There are still approximately 16,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine countries today, with more than 90 percent of these in the possession of the United States and Russia. Some 1,800 nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within moments of an order to do so. Most of these weapons are many times more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
On the 70th anniversary of the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is past time for the United States to change course. Rather than pursue current plans to spend $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal, the United States should lead the world in negotiations to achieve the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. This would make the world safer.
A History We Must Not Forget
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On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing some 90,000 people immediately and another 55,000 by the end of 1945. Three days later, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing some 40,000 people immediately and another 35,000 by the end of 1945.
In between these two bombings, on August 8, 1945, the United States signed the charter creating the Nuremberg tribunal to hold Axis leaders to account for crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Under well-established international humanitarian law – the law of warfare – war crimes include using weapons that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants or that cause unnecessary suffering. Because nuclear weapons kill indiscriminately and cause unnecessary suffering by radiation poisoning (among other grotesque consequences), the United States was itself in the act of committing war crimes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki while agreeing to hold its defeated opponents in World War II to account for their war crimes.
Those who doubt this conclusion should consider this hypothetical situation: During World War II, Germany creates two atomic bombs and uses them on British cities, killing tens of thousands of civilians. Under such circumstances, can you imagine the Nazi leaders who ordered these attacks not being held accountable at Nuremberg for these bombings of civilian targets?
The United States has always publicly justified its use of atomic weapons against Japan on the grounds that they ended the war sooner and saved US lives, but did they? Many key US military leaders at the time didn’t think so, including Admiral William Leahy and General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Leahy, President Truman’s chief of staff and the top US official presiding over meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his 1950 memoir based on his contemporaneous notes and diaries, “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender….” He went on, “In being the first to use it, we … adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
General Eisenhower reported in his memoir a discussion with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, during which he was told of plans to use the atomic bombs on Japan. Eisenhower wrote, “During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him [Stimson] my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives….”
In the decades that followed the atomic bombings in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an insane nuclear arms race, reaching some 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world by the mid-1980s. Despite many accidents, miscalculations and international crises, nuclear weapons have not been used again in warfare.
Now Is the Time for Change
Nuclear weapons do not make the United States or the world more secure. On the contrary, they threaten civilization and the human species. Fortunately, steps may be taken to eliminate this threat.
The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty obligates its parties, including the United States, to engage in negotiations in good faith for a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and for nuclear disarmament. In a 1996 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice interpreted this obligation as follows: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”
Because these negotiations have yet to take place, one small and courageous country, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, has brought lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries at the International Court of Justice and in US federal court, seeking court orders for these countries to fulfill their obligations under international law.
The United States should mark the 70th anniversary of the suffering it caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by publicly acknowledging the criminal nature of these weapons. Doing so is the one true way to show respect for the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of whom have worked tirelessly to assure that their past does not become someone else’s future.