Hiroshima and the World: The Hiroshima View

by Martin Sherwin

Martin Sherwin
Born in New York City in 1937, Martin J. Sherwin is University Professor of History at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His most recent book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (co-authored with Kai Bird) won several prestigious prizes in 2006 including the Pulitzer Prize. In 1961, while stationed at the U.S. Naval Air Station, Iwakuni, he took the opportunity to visit Hiroshima. The experience contributed to his commitment to study the nuclear arms race. Professor Sherwin’s first book, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance, was a runner-up for the Pultizer Prize and won several other awards. He is currently writing a book on the nuclear arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Gambling With Armageddon. He earned a Ph.D. in history from UCLA in 1971 and taught at Tufts University from 1980-2007.

The Hiroshima View

It is the summer of 2009 and, once again, the world is at a nuclear crossroad. Several months ago, in Prague, President Obama advocated the eventual global abolition of nuclear weapons. Two years earlier former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, all Cold War nuclear hawks, proclaimed in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that the United States should reverse its nuclear course and promote the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

But is it realistic to expect the United States to reverse more that sixty years of support for nuclear weapons? I think it is, although the foundation for such a reversal requires a reversal of views grounded in six decades of United States policies. In effect, the “Hiroshima view” of nuclear weapons will have to replace the “Washington view.”

Since 1945 the American government has seen, valued and promoted nuclear weapons as instruments of deterrence, intimidation and power.

Since 1945 the residents of Hiroshima--and their energetic mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba--have challenged this attitude, insisting that no advantages associated with the possession of nuclear weapons can justify the terrible consequences that result from their possession and, therefore, possible use.

A curious aspect of nuclear history is that the Hiroshima view was articulated at the highest levels of the United States government months before Hiroshima became the first city to suffer the consequences of an atomic bombing, and it is that view that needs to be re-articulated today.

On April 25, 1945 Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson entered the Oval Office of the White House on a mission. He intended to educate the new President, Harry S Truman, about the consequences of the impending development of the atomic bomb. Stimson had thought deeply about the likely impact of the weapons project he had been overseeing since 1942, and by the spring of 1945 he had a clear understanding of its implications for the postwar world.

In the memorandum he wrote for his meeting with Truman--a memorandum he insisted on reading to the president--he formulated what would become a central element of the “Hiroshima view.” It begins with the observation that, “Within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history…,” and goes on to make several equally astute remarks.

One is that with the accumulation of nuclear weapons, “modern civilization might be completely destroyed.” Another is that, “if the proper use of this weapon can be solved, we would have the opportunity to bring the world into a pattern in which the peace of the world and our civilization can be saved.”

So what might have occurred if “the proper use of this weapon” had been resolved by a decision not to use it militarily? This was a realistic option, as all of Truman’s close advisors recognized. The intercepted Japanese diplomatic message traffic made it clear that, "the Emperor," as Ambassador Sato in Moscow was instructed to inform Foreign Minister Molotov on July 12, 1945, "desires from his heart that it [the war] may be quickly terminated."

If President Truman had responded to that message by clarifying that unconditional surrender assured the safety of the Emperor, it is very likely, as most historians who do research on this question believe, that Japan would have surrendered before September (as it had been trying to do since June), and, in any case, it is a virtual certainty that Japan would have surrendered soon after the Soviet Union entered the war.

The probable consequences of this scenario resonate with the present challenge of changing global attitudes from the Washington to the Hiroshima view.

As all senior administrators of the Manhattan Project feared, a congressional committee would have conducted an investigation into why the Truman administration had failed to use an extraordinarily expensive new bomb that had been ready before the end of the war.

Stimson surely would have been called to defend his recommendation. In his defense, he would have said to Congress--and the American public, and the world--what he had said to Harry Truman on April 25, 1945: "The world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would be eventually at the mercy of such a weapon. In other words, modern civilization might be completely destroyed."

It is our nation's responsibility, he would have gone on to argue, as he had argued during the war, to avoid such destruction and, "if the proper use of this weapon can be solved, we would have the opportunity to bring the world into a pattern in which the peace of the world and our civilization can be saved."

In support of his decision he might have quoted the Franck Report that was sent to him in June 1945 from the atomic scientists at the University of Chicago. "We urge that the use of nuclear bombs in this war be considered as a problem of long-range national policy rather than military expediency," they had written, arguing against dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

Stimson might have gone on to say that our nation’s fundamental moral principles would be violated if we set a precedent by using such a weapon. He would have insisted that the American people would not want their government to behave like the German government that had initiated gas warfare in WW I, or like the Japanese government that had initiated urban bombing of civilians in China. Once a precedent is set, he would have noted, its repetition follows inevitably.

Perhaps he would have borrowed some language from Under-Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard's memorandum of June 27, 1945, opposing the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. Bard raised the question of the consequences for America’s reputation citing, "The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation."

Stimson would have explained that the United States had built atomic bombs in self-defense having reason to believe that the Germans were working along the same lines. But to initiating nuclear war, when there alternatives were available, would have dragged America down to the level of our wartime enemies.

We have our own values and our own standards, he would have said, and he would have insisted that those are the standards that must guide our behavior.

These weapons not only burn and blast, but they kill by radiation. They have the characteristics of poison gas and biological weapons. Americans would not want their government to be the first to use them, Stimson would have insisted to his interrogators.

Congress and the American people surely would have agreed that President Truman had done the right thing in avoiding the use of nuclear weapons. The American press would have written editorials affirming that Americans are morally superior, as Americans have always insisted. To save the lives of American soldiers we had reluctantly accepted the Nazi-Japanese precedent of strategic bombing, but to save civilization we had resisted the temptation to use nuclear weapons. True or not, as viewed from other shores, these arguments would have carried the day in the United States.

Such a hearing would have had exactly the opposite effect that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on American and Soviet attitudes toward nuclear weapons. Rather than validating them as weapons of war, our refusal to use them would have relegated them to the category of chemical and biological weapons--weapons beyond the moral pale. The “Hiroshima view” would have prevailed without Hiroshima.

Perhaps the international control of atomic energy would have been achieved. But even if not, it is doubtful that Stalin, faced with the challenge of rebuilding a devastated nation, would have initiated a crash program to build a weapon that the United States had refused to use in war.

It is also doubtful that the U.S. would have raced toward its policy of nuclear deterrence if relations with the Soviets had not deteriorated into a Cold War. Such a reversal of policy would have been extraordinarily difficult after Stimson's testimony and the policies of marginalizing nuclear weapons that would have followed in its wake.

A principled stand against nuclear weapons at the outset of the nuclear age, by the nation that possessed a nuclear monopoly, might very well have changed world history. Now the challenge before us today is far more difficult; we have to reverse the course of our nuclear history. We can only do that by first adopting the “Hiroshima View.”

(Originally published on June 29, 2009)

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