Hiroshima Memo: Beyond the mindset of nuclear deterrence

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

Military strategists and security specialists, entertaining worst case scenarios, tend to emphasize formidable armed forces. If they imagine their hypothetical enemy holding nuclear weapons and missiles, they naturally feel that their nation must possess the same. Without mutual efforts to maintain relations, countries can become mired in suspicion and anxiety, creating a compulsion to always stand in a superior military position among their rivals.

The words spoken to me by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara still ring in my mind. Mr. McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy Administration when the Cuban missile crisis flared in 1962, said, “Our distrust in the Soviet Union and the terror we felt over its nuclear capability were the fuel that stoked the nuclear arms race.”

Mr. McNamara went on to say that he still believed the “balance of terror” made stability possible at that time. However, he stressed that “An endless nuclear arms race, envisioning the worst case scenario, results in increasing volatility, not stability.”

The situation between India and neighboring Pakistan is a case in point. Since the two nations were founded in 1947, they have waged a series of three wars over territorial rights to the Jammu and Kashmir regions and the independence of Bangladesh. Then, in 1998, both countries carried out a succession of nuclear tests. Has the possession of nuclear weapons by these two nations enabled them to maintain stability in their relations?

In fact, both India and Pakistan have been covertly vying to strengthen their nuclear arms systems, including the development of missiles, resulting in a potentially endless arms race that demands enormous expense. As long as these nuclear weapons exist, there will always be the possibility of use stemming from error or misjudgment. As clearly shown by the terrorist attack committed by Islamic extremists in Mumbai, India at the end of November, the possession of nuclear weapons can prevent neither terrorist attacks nor further clashes in Kashmir.

“Security can be achieved only through such diplomatic efforts as detente, trust, disarmament, and international cooperation,” stated former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, whose efforts paved the way for the first nuclear disarmament deals with the United States.

What can be done to change the mindset of people who are gripped by the idea of nuclear deterrence? The answer lies in conveying to them the reality of the devastating consequences of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the unseen psychological toll.

After paying visits to Hiroshima, Mr. McNamara and Mr. Gorbachev both gained a deeper understanding of the horror wrought by nuclear war. And both, today, are proactive in their calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons, believing such an end to be essential to human survival.

In 2008, against the backdrop of peril posed by the prospect of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, momentum for eliminating nuclear weapons has grown across the globe. Hope, too, is felt by many in the international community at the election of President-elect Barack Obama of the United States, a nuclear superpower, for his stated aspiration to realize a nuclear-free world.

As we enter the new year of 2009, the appeals of the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be heard even more widely in the world, both in and outside Japan, to further fuel the rising momentum for nuclear disarmament and abolition.

(Originally published on December 22, 2008)

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Hiroshima Memo: The two tides of U.S. nuclear policy and the challenge facing Japan (Nov. 26, 2008)