Archives / july 2021

T.P Sreenivasan
Nuclear War Unlikely 75 Years After Hiroshima

The horrors of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the dropping of nuclear bombs over the two cities shook the conscience of mankind.

The justification offered that if the bombs were not used, WW II would have lasted much longer was unacceptably inhuman. But the point made that no one could anticipate the consequences fully may have been true.

As a result, the actual use of the bomb and its far-reaching consequences may well have ensured that nuclear weapons will not be used again. The nuclear stockpile has grown in the world and so has the number of arms control and disarmament measures.

Moreover, the growth of technology has made it unnecessary to destroy human lives to defeat nations. The wars of the future will be fought with mobile phones or test tubes filled with viruses.

This year, Russia celebrated the anniversary of the Potsdam Conference (July 17–August 02, 1945), and invited me to participate in two international webinars on its importance.

The Conference was certainly historic, attended by President Harry S Truman of the US, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (or Clement Attlee, who became Prime Minister during the conference), and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to take stock of the surrender of Germany. But seeing the three of them together at a critical moment of world history and the impact it had on the future of the world was mind boggling.

The chief concerns of the Big Three were the immediate administration of defeated Germany, the demarcation of the boundaries of Poland, the occupation of Austria, the definition of the Soviet Union’s role in eastern Europe, the determination of reparations, and the continuing war with Japan.

But it was an uneasy meeting as each nation was most concerned with its own self-interest, and Churchill particularly was suspicious of Stalin’s motives and unyielding position. But it was at this conference that the US informed the other two that it was in possession of nuclear weapons for use in case Japan did not surrender.

But none of them had any idea about the lethality of the weapon or the way it would change the whole nature of wars. More importantly, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably became the only nuclear bombs to be ever used in history!

Many historians have opined that Japan truly provoked the bombing because it continued to bomb out cities far and wide even after its allies had surrendered. It was only after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the US threat that the next would be Tokyo that Japan surrendered.

The story goes that the US did not have a third bomb, even if they needed it. But the general belief is that Japan would not have yielded if the nuclear attack had not come.

But none of these would justify the most inhuman use of the power that Oppenheimer secured for man. The death and devastation of the two bombs have their impact even today.

But if the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have ruled out the possibility of a nuclear attack forever, the thousands who perished will not have done so in vain. If there was no evidence of the catastrophe of the actual use of the bomb, someone may have been tempted to press the nuclear button.

When US President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came close to a nuclear war over Cuba in 1962, the scenes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have haunted them.

Although general and complete disarmament was a logical objective of the United Nations as the international organisation rose out of the ashes of World War II, but we witnessed the hysterical building up of arms, including nuclear arsenals and Weapons of Mass Destruction as part of the Cold War.

The nuclear powers had among them the capacity to destroy the world many times over. In parallel, disarmament and arms control measures were negotiated, but the gap between them and the destructive capacity of nuclear powers kept widening throughout.

Alarmed by the prediction that the number of nuclear weapon states will increase from five to 35, or more, negotiations began on a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to arrest the spread of nuclear weapons even while developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

But the NPT turned out to be discriminatory in character as the nuclear weapon states could continue to possess and expand their arsenals, while non-nuclear weapon states should refrain from developing nuclear weapons. But except for India, Pakistan and Israel, all nations signed the NPT and made it a perpetual treaty.

Even with the NPT and all other disarmament measures adopted there was no reduction in the nuclear threat.

President Barack Obama was the first US President to speak of a nuclear weapon free world in the distant future and a movement for “Global Zero” picked up momentum.

North Korea withdrew from the NPT and tested weapons, while Iran embarked on a secret nuclear programme, but global public opinion became opposed to these moves. However, in terms of robust nuclear capability, the world remains highly explosive 75 years after Hiroshima.

There is, though, no enthusiasm for nuclear warfare because of mutually assured destruction. Instead, leading Russian, American, and Chinese strategists favour smaller precision weapons, which can hit targets without massive destruction of people.

The US has used such weapons against Iraq and Russia against Ukraine. Advances in aiming accuracy have made WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) unnecessary. The United States demonstrated in early 2020 that it can now fire modern missiles remotely to kill a specific terrorist in the back seat of a moving car. In such circumstances, the importance of nuclear weapons as instruments of war or weapons for deterrence got reduced.

Even with the realisation that nuclear weapons are irrelevant, some countries with a sense of insecurity like Iran, Saudi Arabia South Korea and others might wish to keep their nuclear weapons option open by developing peaceful use of nuclear energy, which can be converted to weapons.

UK, India, Taiwan, North and South Korea, Sweden, Iraq, Iran, South Africa, and France had developed civilian nuclear research and power programs before, as a part of their efforts to acquire weapons.

Most countries still believe in the deterrence capacity of nuclear weapons and they are quite vocal about their willingness to inflict “unacceptable damage” to achieve it.

An idea worth revisiting is to agree to stop the nuclear targeting of cities. Other forms of diplomacy would also help. These include tighter nuclear and missile technology export controls. Also needed are restraints that would encourage further development of weaponry designed to make strategic offensive surprise and massive, indiscriminate attacks like Hiroshima become a thing of the past.

A world without nuclear weapons or “Global Zero” is not attainable any time soon, but a world without nuclear war may well be within our grasp. But that will not mean a non-violent or secure world, but a world threatened by other kinds of destruction.

Incineration may be replaced by suffocation or starvation. As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a line from the Gita ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

Mankind will not surrender that status, even if nuclear weapons may never be used.

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