Imagining a world without nuclear weapons

Historian Richard Rhodes talks about the atomic bombing of Japan 60 years ago, today's global arms race -- and the only way to stop a nuclear attack by terrorists.

By Charles Hawley
August 6, 2005 10:28PM (UTC)
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The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, was the horrendous ending to a horrific war. But was there a silver lining? Atomic weapons historian Richard Rhodes, 68, is the author of 20 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" in 1986. He has written extensively on the hydrogen bomb and nuclear energy, and is currently working on a book about nuclear weapons issues from the last 20 years. Spiegel Online spoke with Rhodes about how nuclear bombs limited 20th century violence, U.S. guilt for the arms race, and just how simple it may be for terrorists to acquire and set off a nuclear weapon.

Many in Germany see the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, as a mass slaughter of innocent human beings devoid of any strategic goals. Much of this, of course, stems from Germany's own World War II history of genocide.


For me it's a historical question. The atomic bomb was not more destructive than the mass forces the Allies were flying in Germany and Japan. If there was a moral issue involved, it was surely the decisions the Allied forces made in 1943 to begin the strategic bombing of cities -- in particular, the decision to firebomb Japanese cities. So it's a complicated question given the amount of civilians killed in these earlier attacks.

Was the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a war crime?

Curtis LeMay, who was the general in charge of the bombing campaign in Japan, said that if we'd lost the war we certainly would have been brought before an international tribunal. In that sense, he was admitting it was a war crime. Of course one is revolted by the idea of killing civilians. We killed almost 2 million Japanese civilians with bombing campaigns.


Why was the A-bomb dropped at all? What were the strategic goals the U.S. was attempting to achieve?

By the time the atomic bomb was dropped, we had destroyed virtually every Japanese city with a population of over 50,000. The logic went something like this: "If bombing a factory with workers inside it wasn't a war crime, then why would it be a war crime to bomb the area around the factories where the workers live?" After that the bombing campaign was essentially to force the Japanese to surrender so that a land invasion would not be necessary and thus limit the loss of life. The atomic bombs were really just an extension of that. And in the end, it did shorten the war.

Was there a racist element to the decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan or would it have also been used in Germany had it been developed earlier?


The war in the Pacific was indeed an intensely racist war -- on both sides of the lines. General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project which developed the bomb, was quoted after the war as saying that he had discussed the bomb with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 and that there was no question that Roosevelt would have been prepared to use it on Germany. On the other hand, they knew that the bomb would not be ready before mid- to late 1945 and most felt that the war in Europe would likely be over by then.

What about the scientists who worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project? Were they horrified at what they had done when they were confronted by the carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?


No, they weren't, because they were working on the project in the middle of a war that cost 55 million human lives. From their point of view, this was going to be the weapon that was to end World War II -- and it's fair to argue that it did. And there was also a feeling that it might be a weapon that would end all wars. You can definitely argue that it ended world-scale war. If you look at the number of man-made deaths in the 20th century, you will see that around 1917 it was around 6 million per year and then in the 1930s it was around 4 million per year. During World War II, it spiked up to the horrendous figure of some 15 million per year. But then, immediately after World War II, it dropped off dramatically to around 1 million per year and stayed at that low level for the rest of the 20th century. What caused that dramatic change? I think pretty clearly the introduction of nuclear weapons.

After Roosevelt's death, Harry Truman became president. He was ultimately responsible for making the decision to use the bomb in 1945. Did he give enough thought to using the weapon?

No. He had a sense that it was a cataclysmic weapon because he writes about it in biblical terms in some of his private journals. But Truman was a self-educated man and had some fairly original ideas about how the universe worked. I don't think he spent much time thinking about the use of the weapon. After all, they were already in production and it was clear that Roosevelt had already endorsed and authorized them.


So if Roosevelt thought it was OK, then it was OK for him too?

Truman has won a rather rosy image over the years. But I think he was a great deal more like George W. Bush than he was like Franklin Roosevelt. He was an intellectually insecure man and he covered up that insecurity with a great deal of bluster and an almost obsessive attitude that "the buck stops here." That was the attitude he used when approaching the atomic bomb. But he also had a visceral and existential response to the mass killings when he got the news of what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After that, he was unwilling under any circumstances to use nuclear weapons.

So by virtue of the destruction nuclear weapons wrought in Japan, using such weapons has become impossible?


There were definitely some long-term results from the use of the A-bombs in Japan. One president after another and one leader of the Soviet Union after another looked at the destructive force of these weapons and made a private decision that there is no context in which they could ever be used. We came very close a number of times during the Cold War, of course. But sense prevailed.

Was physicist Niels Bohr right in arguing that the only way to control nuclear weapons is to make the technology open to everybody?

Bohr's idea was that if nations forwent developing a nuclear arsenal, then they would receive assistance in developing civilian nuclear technology -- an idea that is more or less in place today. But Bohr was really trying to make clear to the political leaders of the time that there was no way these weapons could be used once more than one nation had access to them. That's how it turned out. But Bohr also thought that once nations realized this salient fact, they would forgo the arms race.

It doesn't seem like too many people were listening to him.


These weapons still have lots of prestige as a symbol of national power. This attitude follows very directly from the continuing insistence on the part of the United States to this day that other nations shouldn't have nuclear weapons but we should because it's important to our national security. If we can make that claim, then so can any other nation or any other entity. And they have. A country like North Korea knows -- especially after the invasion of Iraq -- that being part of the "Axis of Evil" is a dangerous place to be. Because we insist on our primary right to be a nuclear power, they have no other option but to do the same.

Is disarmament a realistic goal? Can we turn back the clock?

It is possible to imagine a world without nuclear weapons, but the know-how would still be around and deterrence would still work. You only have to imagine it as extending the amount of time it takes to deliver a weapon to its target. Today it takes 15 to 30 minutes to deliver a nuclear weapon, which is hardly enough time for any kind of rational consideration. If you took the warhead off all the missiles and kept them in a separate place -- which is how Pakistan maintains the security of its weapons -- then it would take perhaps an hour or two hours. If you actually dismantle these weapons and put the parts in separate places, it would take three days. The countries like Germany that have the technology to go nuclear but have refrained from doing so have a delivery time of about a year. In such a world, if one country decides to start building a weapon, other countries might follow suit. At worst, that would bring us right back to where we are today.

How great is the danger that a nuclear weapon will be used again?


Everybody I talk to in the nuclear community is pretty comfortable that nation-states are not going to use nuclear weapons -- even states like North Korea are clearly more concerned with the prestige factor than about actually using it. But everyone I talk to is greatly concerned about the very real possibility of a terrorist nuclear attack. Terrorist groups -- al-Qaida is one example -- would see a great amount of prestige if they were able to build and detonate a nuclear weapon in New York City or in Iraq's U.S.-controlled Green Zone. In fact, everyone I take seriously in this field believes the possibility is 100 percent. The fact is, if you can get a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, it's very easy to make a nuclear weapon that would explode with about the same yield as the Hiroshima bomb. These weapons are so small and so portable and so vastly destructive for their weight and size that there is no effective defense against them except abolition.

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online at international or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

Charles Hawley

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