trouble to trawl for such information, we know hardly anything about the contentious politics underlying the deployment of the two bombs by the US.

So most of us, even if educated and relatively well-informed, know a little bit of this and a little bit of that where the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is concerned.

Many of us will know that several of those who participated in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos (which built the atom bomb) came to have deep regrets about their participation in the project, such as the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who told an unimpressed (and indeed furious) President Truman in 1945 he felt he had “blood on my hands”—Truman of course had given his presidential seal of approval for the bombs to be dropped, so Oppenheimer’s implication was that Truman had blood on his hands as well.

But information about the politics underlying the regrets of protagonists such as Oppenheimer, as well as other matters concerning Hiroshima and Nagasaki, needs to be put in one place and made available to all, and The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki does this splendidly.

Harrowing photographs of the bombings precede the book’s chapters.

The first chapter give a concise but startling (for this reader) overview of the bombings and their impact.

+ An estimated 350,000 people inhabited Hiroshima on the day the bomb dropped (6th August 1945), of whom over 200,000 died by October 1950.

+ An estimated 270,000 people inhabited Nagasaki on the day the bomb dropped (9th August 1945), of whom 140,000 died by October 1950.

+ The bombs’ impact– in the form of thermonuclear and nuclear radiation as well as blast trauma and fires– on health continues to this day (2020), and the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), a binational organization run by both the United States and Japan, is still in operation today.

The following chapter deals with the decision-making which led to the use of the atomic bombs on Japan.

President Truman maintained that the bombs needed to be dropped in order to shorten the war and save lives.

The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki shows conclusively that this was not the case.

Japan did not have the capacity to produce a similar weapon, but work on the bomb was speeded-up after the surrender of Germany. The US did not give Japan more time to consider its surrender ultimatum and did nothing to indicate to the Japanese that it was in a position to deploy a weapon with an unprecedented destructive capacity.

Moreover, the Americans were not involved in any major combat with the Japanese after the end of the battle of Okinawa (22 June 1945), that is, several months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A war crime of massive proportions had now been committed— neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were targets of military value (they were like Dresden in this respect), and the bombs were dropped in the certain knowledge that the civilian death toll would be absolutely devastating.

Another informative chapter deals with the part played by scientists in the bomb’s development, and the various rationales advanced for their participation.

Niels Bohr, the “father” of the project, and Joseph Rotblat (the name is misspelt in this book), a Polish émigré on the British team (he called himself “the Pole with a British passport”), were concerned about US motives once it became clear that Germany could not build a nuclear weapon before it was defeated (Rotblat even left the project at that point and returned to England).

What would the US do to other countries now that Germany could no longer be targetted? The concern of Bohr and Rotblat was an arms race with the Soviet Union, especially since the Dane Bohr had been invited to join the Soviet team working on their version of the bomb.

After the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bohr published his misgivings about its use, as did Oppenheimer (Truman called him a “cry baby” for this), along with another member of the team, the Nobel Laureate Rudolf Peierls. These scientists became staunch advocates of nuclear disarmament.

The following chapter deals with the plight of the hibakusha (the survivors) in post-war Japan.

The US occupation placed restrictions on Japan’s burgeoning peace movement, in which many hibakusha were active, while secretly and cynically rehabilitating many Japanese war criminals.

Precious little was done to help the surviving bomb victims, and it was not until 1954 that the Japanese government came up with official policies to help survivors, and not until 1965 that the government conducted its own health survey of the hibakusha.

Occupation politics was tailored completely to suit US interests, and clearly the interests of the hibakusha were not high on the US’s list of priorities. Japanese governments at that time had no alternative but to do America’s bidding.

The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki concludes with a Postscript pointing out the exponential growth in nuclear-weapon stockpiles since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The threat posed by these weapons is augmented by a missile technology that did not exist in 1945.

The availability of low-yield nuclear weapons magnifies this threat— some lunatic political leader somewhere may think a nuclear war could be “winnable” thanks to a first-strike deployment of such low-yield weapons. The fact that there are too many imponderables (a country targetted in a first-strike may retaliate using more powerful nuclear weapons) in such a scenario to withstand contemplation, may not deter someone as erratic, impulsive, and poorly-informed as Donald Trump.

The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki certainly merits reprinting in the age of Trump, Putin, Netanyahu, and Kim Jong-un.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.