Seventy-two years ago, the United States launched a pre-emptive nuclear strike against a hated faraway Asian nation. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, which killed some 146,000 men, women, and children—and the subsequent devastation of Nagasaki, a few days later—opened a new era for humanity. Not one of hope or progress, but of the very real possibility of annihilation of most life on Earth.
But there was another, more telling aspect of Trump’s UN speech. This most thoughtless and impetuous of American presidents also called the possibility of nuclear conflict “unthinkable.” On the contrary, we must think about it. And crucial to any understanding of the moral import of the possible use of nuclear weapons is to go back to the foundational moment of this nuclear age and ask again: Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes?
We have no way of knowing what the people of North Korea would make of that question, any more than we know what their views are about their leader’s avowed willingness to order a nuclear first strike. After all, the citizens of the so-called Democratic Republic are closeted in a “dense fog” created by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, “to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”
There is still much controversy around the issue. The traditional justification for the attack was that it was the only way to force the Japanese High Command to surrender immediately, and to avoid a long and costly invasion of island after island that would have led to countless American and Allied casualties. But subsequent historical research has revealed that Japan capitulated out of fear that the Soviet Union would land forces on the Japanese mainland and occupy half the country. The findings of historians Gar Alperovitz, Murray Sayle, and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, among others, refute the conventional wisdom that the first nuclear attack in history was an absolute necessity.
Yet the myth persists. The question is: To what extent does Americans’ belief in the rightness of President Truman’s fateful decision in 1945 provide moral support for the brimstone rhetoric of nuclear conflagration that President Trump is deploying today?
Polling may provide only a partial answer to that, but it is suggestive. In May, a Zogby Analytics survey found that 52 percent of respondents would support a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s WMD program (though a nuclear strike was not specified in the poll question). Another, more recent study suggested that American public approval of a nuclear first strike could be as high as 60 percent if such an attack would save thousands of US soldiers’ lives, even at the price of millions of civilian casualties in the enemy country. Sound familiar?
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