As the clock struck 8:15 a.m. in Japan this very day exactly 60 years ago, the world witnessed a wholly new kind and scale of brutality, leading to mass death. The entire city of Hiroshima was flattened by a single bomb, made with just 60 kg of uranium, and dropped from a B-29 United States Air Force warplane.
Within seconds, temperatures in the city centre soared to 4,000 C, more than 2,500 higher than the melting point of iron. Savage firestorms raged through Hiroshima as buildings were reduced to rubble. Giant shock-waves releasing blast energy ripped through the city, wreaking more destruction.
Within seconds, 80,000 people were killed. Within hours, over 100,000 died, most of them crushed under the impact of blast-waves and falling buildings, or severely burnt by firestorms. Not just people, the body and soul of Hiroshima had died.
Then came waves of radiation, invisible and intangible, but nevertheless lethal. These took their toll slowly, painfully and cruelly. Those who didn’t die within days from radiation sickness produced by exposure to high doses of gamma-rays or poisonous radio-nuclides, perished over years from cancers and leukaemias. The suffering was excruciating and prolonged. Often, the living envied the dead. Hiroshima’s death toll climbed to 140,000.
This was a new kind of weapon, besides which even deadly chemical armaments like mustard gas pale into insignificance. You could defend yourself against conventional-explosive bombs by hiding in an air-raid shelter or sandbagging your home. To protect yourself from a chemical attack, you could wear a gas mask and a special plastic suit. But against the nuclear bombs, there could be no defence –military, civil or medical.
Nuclear weapons are unique for yet another reason. They are, typically, not meant to be used against soldiers, but are earmarked for use against unarmed non-combatant civilians. But it is illegitimate and illegal to attack non-combatant civilians. Attacking them is commonly called terrorism. Hence, Hiroshima remains the world’s worst terrorist act.
Hiroshima’s bombing was followed three days later by an atomic attack on Nagasaki, this time with a bomb using a different material, plutonium. The effects were equally devastating. More than 70,000 people perished in agonising ways.
US President Harry S. Truman was jubilant. Six days later, Japan surrendered. The US cynically exploited this coincidence. It claimed that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had saved thousands of lives by bringing the war to an early end. This was a lie. Japan was preparing to surrender anyway and was only waiting to negotiate the details of the terms. That entire country has been reduced to a wasteland. Most of its soldiers had stopped fighting. Schoolgirls were being drafted to perform emergency services in Japanese cities.
American leaders knew this. Historians Peter Kuznick and Mark Selden have just disclosed in the British New Scientist magazine that three days before Hiroshima, Truman agreed Japan was “looking for peace”.
General Dwight Eisenhower said in a 1963 Newsweek interview that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”. Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, also said that “the 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”.
The real function of the two bombs was not military, but political.
It was to establish the US’s superiority and pre-eminence within the Alliance that defeated the Axis powers, and thus to shift the terms of the ensuing new power struggle in Washington’s favour.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings inaugurated another rivalry: the Cold War, which was to last for four decades. They also triggered fierce competition among the other victors of the World War to acquire nuclear weapons. The insane arms race this launched but hasn’t ended yet.
From a few dozen bombs in the early 1950s, the world’s nuclear arsenals swelled to several hundred warheads in a decade, and then several thousand by the 1970s. At the Cold War’s peak, the world had amassed 70,000 nukes, with explosive power equivalent to one million Hiroshimas, enough to destroy Planet Earth 50 times over.
One-and-a-half decades after the Cold War ended, the world still has 36,000 nuclear weapons. Nothing could be a greater disgrace!
Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive and have never ceased to horrify people and hurt the public conscience. The damage they cause is hard to limit in space –thanks to the wind-transporting radioactivity over thousands of miles –or in time. Radioactive poisons persist and remain dangerous for years, some for tens of thousands of years. For instance, the half-life of plutonium-239, which India uses in its bombs, is 24,400 years. And the half-life of uranium-235, which Pakistan uses in its bombs, is 710 million years!
Nuclear weapons violate every rule of warfare and every convention governing the conduct of armed conflict, they target non-combatant civilians. They kill indiscriminately and massively. They cause death in cruel, inhumane and degrading ways. And the destruction gets transmitted to future generations through genetic defects. That’s why nuclear weapons have been held to be incompatible with international law by the International Court of Justice.
The world public overwhelmingly wants nuclear weapons to be abolished. The pro-abolition sentiment is strong and endorsed by 70 to 90 percent of the population even in the nuclear weapons-states (NWSs), according to opinion polls. More than 180 nations have forsworn nuclear weapons by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But a handful of states remain addicted to their “nuclear fix”. Led by the US, five NWSs refuse to honour their obligation under the NPT to disarm their nuclear weapons. And three of them, India, Pakistan and Israel, haven’t even signed the treaty.
India and Pakistan occupy a special position within the group of NWSs. They are its most recent members. They are regional rivals too, with a half-century-long hot-cold war, which has made South Asia the world’s “most dangerous place”. There is an imperative need for India and Pakistan, rooted in self-preservation, to negotiate nuclear restraint and abolition of nuclear weapons. But the chances of this seem rather dim.
Even dimmer is the possibility of the five major NWSs embracing nuclear disarmament. Their reluctance to do so largely springs from their faith in nuclear deterrence. This is a dangerously flawed doctrine. It makes hopelessly unrealistic assumptions about unfailingly rational and perfect behaviour on the part of governments and military leaders and rules out strategic miscalculation as well as accidents. The real world is far messier, and full of follies, misperceptions and mishaps. Yet, the deterrence juggernaut rolls on.
Today, the system of restraint in the global nuclear order is on the verge of being weakened. The US-India nuclear deal (discussed here last week) is a bad precedent. But even worse are US plans to develop nukes both downwards (deep-earth penetrators or bunker-busters) and upwards (“Star Wars”-style space-based Ballistic Missile Defence). If the US conducts nuclear tests in pursuit of this, that will impel others to follow suit, and encourage some non-nuclear states to go overtly nuclear, raising the spectre of another Hiroshima.
Sixty years on, that would be a disgrace without parallel. Humankind surely deserves better.
The writer is a Delhi-based researcher, peace and human rights activist, and former newspaper editor.
Originally published by The News International.