The merciless momentum of nuclear war plans needs to be rethought before it is too late.
Hiroshima gets all the attention, but Nagasaki teaches the more important lesson. The need to destroy Hiroshima will be forever debated, but the counterarguments were unpersuasive to President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. A world war had taken the lives of tens of millions. Noncombatants were not spared. When a war-ending weapon was finally available — too late to make unnecessary the Normandy landing, but just in time to substitute for the invasion of Japan’s home islands — Truman and Stimson chose to end the carnage as soon as possible.
The arguments in favor of the first explosive use of an atomic bomb do not apply to the second. Japan’s War Cabinet was absorbing the dual shocks of Hiroshima and Russia’s declaration of war against Japan. At a minimum, Truman and Stimson should have waited more than three days before obliterating Nagasaki and killing its inhabitants. The argument used to justify the fate of Nagasaki was that Japan’s dead-enders needed to know that more atomic bombs would rain death and destruction unless they surrendered. This justification is not persuasive because everyone understood that the immense machinery of U.S. war production would be working overtime to make more atomic bombs, and that it was just a matter of time when they would rain more destruction over Japan.
The need to surrender would sink in after Hiroshima and the Russian announcement. Would this take three days, five or ten? Whatever: After Hiroshima, it was worth the wait. That Nagasaki was sacrificed without waiting is a testament to the inexorable danger inherent in war plans involving nuclear weapons. Truman and Stimson chose not to intervene with their agreed plan to keep up the bombing until Japan surrendered. The United States possessed two A-bombs and detonated two A-bombs. If three were available, and if the Emperor was unable or unwilling to assert himself over dead-enders, then a third city would have been targeted.
The fate of Nagasaki demands that leaders delve into nuclear war-fighting plans. They rarely do. Before assuming office, newly elected U.S. presidents receive briefings on the nuclear codes and the “football” that will become constant company, but these briefings are more about process than substance. Presidents usually don’t dwell on targets, since there are so many of them as to be incomprehensible. The natural human reaction to even the briefest introduction to Armageddon is to shudder inwardly and to hope fervently that targeting plans remain in locked safes.
The historical example of Nagasaki speaks volumes about how hard it is leaders to grind the machinery of warfare to a halt once the first mushroom cloud appears. Nagasaki therefore demands our attention as much as Hiroshima. The fundamental lesson of Nagasaki is that a second nuclear detonation follows the first. On the 71st anniversary of Nagasaki, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin can spend no better time than to take a very hard look at the nuclear war-fighting plans their armed forces have prepared. And then pick up the phone to agree on parallel reductions in their massive nuclear arsenals.
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