US needs to talk about its nuclear intentions
‘I will never apologise for the United States – ever! I don’t care what the facts are.” Those words weren’t in some Donald Trump campaign speech, they were spoken by the then vice president George H W Bush in 1988 after the US Navy shot down an Iranian commercial airliner on a routine flight.
Apologising for any act of war is anathema in the nationalist narrative of US domestic politics, in which the assumption of American virtue is absolute.
So the White House took special care when announcing Barack Obama’s May 27 visit to Hiroshima to say that the US president won’t apologise for the August 1945 attack on the city that killed at least 80,000 civilians instantly and up to 100,000 more afterwards.
America’s conversation about Hiroshima and Nagasaki has long evaded uncomfortable moral and legal aspects of the decision to target civilian population centres. Many have suggested such a decision might be tantamount to a war crime.
Leo Szilard, one of the scientists who developed the bomb, questioned what would have happened had Germany developed two nuclear weapons and dropped them on American cities before being overrun by the Red Army in 1945: “Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atom bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?”
Former US defence secretary Robert McNamara recalls air force commander Gen Curtis LeMay, who delivered president Harry Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb, saying: “If we’d lost the war, we’d have been prosecuted as war criminals.”
Truman’s radio speech announcing the bombing seemed cognisant of the potential for reproach: “The world will note,” he said, “that the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.”
That statement rings hollow, of course, because Hiroshima was no more a military base than any American city that housed munitions factories and an army base. In explaining the decision, Truman offered a narrative that started with the US in a race against Germany to develop nuclear weapons, winning that race only after Germany’s defeat.
Then, “having found the bomb we have used it ... We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor,” he said, “against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretence of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it to shorten the agony of war, to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
The motives here combine revenge for Japanese abuses – and, perhaps, a tacit sense of acting outside “the international laws of warfare” – with the argument that it was necessary to do so to save the lives of American soldiers. Again, it’s not clear how the laws of war would treat deliberately targeting civilians to save soldiers.
Truman later said that invading Japan would have killed half a million Americans and as many or more Japanese soldiers and civilians. Despite historians questioning those claims, not to mention wider questions about the laws of war, his argument has become America’s Hiroshima conventional wisdom – despite opposition by a number of top US commanders at the time to using nuclear weapons, because they believed Japan was beaten and that a ground invasion wouldn’t be necessary, but also because it might violate the laws of war.
Truman invoked religious themes in describing America’s nuclear primacy: “We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
In the 71 years since Hiroshima, there has been too little public discussion in the US about the morality – and legality – of targeting civilians to force their rulers to end a conflict. When Washington’s Smithsonian Museum in 1995 sought to stage an exhibit that would have showed the effect of the bomb on the city of Hiroshima and its residents, Republican legislators led a successful campaign to shut down the “un-American” exhibit.
Nor was it only Republicans who objected: the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Smithsonian plan, declaring that the bombing of Hiroshima had helped “bring the war to a merciful end”, thereby “saving the lives of Americans and Japanese”.
Still, Obama’s visit suggests time may be loosening the nationalist grip on the narrative. Last year, a Pew survey found that 56 per cent of Americans believe using nuclear weapons on Japanese cities was justified, while 79 per cent of Japanese respondents felt the opposite. But more significant, perhaps, one in three Americans now agreed with the Japanese majority, and less than half of Americans younger than 29 believe the decision was justified.
That’s encouraging because America’s national conversation about the use of nuclear weapons remains woefully inadequate. Consider, The Washington Post recently mocked Donald Trump for declining to answer its editors’ question on whether he’d be willing to use nuclear weapons against ISIL — apparently unconcerned by the insanity of suggesting nuclear weapons should be considered for use in Syria or Iraq. Hillary Clinton, likewise, rebuked Mr Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 for declaring that nuclear weapons were not an option against Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Mr Obama is going to Hiroshima, in the words of his adviser Ben Rhodes, to “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.
A great symbolic gesture but it might have more credibility if Obama hadn’t last year committed to spending $348 billion [Dh1.3tn] to modernise the nuclear fleet. If nuclear weapons aren’t going anywhere, America urgently needs a more open and honest conversation about the circumstances under which it might consider using them again.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York
Updated: May 16, 2016 04:00 AM