Hiroshima and the World: Hiroshima, History, and the Modern Sword of Damocles

by Scott Ritter

Scott Ritter
Born into a military family in 1961, in the U.S. state of Florida, Scott Ritter is a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq. He served in this capacity from 1991~1998 and later became an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he challenged President George W. Bush’s claim that Iraq represented a security threat by arguing that it possessed no significant weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Ritter is the author of several books, including On Dangerous Ground: Following the Path of America’s Failed Arms Control Policy, to be released by Nation Books later this year.

Hiroshima, History, and the Modern Sword of Damocles

From September 1991 until August 1998, I had the privilege of serving as a member of the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq (UNSCOM). UNSCOM was mandated by the United Nations Security Council to remove, destroy, or render harmless Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs, inclusive of chemical, biological, long-range missile, and nuclear. The work of the UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq was without precedent in the post-Second World War period, consisting as it did of an effort not just to limit or contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but more importantly to eliminate them altogether, albeit in the limited context of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While the inspectors, from a purely technical standpoint, were able to achieve the fundamental objectives set forth by their mandate, the perception of the continued existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was a reality which drove international policy formulation and implementation, culminating in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies in 2003.

Key among the reasons cited as justification for this invasion was the premise (false, as it turned out) that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. The fear of even a phantom threat in the form of nuclear weapons drove nations, even those which themselves were armed with massive nuclear arsenals, to behave in a manner which was inconsistent, and even in direct violation of, the norms and values of international law as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations. In the aftermath of the Iraqi debacle, the proliferation of nuclear weapons capability has not been retarded, but rather expanded, which begs the question: is the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation limited to those nations, like Iraq, which sought the acquisition of nuclear weapons outside accepted international frameworks such as the non-proliferation treaty, or is it broader, inclusive of nations like the United States which assert the right to deny nuclear weapons capability to others while maintaining its own atomic arsenal?

On April 4, 2009, President Barack Obama gave a stirring speech in Prague, the Czech Republic, in which he addressed the issue of nuclear weapons, and the need to seek a means to eliminate them from the world’s collective arsenal. “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” the US President declared, noting that “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” But there was a catch: even as President Obama announced that “we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century,” underscoring his stated interest in abolishing nuclear weapons, he warned that “as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

It is this warning that one must focus on when assessing the viability of Obama’s declared intent. Since 1945, when these terrible weapons were first tested and used, nuclear weapons have served as the cornerstone of America’s national security strategy. Born of the declared necessity to end war, America’s nuclear arsenal has assumed mythological proportions, building about it a legend of war avoidance through deterrence. But in reality it is nothing less than a modern day sword of Damocles, hanging over the heads of America and the world by the slimmest of hairs, a threat that cannot maintain its vitality unless deemed viable, thereby underscoring the Roman philosopher Cicero’s point in telling the story, “that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms.” Simply put, there can be no true security as long as nuclear weapons exist, in any form and under any nation’s control.

While America has many friends, there is no friend more important when it comes to the issue of America’s nuclear arsenal than Japan. Barack Obama noted in his speech in Prague that America was the only nation to have used nuclear weapons. Left unsaid was the reality that the nation America used these weapons against was Japan. Japan has the moral authority, and indeed moral obligation, to intervene with its close friend and ally, the United States, in an effort to compel America to follow through with the abolition of nuclear weapons free of the false promise of security brought on by the existence of these weapons. As long as the myth of nuclear weapons as a legitimate source of security exists, they will never be eliminated.

Hiroshima plays a critical role, given its status as the first city to have been attacked by a nuclear weapon. It is absolutely imperative that Hiroshima, and Japan as a whole, take the lead in characterizing the reality of that attack. Japan, and the world, cannot afford to let the story of the first use of nuclear weapons be told exclusively by the United States, whose current embrace of a nuclear weapons-driven national security posture is traced to that terrible event. Recent history has clearly shown that the United States is not up to the task of telling the story of the Hiroshima bombing in an unbiased fashion.

In 1994, the Smithsonian Institute attempted to create a display built around the restored fuselage of the B-29 bomber, “the Enola Gay”, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Entitled “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War,” the project was strongly opposed by numerous individuals and organizations, led by the American Legion and the Air Force Association. The display’s opponents felt that the Smithsonian had distorted history, placing too much emphasis on the death and suffering of the Japanese victims of the nuclear attack, and not enough emphasis on the reasons behind the decision to drop the bomb (namely to compel Japan into surrendering prior to any large-scale U.S. ground invasion of the Japanese homeland). The opponents of the display won out, and it was canceled in 1995, thereby perpetuating the myth promulgated by pro-military organizations that not only was the United States justified in using the atomic bomb against Japan, but also by extension that nuclear weapons are, in and of themselves, legitimate weapons of war, especially from the deterrence value created in the aftermath of the devastation inflicted on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The legitimization of nuclear weapons in the mind-set of not only American strategic policy makers, but also the American people as a whole, represents the foundation upon which the current philosophy of nuclear deterrence, born of the Cold War and extended through to this day as a means of asserting American military supremacy around the world, has been constructed. America’s embrace of nuclear weapons is not a current manifestation of ongoing threats, but rather derived from this mythology of nuclear necessity born of the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. From that single act, all else emerges. If, as some have argued, the decision to drop the bomb was a legitimate act justified by the harsh reality of war, it will be very difficult to convince those who look to nuclear weapons as a centerpiece of American national security to ever think of relinquishing this weapon. Conversely, if it can be demonstrated that the act of dropping the atomic bomb on Japanese cities had no outcome other than simply killing hundreds of thousands of people in a nuclear holocaust, then the very underpinning of the justification for the modern-day retention of nuclear weapons comes undone.

This is a part of history that demands a comprehensive Japanese answer. What was the true state of play in terms of bringing the war to an end from the standpoint of Imperial Japan during the summer of 1945? What was the Japanese response to the proclamation that emerged from Potsdam in July 1945 calling for unconditional surrender? How important was the Japanese peace initiative undertaken with the Soviet Union, and what impact did the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan in August 1945 have in the final decision to surrender?

Japanese historians have addressed these matters in the past, but have allowed American historians, often times operating under chauvinistic premise, to take the lead in the telling of this important part of history in America and throughout the world. Hiroshima should assume the mission brought on by the historical opportunity created by President Obama’s Prague address, and help facilitate global nuclear disarmament by compelling the United States, and the world, to reconsider the genesis of the first use of the atomic bomb. This could be accomplished by Hiroshima hosting an international conference, convened on the anniversary of its nuclear destruction in 1945, which examined the history surrounding the decision by the United States to use nuclear weapons against Japan, and through this study, to articulate decisively how that act did not further the national security of any single nation or group of nations, but rather created a modern version of Cicero’s sword of Damocles, one that threatens all humanity, and not just those who seek to rule under its constant threat.

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