Friday, August 6, 2010

65 years ago, Pandora's box opened

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. President Truman's decision to use a weapon of mass destruction will forever be debated -- for good reason.

Although it ended the war before an invasion of mainland Japan was necessary, and doubtless prevented thousands of American casualties, the use of nuclear weapons on civilians to end the war must forever be challenged rigorously by ordinary people, who have the most at stake in this ethical debate.

Most Americans -- and many historians -- feel the use of excessive force to end the war was justified because of Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Nearly 3,000 American lives were lost on that "day of infamy" and their sacrifice to the nation should always be honored and remembered. Americans were no longer isolationists after Pearl Harbor. It drew us all, willingly, into the war.

Nevertheless, it is hard to justify Truman's decision from the perspective of hindsight (Truman did not have the luxury of this perspective; he justified his decision as a way to bring the troops home). It is also hard to justify the decision from a moral perspective. As heinous as the attack on Pearl Harbor was, the Japanese targeted a military naval base. The victims of the attack were military personnel.

The Truman administration claimed on the day the first atomic bomb was used that Hiroshima was a military target. There was a small base with 30,000 Japanese soldiers there. But the city contained more than 300,000 civilians, so 90 percent of its total population were non-combatants. They were people like us. Yes, they had an emotional stake in whether Japan won or lost the war, but they were not actively threatening the United States. They were residents of a foreign city at war with America. They had reason to expect they would be safe from the fighting.

Other political leaders during World War II had already crossed the moral threshold of bombing cities and, therefore, civilians. Churchhill and Hitler were using incendiary cluster bombs on cities years before Hiroshima was destroyed. But those smaller bombs, designed to cause fires, could be aimed at specific military targets. They weren't always accurate -- there was nearly always the accidental loss of civilian life, what came to be known as "collateral damage." But they did not indiscriminately kill tens of thousands of innocent women and children.

There were plenty of other options to end the second World War quickly. A diplomatic option would have allowed the Japanese to keep their emperor as a figurehead leader, in the same sense the British look to their queen as a symbolic leader of the nation. Or Truman might have waited for the Russians to start the land invasion. They were rushing across China to come to help finish the Japanese on the day the bomb was dropped.

Therein lies one of the most distressing aspect of this debate: that Truman's decision to use inappropriate nuclear force wasn't really designed to end the war at all. That his intention was to "send a message to the Soviets." Such a show of force, he hoped, would help establish the United States as the preeminent world power in the post-war years and give us the upper hand in future negotiations with the Russians.

This was a fatal miscalculation that has had horrendous ramifications for the world in the last 65 years. Because the United States used nuclear force to destroy two Japanese cities, the Soviets had no choice but to try to develop their own nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. They had lived through invasions on their homeland by the armies of Napoleon and Hitler. They vowed to do all they could to prevent being held subservient to another world power.

Pandora's Box was open. There would be no way to stop nuclear proliferation or the arms race from escalating.

All humankind has a stake in stopping the production of nuclear weapons. But Americans, especially, should take stock in this day because we have more than any other nation in the world and we continue to spend billions of tax dollars in the research and development of these heinous weapons that could end human existence on our planet if they were ever used.

More than 200,000 Japanese civilians died between August 6th and August 9th in 1945 by weapons that were developed and dropped by our country. America remains the only nation that has ever used nuclear weapons. We should all work to make sure they remain a part of history, not a part of our military defense strategy.

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