You may hear a lot this week that the bombing of Hiroshima was a turning point for humanity – the most important historic event of the 20th century, ushering in the nuclear age. From that moment on, 70 years ago, humans had to come to terms with the fact that we could cause our own devastation along with the majority of large species inhabiting this planet. The horrors of destruction wrought by the two nuclear weapons on Japan were immediately obvious as images spread around the world, though the longer-term radiation impacts took some months to emerge. The more recent surge in global interest in the devastating humanitarian impacts were nuclear weapons ever to be used reflects the frustration that despite the end of the Cold War several states, including our own, continue to actively threaten nuclear use. And the reason we do is simple. We believe them to be useful. And that belief is widely assumed, even by many of those campaigning for their eradication.
You are also likely to hear that the two nuclear weapons in 1945 forced the Japanese to surrender and thus saved the lives of countless American servicemen who had already been fighting vicious conflicts across the western Pacific islands. This belief has formed a powerful basis for the bigger and more pervasive belief in nuclear deterrence that has gripped global political and military strategists ever since. Trouble is, this belief at best is only a partial picture, and in actual fact the bombing may have had little impact on the Japanese decision. And if this were the case, it draws into question the faith we have in the power of nuclear threat and therefore in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence.
In recent years several historians, most notably Tsuyoshi Hasegawa of the University of Carolina, have been building evidence for a different set of explanations for the Japanese sudden change of heart on 9th August 1945. BASIC’s Ward Wilson, in his recent book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, points to recent historical assessments to explain the Japanese surrender that call into question the line that power of the bomb. He describes how records from meetings of the Japanese Supreme War Council on the morning of 9th August back up the idea that it was Stalin’s declaration of war on the night of 8th August that had far more impact, as it brought 1.5 million battle-hardened Soviets mobilising to the north of Japan into the conflict, and tipped whatever military balance there was. The Japanese had been continuing the fight with the Americans longer than seemed rational because they had hoped that the Soviets would mediate an acceptable end to the war that would ensure the Emperor remained on the throne, and had been communicating with Moscow in early August just such a plan. But when the Soviets entered the war themselves on 8th August, such hopes vanished, and there was no future for the Imperial state – the Supreme War Council began discussing terms for surrender at that meeting on 9th August before they knew about the second bombing.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier had already communicated that truth – and that Nagasaki that morning would re-enforce the message that the Americans were clearly intent on constructing and delivering many more bombs. But the Japanese had already endured attacks of similar proportion against other cities. Neither of the nuclear explosions led to a step-change in the scale of devastation that they had already experienced in previous firebombing earlier in the year. And there is little evidence that the Japanese leadership was strongly affected by the events on 6th August.
It is often easier to understand these type of dynamics when one reverses the application. Did the bombing of cities like Coventry and London earlier in the war, or indeed the 11th September attacks over half a century later encourage leaders to consider surrender? Bombing cities does not have the military impact that one might usually assume because in times of war, these experiences can simply reinforce the importance of winning and exacting revenge.
In this instance it may well be true that the devastation of Hiroshima will have injected some urgency, but to believe it was decisive is to ignore the evidence.
Myths are not necessarily lies or untruths, but they are stories and narratives that help us make sense of a complex world. They can communicate profound truths, form the basis of all our culture, or assist in resisting the challenges of modernity. Even modernity itself is built upon myth, and it is an essential imperative of all those interested in truth to approach the theories that guide our exploration with scepticism, knowing that they are simply models that will all eventually be surpassed by other myths that will fit the emerging evidence with more potency. If we hang onto theories against the evidence because we are attached to them then the dissonance grows and they become dangerous.
If the Japanese did not surrender because they suffered two nuclear detonations, where does that leave our belief in the utility of nuclear weapons more generally? It is already widely recognised that nuclear weapons have no impact on any but the most extreme threats where the existence of the state is in question; their only use is in deterring nuclear attack or overwhelming invasion. The problem put simply is that for nuclear deterrence to be effective an adversary has to believe that you might seriously consider using those weapons in spite (or because) of the level of inhuman horror they can unleash against civilians. They are in a way the ultimate weapon of terror and mass destruction, and are anathema to recent evolution in warfare (precision-guided, minimal collaborate damage and focus on winning hearts and minds). The nuclear threat is called into doubt. This in turn deepens the danger of miscalculation or bluff.
We have lived with nuclear weapons for 70 years. Though there have been 2000 nuclear tests with dire consequences for health and the environment, we have been extraordinarily lucky not to have witnessed a detonation against cities or in war, and we can give thanks for that on this anniversary. But the danger has not passed, and indeed in the last year has risen. It will only be when we realise that these weapons do not have the utility we ascribe to them that we can escape the terrifying trap we have created for ourselves in believing the myths that have driven the arms race and ensured its longevity way after the end of the Cold War.