Ethics & Public Policy Center

Stop Demonizing the Bomb

Published in American Legion Magazine on March 1, 2002


It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb.

—Harry S Truman, July 25, 1945

Recently a certain professor Peter Kreeft placed the atom bombing of Hiroshima in the same moral pod with “Auschwitz, Bataan, the Gulag, the Ukraine, Rwanda, the ‘killing fields’ of Pot Pol’s Cambodia, and Mao’s Great Leap Forward.” This is outrageous.

Every humane person condemns Hitler, Stalin, imperial Japan, and Pot Pol for killing millions of innocent human beings. But the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, while tragic, is in a totally different category.

Together with Nagasaki, the atom bomb may have killed as many as 150,000 Japanese, civilian and military, but it also brought to an end one of the most brutal wars in history. It probably saved more than a million lives, mainly Japanese, that would have been lost if our troops had been forced to invade a highly fortified and fanatically defended Japan.

The war’s abrupt end spared the lives of some 400,000 POWs and civilian detainees in Japanese hands, all of whom were scheduled for execution in the event of an invasion. It also saved tens of thousands of Japanese civilians (including old men and children) who would have died while defending their homeland with sharpened bamboo sticks.

And why is Hiroshima demonized when the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo was not? Five months before Hiroshima, on March 9, 1945, three hundred B-29s firebombed Tokyo, killed over 85,000 Japanese in one night. The Tokyo raid plus the American bombing of other Japanese cities before Hiroshima had produced approximately 500,000 victims. What is the moral distinction between killing people by an atomic blast or by a rain of fire bombs?

Hiroshima was a tragedy, but it was also a necessary and prudent act in an eminently just cause. Measured by lives saved, it could be called an act of mercy. We Americans can regret the wrenching necessity for the atom bombing, but we should not feel guilty or apologize for it.

Even taking into account the radiation sickness and genetic damage of an atomic attack, a moral calculus must assess all the consequences for good and evil. Would not the saving of a million lives outweigh the radiation damage to a few thousand? Oppenheimer’s Opposition

The demonizing of new and more lethal weapon has a long history. When gunpowder was invented in the thirteenth century, critics called it satanic, some pointing to its sulfuric odor to underscore their point. In the 1860s when Swedish physicist Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, he felt so guilty about its use in war that he established the Nobel Prize for Peace to atone for his sins.

Cursing the atomic bomb began in 1945 with physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who played a leading role in developing it. After witnessing the first atomic blast in New Mexico, he quoted the Hindu The Living Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” His sense of guilt fed his ambiguity about the atom bomb and later his outright opposition to the American H-bomb. Though he loathed the bomb, Oppenheimer exulted: “From a technical point of view it was sweet and lovely.” His repugnance didn’t deter him from passing atomic secrets to Soviet agents. His security clearances were later withdrawn.

Other American physicists were also afflicted by nuclear pacifism and apocalyptic foreboding. Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born scientist, who with Albert Einstein had advocated development of the atomic bomb, urged President Harry Truman on “purely moral grounds” not to use it against Japan. But Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson, like most presidential advisors, urged Truman to use the bomb—originally intended for Germany—against Japan as soon as possible. In his dairy on July 25, 1945, Truman said simply: “The most terrible bomb in history…can be made useful.”

Despite later arguments by Gar Alperovitz (Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, 1976) and other revisionists who label Hiroshima an American atrocity, most Americans then and now believe that Truman did the right thing for the right reasons—to end the brutal Pacific war and avoid a bloody invasion. Mainline historians concurred.

When Truman decided to build the H-bomb, 75 percent of the American people supported him, but his decision infuriated nuclear pacifists and other liberal-left voices. Hollywood got into the act by producing “serious” films, such as On the Beach and The Day After, and humorous offerings, such as Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Both films implied that the bomb could end human life on the planet. Dr. Strangelove also made light of the U.S. “military-industrial complex” while conveniently overlooking the Soviet and military-industrial-political complex. The Freeze Debate

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, bomb demonizers advocated détente with the Soviet Union and a nuclear freeze on both sides. They held that nuclear weapons had introduced a radically new and evil force in history. They were half right. The force is new, but it is not evil. Nuclear arms, like tanks and fighter aircraft—like all technology—are morally and politically neutral. They can be used to liberate or enslave, to perpetrate aggression or to deter it. And like fire, nuclear energy will be with us until the end of time.

Damning nuclear weapons is much like damning war itself. The failure to distinguish between just wars and wars of aggression is the basic moral flaw of the political pacifist. This crucial moral distinction was absent from Erich Maria Remarque’s powerful anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which fed the pacifism and cynicism of the inter-war period.

Perhaps the most absurd apocalyptic vision was Jonathan Schell’s in The Fate of the Earth (1982). Asserting that atomic bombs threatened “planetary doom,” he called for a new man, a new politics, and the abolition of the state itself. “The task is nothing less than to reinvent politics: to reinvent the world.” As a first step, he advocated a 50 percent cut in the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, ignoring Moscow’s massive conventional superiority in Europe.

By 1980 Moscow had gained strategic parity with Washington and had deployed 315 medium-range SS-20 nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe capable of devastating every major city from Oslo to Istanbul. NATO didn’t have a single comparable missile to counter the SS-20s. At this inauspicious moment, the Soviet-sponsored nuclear freeze offensive—spurred by visions of détente, if not a warless world—gained momentum in America and Western Europe.

Advocates of détente—focusing on numbers of weapons rather than on Soviet behavior—demanded a bilateral freeze on nuclear arms, including medium-range missiles. Senator Edward Kennedy called for a vague “global freeze” to end the “mad arms race.” The National Council of Churches condemned the “strange insanity” of the superpowers, and an American Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter virtually urged unilateral disarmament. Other freeze advocates included astronomer Carl Sagan, Helen Caldicott who became an anti-nuclear activist after seeing On the Beach, and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

If their advice had become policy, Soviet superiority in key weapons categories would have been legitimized by a Moscow-Washington treaty. All of which led the London Economist to comment: “A worldwide freeze on nuclear weapons, popular among left-wing American Democrats, is the undefinable in pursuit of the inequitable.” Balance of Terror

Fortunately, all American presidents from Hiroshima until the fall of the Berlin Wall understood the essential moral and politically neutrality of arms. They also knew that “peace through strength” was more than a slogan. Yet throughout the Cold War, each president’s national security decisions were made more difficult by the confusion spawned by nuclear pacifists in the West who demonized the weapon and by nuclear apocalyptics who predicted Armageddon. Public discourse was further clouded by advocates of détente with the Soviet Union who blamed the superpower conflict mainly on Washington. This sorry record holds lessons for today.

For fifty years the bomb demonizers and other critics of a strong Ameri can nuclear arsenal have overlooked the obvious realities of the nuclear era. Despite their doomsday foreboding, the atom bomb has not unleashed Armageddon, or even ignited a conventional war. On the contrary, nuclear weapons have been forged into instruments of peace. I emphasize instruments because weapons are not actors in the global drama, but tools to be used or misused by fallible human beings.

Used responsibly, nuclear arms brought to an abrupt end the horrendous Pacific War. Equally significant, they helped make possible a half century of great-power peace, an achievement unmatched in modern times, perhaps in history. Paradoxically, peace was bought at the risk of nuclear war. As Churchill predicted: “Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”

Ironically, the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis highlighted not the alleged evil or provocative nature of nuclear weapons, but rather their stabilizing impact. This most dangerous “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation demonstrated the virtue of restraint and reinforced the tendency of the Cold War adversaries to rely on less lethal means for resolving conflict. Many Americans had feared Armageddon, but President John Kennedy’s security adviser McGeorge Bundy estimated that risk at about one to a hundred. Reagan’s Bold Decision

Prudent nuclear policies also helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fed up with Jimmy Carter’s last-minute recognition of our nuclear vulnerability, and his failure to rescue our hostages in Teheran, the American people swept Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980. Soviet leaders scornfully dubbed him a “nuclear cowboy,” but they were dead wrong. Years before he came to Washington, Reagan had likened nuclear war to the biblical Apocalypse, but he was convinced that the best way to avoid catastrophe was to build a convincing American arsenal to deter an expansionist Soviet Union.

In September 1983, in the face of intense opposition in Europe and America, Reagan sent Pershing II missiles to Europe to counter the Soviet SS-20s. Thousands of freeze advocates demonstrated against him in London, Paris, and Rome. But the president’s courage—stoutly backed by Helmut Schmidt and Margaret Thatcher—caused the frenzied freeze campaign to fizzle. Schell and other critics, apparently more worried by the not-yet-deployed Pershing IIs than by Soviet missiles already aimed at NATO targets, were stunned.

Then the big surprise. With the Pershing IIs now in Europe, Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 agreed to eliminate all medium-range missiles. Both sides promptly jettisoned this highly destabalizing system with its short warning time. Eliminating these weapons was by far the most significant strategic arms reduction in the thirty-five-year nuclear standoff. This singular accomplishment came about not through years of formal negotiation with Moscow or talks at the United Nations. It resulted from Reagan’s unambiguous deployment of the Pershing IIs and thus demonstrated that governments negotiate more effectively by prudent unilateral action than by words.

Reagan built up nuclear arms in order to build down—and he succeeded. Feasibility questions aside, his much-maligned Strategic Defense Initiative also had a crucial impact. In 1992, Vladimir Lukhin, Russia’s ambassador in Washington, said, “SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.” Solzhenitsyn concurred: “The Cold War was essentially won by Ronald Reagan when he embarked on the ‘Star Wars’ program.”

Reagan had the courage to move beyond containment to direct confrontation, a course that earlier presidents had rejected as too risky. His action and his words—“Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall!”—combined with a wrenching internal Russian crisis led to the Soviet Empire’s collapse. Reagan’s 1981 prophesy was fulfilled: “The West will not only contain communism, it will transcend communism.” Lessons For Today

Unfortunately some Americans have not grasped the lessons of nuclear deterrence we learned during the Cold War. Dozens of pressure groups still work diligently to abolish the bomb or to curtail its influence through unenforceable international agreements. They draw support from isolationist and neo-Wilsonian sentiment and feed on the liberal-left’s charges of American perfidy abroad.

One such group is the Center for Defense Information, founded by retired Admiral Gene LaRocque and staffed by former military officers. Its radical critique of U.S. defense policies is aimed at Capitol Hill. The center has accused Washington of “militarizing” outer space and has opposed virtually all nuclear-related weapons systems, including ICBMs, the M-X missile, stealth bomber, and President George W. Bush’s National Defense Shield. Center publications assert that military spending harms the American economy and that our “bloated” military forces are a response to “phantom” threats. The center says the United Nations should take the lead in “policing world trouble spots.” If its advice were adopted, our national security would be seriously jeopardized and the United States would be stripped of its preeminent role in world affairs.

To exercise our inescapable responsibility for maintaining peace among the great powers, America must have a powerful, ready, and flexible military establishment, including a strategic nuclear deterrent, a National Defense Shield, and a defense against missiles from rogue regimes.

Our chief responsibility is to deter threats to the peace from a nuclear-armed Russia and China. To deal with a politically unstable Russia with its approximately 20.000 nuclear warheads, we must maintain our strong NATO ties and help Moscow to tighten its safeguards over its missile forces. At the same time, we should support President Bush’s offer to reduce the nuclear arsenal on both sides—each retaining a sufficient number of missiles to deter a first strike by the other.

As for China, perhaps the most troublesome nuclear power, we must seek ways to deter its expansionist ambitions. This means maintaining strong military ties with Japan, including our nuclear umbrella, and protecting Taiwan from being taken over by Beijing by force.

We also need strong, mobile U.S. military forces capable of deterring or throwing back regional threats to peace, such as those posed by Iraq and North Korea.

Despite the bomb demonizers and the latter day Wilsonians with their overconfidence in international treaties, I believe we can muster the moral courage and military capacity to restore the nuclear-induced disciplines of the past half century. And I want to believe with Abraham Lincoln, “That this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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