On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing some 90,000 people immediately and another 55,000 by the end of 1945.  Three days later, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing some 40,000 people immediately and another 35,000 by the end of 1945.

David KriegerIn between these two bombings, on August 8, 1945, the U.S. signed the charter creating the Nuremberg Tribunal to hold Axis leaders to account for crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Under well-established international humanitarian law – the law of warfare – war crimes include using weapons that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants or that cause unnecessary suffering.  Because nuclear weapons kill indiscriminately and cause unnecessary suffering by radiation poisoning (among other grotesque consequences), the U.S. was itself in the act of committing war crimes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki while agreeing to hold its defeated opponents in World War II to account for their war crimes.

Those who doubt this conclusion should consider this hypothetical situation: During World War II, Germany creates two atomic bombs and uses them on British cities, killing tens of thousands of civilians.  Under such circumstances, can you imagine the Nazi leaders who ordered these attacks not being held accountable at Nuremberg for these bombings of civilian targets?

The U.S. has always publicly justified its use of atomic weapons against Japan on the grounds that they ended the war sooner and saved American lives, but did they?  Many key U.S. military leaders at the time didn’t think so, including Admiral William Leahy and General (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Admiral Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff and the top U.S. official presiding over meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his 1950 memoir based on his contemporaneous notes and diaries, “[T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender….”  He went on, “[I]n being the first to use it, we…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.”

General Eisenhower reported in his memoir a discussion with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, during which he was told of plans to use the atomic bombs on Japan.  Eisenhower wrote, “During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him [Stimson] my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives….”

In the decades that followed the atomic bombings in 1945, the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in an insane nuclear arms race, reaching some 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world by the mid-1980s.  Despite many accidents, miscalculations and international crises, nuclear weapons have not been used again in warfare.  Today there are still approximately 16,000 in the arsenals of nine countries, with over 90 percent of these in the possession of the U.S. and Russia.  Some 1,800 nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within moments of an order to do so.  Most of these weapons are many times more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear weapons do not make the U.S. or the world more secure.  On the contrary, they threaten civilization and the human species.  Fortunately, steps may be taken to eliminate this threat.

The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty obligates its parties, including the U.S., to engage in negotiations in good faith for a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and for nuclear disarmament.  In a 1996 Advisory Opinion, the International Court of Justice interpreted this obligation as follows: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

Because these negotiations have yet to take place, one small and courageous country, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, has brought lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries at the International Court of Justice and in U.S. federal court, seeking court orders for these countries to fulfill their obligations under international law.

On the 70th anniversary of the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is past time for the U.S. to change course.  Rather than pursue current plans to spend $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. should lead the world in negotiations to achieve the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.  This would make the world safer.  It would also recognize the criminal nature of these weapons and show respect for the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of whom have worked tirelessly to assure that their past does not become someone else’s future.

This article was originally published by Truthout: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32073-the-us-should-eliminate-its-nuclear-arsenal-not-modernize-it