The first test of a nuclear weapon occurred on July 16, 1945. The test took place in the New Mexico desert at a place called Jornada del Muerto, the “Journey of Death.” The head of the scientific research effort for the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, quoted these lines from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita, when he saw that first nuclear explosion turn the sky white: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Within a month, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki, on August 6th and 9th respectively. While there was general elation in the US at the subsequent ending of the war, some American leaders expressed misgivings about the necessity and morality of the use of nuclear weapons.
General Dwight Eisenhower was critical of the use of the bomb and voiced his concerns to Secretary of War Stimson. Eisenhower later wrote, “ Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of ‘face.’ It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, was even stronger in his condemnation of the use of atomic weapons on Japan. “My own feeling,” he said, “was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children….”
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the first use of atomic weapons. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the aging hibakusha, survivors of the bombings, will gather to again make their plea that nuclear weapons be abolished. Many of these survivors have made it their life work to assure that their past is not humanity’s future. They are convinced that nuclear weapons and human beings cannot co-exist, and that we must eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us.
Sixty years after Hiroshima and nearly fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, there are still some 20,000 to 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The US and Russia have over 95 percent of these weapons, and each still maintain some 2,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments. In all, nine countries are believed to have nuclear weapons: US, Russia, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Japan is a virtual nuclear weapons state, having both the plutonium and the technology to become a major nuclear power in a matter of weeks. There is much concern that Iran is on its way to also becoming a nuclear weapons state.
Nuclear proliferation is a serious problem, but so is the failure to achieve nuclear disarmament. In the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the non-nuclear weapons states agreed not to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, and the nuclear weapons states agreed to assist them with developing peaceful nuclear technology and to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.
Most of the parties to the treaty, nearly all countries in the world, believe that the nuclear weapons states have not fulfilled their obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament. At the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2000, the nuclear weapons states agreed to move toward fulfilling their part of the bargain by adopting 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament. The Bush administration has since disavowed these obligations.
In 2005, at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the Bush administration’s policies of non-cooperation were made clear to the world, although not necessarily to the American people, when the US put up obstacles to even creating an agenda for the conference. The administration doesn’t seem to understand that nuclear proliferation and nuclear disarmament are inextricably interlinked: without nuclear disarmament, nuclear proliferation is virtually assured.
Nor is there a clear understanding of the ineffectiveness of a nuclear arsenal in defending against a terrorist nuclear threat. If terrorists succeed in obtaining nuclear weapons, they will not hesitate to use them. They will not be deterred by the thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states because it is impossible to deter a group you can’t locate. Thus, nuclear weapons provide no defense against extremist nuclear threats or attacks. Additionally, a costly missile defense system offers no protection against a terrorist nuclear attack that is more likely to be delivered by a suitcase or van than by an intercontinental ballistic missile.
George Bush has pointed out that “free societies don’t develop weapons of mass terror and don’t blackmail the world.” This suggests that either he does not think the US is a free society, which is unlikely, or he doesn’t understand that nuclear weapons are weapons of mass terror. On the sixtieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, it would be valuable for someone on his staff to explain to him that the US was the first country to develop such weapons of mass terror and the only country to have used them.
The American people need to wake up to the jeopardy we face due to the lack of US leadership toward nuclear disarmament. So long as the US holds onto these weapons, others will be encouraged and inspired to develop them. By taking seriously its legal and moral obligations to achieve the elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world, the US will be improving its own security, protecting its cities, and leaving behind the Journey of Death – the all too apt name of the birthplace of nuclear weapons – in favor of the path of peace.
David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author of many studies of peace in the Nuclear Age. His latest books are Today Is Not a Good Day for War and Einstein – Peace Now!