70 years ago this week the US ushered in the atomic age when it launched a nuclear attack against Japan in WW2. On August 6 1945 a US bomber dropped ‘little boy’ over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing instantly up to 90,000 civilians as well as 20,000 Japanese troops. An area of 1.6km was completely vaporised. Three days later on 9 August 1945 ‘fat man’ was dropped over the city of Nagasaki, killing up to 40,000 people. Ever since, there have been endless assertions of nuclear warfare, of rogue states gaining nuclear weapons as well as non-state actors gaining a nuclear device and blackmailing the west. Since 1945 the number of nuclear weapons in the world increased drastically reaching its peak during the Cold War. Various treaties have been signed to restrict the proliferation of nuclear material and to maintain nuclear weapons to just a handful of nations. Despite the lethality of nuclear weapons it is the politics behind them that is its enduring characteristic despite concerns over their use and security. Because of this various myths continue to be circulated which has clouded the debate around nuclear weapons.
The Nuclear attack on Japan was a strategic necessity?
With Russian, British and American forces occupying Berlin, Germany surrendered in May 1945, bringing to end WW2 in Europe. The US had been at war with Japan, in the Pacific, since the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941 and the war was dragging on with little end in sight. US officials justified the use of nuclear weapons against Japan as a military necessity to avoid invading the Japanese home islands as it would result in the deaths of up to 500,000 Allied troops and millions of Japanese troops and civilians. This is the narrative that has prevailed by the only nation to have ever used a nuclear weapon.
The US use of nuclear weapons was never strategic, but was always political. By June 1945 Japan was already militarily defeated. Almost nothing was left of the once mighty Imperial Navy, and Japan’s air force had been all but totally destroyed. Against only token opposition, American war planes ranged at will over the country, and US bombers rained down devastation on her cities, steadily reducing them to rubble. Oil supplies had not been available since April 1945 and by July 1945 about a quarter of all the houses in Japan had been destroyed, and her transportation system was near collapse. On the night of March 9-10, 1945, a wave of 300 American bombers struck Tokyo, killing 100,000 people, dropping nearly 1,700 tons of bombs. On May 23, eleven weeks later, came the greatest air raid of the Pacific War, when 520 giant B-29 “Superfortress” bombers unleashed 4,500 tons of incendiary bombs on the heart of the already battered Japanese capital. Generating gale-force winds, the exploding incendiaries obliterated Tokyo’s commercial centre. American air force General Curtis LeMay boasted that American bombers were “driving them [Japanese] back to the stone age.” Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold, commanding General of the Army air forces, declared in his 1949 memoirs: “It always appeared to us, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” This was confirmed by former Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoye, who said: “Fundamentally, the thing that brought about the determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing by the B-29s.” In his 1965 study, historian Gar Alperovitz wrote: “Although Japanese peace feelers had been sent out as early as September 1944 (and [China’s] Chiang Kai-shek had been approached regarding surrender possibilities in December 1944), the real effort to end the war began in the spring of 1945. This effort stressed the role of the Soviet Union …In mid-April  the [US] Joint Intelligence Committee reported that Japanese leaders were looking for a way to modify the surrender terms to end the war. The State Department was convinced the Emperor was actively seeking a way to stop the fighting.” The US was conventionally bombing Japan despite its attempts to negotiate a surrender.
It was only after the war that the American public learned about Japan’s efforts to bring the conflict to an end. Chicago Tribune reporter Walter Trohan was obliged by wartime censorship to withhold for seven months one of the most important stories of the war. In an article that finally appeared August 19, 1945, on the front pages of the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald, Trohan revealed that on January 20, 1945, two days prior to his departure for the Yalta meeting with Stalin and Churchill, President Roosevelt received a 40-page memorandum from General Douglas MacArthur outlining five separate surrender overtures from high-level Japanese officials.
There was no military justification for America’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Admiral William Leahy – the highest ranking member of the US military from 1942 until retiring in 1949, who was the first de facto Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and who was at the centre of all major American military decisions in WW2 explained in his memoirs: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.” General George C. Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff during WW2 who oversaw the Manhattan project, confirmed: “it was not a military decision, but rather a political one.” The US used the atomic bomb to show it was the new power in the world – an inherently political aim, not a strategic one.
In order to avoid Nuclear Armageddon, Nuclear weapons need to be restricted
Nuclear weapons are a unique weapon of war due to their massive destructive capability. Because of this potential they have come to play a critical role in the global balance of power and global institutions. Possessing a nuclear weapon effectively renders a nation a power in the world, a nation that needs to be taken seriously in global issues. It would mean other nations, with any designs on such a nation, would need to think twice about the reper¬cus¬sions. The polit¬i¬cal strength nuclear weapons afford a nation is very sig¬nif¬i¬cant. A cursory glance at the world’s powers today shows they all possess a nuclear capability and work to restrict other nations from developing such a capability. The Soviet Union and US both attempted to restrict the other in order to contain their capabilities. From the 1960’s onwards the nuclear powers took steps to limit both the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries and the environmental effects of nuclear testing. The Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963) restricted all nuclear testing to underground nuclear testing, whereas the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) attempted to place restrictions on the types of activities signatories could participate in. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established under the mandate of the United Nations to monitor nuclear development. by1996, many nations signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited all testing of nuclear weapons.
What such treaties have really done is allowed those nations that possesses nuclear weapons to surge ahead in their development programmes whilst restricting the rest of the world from ever possessing them. Despite multiple treaties in reducing nuclear weapons and disarmament, the nations that possess nuclear weapons have only increased their number.
Terrorists are seeking Nuclear Weapons
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a CNN interview in 2010 said she considers weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of an international terrorist group to be the largest threat faced by the United States, even bigger than the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. “The biggest nightmare that many of us have is that one of these terrorist member organizations within this syndicate of terror will get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction,” Clinton said
Only a handful of nations have been able to develop nuclear weapons. Developing a nuclear weapon is a big challenge facing significant hurdles for any nation; this would include finance, resources and industrial development. A terrorist group and any non – state actors faces even more hurdles then a nation in developing a nuclear weapon.
The Hollywood movie scenario of a terrorist group stealing a nuclear bomb from a secure facility and then somehow weaponsing it is virtually impossible. Aside from setting of numerous alarms and protocols it would leave little opportunity to smuggle a bomb very far. If one was stolen
modern nuclear weapons are designed with numerous highly classified safety features. Whilst nuclear weapons are not all created the same, they range from permissive action links without which the device cannot be armed to configuration that will render the fissile core(s) useless if incorrectly accessed.
In the case of al Qaeda even after immense security, sanctuary and financial backing they have been unable to produce a crude nuclear device in any meaningful way – they are considered by most security analysts to have only got as far as attempting to procure nuclear materials that turned out to be fake, sold to them by con men. Operating and maintaining such weapons are not simple pursuits. It is important to keep in mind that these are complex devices that require a great deal of regular, careful maintenance. They do not have a permanent shelf life.
The reality of actually attempting to steal a nuclear weapon would require a huge dedication of resources and an immense intelligence effort beyond the reach of almost any terrorist organization. Terrorist organisations are not governments who have the ability to collect taxes and fund a military–industrial program. The odds of failure are high, no matter how careful and meticulous the planning. Whilst nuclear weapons facilities around the world are not as hardened as each other, but taken as a whole, they are some of the hardest targets on the planet, and the personnel better vetted than almost any other institution. A terrorist group acquiring a nuclear device is virtually impossible and this is fundamentally due to the nature of terrorist organisations that lack resources, manpower, technical expertise and the ability to operate in open environments. It is not a matter of kidnapping some nuclear scientists, a nuclear programme is much more than that.
It’s all about politics
Any war is the continuation of politics through other means. It is not the weapons of war that are the issue, but why nations go to war that is the issue at hand and this is an inherently political question. This can be seen from the perspective that despite a handful of nations possessing nuclear weapons and despite their lethality they have never been used in war since August 1945 – a period of 70 years. There have bene multiple wars during this period, but no use of nuclear weapons. The US had developed a nuclear capability by the time it attacked Japan in 1945, it however never used its nuclear weapons despite being stalemated in the Korean war, losing in Vietnam and failing to defeat the enemy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union lost the war in Afghanistan and still did not use its nuclear weapons. China lost a war with Vietnam in 1979 and never used its nuclear weapons. France lost in the Algerian war of independence in 1962 and despite possessing a nuclear capability it never used its weapons. Israel has also lost wars to both Hamas and Hizbullah, but never used its nuclear weapons. In all of these cases, war was pursued to meet political objectives and nuclear weapons would not have altered the outcome. This proves nuclear weapons are a political tool. But as a political tool they can also fail to achieve their intended political aim. Despite possessing nuclear weapons both the Viet Cong and the Taliban bled the US military dry.
On the 70th anniversary of the use of atomic weapons it should be remembered there has been much propaganda abound about the prospects of nuclear terrorism, proliferation and nuclear Armageddon. This misinformation stems from misconceptions and ignorance, while disinformation has also comes from scaremongers hyping the threat for financial or political reasons. A nuclear bomb requires the construction of a nuclear device, one of the most complex programmes a nation can undertake. A terrorist organisation could possibly gain access to one part of this process, but it would be impossible – due to the nature of terrorist organisations to steal the whole process. Even receiving a nuclear device from a state requires operational capability which would be beyond any terrorist organisation. All weapons of war are nothing without a strategy and there is no strategy without politics.
- See, http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v16/v16n3p-4_Weber.html
- Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam 1965 (pp. 107, 108),
- The complete text of Trohan’s article is in the Winter 1985-86 Journal, pp. 508-512.
- William D. Leahy, I Was There, The American Military Experience, 1979, Ayer and co pub, pg 441