In the wake of President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima last week, renewed debates over the use of atomic weapons against Japan in August 1945 have highlighted a disturbing trend: a rise in public support for US attacks on civilians across the globe. Never having withstood a prolonged bombing campaign on their soil, many people in the United States are quick to support and justify the use of bombs — including nuclear ones — on others.
Academics Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino conducted research on the US public’s attitude regarding nuclear bombing and recently publishing a summary of their findings in a Wall Street Journal story titled “Would the US Drop the Bomb Again?” From a survey of a “representative sample of 620 Americans” administered by YouGov last July, Sagan and Valentino revealed results that were “unsettling about the instincts of the US public.” Specifically, the pair reported that, “When provoked, [US citizens] don’t seem to consider the use of nuclear weapons a taboo, and our commitment to the immunity of civilians from deliberate attack in wartime, even with vast casualties, is shallow.”
Admittedly, the sample of 620 citizens can hardly be expected to reflect the sentiments of 320 million Americans. Nevertheless, the pair’s findings should not surprise anybody who has paid attention to US foreign policy since 1945. In his 2002 book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Gore Vidal points out that, according to the Federation of American Scientists, there have been 200 aggressive US military engagements since the end of WWII. This was tallied before the debacle in Iraq and the “liberation” of Libya; the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; President Obama’s plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL“; not to mention the unconstitutional drone strikes on US citizens abroad.
The Sagan and Valentino survey sets forth a fictional scenario mirroring Pearl Harbor: an Iranian attack on a US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf that killed 2,403 US sailors. Faced with this scenario, would the US public support the dropping of a nuclear weapon on an Iranian city killing 100,000 civilians?
Sagan and Valentino found that the results were “startling.” In this case, 59 percent of respondents backed “using a nuclear bomb on an Iranian city.”
The backdrop for their WSJ piece was Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. While most US media focused on whether or not Obama would apologize for the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, few considered the dangerous precedent the US set that summer. Instead, a chorus of justification echoed in the nation’s press. This persistent practice of self-deception is epitomized by columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, who recently wrote, “We do not deliberately target civilians for killing whenever we think the consequences would be beneficial.” Irresponsible statements like this ignore the bombing of civilians in Vietnam, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan and represent the sad triumph of Orwellian indoctrination over education.
To counter the public’s perennial support for bombing, Sagan and Valentino tried to offer respondents a diplomatic solution to the fictional Iranian crisis. Simulating the Truman administration’s dilemma between demanding unconditional surrender or allowing Hirohito Shōwa to maintain his imperial throne in Japan, the researchers “ran a second version of the survey that offered respondents the option of ending the war by allowing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to stay on as a spiritual figurehead with no political authority.” Still, 40 percent of respondents favored dropping the bomb and killing 100,000 civilians.
Many historians challenge the contention that the atomic bombs were necessary to end the Pacific War and save lives. Not surprisingly, most Japanese believe they were unjustified. Perhaps US citizens would agree with the Japanese if they had also experienced the terror of air power. Speaking with people who have survived bombing raids is vastly different than reading headlines about collateral damage. The popular 1980s speed metal band Anthrax put it this way: “You pushed a button / That is all you did / It is much harder to kill a man, if you’ve seen pictures of his kids.”
Whatever public relations goodwill the Obama trip was designed to inspire, the facts speak for themselves. The president has worked to limit nuclear proliferation in Iran but not in the US. His administration has recklessly provoked Russia in Ukraine and pushed the US closer to nuclear war than any time since the tense days of the Reagan administration’s revamping of nuclear diplomacy.
The reliance on drone strikes distances the US public further from the reality of air power. Since the enemies we engage do not possess an air force, and our drone pilots operate thousands of miles from the battlefield, it is likely that attitudes toward civilian bombing and nuclear destruction will not change.
There are few US citizens who have experienced what British prisoner of war Victor Gregg did in Dresden in 1945. In a BBC interview he stated:
Nothing prepared me for seeing women and children alight flying through the air. Nothing prepared me for that … after Dresden I was a nutcase. It took me 40 years to get over it.
Gregg didn’t talk about it for decades. “You can’t talk about it because nobody who hasn’t experienced it, their mind can’t, they can’t grasp it,” he said.
Sagan and Valentino’s study concludes that, “the US public is unlikely to hold back a president who might consider using nuclear weapons in the crucible of war.” These are the civilian and political minds that can’t grasp the terror that Gregg describes.
The question is, if they could, would they still support the use of nuclear weapons?