Nuclear treaty has loopholes that must be shut

US president Barack Obama bids a farewell to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe after laying a wreath in front of a cenotaph to offer prayers for victims of the atomic bombing in 1945 at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA
US president Barack Obama bids a farewell to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe after laying a wreath in front of a cenotaph to offer prayers for victims of the atomic bombing in 1945 at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA

Just as Hiroshima has become the symbol of the horrors of nuclear war and the importance of peace, the visit of the first sitting US president to that city was laden with symbolism, including about the ironies of human action. During his visit, Barack Obama called for “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening”. But can there be a moral awakening when most nuclear-armed states are upgrading their nuclear arsenals?

Mr Obama has highlighted the gap between rhetoric and reality. In Hiroshima, he said that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them”. But at home, he has quietly pursued an expansion of the US nuclear arsenal.

Almost 71 years after the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and more than a generation after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons still underpin the security policies of the most powerful states.

Seen from a historical perspective, two key questions remain unanswered: why did the US carry out the twin atomic attacks when Japan appeared to be on the verge of unconditionally surrendering? And why was the second bomb dropped just three days after the first, before Japan had time to fully grasp the strategic implications of the original nuclear attack? Months before the bombings, the defeat of Japan was a foregone conclusion. Japan’s navy and air force had been destroyed and its economy devastated and relentless firebombing raids on Japanese cities.

In the days before the bombings, the only question facing Japan was when to surrender under the terms of the July 26 Potsdam Declaration. The signals the Japanese were sending that they were prepared to surrender were missed or ignored by America. The surrender was eventually announced on August 15 after US assurances on the emperor’s continued role – assurances that were not provided earlier to end the war without dropping a nuclear bomb.

After Hiroshima was nuked on August 6, Russia took advantage of the situation by attacking Japan on August 8, although the official declaration of war came a day later. Hours after news of Russia’s invasion of Sakhalin Island reached Tokyo, the Supreme War Guidance Council met to discuss Japan’s unconditional surrender. The nuclear bomb on Nagasaki was dropped as Soviet forces were overwhelming Japanese positions in Manchuria and Japan appeared set to surrender to the Allied powers.

In truth, Nagasaki’s nuclear incineration had no military imperative. If there was any rationale, it was technical or strategic in nature – to demonstrate the power of the world’s first plutonium bomb.

The bomb that reduced Hiroshima to ashes was an untested uranium bomb, code-named “Little Boy”. By contrast, the bomb used in the Nagasaki attack was an implosion-type plutonium weapon. Code-named “Fat Boy”, it had been secretly tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, a development that paved the way for the Potsdam ultimatum to Japan.

Indeed, US president Harry Truman delayed his Potsdam meeting with Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin until after the testing of the new weapon. Truman wanted the power of the new weapon to end the war in the Pacific. Anxious not to let the Soviet Union gain a major foothold in the Asia-Pacific, he sought to persuade Stalin at Potsdam to delay the Soviet invasion of Japan so that Moscow did not get the credit for forcing Japanese surrender.

The geopolitical logic of the nuclear bombings was to establish US primacy in the postwar global order.

More fundamentally, the use of a technological discovery to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made possible by a widely prevalent political and military culture at that time that regarded civilian massacres as a legitimate tool of warfare. All sides engaged in mass killings in the Second World War, in which nearly 60 million people died.

History is written by the victors, and the vanquishers are rarely burdened by the guilt of their actions. Still, Hiroshima and Nagasaki will remain a burden on the American conscience – Hiroshima because it was the world’s first atomic bombing, setting a precedent, and Nagasaki because it was a wanton act.

Nuclear weapons remain the toxic fruit of a technology that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Second World War reached its savage end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only to spawn the dawn of a dangerous nuclear age. And the last strike of the world war, Nagasaki, became the opening shot of a new Cold War.

Nuclear-deterrence strategies still rely on targeting civilian and industrial centres. In fact, a wary US, a rising China and a declining Russia are developing a new generation of more effective nukes that threaten to increase nuclear-use risks.

Ominously, the world today has a treaty that bans all nuclear testing but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but remain legally unfettered to test the weapon by dropping it over some other state. The option of “doing a Hiroshima” on an adversary with an untested weapon must be foreclosed.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War

Published: June 6, 2016 04:00 AM


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