Thursday, August 6, 2015


Firestorm created by the atomic bomb blast, Hiroshima, August 6, 1945

Seventy years ago today, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima beginning the Atomic Era. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 3 days later remain the only use of nuclear weapons in war. Did the Bomb end the war, or did the late entry into the war against Japan by the Soviets end it? I don't know. I must admit that I agree with the historian Francis Pike who says that it's hard to imagine any American President of any party deciding differently after enormously high American casualties at Tarawa, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima where the Japanese defenders fought tenaciously, and facing the prospect of an invasion of the Japanese homeland.

And yet, the use of so terrible a weapon on a civilian population is hardly something to be proud of. The Atomic bombs were the culmination of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets by all sides throughout the War. The firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 by American B-29s under the command of General Curtis LeMay was the single deadliest raid of the War killing more people than the raids on Dresden, and Hiroshima. The point of all of these raids (including those by Hitler over Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Britain) was terror. Their strategic value was minimal. The point of all of them was to frighten and demoralize populations into surrender. Frequently they had the opposite effect, hardening the resolve of populations to resist. The real motivation behind such attacks despite elaborate strategic reasoning in official statements was revenge.

The central role of nuclear weapons today as mutual blackmail among nations is the legacy of not only the raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the whole policy of targeting civilians by the Axis and Allies during World War II. With the end of the Cold War, the situation has become even more dangerous, not less. The single greatest threat to everyone is the prospect of such weapons coming into the hands of non-state actors like terrorist organizations or crime syndicates. Almost as big a threat is the potential use of such weapons in long running and volatile conflicts like that between India and Pakistan, or just about any of the many conflicts in the Middle East. We are living with the legacy of a series of Faustian bargains made between 1940 and 1945, a stalemate created by weapons too destructive to use.


There is no such thing as a "good war."  There are only wars of desperate necessity and gratuitous aggression.  Most wars are are both.

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