Sunday, August 7. 2005
Sixty years ago the United States dropped a uranium fission bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 140,000. Three days later the U.S. dropped a plutonium fission bomb on Nagasaki, killing 80,000 more. Both bombs spread significant radioactive fallout, leading to the premature deaths of many more. These are round numbers currently accepted, but are guesses and generalizations. As such, they obscure the individuals killed: a complete listing would fill four of our Vietnam Wall monuments, and make the point much more emphatically than numbers alone could ever do.
The bombings were both an ordinary continuation of the horrors of the World War and an extraordinary new turn. The continued a policy of bombing Japanese cities which, combined with the ensuing fires, had already killed between one and two million Japanese -- the fire bombing of Tokyo alone killed over 150,000. These were by any sane reckoning atrocities, but they came in the context of so many more atrocities that any effort to list them all became numbing -- round numbers, inadequate as they are, will have to do. The U.S. joined the war late in 1941 after Japan destroyed much of the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, leaving the Phillippines and the rest of the West Pacific open to conquest. Japan had attacked China in 1929, conquering Manchuria and initiating a prolonged invasion of China and East Asia that left millions dead. Nazi Germany was every bit as expansionist, having annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, then invaded Poland in 1939, then conquered Western Europe from Norway to France, bombed Britain, and finally invaded the Soviet Union. By the time the wars ended, the U.S. had lost three million soldiers, including 50,000 in capturing the Japanese island of Okinawa. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fight against Nazi Germany, with losses exceeding fifteen million. Germany and Japan had lost over ten million each, their wealth expunged and their nations wrecked. Perhaps most horifically, the Nazis' temporary advances allowed them to round up and kill ten million alledged enemies, including six million Jews in the most systematic act of genocide the world has ever known.
To sum up, the wars that ended in 1945 killed over fifty million people. Of this, fewer than one in two hundred died due to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But terrifyingly, most of those deaths occurred within seconds from just two discrete events. When Japan surrendered less than a month later, Emperor Hirohito cited America's "new and cruel weapons." The deaths were the last and most spectacular of a war that had made atrocity an everyday affair. It was not unreasonable to conclude that the bombs had brought the war to an end. That position has been nitpicked since 1945, but remains widely held, and indeed it seems fitting that so much horror should have ended so horribly. One consequence of this is that everyone who grew up in the wake of the war grew up in the shadow of the bomb. The bombs were not just weapons; they were omens. For most of us they made war unthinkable, but that was never translated into policy. Some people learned to think about the unthinkable, and they found steady employment in the U.S. and other militaries.
There are a great many things that can be written about the bomb. The scientific story is immensely fascinating, with Richard Rhodes' two books (The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun) providing the basic overview, to which we can add dozens of memoirs and secondary works. One point that is often missed here is that the science of the bomb, in particular the energy yield, was understood almost immediately by scientists all around the world. In the movie The Day After Trinity, which we showed last night to mark the anniversary, Robert Serber talks about receiving a letter describing uranium fission one morning, then giving a seminar on it that same afternoon. Rhodes' second book talks about bomb projects in Germany, Japan, and Russia during the war, and the successful Soviet project afterwards. What the U.S. Manhattan Project figured out that other projects didn't was the engineering to turn theory into practice. Once the bombs exploded, the only real secret the U.S. had became public knowledge: that such bombs are viable weapons. At the time, the U.S. had captured and sequestered the entire Germany bomb team, including the brilliant theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. It's worth noting that Heisenberg, who had failed to produce any significant results during the war, came up with a correct model of how the bomb worked within a day after news of Hiroshima. It didn't take the Soviets long after the war to produce their own bomb. One thing that makes the scientists' story so interesting is that they alone understood the future of nuclear proliferation.
Far less has been written about the non-scientific aspects of the Manhattan Project and the post-WWII development of nuclear arsenals in the U.S., the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. While the scientists were critical to the conception of the bomb program, they soon lost all control over the potential use of the bombs. Control passed to the military and civilian political leaders, who were highly disposed to see the bomb as just another weapon in an arsenal of power and intimidation. As such, they worked hard to maximize their stockpiles of this power; only gradually did it dawn on them that nuclear weapons would be unusable in the post-WWII world, that the total warfare that had emerged in the Great War of 1914-19 and accelerated in World War II could not be sustained to any practicable effect. One consequence of this is that in the sixty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki no nation, no political power, despite all too often the worst of intentions, has permitted their use. The notion that scientists, first of all Leo Szillard, had that nuclear bombs would make war obsolete has largely proven to be true.
Nonetheless, the sixty years since Hiroshima have seen plenty of wars -- marginal and much limited in comparison to the World Wars, but immensely destructive on any other scale. There can be no doubt that the U.S. bore any responsibility for the World Wars. Woodrow Wilson's late entry into the first left such a sour taste in Americans' mouths that the nation had nothing to do with the unjust settlements that followed and no desire to enter the second until Japan forced the issue. But Americans did not recoil similarly from the second World War. The war rebuilt an economy that had been shattered by the Great Depression and projected American power and ideals to the far corners of the world. And nothing symbolized this newfound power more than the atom bomb. The first half of the 20th century saw an astonishing march of scientific and technological progress, within a single lifetime transforming a horse-and-buggy into one that could unlock the universe's deep secrets and put them to exhilarating (albeit terrifying) use. In this context, the argument that America was obligated to lead the world out of the imperialist hell that had caused so much destruction became utterly seductive. However, that argument soon became perverted by the Cold War. One consequence of this is that since World War II the U.S. has never been free of blame for its subsequent wars, which have occurred with unsettling frequency and have driven the U.S. from a position where we might once have been able to speak for the aspirations of the whole world to a point where we only fight for our own selfish arrogance.
This postwar history reflects back onto the decision to drop atom bombs on Japan. Critics argue that Japan was for all intents and purposes already defeated before the bombs were dropped. They point to messages Japan passed through the Soviet Union seeking to negotiate an end to the war. With the war in Europe over, the Soviet Union, in accordance with promises made to Roosevelt, had declared war on Japan and was moving its armed forces to the East, threatening Japan even further. Japan's cities had been desroyed, and Japan was effectively isolated from most of its armies, still scattered across wide swaths of Asia and area that Allied forces had skipped over, like New Guinea. Japan's suicidal defense of Okinawa had been meant to send a message that Japan itself would also be defended to the last drop of Japanese blood, but Okinawa had fallen, and Japan's leaders could be certain that Japan would fall as well. So why, given that victory was just a short matter of time, did the U.S. attack with such unnecessary cruelty? One possible answer was that the U.S. was already contemplating its postwar rivalry with its ally, the Soviet Union: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were demonstrations, not to the defeated Japanese but to the victorious Soviets.
This argument is certainly wrong, although the Soviets did see the demonstration and they took it as a warning, moving with much haste to build their own nuclear weapons capability. The people who decided to drop the bomb understood very little about it or what it might mean. They had put a lot of money into developing it, in large part because they understood that science could hold the key to winning the war. German scientists had developed new weapons like jet aircraft and rockets. Before the atom bomb, the most significant Allied scientific breakthrough was radar, but there were many more. The atom bomb could be likened to dropping several thousand conventional bombs, and the U.S. had done that many times over without thinking twice. The radioactive fallout that we now recognize as one of the worst effects of nuclear weapons was poorly understood and lightly considered. (It is worth noting that virtually every scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project eventually died of cancer, but in 1945 they were still very much alive.) Meanwhile the lesson of Okinawa sunk into the racist psyches of the U.S. military: that the Japanese would choose death over surrender. The U.S. may have been certain of victory over Japan, but the leaders were so uncertain of the costs that even as the atom bombs were being readied for delivery they were urging the Soviet Union to engage Japan. The reason for that could not have been to give them a better view of the bomb.
Nonetheless, the bomb made the Cold War inevitable. Possession by the U.S. and the even more untrustworthy U.K. (which had folded its own bomb project into the American one, and was thereby able to bring the blueprints home) gave the Soviets much to fear, while it increased the arrogance of anti-Soviet factions in the U.S. -- above all in the military. To understand this it is first necessary to sort out the matrix of conflict. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were two nations of similar size and potential power on opposite sides of the globe, with no real history of conflict and with much buffer space between them. The main difference was that the Soviet Union had been a theatre of war and had seen much devastation, while the U.S. mainland was isolated from the action, which gave the U.S. a huge short-term advantage. But in and of itself, this was not a prescription for conflict. But the U.S. and the Soviet Union were symbols of a second conflict which was indeed worldwide: the class struggle between capitalism and communism. This mattered much more to some Americans than to others.
The Soviet Union was formed when Communists under V.I. Lenin took control of the Russian Revolution in 1917, overthrowing the Czar and taking Russia out of the first World War. Lenin originally saw his revolution as the first step of a worldwide revolution, but in the wake of the War similar revolts in Hungary and Germany were defeated and the Soviets found themselves isolated and locked into a defensive war against counterrevolutionary forces supported by many foreign states. (Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. forces to Russia as part of this effort, but they were given ambiguous orders and were ineffectual.) The Soviet posture following the civil war was defensive, mostly oriented toward quelling internal dissent -- which Stalin did with exceptional brutality. During this period, they managed to use their connections to Communist parties around the world to reinforce their "socialism in one country" policy, which proved to be debilitating for most other socialist and communist movements. During the War, Stalin had discussions with the Allies on establishing post-War zones of influence which could act as defensive buffers against future wars -- a position that the U.K., in particular, agreed to. One result of this was that the Soviet Union looked the other way when the U.K. put down a Communist revolt in Greece, while the Soviet Union was free to establish puppet regimes in Eastern Europe from Poland to Bulgaria. Greece had been one of many nations where Communists had distinugished themselves in resistance against German or Japanese occupiers, and in several of those countries Communists were able to seize power with little or no Soviet support: Albania, Yugoslavia, China in 1949, and Vietnam in 1954. One way to look at this history is to see a plot where the Soviet Union continuously extended its worldwide power through fomenting revolutions led by local Communists. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence of the Soviets undermining socialist and communist movements where it found anti-communist alliances convenient. Even later on, after the Soviets' alliance with the U.S. was irrevocably damaged, the Soviet Union had virtually nothing to do with local revolutions in Cuba and Afghanistan, even though they invested significant resources in those countries after the fact. The Soviet Union's nominal leadership of the worldwide proletarian revolution was a muddled affair, obliging them to support revolutions they had had nothing to do with fomenting.
The U.S. had effectively had a gentle revolution in the 1930s when Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal came to power in the wake of the worst depression in American (or for that matter worldwide) history. It was gentle because Roosevelt's reforms were mild, and because the ancien regime of bankers and industrialists kept their seats of power. One effect of this was to significantly empower labor, and while few in the U.S. labor movement were close to the Communists, they weren't hostile to the Soviet Union. So the U.S. under Roosevelt established normal relations with the Soviet Union, and eventually entered the War as an ally. With the end of the War, the U.S. rapidly demobilized, converting wartime industrial capacity into sudden prosperity, which had the effect of moving the country to a more conservative stance, weakening labor and strengthening the anti-communist right. (In 1946 the Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time since 1930, and promptly passed the Taft-Hartley anti-labor bill.) The Truman administration itself was more conservative than Roosevelt had been, especially in terms of foreign policy, where staunch anti-communists like James Byrne had power. So when normal conflicts arose with the Soviet Union and local Communist movements made gains, the conservatives were quick to see a monolithic enemy emerging, urging the U.S. to adopt more confrontational policies. After all, the U.S. retained incredible military power to back up its position. Above all, the U.S. had a monopoly on the atomic bomb.
It should be noted that what came to be called the Cold War did not happen over night, and that the Cold War meant different things at different times. The following is a rough overview of several stages:
Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki matters because they remind us what nuclear weapons can do. Those two bombs are small yields by the standards of their successors -- hydrogen bombs are typically a thousand times more powerful, a scale that we can begin to imagine both by extrapolating from Hiroshima and by viewing pictures of test shots vaporizing whole islands. Second-guessing the decision to drop those bombs does little good, except that it makes us wonder what kind of people we were then, and perhaps helps us resolve to be better people now. World War II was a horrible trap, not only for the millions who died or were maimed but for anyone who took part. The irony, though, is that the people who struggled through that war came closer to saying "never again" than we are now. They set up worldwide institutions to resolve conflicts without war, and they set up laws to outlaw war -- going so far as to prosecute many of those responsible for World War II. On the other hand, we let that moment slip away, primarily because people in power were able to translate the basic class conflict that occurs everywhere there is capitalism into a conflict between nations. As we now know, class conflict between labor and capital can peacefully be resolved if we elect to work together and become a bit less greedy. If such a fundamental conflict is resolvable, that between nations should be relatively easy. But we're not there yet, not close, and the main reason is that the arrogance of the powerful is undiminished. Nuclear weapons may be the ultimate power but they have turned out to be useless as well as dangerous -- a power to destroy, not least to destroy oneself. The U.S. brought a horrible war to a climactic end with such weapons, but in doing so we now find, sixty years later, that doing so changed our relationship to the world from humble to arrogant, poisoned our own community, and made us feared and distrusted by much of the world.
Japan, meanwhile, by renouncing war and eschewing the nuclear weapons that they are technically competent to produce any time they wanted, has managed to put Hiroshima and Nagasaki behind them. Perhaps in the long run they have suffered less for our sins than we have.