Posts Tagged ‘atomic bomb’

Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine

February 6, 2019

In 1961, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, because of their commitment to nuclear weapons, were worse than Adolf Hitler..

“…Macmillan and Kennedy, through misguided ignorance and deliberate blindness, are pursuing policies which are likely to lead to the extermination of the whole human race,” Russell said.  “Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews.  On a purely statistical basis, Macmillan and Kennedy are 50 times as wicked as Hitler.”

I recently got around to reading Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which indicates that Russell was basically wright.

Kennedy, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and every President since, was willing to threaten nuclear war.  Ellsberg wrote that this not only could have led to the death of virtually the whole human race, but, on Kennedy’s watch, very nearly did.

I remember the 1950s and the 1960s, and the public’s well-founded fear of nuclear war back then.  The fear has gone away, but the danger hasn’t, as Ellsberg made clear..

The book is in two parts.  The first is a personal history of nuclear policy, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.  The other is a historical look at how American leaders in World War Two came to regard mass killing of civilian populations as morally acceptable, and how no American leader since then has been willing to give it up.

The Eisenhower administration had a war plan called “massive retaliation.”  That meant that in the case of military conflict with either the USSR or China, the U.S. would implement a plan that called for the nuclear bombing of every town in Russia with a population of more than 25,000, and also every large population center in China.

The Air Force, in response to a query by President Kennedy, estimated that this would result in the deaths of 324 million people in China or Russia through blast and radioactive fallout, which is more than died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.  It estimated that up to an additional 100 million people in Communist ruled nations in eastern Europe, in allied nations in western Europe and also in neutral nations, depending in which way the wind was blowing.

This amounted to more than 600 million people, a quarter of the human race at that time.

But wait.  There’s more.  The Air Force did not attempt to estimate casualties due to fire.  Nuclear bombing would have set off fire storms that would have made World War Two Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo seem like the victims of children playing with matches. Ellsberg wrote that, if you count direct deaths to fire, a nuclear attack on the Communist bloc would have taken the lives of between one third and one half of humanity.  I can’t get my mind around such an enormity.

All of these estimates were based on a successful U.S. first strike that destroyed the Communist countries so completely that their military would not be able to retaliate.  If that didn’t work, there would have been tens of millions or hundreds of millions of American deaths as well.

Later on certain scientists awoke to the possibility of “nuclear winter”.   Firestorms resulting from a nuclear attack would send so much soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere that they would literally blacken the sky.  The dark layer would be above the clouds, so there would be no rain to wash it down.  It would remain for 10 years or more, making it impossible for plants to grow or for most complex life-forms to survive.

So an all-out nuclear attack could literally be a Doomsday Machine.

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Hiroshima’s Shadow 3: the revisionist argument

March 27, 2015

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Revisionist historians deny that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in order to save American lives.

They say the Japanese high command was ready to surrender before the bombs were dropped and that, in any case, an invasion of Japan would not have caused the 1 million Allied casualties or 500,000 deaths that President Truman later claimed were averted.

The real reason for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they say, is that American leaders thought the existence of the bomb and the U.S. willingness to use it would strengthen the American position in relation to the Soviet Union.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_The essay collection, Hiroshima’s Shadow, which I am now reading, provides the documentary evidence for these arguments.  The contributors include historians who know much more about this subject than I do, but historians disagree.

I think the revisionist arguments not as false, but as inconclusive.   Yet I draw the same moral for our own time as they do about the need for disarmament and the risks of atomic diplomacy.

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Were the Japanese really willing to surrender before Hiroshima was bombed?

It is a fact that Japan’s military and civilian leaders both regarded the Pacific War as lost, and they hoped to negotiate a peace on the best terms that they could.  The minimum terms, especially for the military, were that the Japanese retain control of the home islands and that Emperor of Japan continue to rule.

The Allies included “unconditional surrender” of the Japanese armed forces and an Allied occupation of Japan.   The Japanese were promised that the Allies did not intend to annihilate them and that they would eventually have a government of their own choosing.  This implies that they could have had an Emperor if they wanted one, but nothing specific was said.

The question in my mind is just what was meant by the Emperor continuing to  rule.   Did it mean that the Emperor would remain in place as a powerless constitutional monarch, as eventually happened?

Or did it mean that the Emperor would rule, not by popular mandate, but by divine right as a descendent of the sun goddess and an object of worship in the state Shinto religion, with the military exercising power in his name?  This would have meant a perpetuation of the totalitarian that had led to war in the first place.

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Hiroshima’s Shadow 2: the key turning point

March 25, 2015

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The great fear of General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, was that World War Two would end before atomic bombs were ready to use.

He would would have been pilloried for having presided over a $2 billion boondoggle that used up valuable military resources with no visible result.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_Stanley Goldberg, a contributor to Hiroshima’s Shadow, wrote that it was Groves, not President Truman or General Marshall, who gave the order to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We’re living with the consequences of the Hiroshima bombing to this day, and I’m reading Hiroshima’s Shadow to try to understand the reasons.

The reason Hiroshima was followed by a second bomb on Nagasaki, according to Goldberg, is that Groves wanted to use both a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb.

This justified the whole Manhattan Project, not only the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility where the uranium bomb was made, but the one at Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bomb was made.

I’ve long thought that, given the prior U.S. decision to bomb the cities of Germany and Japan, and given the availability of atomic bombs, the argument for using the new weapon was almost irresistible.

The real key turning points were the decision to develop an atomic bomb in the first place, which could easily not have been made, and the project’s success, which also might not have happened.

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Hiroshima’s Shadow: crossing a moral line

March 24, 2015
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Source: Professor Olsen@large

Seventy years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we live under the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used again—possibly but not necessarily by us Americans or on us Americans.

I’m trying to understand the reasons for Hiroshima and Nagasaki by reading Hiroshima’s Shadow:Writing on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, which was recommended by my e-mail pen pal Tanweer Akram of the Bertrand Russell Society.

The book was published after the Smithsonian Institution in 1995 canceled an exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, after the American Legion and the Air Force Association objected to inclusion of material questioning the necessity of the bombing.

It is plain to me as I read this book that  the decision to use the atomic bomb mainly reflected the momentum of two earlier decisions:

  • The decision to wage war against civilians by bombing enemy cities from the air.
  • The decision to develop atomic weapons for that purpose.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_After these choices were made, I think the decision to bomb was, if not inevitable, the path of least resistance.   Once the original bright moral line was crossed, the only issue was whether to do the same thing by means of a new and more horrible method.

I think the consequences of these decisions would still be with us even if the tragedy of Hiroshima could have been avoided.

Americans and Britons once were shocked by the German Zeppelin raids on London during World War Two, the destruction of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese and of the bombing of Rotterdam and Warsaw by the Germans.

But we soon came to accept the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, first as regrettable necessities and then as the new normal.

That new normal is still with us.  Bombing is still the basic American military tactic, even when it doesn’t work.  When your only tool is air power, everything looks like a target.

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Was the Hiroshima bomb necessary?

January 29, 2015

UntoldHistoryStoneKuznick00379519I’ve been reading Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, a companion to their TV series of the same name.  It is a compendium of the crimes and follies of the U.S. government in the 20th century.

One chapter is devoted to an indictment of the USA for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Stone and Kuznick contend that:

  • The dropping of the bomb was partly due to President Truman’s need to affirm his masculinity.
  • The dropping of the bombs was partly due to American racism against the Japanese.
  • The dropping of the bombs was intended mainly as a deterrent against the Soviet Union.
  • Japan’s surrender could have been negotiated without the bomb.
  • The Soviet invasion of Manchuria, not the atomic bombs, were the main reason why the Japanese eventually did surrender.

For me, it’s not so simple.

Hiroshima and Nakasaki were the culmination in the greatest mass slaughter of human beings in history.  An estimated 50 million to 60 million people, more than half of them civilians, were killed in the war, not counting those who died of war-related famine and disease.

World War Two was a war without mercy.  All sides lost their moral inhibitions.  I was a small boy during World War Two and I remember the wartime atmosphere.  Everyone wanted to win the war as quickly as possible and by any means necessary.

There was no bright line that separated the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings from what had gone before, including the systematic bombing of the German and Japanese cities.  I couldn’t have imagined the United States possessing such a powerful weapon and not using it.

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