How the nuclear disarmament movement probably saved the world

Seventy years ago this week, the United States committed one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the human race, dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing nearly 200 000 people, almost all of them civilians.

That this massacre was completely unnecessary from a military stand-point is a well-established fact, and was widely acknowledged by the leading military commanders and strategists of the day. Indeed, President Truman was said to have overridden the explicit and strongly-worded advice of his top military command in ordering that the bombs be dropped. This is not a widely acknowledged fact, however, and many people still tell themselves the comforting lie that the bombs were necessary to bring an end to what would otherwise have been a protracted and deadly war.

But the plain and simple truth is that Japan was on the verge of surrender – and America knew it:

— “We didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.” That’s Brig. Gen. Carter Clarke, quoted in “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” by Gar Alperovitz.

–“The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.”– Henry H. Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Pacific Fleet.

–“The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part from a purely military point of view in the defeat of Japan. The use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” – – Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

–“Certainly, prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability, prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if atomic bombs had not been dropped.” Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of staff to President Truman, in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.

–“The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”Maj. Gen.  Curtis LeMay.

To what end, then, were those hundreds of thousands of people murdered?

The consensus among historians who study this issue closely is that the bomb was meant to intimidate the Soviets, whom America was already eyeing as a potential major rival in the post-war world. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, ultimately, for show, the lives of their citizens written off as necessary sacrifices in a grand geopolitical game.

I mean, just think about that. Think of the unconscionable cruelty, the reckless disregard for human life, that was intrinsic to that decision. Think about that and tell me Harry Truman doesn’t rank with Hitler and Stalin and Mao in terms of the significance and horrific nature of his war crimes.

This powerful collection of survivors’ recollections of the attack on Nagasaki is an incredible read which I’ll quote only sparingly to encourage you to click through and read it in full:

“It all happened in an instant,” Yoshida remembered. He had barely seen the blinding light half a mile away before a powerful force hit him on his right side and hurled him into the air. “The heat was so intense that I curled up like surume [dried grilled squid].” In what felt like dreamlike slow motion, Yoshida was blown backward 130 feet across a field, a road, and an irrigation channel, then plunged to the ground, landing on his back in a rice paddy flooded with shallow water.

Inside the Mitsubishi Ohashi weapons factory, Do-oh had been wiping perspiration from her face and concentrating on her work when PAAAAAHT TO! — an enormous blue-white flash of light burst into the building, followed by an earsplitting explosion. Thinking a torpedo had detonated inside the Mitsubishi plant, Do-oh threw herself onto the ground and covered her head with her arms just as the factory came crashing down on top of her.

In his short-sleeved shirt, trousers, gaiters, and cap, Taniguchi had been riding his bicycle through the hills in the northwest corner of the valley when a sudden burning wind rushed toward him from behind, propelling him into the air and slamming him facedown on the road. “The earth was shaking so hard that I hung on as hard as I could so I wouldn’t get blown away again.” […]

Do-oh lay injured in the wreckage of the collapsed Mitsubishi factory, engulfed in smoke. Yoshida was lying in a muddy rice paddy, barely conscious, his body and face brutally scorched. Taniguchi clung to the searing pavement near his mangled bicycle, not yet realizing that his back was burned off. He lifted his eyes just long enough to see a young child “swept away like a fleck of dust.”

Sixty seconds had passed [since the blast].

These people were hideously injured, their families killed, their homes destroyed, and their bodies blasted with radiation so that the US could tell the Soviets, as graphically as possible, “Don’t fuck with us.”

Of course, the Soviets quickly turned the tables, acquiring their first atomic bomb in 1949 and setting off a global nuclear arms race which in some respects continues to this very day. The United States, for one, plans on spending around $1 trillion over thirty years to “modernize” its arsenal, meaning that on the hundredth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we’ll still be living in a nuclear world.

However, there is one remarkably encouraging fact about the history of nuclear war: it is entirely confined to that one week in August 1945.

Of course, there have been many, many nuclear detonations in the interim – far more than most people realize. Check out this stunning animation, showing every A-bomb set off between 1945 and 1998. By 1970, over a thousand had been detonated; by 1990, the United States alone had set off that many. One wonders what scientists could possibly be learning at that point; it seems more like sheer military masturbation to me. (The video is a little slow-going at first, but stick it out until the mid-50s hit – you’ll be amazed!)

Nevada took a hell of a pounding, eh?

In the period of 1945-1998, there were over two thousand nuclear explosions, at an average of one every ten days or so. Since 1998, there have been three, all conducted by North Korea.

So what changed?

After decades of campaigning and petitioning and negotiating and demonstrating, a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed. Though it has not yet been ratified by many key members, including China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and the United States, it marked a turning point in global opinion on the issue. This was the culmination of the work of millions and a milestone in the campaign for nuclear disarmament. This multi-generational effort, though it has not achieved its ultimate goal, must certainly be ranked among the most successful activist efforts of all time, because it has played a vital role in the ongoing survival of life on this planet.

If you had conducted a global survey in 1950 asking people how long they thought it would be before nuclear weapons would again be used in war, I very much doubt that many people would have guessed that humanity would have lasted very long. A 1951 poll in the United States showed that a whopping 61% of people were in favour of a nuclear first strike in the event of war with the USSR. And yet here we stand today, with the last belligerent blasts standing on the edge of living memory.

That we have gone so long is a testament to the countless millions of people who worked tirelessly to educate about and mobilize against the threat of nuclear war. Their contributions ranged from the celebrated, like Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War classic Dr Strangelove, which laid bare the madness at the heart of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, to the determined and largely anonymous marching and protesting and organizing and leafleting of countless millions of people, like Anne Collins, who took part in a landmark four-day anti-A-bomb march from London to Aldermaston, the site of the UK’s nuclear research facilities, in 1958:

Sticking it out all the way to Aldermaston, or so she hoped, was Mrs Anne Collins, of Gillingham, encumbered with a pack and with her small daughter in a push-chair. “I’ve been thinking about this for ten years,” she said, a humble yet fixed light in her eye. “If I become a grandmother I don’t want a bomb to drop on her and her children – I don’t want to drop bombs on the Russians, either. I’d rather let the Communists take over.” A trifle falteringly she walked on.

What was a fringe position in the 1950s was by the 80s so thoroughly mainstream that campaigners for global disarmament were able to draw a million people to Central Park in New York City, in what was at the time the largest protest in US history, dwarfing even the largest anti-Vietnam rallies. And though the campaigners met with initial resistance from the Reagan administration, within a few years he had changed his tune:

President Reagan vilified the nuclear freeze movement at first. He questioned the patriotism of the demonstrators, and even suggested that some of the organizers might be not just communist sympathizers, but “foreign agents.” But during Reagan’s second term, his Administration actually went far beyond what the freeze campaign had advocated. He launched arms control negotiations directed, for the first time, not just at “freezing” but at reducing the absolute size of nuclear arsenals. He agreed with Moscow to eliminate all medium-range nuclear weapons from both Eastern and Western Europe. He and new Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed together, “A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”

Some activists took it much further than rallying and leafletting, and set out to destroy the weapons themselves:

The first Ploughshares action was carried out in 1980.  On September 9, the ‘Ploughshares Eight’ entered a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, U.S., where the nose cones for the Mark 12A nuclear warheads were manufactured.  Enacting the Biblical prophecies of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) to “beat swords into ploughshares,” they hammered on two nose cones and poured blood on documents.  They were arrested, tried by a jury, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 1/2 to 10 years…

Many different weapon systems have been disarmed [by Ploughshares activists] including components of U.S. first-strike nuclear weapon systems: MX, Pershing II, Cruise, Minuteman ICBM’s, Trident II missiles, Trident submarines, B-52 bombers, P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft, the NAVSTAR system and nuclear capable battleships.  Combat aircraft used for military intervention, such as helicopters, the F-111 and F-15E fighter bombers and the Hawk aircraft and other weapons including anti-aircraft missile launchers, bazooka grenade throwers and AK-5 automatic rifles, have also been disarmed…

The most common way of disarming weapons in Ploughshares actions is with ordinary household hammers.  Activists have hammered on nose cones, loading mechanisms, breech-sights, barrels, control panels, bomb mountings, bomb pylons and bomb guidance antennas.  Hammers begin the process of disarmament.  They are used to take apart as well as create and point to the urgency for conversion of war production to products that enhance life.

And the work of these activists continues to this day. Just this past May, a trio of nuclear saboteurs, including an 82-year-old nun, were released on all charges after a daring foray into the heart of a United States nuclear weapons facility.

It’s impossible to quantify the effect of this widespread agitation against the bomb – but what is certain is that no nation has been willing to use this abomination in war for fully seventy years now, and that even in the United States, the only country ever to use the weapons in war, over 60% of people are in favour of the global elimination of nukes. And that must be due in part to a now-widespread awareness of the indiscriminate destruction and painful slaughter that these cruel weapons of mass destructions inflict. It took the powerful courage of early dissenters and protesters to create the sea change in public opinion that we’ve seen over the last half-century, and the visionary work of artists and writers and filmmakers and poets and songwriters in conveying the horror of a post-nuclear world to spur on dreams of disarmament.

That we haven’t achieved such a disarmament is regrettable, and something we must urgently deal with. There should be no false sense of complacency, no delay in pushing forward with the necessary work of ridding the world of this evil weapon.

But we should also take this moment to acknowledge all the hard work and effort which has kept us out of nuclear war for so long – which has allowed life on this planet to survive for so long. We should take this moment to acknowledge the horrific effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and earnestly and meaningfully swear to never do that to each other again.



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