Nuclear taboo helped bring an era of peace to many nations

Remembering Hiroshima

July 31, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

SIX DECADES after a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, there is a question that remains unanswered and perhaps unanswerable: Should those of us who were not under that mushroom cloud thank these weapons for bringing us an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity?

The bomb has been widely disparaged as the most destructive device ever invented, one that brought not only devastation to Japan, but also fear and uncertainty to generations that lived under its shadow of doom.

Look at Europe. For its entire history, it was perhaps the bloodiest place on Earth, a continent where people seemed to specialize in figuring out how to kill each other. That skill eventually brought far-flung countries into fights that became known as the World Wars. Millions died.

Since the advent of the nuclear age, Europe has learned to live in peace. That Germany and France would conduct periodic fights to the death was once a given. Now it is unimaginable.

"That's a remarkable achievement," says Steven David, a security expert in the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "I think that is in large measure due to the presence of nuclear weapons.

"So long as you were dealing with conventional weapons, you could convince yourself that if you got into a war, you had a chance to win, and that if you lost, it wasn't the end of world," David says. "With nuclear weapons, win or lose, it would be the end of the world. The people who had them realized that war would be suicidal."

The absurd arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, this thinking goes, made war so unthinkable that it was fought less often and then in limited ways by smaller armies, often by the proxies of the superpowers in places such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

"The two superpowers never once fought each other directly," David says of the Cold War era. "Since the end of World War II, 90 percent of wars - and casualties - have been within countries, not between countries."

It is possible that without the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the taboo against using these weapons, and the era of peace that it brought, would never have come into force.

"I think that probably if it weren't for Hiroshima, we would have had nuclear weapons used somewhere at some time in the last 60 years," says Thomas C. Schelling of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Not all agree that nuclear weapons are responsible for this time of relative peace, or that the horror of Hiroshima was necessary to establish the nuclear taboo.

"From my perspective, it is very, very difficult to say what contribution nuclear weapons actually made to security during the Cold War," says Nancy Gallagher, a specialist on nuclear arms control at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

"You can argue that they were a stabilizing factor or that they were destabilizing. The fact that we made it through was probably a matter of good luck," she says.

Gallagher also says that it was not necessary to use these weapons in Japan to impress upon the world that they should never be used again.

"I happen to think that human beings are smart enough that that they don't have to have a demonstration, certainly not one that killed that many people, in order to get across the point that these are not weapons like any other," she says.

David agrees. "I think that there would be a sufficient appreciation of the magnitude of these devices that the taboo against using them would be present even if they had not been used in Japan."

Gar Alperowitz, of the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, argues that the bomb didn't need to be used at Hiroshima to defeat Japan, noting that Gen. George C. Marshall proposed dropping one on a remote naval base, not a city.

"All the men were off fighting the war. Japanese cities were largely filled with old people, women and kids," Alperowitz says. "Dropping a bomb on them did not go down well with the top U.S. military leaders. All of them are on record as being horrified by the use of the bomb."

Schelling points out that it was not certain the postwar taboo would continue, saying that throughout the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles urged the president to say that nuclear weapons were like any other weapon that could be used against enemies.

But that changed, he says, with the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. "They became very anti-nuclear," Schelling says.

All agree on one important point - whether or not nuclear weapons were a force for stability during the Cold War, they are clearly a destabilizing element in the current era.

"If I could have waved a magic wand during the Cold War and gotten rid of all nuclear weapons, I might not have done so," David says. "Give me that wand today, and I'd do it in a New York minute."

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