77 Years On

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 77 years ago, marked the crucial turning point in the history of the 20th century. By the end of World War II, Europe, the Soviet Union and the Japanese Empire lay in ruins, and the United States was in a position of unprecedented power with sole possession of the Bomb.

There is broad consensus among serious historians that the atomic bombings were not necessary to end the war with Japan. By 1945 Japan was a destroyed and starving nation desperately seeking a negotiated surrender and the Soviet Union was preparing to enter the Pacific war in early August, eliminating the need for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. For the Truman administration, the use of the Bomb served two purposes: a demonstration of the terrible power of the split atom to be held against the entire world, and a means to deny the Soviet Union a major role in the post-war settlement.

Its strategy has been and continues to be to threaten use of nuclear weapons to advance US interests and, if deemed necessary, to launch a first strike. “US nuclear strategy maintains military strength sufficient… to provide a war-fighting capability to respond to a wide range of conflict in order to control escalation and terminate the war on terms acceptable to the United States.”

Following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US nuclear policy continued to be first strike, at least up to the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaties which, for the first time, actually raised the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The ABM and INF treaties were, arguably, the most important arms control treaties because they both raised the threshold to nuclear war and, at that time, marked the beginning of a tentative retreat from a first-strike strategy. It is no coincidence that both of these nuclear risk-reducing treaties have been abrogated by the US in its pursuit of global hegemony in the face of a rapidly emerging multi-polar world.

Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki Matter Today? Although the number of nuclear weapons has been reduced to about 13,000, today’s weapons are vastly more accurate, sophisticated and usable. Scientists estimate that even a tiny fraction of these weapons, as few as a hundred, if detonated against cities would result in a global nuclear winter and countless deaths.

Currently, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest ever. This is in part due to the existential threat posed by climate change, but also to the current radically lowered threshold to nuclear war posed by a range of factors including the US-Russia proxy war in Ukraine, rapidly deteriorating US-China relations, the emergence of a multi-polar global economy rapidly replacing US hegemony, the end of the era of plentiful and cheap fossil fuels and other critical resources, and the absence of the ABM and INF treaties. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking during opening ceremonies of the 2022 NPT Review Conference,

“Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”

Nuclear war is more likely because of military interventions caused by increased regional resource wars and conflicts such as the current conflict in Ukraine. As resources dwindle, one can expect to see more and more regional conflicts, any one of which can quickly devolve into nuclear war. With the two most important nuclear weapons treaties gone, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), currently under review, there is little to prevent a regional conflict from “going nuclear.”

Absence of the ABM or INF treaties, and NATO expansion up to Russia’s borders leaves US/NATO and Russia face to face, each side with nuclear weapons poised to launch on warning. If either side felt threatened enough to launch a nuclear missile, the warning time would be about five minutes. Russia considers this situation to be existential to its survival and has made this “Red Line” clear for the past 30 years, including under Yeltsin.


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Vol 55, No. 11, Sep 11 - 17, 2022