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Magical Thinking and the Real Power of Hiroshima
A few thoughts on the psychological effect and utility of nuclear weapons.
HIROSHIMA, Japan — I am in Hiroshima, as is my usual practice in August. I am a member of the governor of Hiroshima prefecture’s Roundtable on Nuclear Disarmament. Each year, the city and prefecture mark the bombing with both a high-level dialogue about the state of things and public events about our nuclear predicament.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the bombings, which feels like a big moment to take stock of where we are, how we’ve gotten here, and where we’re headed.
Hiroshima is a better place to do that thinking than Washington, D.C. The weather isn’t particularly nice in either place, but Washington’s August is doubly marred with nakedly ideological polemics on the bombing. You’ll hear that the bombings ended the war and saved millions of American lives, or that President Harry Truman knew the war was over and was just trying to frighten the Soviets, a move that starts the Cold War. I don’t think the historical evidence supports either view or even the stark duality both views presume, but what is really galling about these arguments is that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are reduced to the role of mere extras at their own murders.
I find a visit to Hiroshima deeply centering. It offers a chance to think again about the history of the bombing and to put the people who suffered most back at the center of the story.
It is easy to argue about the bombings with hindsight. We know the bombs worked and that they inflicted terrible suffering on the people of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Our entire modern debate about whether the bombings were intended to end the war or frighten the Soviets is premised on our contemporary conviction that nuclear weapons are awesome in the traditional sense of that word.
But Robert Oppenheimer and others didn’t know that. They were not sure, in advance, that a nuclear explosion would inspire awe. If you look back through the documents, you can see scientists worrying about picking a target to show the bomb’s best effect. There is even a dark passage where Kyoto is discussed as a target because the highly educated population would be better positioned to grasp that this bomb was different. “From the psychological point of view,” the document notes, “there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.” Consider that Oppenheimer’s first question to Gen. Leslie Groves after the bombing was whether it had occurred after sundown. He was still worried the locals wouldn’t be able to tell it was not a run-of-the-mill bombing unless the big fireball turned night into day. Groves explained that a night bombing hadn’t been feasible. The locals still noticed.
Our modern conviction that nuclear weapons are different only came later. While the construction of the norm against nuclear weapons, I think pride of place goes to John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Originally published as a series of articles in the New Yorker, it was eventually published by Alfred A. Knopf press. The fact that I was assigned this text repeatedly in high school and college probably explains my choice of careers. I have a slim 1946 first edition that is one of my prize possessions.
The creation of this norm was slow and contested. In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles worried very much about a growing taboo against nuclear weapons use. They worried the taboo would deny the United States a weapon that they believed was essential to meeting defense commitments around the world.
Over time, we’ve come to see nuclear weapons as Hersey saw them, as the ultimate expression of material and spiritual evil of total war. The bomb has come to represent the ability of our civilization to destroy itself and our nagging fear that our political and social institutions are inadequate to save us from the abyss.
This norm, really this fear, helps explain why nuclear weapons have not been used again in anger in the intervening 70 years. One might point to deterrence, but nor have we used the bomb against states with no nuclear weapons. Even Eisenhower hesitated in response to suggestions nuclear weapons night help relieve French forces trapped by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu.
The implication of this norm, of course, is that we can’t actually use nuclear weapons. It’s hard, for example, to imagine dropping a nuclear bomb on the Iraqis we claimed to be liberating from Saddam Hussein. That’s certainly what Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner, who ran the air war during the 1991 Gulf War, concluded. Asked by an interviewer whether he considered using nuclear weapons, he responded, “You could use nuclear weapons but for what targets? The nuclear weapon’s only good against cities; it’s not any good against troops in the desert. I mean it takes too many of ’em, so the problem you have is, you have a war where if you kill a lot of people, particularly women and children, you lose the war no matter what happens on the battlefield.” Nor, obviously, did the United States use nuclear weapons in 2003.
I once had the opportunity to ask a four-star general a pointed question: Are there any targets that the United States cannot destroy without nuclear weapons? I got an interesting response, one that I found a bit convoluted and that involved a nearby chair as a metaphor. He said something like, “Take this chair — there are a lot of ways I can destroy the chair as a chair, but does destroying the chair have the unique psychological effect of using a nuclear weapon?” I wasn’t quite sure I was as intimidated by our ability to nuke the chair, or even the whole dining room at Restaurant Nora, but I took that to be a “no.” There are no such targets.
I’ve noticed this shift, as conventional weapons have become ever more precise and the sort of mass air raids of World War II look increasingly pointless as a strategic approach, to say nothing of the moral objections. Conventional weapons are adequate for the vast majority, if not all, of military purposes, with none of the political drawbacks that Horner identified. As that idea has become commonplace, defenders of nuclear weapons increasingly use metaphysical claims about their unique psychological effects, imbuing nuclear weapons with a kind of magical power.
We take for granted what Oppenheimer did not — that nuclear weapons are more horrible than other weapons. And while nuclear weapons are terrible, so was firebombing Tokyo. I am glad we’ve constructed a norm against the use of nuclear weapons, but let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve constructed it. And like any human construction, it can be repurposed. The idea that nuclear weapons have a unique psychological effect is, I suspect, simply a perverse manifestation of this very useful norm that emerged from the horror of World War II.
Our notion that nuclear weapons deter in some special way beyond their mere military utility seems like a form of magic — a nonfalsifiable assertion that we believe because we want to. I don’t think Saddam Hussein, as he was dragged out of his spider hole, thought: “Well, at least they didn’t nuke me.”
Look: I am grateful that we have constructed a norm against nuclear weapons, but I wonder if we wouldn’t benefit from taking a cold analytic review of the actual military capabilities they provide today. Frankly, I think we’ll find them lacking. It’s far more credible to destroy the chair if it doesn’t entail killings thousands upon thousands of innocents. What makes nuclear weapons so awful is also what makes them so difficult to use.
If our discourse about deterrence often feels like little more than a spell or incantation that we cast to make ourselves believe that deterrence will hold, the words also have a real, grisly meaning if we look closely. And that is the benefit of going to Hiroshima in August. It’s easy to talk about the unique psychological benefits of nuclear weapons in a Washington conference room, just as it was easy to propose the educated citizens of Kyoto as a target because they were “apt” to understand what was happening to them. But these are ridiculous arguments and ugly ones when you think about the human beings whose fate is being bandied about. When you are there, watching a couple push a stroller or a family cheer on the Carp at a baseball game, that kind of distance and abstraction is impossible. You realize that you’ve been talking about incinerating these people.
The governor of Hiroshima prefecture is actually the son of a famous sociologist whose work centered on recording the names of all the victims of the bombing. That’s no small task when you consider that perhaps 100,000 people or more perished in Hiroshima. But I think that’s why he tried to record all their names: So they are not easily dismissed as mere abstractions. That is also what’s so affecting about John Hersey’s Hiroshima. He told the stories of a few people, people with names and personalities, which made their grief real and easy to grasp.
I’m happy to be back here again. I also hope President Barack Obama will visit — although it’s not looking very likely. He’s not coming for the 70th anniversary events this week and, sadly, Hiroshima lost out to Mie prefecture to host the May 2016 G-7 Summit. But Hiroshima is not so far from Mie. And it would offer the president one of his final chances to speak about nuclear weapons, to offer a sort of bookend to the speech in Prague that opened his administration. I’ve criticized that speech for the cold, clinical way it described the horror of an atomic bombing, particularly the way Obama elided the long miserable deaths that took many who survived the initial blast.
A visit to Hiroshima would be a chance for the president to get it right and to reflect on his legacy. Maybe he would be satisfied that he has done enough — he has done more than many — but Hiroshima is powerful place. Amid the meetings and motorcades, I think the reality of the place may sneak under the cordons and around the bodyguards. It might slip past that famously cool façade and tickle him under the collar. I think the place would ruffle him a bit, more than he likes to admit. And I think like anyone else who visits, he’ll wish he had done more.
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images