Monday, August 10, 2009

A day late but still worth mentioning


An important anniversary passed by with little fan fare. Maybe it is because the anniversary fell on the weekend. Maybe it is because our attention has been diverted by the bright shiny object of health care. Maybe it is because we as Americans just don’t “do” history. It is odd that this day managed to pass us by with little notice, that we managed to miss the sixty-forth anniversary of the Atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but somehow we managed it.

The bombs explosions and fall out are still being felt some three generations hence. The defenders of the bomb point out that it shortened the war and prevented possibly millions of Japanese and American deaths by its use. The Revisionists are not so sure. The use of the nuclear device is not as clear cut as it seems at first blush. Japan was sending peace feelers, the entry of the Russians into the Pacific theater might have been the real reason for the Japanese surrender.

Historians will never settle this particular debate. Our present concerns and fears about nuclear weapons are reverberated back in to history. Some simple facts though are inescapable. One is that we are still, sixty-four years later, the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in anger.

The other stubborn fact is that it was an Asian people, the Japanese, who were the target of that attack. Digging only a little bit deeper one finds the long and nasty history of anti-Asian bigotry that gripped the USA especially in its Western portion for nearly a hundred years. Even though Nazi Germany was the bigger and existential threat to American Democracy it was the Japanese who were interred.

Looking into the almost slap-dash way the decision was made to use Leslie Grove’s “gadget” on Japan one does have to wonder if anti-Japanese bigotry made the decision that much easier to make. The decision makers were rather cavalier to the concerns of people who spoke out against the use of the device.

In defense of those decision makers one must not overemphasize the element of racial bigotry. The same decision makers who green lighted the flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no compunction about fire-bombing Dresden or turning Berlin into a smoldering pile of rubble. The conventional fire-bombing of Tokyo was much more devastating than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

One of the odder bits of history is this salient fact: August 10, 1945 marks the last time the world was entirely free of nuclear devices. Think about that for a few minutes. The USA was not only was the only possessor of nuclear weapons but had run through its entire stockpile of those weapons after attacking Japan. One wonders what our history would look like if the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been “successful.” It was a near thing; military dead enders attempted a coup to prevent the Emperor from broadcasting his surrender message.

Since that singular day in 1945 we have lived with the presence of nuclear weapons. From the three devices that were created at Alamogordo we have seen the proliferation of devices to literally tens of thousands. From one nation having these weapons we now have six and half (Israel being the half –they have nuclear weapons but they won’t admit to having them) Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union the threat of nuclear annihilation is still very near. The US and Russia still have the overwhelming proportion of the nuclear devices. Each nation can still vaporize each other multiple times over and still have weapons left over to eliminate any other nation that it may find to be an annoyance.

It is unfortunate that the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing passed without much comment. We are spending a lot of time navel-gazing about health care reform, tea-baggers, and god help us Governor Stanford’s failed marriage. It is August and that means it is the silly season for the news. We need days like August 6th and August 9th to remind ourselves about the serious issues that involve more than our parochial obsessions. Non-proliferation and loose nukes are matters of the utmost concern too. How do we put the genie back into the bottle?

It is all well and good to talk about getting tough with Iran or North Korea but how does that further the goal of first curbing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons? Both North Korea and Iran see these weapons as a way to gain status and legitimacy—how do we disabuse them of this notion? More importantly how do we curb the real rouge nation, our so-called great ally in the war on terror, Pakistan? Both Iran’s and Iraq’s nuclear weapons program got yeoman service from A.Q. Khan’s proliferation network. Ditto for North Korea. The halting of proliferation starts in Islamabad.

Islamabad is not the only capital that needs a wake up call though. Tel Aviv needs to be more honest about how its non-possession possession is destabilizing the Middle East. Both Washington and Moscow need some nudging too. Washington is speaking out of both sides of its mouth by demonizing Iran while it develops a whole new series of “tactical nukes” that are much more destabilizing than Tehran’s efforts. Russia’s current bit of saber-rattling with nuclear subs is not making many friends either.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be constant reminders that nuclear devices are much more than toys for oversized boys. People who glibly talk about using tactical nukes need to visit both these ground zeros and the museums that commemorate the victims of the attacks before they spout off nonsense about how useful “bunker-busters” may be or what a “clean kill” they provide. The term tactical nuke should be an oxymoron; no military on earth should ever consider the use of these weapons as part of any battle plan. People who advocate the use of any nuclear device as part of tactics or strategy are not tough, they are clinically insane.

If there is a silver lining in noting the passage of another anniversary it is this: we are still only talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No other cities have joined this unhappy club. Let us hope that on August 6th and 9th of 2010 that we have continued the streak.
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