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Remembering the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Perilous Times

The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki paid the price not for Japanese aggression but for US imperial ambitions.

Japanese school children visit the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 8, 2017.

The consensus among US historians is that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — in addition to being moral abominations against civilians — were also opposed by senior military leaders, including General (later President) Eisenhower, who did not see them as politically necessary.

While making no excuses for Japanese militarism and imperial aggressions, we should remember that in the months prior to the US’s atomic bombings, the Japanese government attempted to surrender on terms the US ultimately accepted after the atomic bombings: unconditional surrender with the exception of the emperor remaining on his throne. According to my own research for my book, most senior US military leaders thought that the bombings were unnecessary and wrong.

Craven domestic political calculations, racism and bureaucratic momentum contributed to former President Harry Truman’s decision to usher in the nuclear age with the annihilation of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but as General Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, remarked in 1943, the atomic bomb project was no longer about Germany or Japan. It was about Russia. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized, incinerated, poisoned and traumatized to ensure that the US would not have to share influence with the Soviet Union in Northern China, Manchuria and Korea. Further, Truman thought that the atomic bomb gave him “a hammer” with which he could dominate the Kremlin with the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Despite the Hibakusha’s fundamental truth that human beings and nuclear weapons cannot coexist, the illusion that nuclear weapons have worked and can serve as the ultimate enforcer of empire, compounded by lies and mistaken beliefs about nuclear deterrence, have repeatedly brought us to the brink of nuclear omnicide and have driven nuclear weapons proliferation. In Helsinki, Finland, Russian President Vladimir Putin again illuminated the madness and injustice of nuclear apartheid. “As major nuclear powers,” he said, “we bear special responsibility for maintaining international security.” He and Trump believe that their nuclear arsenals give them the right to intimidate and dictate how the world’s nations and peoples live and possibly die.

A Perilous Time

We live in a perilous time of rising great power tensions, the ascendency of right-wing autocracies, uncertainties, and renewed nuclear and high-tech arms races. This is compounded by the reality that there are no longer any givens in US foreign and military policies or to the future of liberal democracy in the US.

Following Trump’s secretive summit with Putin and the political and media circus that followed, Trump was confronted by his most senior staff who insisted that he deny or reverse a number of statements and commitments he had made in Helsinki — from possible Russian interrogation of the former US ambassador to Moscow to his support for a referendum in Eastern Ukraine. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are at odds on the Korea negotiations. Moreover, the Pentagon is reeling from Trump’s unexpected and whimsical orders, musings about reductions of troops in Germany, his order to organize a costly Kremlin-like military parade on Armistice Day and his announcement of the creation of a new space command.

Independent of Trump, though, the gears of empire grind on. The Pentagon budget has been increased by an amount equal to Russia’s total military budget. Despite Trump’s embrace of Putin, the Pentagon’s new National Strategy prioritizes preparations for great power war against China or Russia — the two countries military leaders believe threaten “American power, influence and interests.”

This explains the $1.2 trillion spending plan for the new generation of US offensive nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and Trump’s new “Space Command” to dominate Earth from space. As we saw in Trump’s theatrical summitry with Kim Jong Un and with his trade war tariffs and denunciation of the European Union, in Trump’s “America First” empire, the only good allies are those who know their proper place as vassals.

More than his predecessors, Trump embraces dictators and authoritarian rulers from Putin and the Saudi Kingdom, to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary and President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. While he describes his 391-word vague agreement with Kim Jong Un as a “good deal,” he calls the fully implemented P5+1 deal with Iran a “bad deal” and has violated it.

We’re now told that there is no reason to rush to complete North Korean denuclearization, while the unspoken commitment to regime change in Iran to restore US regional and global US hegemony is an urgent priority.

Two Minutes to Midnight

All of this is deeply related to continuing US preparations for omnicidal nuclear war. This past winter, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sent the world a warning by moving the hands of their Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight. This is the closest to apocalyptic nuclear war since 1953 and worse than during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Why the warning? They cited the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), decrying increased US reliance on nuclear weapons; its staggering investments in new nuclear weapons that are driving “modernization” of the world’s other nuclear arsenals; the return to Cold War rhetoric; and the total absence of US-Russian arms control negotiations. They warned about the dangerous lack of coherent US foreign and military policies that undermine global security, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, South Asian rivalries, Trump’s threat to the nuclear deal with Iran, and climate change.

The NPR follows on the Pentagon’s new National Strategy that prioritizes preparations for a great power war and includes a more aggressive US first-strike nuclear war-fighting doctrine. It builds on former President Obama’s commitments to deploy new and more usable B-61 nuclear weapons to Europe. The Navy’s sea-launched ballistic missiles will be armed with still more devastating first-strike W-76-1 warheads. Further, the mandate to replace the entire nuclear triad remains in place, including replacing older missiles with new sea-launched cruise missiles and Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles armed with Hiroshima-like atomic bombs. To compensate for China’s increasing area denial capabilities in the western Pacific, there is to be standoff, air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missiles that can be fired against the Chinese military and civilians from thousands of miles away.

Perhaps the most dangerous element of Trump’s $1.2 trillion NPR is its blurring of the distinction between conventional and nuclear war and the increased role for nuclear weapons in US war-fighting strategies. The initial leaked version of the NPR mandated first-strike attacks in response to devastating cyberattacks, as well as to chemical or biological weapons attacks.

Even before Trump’s NPR, renowned whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg pointed to continuities in US nuclear doctrine: Thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. The US retains its first-strike policy. So-called “extended deterrence” in Europe and East Asia relies on first use. US doctrine calls for “launch on warning.” US policies have “always precluded an effective nonproliferation campaign,” according to Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Further still, the president is not the only person who can launch the country’s nuclear weapons.

The US is not the only culprit. All of the other nuclear-armed states are upgrading their arsenals. There is increasing debate in right-wing German circles about the creation of a German or European bomb. Iran will unleash its cyclotrons if the P5+1 deal collapses. Saudi Arabia is putting its nuclear infrastructure in place. Lastly, the Turkish Labor Party reports that President Erdoğan wants a nuclear weapon.

Singapore: After Fire and Fury

We should appreciate South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s inspired Olympic diplomacy and that the Singapore summit prevented – at least for the time being – a catastrophic war by walking Trump back from his incendiary fire and fury nuclear threats. The summit also made it possible for Seoul and Pyongyang to proceed in “determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord.”

As we think about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the threat it poses to Japan, South Korea and other countries, we need to recognize that it reflects fear. Even as we criticize Pyongyang’s hideous human rights record, we need to acknowledge that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons grew from the trauma of Japanese conquest and colonialism, the devastating Korean War, US and South Korean regime change commitments, repeated US preparations and threats of first-strike nuclear attacks, and the failures of US diplomacy. Add to this the Clinton and Bush I’s failures to implement the 1994 Agreed Framework, Bush II’s vetoing Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine policy and rejection of the comprehensive agreement negotiated by former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, and the Obama administration’s “benign neglect.” As Perry and the renowned historian Bruce Cumings explain, the purposes of North Korea’s nuclear program are to preserve the Kim dynasty and the country’s independence.

Today, current diplomacy is fraught. Bolton insists complete North Korean denuclearization needs to take place within a year while Pompeo says meaningful progress must be made within two years, and Trump says he is in no hurry. Kim Jong Un has denounced Pompeo’s “gangster” demands for serious denuclearization steps before the US relaxes sanctions and is now demanding a US commitment to replacing the Armistice with a peace treaty before he makes serious concessions. Furthermore, contrary to US expectations of immediate gratification, Siegfried S. Hecker, former head of Los Alamos and the US physicist with the greatest exposure to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) nuclear infrastructure, has argued that given the size of the country’s infrastructure, its complete destruction could take 15 years.

While some doubt the seriousness of Kim Jong Un’s denuclearization commitments, Joel Wit, who has played a leading role in US negotiations with the DPRK since 1993, reports that, “Everyone underestimates the momentum behind what North Korea is doing. It’s not a charm offensive or a tactical trick.” In 2013, when Obama didn’t have a potential negotiating partner in South Korea, DPRK diplomats informed the US that they would give up nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to the United States’s hostile approach. They said their buildup would be of “limited duration” until better relations with US were possible. They envisioned three stages in response to the US removing the nuclear threat and ending sanctions: a freeze on nuclear weapons development, disabling key facilities and nuclear weapons, and mutual diplomatic recognition.

The US Movement

I wish that I could say we have a massive US movement committed to our government fulfilling Article VI of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitment, and to signing and ratifying the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But in response to Trump’s “fire and fury” threats, his nuclear weapons upgrade, and the growing dangers of great wars, there is, in fact, greater attention to, and more actions devoted to, reversing the nuclear dangers.

For example, 80 members of Congress have co-sponsored legislation to remove the president’s ability to launch a first-strike nuclear war on his own authority, and Congressman Ro Khanna has introduced “No Preemptive War Against Iran” legislation. One of the country’s most popular television programs ran a chilling episode about the danger of nuclear war resulting from miscalculation.

Fears about Trump and the bomb are such that a coalition of antiwar groups held a no-first-strike conference at Harvard University with the surreal spectacle of me, a Vietnam-era draft resister, chairing a panel featuring the former high priest of US nuclearism, Perry; the former missileer Bruce Blair; and Zia Mian of Princeton University.

In Massachusetts, the coalition has been briefing congressional primary candidates, and a state legislator running for Congress introduced a no-first-use bill. We also have a campaign of both legal and civil disobedience actions challenging the nuclear weapons upgrade at the Hanscom Air Force Base near Boston.

In the coming months the coalition will be working to ensure that the nuclear agreement with Iran survives Trump and Bolton, as well as doing our best to prevent a regime-change war. While working to oust Trump and his corrupt coterie, nuclear disarmament advocates will support diplomacy to extend the New START Treaty and the survival of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; work for deeper cuts in the great powers’ arsenals, and find ways to encourage our partners in the nuclear umbrella states to break ranks with their masters by signing and ratifying the No Test Ban Treaty.

Finally, with democratic culture and institutions in peril, with people of color and immigrants most vulnerable, and with Trump’s economic assaults on the 99 percent, we know that we must shatter our self-isolating movement silos.

Moreover, the reality is that root causes of potential nuclear annihilation and of the assaults on the environment, including racist cultures of domination and injustice, are deeply interrelated. Intersectional movement building is thus a priority for the coalition, including opposing funding for new nuclear weapons as well as opposing Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant ethnic cleansing.

It means insisting that our elected leaders oppose Trumpian austerity and demand that money be redirected to pay for food stamps, for education and for infrastructure investments, and not for empire and its ultimate enforcers – nuclear weapons.

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