Two foundational beliefs have colored our views of nuclear weapons since the end of World War 2; one, that they were essential or at least very significant for ending the war, and two, that they have been and will continue to be linchpins of deterrence. These beliefs have, in one way or another, guided all our thinking about these mythic creations. Ward Wilson who is at the Monterey Institute of International Studies wants to demolish these and other myths about nukes in a new book titled “5 Myths about Nuclear Weapons", and I have seen few volumes which deliver their message so effectively in such few words. Below are Wilson’s thoughts about the two dominant nuclear myths interspersed with a few of my own.
“Nuclear weapons were paramount in ending World War 2″.
This is where it all begins. And the post facto rationalization certainly bolsters the analysis; brilliant scientists worked on a fearsome weapon in a race against the Nazis, and when the Nazis were defeated, handed it over to world leaders who used to it bring a swift end to a most horrible conflict. Psychologically it fits into a satisfying and noble narrative. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become so completely ingrained in our minds as symbols of the power of the bomb that we scarcely think about whether they really served the roles that they have been ascribed over the last half century. In one sense the atomic bombings of Japan have dictated all our consequent beliefs about weapons of mass destruction. But troubling and mounting evidence has emerged in the last half century that is now consequential enough to deal a major blow to this thinking. Contrary to popular belief, this is not “revisionist” history; by now the files in American, Soviet, Japanese and British archives have been declassified to an extent that allows us to piece together the cold facts and reveal what exactly was the impact of the atomic bombings of Japan on the Japanese decision to end the war. They tell a story very different from the standard narrative.
Wilson draws on detailed minutes from the meetings of the Japanese Imperial Staff to make two things clear; first, that the bomb did not have a disproportionate influence on Japanese leaders’ deliberations and psyche, and second, that what did have a very significant impact on Japanese policy was the invasion of Manchuria and the Sakhalin Islands by the Soviet Union. Wilson reproduces the reactions of key Japanese leaders after the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6. You would expect them to register shock and awe but we see little of this. There was no major meeting summoned after the event and most leaders seemed to display mild consternation, but little of the terror or extreme emotion that you might expect from such a world-shattering event. What does emerge from the record is that the same men were extremely rattled after the Soviets declared war on August 8.
The reason was that before Hiroshima the Japanese were contemplating two strategies for surrender, one political and the other military. The military strategy involved throwing the kitchen sink against the Americans when they invaded the southern part of the Japanese homeland in the coming months and causing them so many losses that their victory would be be a pyrrhic one at best; the Japanese could then seek a surrender on their own terms. The political strategy involved negotiating with the Allies through Moscow. With Hiroshima, both these options remained open since the Japanese army and Soviet relations were still intact. But with the Soviet invasion in the north, the concentration of troops against the Allied invasion in the south and the seeking of favorable surrender terms through the Soviets suddenly turned into impossibilities. This double blow convinced the Japanese that they must now confront unconditional surrender.
Why were the Japanese not affected by the bombing of Hiroshima? Because on the ground the bombing looked no different from the relentless pounding that dozens of major Japanese cities had received at the hands of Curtis Le May’s B-29s during the past six months. The infamous firebombing of Tokyo in March, 1945 had killed even more civilians than the atomic bomb. As Ward details it, no less than 68 cities had been subjected to intense attack, and aerial photos of these cities are strikingly almost indistinguishable from those of Hiroshima. Thus for the Japanese, Hiroshima was one more casualty in a long list. It did little either to shock them or to weaken their resolve for continuing the war.
Unfortunately the perception of the bombing of Hiroshima also fed into the general perception regarding strategic bombing. The conventional wisdom since before World War 2 was that strategic bombing can deal a deadly blow to the enemy’s moral and strategic resources. This wisdom was perpetuated in the face of much evidence to the contrary; the bombings of London, Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo had little effect on morale. The later follies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos also proved the futility of strategic bombing in ending wars. And the same was true of Hiroshima. The main point, as Ward makes it clear, is that you cannot win a war by destroying cities because ultimately it’s the enemy’s armies and military resources that are involved in fighting a war. Destroying cities helps, but it is almost never decisive. One instructive example is the burning of Atlanta and then Richmond during the American Civil War which did little to crush the South’s fighting ability or spirit. Another example is Napoleon’s march into Russia; after setting fire to Moscow and destroying scores of Russian cities, Napoleon was still defeated because ultimately his army was defeated. These facts were conveniently ignored in the face of beliefs about bombing whose culmination seemed to be the destruction of Hiroshima. These beliefs were largely responsible for the arms race and the development of strategic hydrogen bombs which were again expressly designed to bring about the annihilation of cities. But all this development did was raise the risk of accidental devastation. If we realize that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the general destruction of cities played little role in ending World War 2, almost everything that we think we know about the power of nuclear questions is called into question.
“Nuclear weapons are essential for deterrence”.
Conventional thinking continues to hold that the Cold War stayed cold because of nuclear weapons. This is true to some extent. But what it fails to realize is how many times the war threatened to turn hot. Declassified documents now provide ample evidence of near-hits that could have easily led to nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis is only the most well-known example of how destabilizing nuclear weapons can make the status quo.
The missile crisis is in fact a fine example of how conventional thinking about deterrence presents gaps. Kennedy’s decision to blockade Cuba is often touted as an example of mild escalation and the resolution of the crisis itself is often held up as a shining example of how tough diplomacy can forestall war. But Ward takes the opposite tack; he says that the Soviets had made it clear that any action against Cuba would provoke war. Given the nature of the conflict almost everybody understood that war in this case could mean nuclear war. Yet Kennedy chose to blockade Cuba, so deterrence does not seemed to have worked for him. The consequent set of events brought the world closer to nuclear devastation than we think. As we now know, there were more than 150 nuclear weapons in Cuba which would have carpeted most of the eastern and midwestern United States and led to the deaths of tens of millions of Americans. A subsequent second strike would have caused even more devastation in the Soviet Union, not to mention in neighboring countries. In addition there were several relatively minor events which were close calls. These included the depth mining by the US Air Force of submerged Soviet submarines that almost caused one submarine commander to launch a nuclear torpedo; it was an unsung hero of the crisis named Vasili Arkhipov who prevented the launch. Other examples cited by Ward include the straying of an American reconnaissance flight into Soviet airspace and the consequent scrambling of American and Soviet fighter aircraft.
One could add several other examples to the list of close calls; a later one would be the Able Archer exercise of 1983 that caused the Soviets deep anxiety and borderline paranoia. The fact is that deterrence is always touted as the ultimate counter-argument to the risks of nuclear warfare, but there are scores of examples where political leaders decided to escalate and provoke the other side in spite of deterrence. From the other side of the fence it looks like deterrence ultimately worked, but often by a very slim margin. Add to this the fact that the vast network of nuclear command and control centers and protocols developed by nuclear nations are manned by fallible human beings; they are examples of complex systems subject to so-called “normal accidents“. There is also no dearth of examples during the Cold War where lowly technicians and army officers could have launched World War 3 because of miscalculation, misunderstandings or paranoia. The fact is that these weapons of mass destruction have a life of their own; they are beyond the abilities of human beings to completely harness because human weaknesses and flaws also have lives of their own.
Nuclear weapons are often compared to a white elephant. A better comparison might be to a giant T. rex; one could possible imagine a use for such a creature in extreme situations, but by and large it only serves as an unduly sensitive and enormously destructive creature whose powers are waiting to be unleashed on to the world. Having the beast around is just not worth its supposed benefits anymore, especially when most of these benefits are only perceived and have been extrapolated from a sample size of one.
Yet we continue to nurture this creature. Much progress has been made in reducing the nuclear arsenals of the two Cold War superpowers, but others have picked up the slack and continued to pursue the image and status – and not actual fighting capability – that they think nuclear weapons confer on them. The US currently has about 5000 weapons including 1700 strategic ones, many of which are still on hair trigger alert. This is still overkill by a huge margin. A hundred or so, especially on submarines, would be more than sufficient for deterrence. More importantly, the real elephant in the room is the spending on maintaining and upgrading the US nuclear arsenal; several estimates have put a figure of $50 billion on this spending. In fact the US is now spending more on nukes than it did during the Cold War. In a period when the economy is still reeling and basic services are continually threatened, this kind of spending on what is essentially a relic of the Cold War should be unacceptable. In addition during the Bush administration, renewed proposals for “precision” munitions like the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) threatened to lower the bar for the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons; detailed analysis showed that the fallout and other risks from such weapons far outweigh their modest usefulness. More importantly, experts have pointed out since the 1980s that technology and computational capabilities have now improved to an extent that allows conventional precision weapons to do almost all the jobs that were once imagined for nuclear weapons; the US especially now has enough conventional firepower to protect itself and to overpower almost any nuclear-armed state with massive retaliation. The fact is that nuclear weapons as an instrument of military policy are now almost completely outdated even from a technical standpoint. But until zealous and paranoid politicians in Congress who are still living in the Cold War era are reined in, a significant reduction on maintaining the nuclear arsenal doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.
Fortunately there are renewed calls for the elimination of these outdated weapons. The risk of possible use of nuclear weapons by terrorists calls for completely new strategies and does nothing to justify the growth and preservation of existing strategic arsenals by new and aspiring nuclear states. The most high-profile recent development has been the introduction of a bipartisan proposal by veteran policy makers and nuclear weapons experts Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, George Schultz and Sidney Drell who have called for an abolition of these weapons of war. Some would consider this plan a pipe dream, but nothing would be accomplished if we don’t fundamentally alter our thinking about nuclear war. There are many practical proposals that would thwart the spread of both weapons and material, including careful accounting of reactor fuel by international alliances, securing of all uranium and plutonium stocks and the blending down of weapons-grade uranium into reactor-grade material, a visionary policy started in the 90s through the Megatons to Megawatts program. For me, one of the most poignant and fascinating facts about nuclear history is that material from Soviet ICBMs aimed at American cities now supplies about half of all American nuclear electricity.
Ultimately as Ward and others have pointed out, nuclear weapons will not go away unless we declare them to be pariahs. No number of technical remedies will cause nations to abandon them until we make these destructive instruments fundamentally unappealing and start seeing them at the very least as outdated dinosaurs whose technological usefulness is now completely obsolete, and at best as immoral and politically useless tools whose possession taints their owner and results in international censure and disapproval. This is another myth that Wilson talks about, the myth that nuclear weapons are here to stay because they “cannot be uninvented”. But as Wilson cogently argues, technologies don’t go away because they are uninvented, they go away simply because they stop being useful. An analogy would be with cigarettes, at one time seen as status symbols and social lubricants whose risks have now turned them into nuisances at best. This strategy has worked in the past and it should work in the future. We can only make progress when technology becomes unattractive, both from a purely technical as well as a moral and political standpoint. But key to this is a realistic appraisal of the roles that the technology played during its conception. In case of nuclear weapons that mythic appraisal was created by Hiroshima. And it’s time we destroyed that myth.