Seventy-three years ago the world changed. A remarkably destructive weapon was introduced in combat, a single bomb that annihilated the city of Hiroshima Japan. The effects were immediate, 70,000 to 80,000 people were killed, tens of thousands of others wounded, many of whom would suffer from the effects of radiation and radiation burns the rest of their lives. Within days a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki with similar results, and Japan sued for peace. The Second World War was over and a new world was born, a world under the shadow of nuclear weapons.
The anniversary of that event today is something that all of us should ponder with great trepidation as the world seems to lurch towards a day when such a weapon will be used again. The question should not be one of mere military or tactical expediency, but must consider the moral dimension of the use of these weapons as well as the whole concept of total war.
In his book Hiroshima, John Hershey wrote:
“The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us an answer to this question?”
His question is worth considering. It is no wonder that Robert Oppenheimer one of the members of the team that developed the bomb quoted a verse from the Bhagavad-Gita after he witnessed the test explosion “Trinity” on July 16th 1945: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Up until April of last year I spend the last three and a half years teaching the ethics of war to senior military officers at a major U.S. Military Staff College. One of the things that we do in the class is to have the officers do presentations on different historical, or potential ethical problems faced by national policy makers, military commanders and planners. The goal is to have these men and women dig deep and examine the issues, and think about the implications of what they will do when they go back out to serve as commanders, staff officers, advisors to civilian leaders and planners.
In each class that I taught, at least one student dealt with the use of the Atomic bombs. Most were Air Force or Navy officers who have served with nuclear forces. Unlike the depiction in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove or other depictions that show officers in these forces as madmen, the fact is that I was always impressed with the thoughtfulness and introspective nature of these men and women. They sincerely wrestle with the implications of the use of these weapons, and many are critical of the use of them at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is comforting to me to know that at least in the U.S. military that there are many who can reflect and do try to look at things not just from a purely military standpoint. Of course since I know humanity I figure that there are others in our ranks who are not so reflective or sensitive to the moral implications of the use of these weapons, among whom is our current President. The fact that the President acts on impulse and seems to have no moral compass, strategic sense, or anything apart than what benefits him causes me to shudder, especially when he has to actually confront North Korea on their ICBM and nuclear programs, not to mention the use of weapons of mass destruction by a terrorist group. As Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Strong prejudices and an ill-informed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.”
I am no stranger to what these weapons, as well as chemical and biological weapons can do. Thirty years ago when I was a young Army Medical Service Corps lieutenant I was trained as a Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Officer. I learned the physical effects of exposure to these weapons, how many Rads of radiation a person could receive before they became sick and died. I learned what radiation exposure does to people at each stage. We trained with maps to chart fallout patterns, and the maps had the cities and towns that we lived in, this was Cold War Germany and yes both NATO and the Warsaw Pact expected that tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons would be used and we had to be able to operate in contaminated environments. We operated under the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD as a deterrent to war. It was chilling and made me realize that the use of these weapons today would be suicidal. When Chernobyl melted down we were in the fallout zone and were given instructions on what we could and could not do in order to minimize any possible exposure to radiation poisoning.
So when it comes to the first use of the Atomic bomb I am quite reflective. As a historian, military officer, chaplain and priest who has been trained on what these weapons can do I have a fairly unique perspective. Honestly, as a historian I can understand the reasons that President Truman ordered its use, and I can understand the objections of some of the bomb’s designers on why it should not be used. I’ve done the math and the estimates of casualties had there been an invasion of the Japanese home islands is in the millions, most of which would have been Japanese civilians.
My inner lawyer can argue either point well, that being said the manner in which it was used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki troubles me. Hiroshima did have military targets, but a big part of the choice was its location, surrounded by hills, which created a bowl that would focus the explosion and maximized its effect. Many of the larger military and industrial targets lay outside the kill zone. The designers and officers on the committee wanted to show the Japanese, as well as the world the destructive power of the weapon. Those who opposed its use hoped that it would convince the leaders of nations that war itself needed to be prevented. These men wrestled with the issue even as they prepared the first bombs for deployment against Japan. The recommendations of the committee can be found here:
Of the 150 scientists who were part of the bomb’s design team only 15% recommended the military use without a demonstration to show the Japanese the destructive power of the bomb and a chance to end the war. The poll of the scientists can be found here:
Leo Szilard wrote a letter to Edward Teller seeking his support in sending a petition to President Truman regarding his opposition to the use of the weapon based on purely moral considerations. Szilard wrote:
“However small the chance might be that our petition may influence the course of events, I personally feel that it would be a matter of importance if a large number of scientists who have worked in this field want clearly and unmistakably on record as to their opposition on moral grounds to the use of these bombs in the present phase of the war.
Many of us are inclined to say that individual Germans share the guilt for the acts which Germany committed during this war because they did not raise their voices in protest against those acts, Their defense that their protest would have been of no avail hardly seems acceptable even though these Germans could not have protested without running risks to life and liberty. We are in a position to raise our voices without incurring any such risks even though we might incur the displeasure of some of those who are at present in charge of controlling the work on “atomic power.”
The entire text of Szilard’s letter can be found here:
The two petitions of the scientists to the President are here, the second letter concludes with this recommendation:
“If after the war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be continuous danger of sudden annihilation. All the resources of the United States, moral and material, may have to be mobilized to prevent the advent of such a world situation. Its prevention is at present the solemn responsibility of the United States–singled out by virtue of her lead in the field of atomic power.
The added material strength which this lead gives to the United States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more difficult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control.
In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition: first, that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief to rule that the United States shall not resort to the use of atomic bombs in this war unless the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender; second, that in such an event the question whether or not to use atomic bombs be decided by you in the light of the consideration presented in this petition as well as all the other moral responsibilities which are involved.”
Ralph Bard, Undersecretary of the Navy wrote to Secretary of War Stimson his opinion on July 17th 1945:
“Ever since I have been in touch with this program I have had a feeling that before the bomb is actually used against Japan that Japan should have some preliminary warning for say two or three days in advance of use. The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation and the fair play attitude of our people generally is responsible in the main for this feeling.”
I think that those who debate the history of this need to look at the entire picture and read the letters, the documents and take into account everything. My hope is that leaders, policy makers, legislators and we the people continue to work to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is true that the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and Russia are significantly smaller than when the Cold War ended, but even so what remain are more than enough to extinguish human life on the planet. Add to these the Chinese, French, British, Indian, Pakistani and the hundreds of undeclared weapons of Israel the fact is that there remains the possibility that they could be used. Likewise there are nuclear programs in other nations, especially North Korea, which given enough time or believing them necessary could produce weapons. But the North Koreans are not alone, they could easily be joined by others including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the possibility of a terrorist group producing or acquiring a weapon the world is still a very dangerous place.
That is the world that we live in and the world in which policy makers, legislators and educated people who care about the world must attempt to make safe. If you asked me I would say outlaw them, but that will never happen. Edward Teller wrote Leon Szilard:
“First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls…. Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat use might even be the best thing…. But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape…”
The ghost is out of the bottle, and nothing can ever get it back in. We can only hope and pray that reasonable people prevent any of these weapons from ever being used and that war itself would end.