Myths and hope
Take, for instance, ideas about Hiroshima. For decades the debate has been locked into place: the Japanese were going to surrender anyway and the bombings were not justified (say those who oppose nuclear weapons); the bombings saved lives and were perfectly justified (say those who support nuclear weapons). Neither side has said anything new in forty years. But now there is a new debate taking place. This is not a discussion about whether Hiroshima was moral; it is a discussion about whether Hiroshima worked. Not whether the bombs went off or flattened the cities, but whether the Japanese surrendered because of the bombings. After all, if nuclear weapons have a unique ability to impress and coerce adversaries, then there’s a strong case that you have to keep them. But if they played no role in convincing Japan to surrender, then perhaps they’re just bombs that are too big for any sensible purpose.
And it turns out there are four pretty good reasons for doubting that the Japanese surrendered because of nuclear weapons. First is timing. The U.S. bombed Hiroshima on August 6, word got to Tokyo almost right away that something had happened, on the 7th they got Truman’s press release saying it was a nuclear attack, and on the 8th Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori asked for a meeting of the Supreme Council – the effective ruling body of Japan – to discuss the bombing. But his request was refused. Then at midnight on the 8th the Soviet Union – which had been neutral – declared war and invaded Manchuria and other territories. Word started to reach Tokyo by about 4:30 in the morning of the Soviet invasion. At 10:30 am the Supreme Council met to discuss unconditional surrender. Later in the morning Nagasaki was bombed.
When Americans tell this story the high point – the crux of the story – is always August 6th: the day Hiroshima was bombed. But from the Japanese perspective the most important day is not August 6th, it’s August 9th. The 9th is the first time they sat down to discuss unconditional surrender in the entire war. Fourteen years of war, defeats and victories, city bombing, submarine blockade, impending starvation and this is the first time they feel compelled to talk about surrender. So what motivated them to sit down? It can’t have been Nagasaki, that came later in the morning. It probably wasn’t Hiroshima. That was more than three days earlier and they’d already thought about having a meeting to discuss it and decided not to. So what motivated them?
The Soviet invasion happened just a few hours before the Japanese decision to discuss unconditional surrender. Based on timing alone, it seems likely that the Soviet declaration of war was the decisive event that coerced Japan into surrendering.
When proponents of nuclear weapons talk about the scale of the attack on Hiroshima they often talk as if the sheer magnitude of the attack must have stunned Japan’s leaders into giving in. But in fact the scale of the attack on Hiroshima was not that much greater than the attacks with conventional bombs that had been going on for months. The United States attacked 68 cities in the summer of 1945. If you graph the number of people killed from all 68 of those attacks you would expect the deaths from Hiroshima to dwarf the numbers from any of the other attacks. In fact, based on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Hiroshima was second in terms of number of people killed. Tokyo, a conventional attack, was first.
If you graph the square miles destroyed in all 68 cities, you’ll find that Hiroshima is fourth. Three conventional attacks destroyed more square miles. If you graph the percentage of the cities destroyed, Hiroshima is fourteenth. It’s clear from this that the bombing of Hiroshima was not outside the scale of the conventional attacks that had been going on all summer long. And Japan’s leaders actually said this: General Anami Korechika, the Minister of War and the most important man in the government, says on August 13th that the atomic bombings were no more menacing than the firebombing that Japan had been undergoing all summer long.
If you examine the diaries and meeting notes of Japan’s leaders during the three crucial days following Hiroshima and before the meeting that led to the decision to surrender on August 9th, what you find is that the bombing of Hiroshima is a problem that they recognize and take seriously. But it is the Soviet declaration of war and invasion that touches off a crisis. And this makes sense. If you’ve already suffered the destruction of 66 cities without surrendering, why should the addition of two more make a difference? The bombing of Hiroshima did not affect the strategic situation that Japan confronted. On the other hand, the strategic significance of having another super power join the war against you is undeniable.
But they said they surrendered because of the Bomb. The Emperor went on the radio and announced that that was the reason they had to surrender. So that must be the reason, right? Put yourself in the Emperor’s shoes. Which would you rather say? “We made mistakes, we didn’t fight well enough, there was a lack of coordination between the Army and the Navy”? Or would you rather say, “The enemy made an amazing scientific breakthrough that no one could have predicted and that’s why we lost”? The atomic bomb made the perfect excuse for having lost the war.
If nuclear weapons were a religion, the bombing of Hiroshima would be the first miracle. For forty years people have believed that nuclear weapons have a special psychological ability to coerce and deter in part because of this historical example. But it is clear that Japan did not surrender because of the Bomb. What does a religion do when its founding miracle disappears? How do you keep on believing?
Another way to believe in nuclear weapons is to argue that they have kept the peace for 65 years and therefore nuclear deterrence must work. This is, however, proof by absence, one of the least reliable forms of proof available. Proof by absence, for example, is what is used to justify throwing virgins into the volcano. You’re afraid the volcano will erupt, you throw a virgin into the volcano, then the volcano doesn’t erupt for a year and you say, “See? It worked!”
We don’t accept proof by absence in any situation in which there are serious stakes involved. Consider medicine. Imagine that I found a plant in my back yard and I claimed that its root prevented a rare form of cancer. Then I gave the extract of the root to a hundred people for a year and none of them developed this rare form of cancer. Would that persuade you that it worked?
Or take airline safety, another arena in which we demand rigorous effort and solid proof. Imagine that I invented a device that I claimed prevented metal fatigue – by sonar waves or something. I put these devices on ten planes for a year and none of them crashed because of metal fatigue. I claimed that that proved that the device worked. If some airline decided to install the devices on their planes and stopped doing regular maintenance for metal fatigue – check the fuselage for cracks, monitoring the age of the various components, etc. – would you fly that airline?
These and other rebuttals to standard arguments about nuclear weapons are gaining traction in countries around the world. We have always known nuclear weapons are dangerous – and they remain dangerous. But their usefulness now appears to be open to serious challenge. If nuclear weapons are dangerous, but not very useful ...
by Ward Wilson
Läkare mot Kärnvapen 2012 no 127
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