Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hiroshima

Hiroshima’s Legacy and America’s Moral Imperative

On Thursday, the American political press will surrender to breathless giddiness ahead of that evening’s Republican presidential debate. The fervor of the moment will contrast mightily with the solemnity that will typify Thursday’s observance in Japan. August 6th will mark 70 years since the first nuclear weapon was used in wartime against a civilian target. Both the bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki took hundreds of thousands of lives with them and forever changed how mankind views warfare. As surely as the shadows of those who died in the blasts that are now permanently seared onto city sidewalks torment the Japanese, the use of those terrible weapons will forever haunt the United States. The moral legitimacy of those who experienced the horror of these weapons firsthand and who call for a prohibition on their use is absolute, as it should be. It is, however, as noble to enforce that proscription through both soft and hard power tools. Only the West, led by the United States, has assumed that burden. It is a weight that some appear eager to shrug off.

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On Thursday, the American political press will surrender to breathless giddiness ahead of that evening’s Republican presidential debate. The fervor of the moment will contrast mightily with the solemnity that will typify Thursday’s observance in Japan. August 6th will mark 70 years since the first nuclear weapon was used in wartime against a civilian target. Both the bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki took hundreds of thousands of lives with them and forever changed how mankind views warfare. As surely as the shadows of those who died in the blasts that are now permanently seared onto city sidewalks torment the Japanese, the use of those terrible weapons will forever haunt the United States. The moral legitimacy of those who experienced the horror of these weapons firsthand and who call for a prohibition on their use is absolute, as it should be. It is, however, as noble to enforce that proscription through both soft and hard power tools. Only the West, led by the United States, has assumed that burden. It is a weight that some appear eager to shrug off.

Before August 6, 1945, the residents of the city of Hiroshima counted themselves among Japan’s most fortunate citizens. Their city had largely been overlooked by the waves of American bombers that had been striking the Japanese mainland for nearly a year. Since the fall of airstrip-capable islands like Tinian and Guam, U.S. airpower relentlessly pounded priority targets in Osaka, Kobe, and Tokyo. It was the fact that Hiroshima lay virtually unscathed by total war that rendered it the perfect target for nuclear bombing. The city and its residents had been enlisted in a gruesome experiment; they would be the first test subjects who would provide researchers with a trove of data about the appalling effects of nuclear weapons on people and cities.

At 8:16 a.m., an incandescent flash, incredible heat, and a crushing shockwave took the lives of 45,000 people. Over the course of the next several months, another 19,000 would succumb to their injuries or the lingering effects of radiation poisoning.

In the intervening decades, a cottage industry analyzing the cultural forces unleashed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings sprang up and grew profitable. Did the bombings save more lives than they took by preventing the need for an American invasion of the Japanese mainland? Would history have been kinder to Harry Truman had the United States jointly attack and occupied Japan with the Soviet Union, rendering it bifurcated along an arbitrary parallel? Did the use of those two atomic bombs provide the world with a grisly example of what their effects are, making their future use that much more unlikely? Or is this merely a tenuous post hoc effort to find some moral justification for mass murder? The answer to all of these questions is invariably speculative and steeped in subjectivity and passion.

One of the legacies of the Hiroshima bombing has been that the descendants of its survivors are seen in some influential circles as morally unimpeachable. That reverence is not unjustified. Even a nation as hostile, brutal, and deserving of defeat and subjugation as Imperial Japan can be rehabilitated if the punishment for their behavior is seen in hindsight as disproportionate and undeserved. But Japan was no victim. It was a nation enduring retaliatory strikes, all of which were justified by the moral codes of the period. But Western tastemakers have acquired a habit of judging our predecessors by current standards of conduct. In service to our own desperate desire for absolution, perhaps, we elevate the Japanese and their gut-level antipathy toward nuclear weapons to a saintly status. But America, the first and only power to use nuclear weapons in combat and the guarantor of peace through nuclear superiority, is perhaps more deserving of some of that veneration.

For decades, the United States has extended its nuclear umbrella across the globe. It has embraced diplomatic initiatives like the Budapest Memorandum and Nunn–Lugar, both of which were aimed at reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. America has also spent incredible sums maintaining a powerful, state-of-the-art arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons designed to communicate to any adversary that the temptation to again use one of these devices in anger will inevitably result in their devastation. This two-pronged approach to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons was, for a time, remarkably successful. Since the atom was first split over the sands of the Trinity test site, only a handful of nations pursued a successful nuclear weapons program. A few, recognizing the costs associated with maintaining a nuclear arsenal were not justified by their regional threat environments, even went so far as to voluntarily surrender those weapons or associated development programs.

But the dynamic that prevented the spread of nuclear weapons for two generations has begun to break down. The West has fetishized the cult of non-proliferation supposedly maintained by international institutions like the feckless IAEA. Many in the comfortable and victorious West now seem to regard nuclear weaponry as a relic of the Cold War, even despite the fact that India, Pakistan, and North Korea acquired their nuclear arsenals well after the Warsaw Pact disappeared. America has allowed its nuclear deterrent to deteriorate while other powers that do not have America’s experience with the use of atomic weaponry develop and modernize their arsenals and prioritize their use their defense planning.  Today, the international community debates the merits of a nuclear accord with Iran that will likely leave it on the threshold of acquiring a bomb and could spark a race for nuclear parity in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and possibly even Turkey. The prospect of introducing nuclear weaponry into a multipolar environment characterized by shifting, opaque alliances and a variety of both hot and cold conflicts is a terrifying one.

Perhaps more so than any other nation on Earth, Americans are heirs to a legacy obligation to ensure that their people will forever be the only people to have ever used a nuclear weapon. It is an obligation that has been observed and respected. Until now. In the desperate pursuit of its legacy, this White House is prepared to gamble with the one it was bequeathed to them by the generations who honored that solemn duty to posterity and humanity to prevent another Hiroshima. It is an imprudent bet with extremely high stakes.

Perhaps, the risk takers who would ante up with the country’s legacy of enforcing nonproliferation would be better served if they were to take some stock of our supreme moral obligation to prevent, insofar as it is possible, that blinding flash from ever again being seen by human eyes. The vision of a world in which our predecessor’s legacy is squandered is unthinkable.

 

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