Essay

The Hiroshima Effect

Seventy-five years after the first nuclear bomb fell, we are grateful it hasn’t happened again, mystified it didn’t, and terrified it still might.

An aerial photo shows the explosion over Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, shortly after the "Little Boy" atomic bomb was dropped.
An aerial photo shows the explosion over Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, shortly after the "Little Boy" atomic bomb was dropped. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

“Why is it night already? Why did our house fall down? What happened?” The befuddlement of 5-year-old Myeko Nakamura moments after the first atomic bomb fell at 8:15 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, as related in John Hersey’s classic account Hiroshima, remains to a large extent our befuddlement today. Seventy-five years after about 80,000 of Myeko’s neighbors died in an instant, we are, like that little girl, grateful to be alive but somewhat mystified about how it happened—and what surviving in the nuclear age really means. 

Above all we are mystified that today’s leaders aren’t doing more to prevent a greater horror than Hiroshima; if anything, led by America’s history-shredding president, Donald Trump, they are making that prospect more likely.

True, there are reasons to turn this baleful anniversary into a moment, however brief, of self-congratulation. Despite several close calls in the past 75 years—some notorious, like the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, others known to only a few—nuclear weapons were never again used in anger after the second bomb fell on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima. The day-to-day balance of terror that defined the 40-year Cold War between the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union, is long over. Despite renewed tensions between the major nuclear powers and the advent of scary new technologies, no one touts the benefits of a nuclear first strike, as those satirized in the war room of black comedies like Dr. Strangelove once did. And with the exception of rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran, nuclear proliferation does not seem to be a growing threat; everyone is thankful that no terrorist group seems close to getting the bomb.

But three-quarters of a century is also an eye-blink in the history of human conflict. And if we open our eyes wide enough now we ought to be more than a little worried. 

“The fact that we have made it 75 years without another nuclear detonation as an act of war is nothing short of a miracle,” said Alexandra Bell, a former senior Obama administration official now at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Our forays to the edge of the nuclear abyss have been more frequent than the average person knows—or possibly cares to know. Unfortunately, time and the law of odds is not on our side. There are around 14,000 nuclear weapons left in the world.”

Trump, who has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little knowledge of or respect for the lessons of history—having brazenly themed his administration along the lines of the “America first” isolationism that prevailed before Pearl Harbor—is now worsening those odds, according to Bell and many other nuclear weapons specialists. Trump “is the only president in 60 years with no real accomplishment in reducing nuclear threats after four years in office,” Bell said. 

On the contrary, Trump is pushing pell-mell for a $1.7 trillion modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal that almost guarantees a new arms race. He’s building new intercontinental ballistic missiles, artifacts of a past era in an age of submarine-launched missiles, bombers, and hypersonic missiles launched from ships and planes. Bit by bit, Trump has dismantled the nonproliferation architecture erected over decades. Building on President George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, Trump renounced the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which sought to pull back from the hair-trigger calculus implicit in having NATO missiles on the edge of the Soviet bloc. More recently, Trump said he would abandon the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which allows signatories to fly observation flights to collect data on military forces and activities. He’s failed to renew the New START treaty, which limits U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and provides mutual verification. The treaty, if no further action is taken, will expire in February 2021—unless Joe Biden renews it, as he has promised, if he is elected president.

A magazine article from August 1945, titled “Man Enters The Atom Age.” The illustrations compare fictional cataclysms, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci (lefthand page), with actual destruction in the firebombing of Tokyo (second page, left) and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (far right) during World War II. Picture Post/IPC Magazines/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And the new arms race has already begun in some respects. “Russia has re-embraced nuclear weapons with a scary declaratory policy of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ and the development of new strategic systems—nuclear powered cruise missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, trans-oceanic nuclear-armed torpedoes—and more low-yield nuclear weapons, most designed to evade U.S. [missile defense], which is still a long way from providing effective defense against any sophisticated ballistic missile attack,”  said Robert Gallucci, former U.S. ambassador-at-large and special envoy for the State Department on the non-proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. “So now the Trump Administration is focused on countering the Russian threat with new, low-yield nuclear weapons.”

All Trump’s moves, with no replacement treaties in the offing, could leave governments once more in the dark about what the other side is building, as they were during the worst days of the Cold War. China until now has been restrained about tipping its long-range missiles with nuclear warheads, of which it is believed to possess up to 300, about as many as France. That restraint could fade if tensions rise and no treaty is in place to contain the threat of nuclear weapons. None has been proposed by this president.

“President Trump’s irresponsible approach to nuclear weapons has increased, not decreased, the dangers of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war,” said Matthew Bunn, the co-principal investigator at Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom. 

“He has encouraged U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan to get their own nuclear weapons and publicly threatened not to defend U.S. allies, raising the risk that nuclear weapons will spread, putting more fingers on the nuclear button. He has ripped up the nuclear deal with Iran without achieving any deal to replace it, leaving Iran closer to the bomb than it was before. He has provoked a dangerous crisis with nuclear-armed North Korea, then rewarded its leader with summits with little preparation, leaving North Korea continuing to build up its deadly nuclear force. He has withdrawn from the INF Treaty without any plan for how to address the resulting dangers. He has announced a plan for walking out of the Open Skies treaty, and he has refused (so far) to extend the New START treaty—the last agreement imposing any limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. All of these steps have made the nuclear world a more dangerous place,” Bunn said.

“The real new threat is accidental launch or unauthorized launch,” said Gallucci,  the retired dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. “In other words, what with cyber warfare, anti-satellite warfare and all this new offense to overcome non-existent effective defense, we will be giving over launch authority to AI [artificial intelligence] in the interest of preserving a launch on warning, or launch under attack capability—which could get us into a nuclear war nobody intended.”

There is, however, some reassuring news on the nuclear arms front. For one, the dangers of nuclear proliferation are often exaggerated. Shortly after the Cold War came to a close, there were nine nuclear states—the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Israel, Pakistan (which tested its first device in 1998) and South Africa. Today there are still nine, all the same, save South Africa’s renunciation of the bomb (the only nation to have built one and then voluntarily dismantled it) and the arrival of a dangerous and threatening nuclear North Korea.  

The threat of loose nukes and nuclear black markets has also been blunted. Secret programs like the one begun by ousted Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and fed by the rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan have been mostly dismantled through international cooperation. As Gallucci once told me, proliferation fears were much greater only 25 years ago, when Gallucci was a senior arms-control negotiator in the Clinton administration. Then, U.S. officials routinely feared 50 to 60 countries might go nuclear. 

But a largely successful joint U.S.-Russian effort to roll up much of the old Soviet arsenal, a slew of tough export control agreements on dual-use technology, and the crown jewel of international arms-control agreements—the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—have together made it very difficult, expensive, and risky to seek to build a nuclear weapon. Few countries have tried. 

Despite new fears of an AI-prompted accidental launch, there’s also some cause for optimism in the march of technology. Just as chemical weapons were once cutting-edge 75 years ago before becoming largely obsolete, nuclear arms may also someday become a footnote, some experts suggest.

Left: U.S. Air Force Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, waves August 6, 1945, from his cockpit before takeoff. Right: In 1947, a Japanese casualty shows the keloid scars he received from flash burns during the attack on Hiroshima. National

Left: U.S. Air Force Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, waves on Aug. 6, 1945, from his cockpit before takeoff. Right: In 1947, a Japanese casualty shows the keloid scars he received from flash burns during the attack on Hiroshima.national archives/Newsmakers/US Army Signal Corps/FPG/Getty Images

“That was the last killer app, chemical weapons, and by the time you get to 1990, 75 years later, it doesn’t look like a killer app any more,” said Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a former deputy for nonproliferation policy in the George H.W. Bush administration. “Military advances in precision guidance and targeting are making the targeting of cities (the massive murder of innocents) far less attractive or necessary, as is the idea of new generations of warfare including cyber and gray operations.” Big targets like airfields and aircraft carriers once required tactical nuclear weapons to take out; today, precision missiles with conventional warheads can do the job, if cyberattacks and electronic warfare don’t do it first. 

“It’s not hard to imagine a world where the advanced nations have pushed their nuclear weapons into the background,” Sokolski said. Some experts also argue that the nuclear bombing of cities is now technically prohibited by international law under the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the 1977 Additional Protocols, as well as U.S. Defense Department regulations that ban intentionally targeting civilians and require the avoidance of harm to innocents. 

But that’s in the advanced countries. That same technological development has opened new opportunities for nuclear also-rans. 

“The bad news,” Sokolski said, “is that the same revolution in precision guidance is putting long range accurate missiles into the hands of relatively weak states that might next be drawn to nuclear weapons.” Most experts focus on North Korea and Iran. But Sokolski also raises worries about South Korea, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Some even fear that Japan, faced with a rising threat from China, might consider embracing the technology that seared its national soul 75 years ago and prompted it to forswear war.

And what of Japan, the only nation to experience what nuclear war is really like? 

The Japanese response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki—as well as the firebombings that devastated 67 Japanese cities during World War II, killing far more than the atom bombs didremains paradoxical even to this day. A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, with the blackened husk of the famed “A-Bomb Dome” nearby, is a disorienting experience. Even today, most of the museum’s exhibits make it seem as if the bomb came out of nowhere—as if the aggression and atrocities of the Japanese imperial state had not preceded and led to President Harry Truman’s decision to drop “Little Boy” on Hiroshima that fateful morning. Other nations, in particular China and South Korea, remain outraged by meager expressions of war guilt from Tokyo. 

And yet World War II, and its terrifying finish in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, transformed Japan in a more profound way than any nation, except perhaps postwar Germany. Though some recent prime ministers such as Shinzo Abe have expressed more nationalist sentiments, the far-right remains marginalized in Japan, and Tokyo is still largely content to exist under the U.S. defense umbrella. “One of the immediate reactions the Japanese people was to hold their own government responsible for the catastrophe, and that was important,” said Marc Gallicchio, the author of the new book Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II

“Certainly the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki felt they were victims of a kind of unconscionable act by the Americans, but at same time they understood they had wound up in that position because of fecklessness of their own government and its stubborn refusal to surrender. That then provided momentum for development of peace education in Japan, which is pretty prevalent even today,” he said.

Indeed, Japan’s aversion to armed aggression, and to developing a nuclear arsenal that it is easily capable of achieving, has almost become part of the national character—and constitution. The nuclear bombings also transformed and traumatized the United States, making it averse to ever using nuclear weapons again, especially in Asia, Gallicchio argues.

Neither nation, in other words, ever completely recovered from that terrible day 75 years ago. Perhaps that’s the best and most hopeful thing one can say about this anniversary.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh