The Last Straw

Valdai Club expert Dmitry Streltsov talks about how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the last straws.

On Aug. 6, Japan marks 75 years since the world’s first nuclear attack. A United States bomber dropped a bomb above Hiroshima, immediately killing about 80,000 people. A bomb dropped above Nagasaki three days later killed 40,000 more. The epicenter of the blast was right in the center of the city, so even though the explosion was the equivalent of only 16 kilotons, it wiped out 70 percent of the city right away. Tens of thousands of survivors of the explosion were left to die from burns, wounds and exposure to radiation. As a result of the bombings, about 214,000 people, most of the civilian population, died in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the end of 1945.

The inhumane nature of the new weapon attracted the attention of the international community almost immediately. The August 1945 bombings divided world history into two eras — the one before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the one after.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world faced a dilemma: solving international political crises by using new devastating technologies versus strictly controlling them on the international level. The arms race started shortly after the bombings, but Hiroshima, with its catastrophic scale of destruction and human losses, became a symbol of consequences to be avoided at all costs.

Maybe this is why Hiroshima and Nagasaki have remained the only case of wartime use of atomic weapons in history. Hiroshima has become a symbol of the fragility of the whole human civilization, showing the scale of possible instant devastation.

Seventy-five years after the bombings, there are still debates about whether they were justified. At the time, the U.S. political establishment, military officers and experts, as well as their Japanese counterparts, justified the bombings, arguing that they helped to avoid massive casualties and rapidly end the war. The Japanese war and postwar generations consistently accepted the U.S. decision, which was highly questionable from a moral point of view. Yet, most of them chose not to challenge their partners across the pond.

Later, new evidence showed that it was not Hiroshima that forced Japan to surrender. Japan chose to surrender because the Soviet Union entered the war. Japan had been counting on the USSR’s strategic support until the last moment, and when it declared war, Japan had no choice.

The release of newly declassified documents and memoirs supported the claim that the U.S. viewed bombing Japan as a diplomacy tool to intimidate the Soviets amid the unfolding Cold War. Proponents of the “Atomic Diplomacy,” including U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, argued that bombing Japan would help the United States dominate in the postwar era. The use of the atomic bomb was an extension of the Truman Doctrine, a foreign policy aimed to contain Soviet expansion in the world, formulated by George F. Kennan in his famous “Long Telegram” in 1946.

Over time, more scientists, as well as simply reasonable people, in both Japan and the U.S. started questioning the decision to use the atomic weapon when Japan’s position was already hopeless. In 1958, the Hiroshima City Council released a statement condemning President Truman for his failure to express remorse, calling his position “a gross defilement” committed to the victims of Hiroshima. After the fall of the bipolar world, fewer Japanese say the bombings were justified: In 1991, 29 percent of the Japanese thought so; in 2015, only 14 percent.

Even though the scale of destruction and cruelty of atomic weapons is obvious, the U.S. still has not officially apologized for the bombings. In 2016, President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima for the first time, but he did not state his moral position on America’s actions clearly. He only vaguely stated that “we must pursue a world without [nuclear weapons].” The U.S. president did not apologize for a reason. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, an American historian born in Japan, asserted that the idea that using the bomb against Japan was necessary to avoid killing more people is “a myth that Americans want to cling to because of their own psychological need to justify the killing as a necessary evil.”

Every year on Aug. 6, Japan holds a Peace Memorial, where the country’s prime minister delivers a speech. This year the commemoration events were much smaller because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the anniversaries of the tragic events prompt us to reflect on the ethical controversies of using nuclear weapons to achieve international security, especially for Japan, the only country that has been affected by a nuclear attack.

In its postwar diplomacy, Japan used its unique status to formulate Three Non-Nuclear Principles of non-possession, non-production and non-introduction of nuclear weapons. Japan also strived to be a leader of the global non-nuclear movement. However, after it became a U.S. ally in fighting communism, Japan started relying on U.S. nuclear guarantees. By doing so, it admitted the role of nuclear weapons in maintaining its national security. For example, in 2017, Japan did not sign the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty. Now, we cannot even argue that the Japanese people are inherently “allergic” to nuclear weapons since they are widely discussing the pros and cons of having a nuclear weapon. It looks like in a battle between moral principles and political considerations, the latter are dominating.

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