Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons: A Review

Let’s talk about nuclear weapons.

Honestly, I almost didn’t bother with Ward Wilson’s book, Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons.  I wasn’t sure what more there was to be said about the subject. Especially after Rachel Maddow’s Drift, which had great, very scary things to say about our current nuclear arsenal.   Turns out, there’s a ton more to be said.  Conservative, liberal, libertarian, this is a book for everyone.  Thoughtful and smart, not just some anti-nuke rant. Get this book and read it.

Start with this, the first myth Wilson explodes.  Let’s talk about Hiroshima.  I know it’s still a controversial subject.  Was Truman morally justified in making the decision to drop the bomb?  What would have happened if he hadn’t dropped it?  Was Japan close to surrender?  Also, what about Nagasaki?  Was that bomb necessary?  Nukes have only been used once, in one war, dropped by one country.  Us, the United States of America.  So were we justified?

Here’s Ward Wilson’s response: he couldn’t care less.  All that hand-wringing?  Completely unnecessary.  What he thinks is this: Hiroshima didn’t accomplish anything.  It did not end the war.  It was not decisive.  It did not force Japan’s surrender.  It had, essentially, no impact on the end of the war.

Wo.

So here’s his evidence.  We dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  The Nagasaki bomb was dropped on August 9.  The Japanese Supreme Council met to discuss the war on August 9; the Nagasaki bomb fell while they were meeting, and they didn’t hear of it until after they’d already decided to surrender. This is according to the minutes of the meeting, which are now in the public record.  Okay, so the conventional narrative is that it took them three days to assess the damage in Hiroshima, and when they did, that was it, that bomb was too fearsome and destructive for them to continue fighting.

But from Japanese sources, we learn that the Supreme Council knew about Hiroshima, and knew it was an atomic bomb, on August 7.  Japanese scientists were, after all, working on one too.  They knew what an A-bomb was.  The exact extent of the damage wasn’t known–they called for an investigation, and a preliminary report was delivered, but not until August 10.  Basically, the bombing of Hiroshima didn’t bother the Supreme Council  enough to even think it worth meeting about.  And when they did finally meet, it wasn’t even on the agenda.  It just wasn’t important.  They’d lost another city. Big deal. They’d lost a lot of cities.  Conventional bombing had already destroyed 68 Japanese cities, most of them almost completely obliterated.  300,000 civilians had already died, another 750, 000 injured.  1.7 Japanese people were already homeless.  And that’s just from conventional bombing.  Hiroshima just meant they’d lost another city, to a more destructive bomb.  The Japanese Supreme Council had already decided that the loss of cities was an acceptable cost of war.  There’s no evidence to suggest that the introduction of a more deadly weapon changed that calculus.

If I can step in here and offer a parenthetical comment, let me suggest an example closer to home, one that Wilson doesn’t mention. During the American Civil War, the main weapon for the troops on both sides was a muzzle-loaded rifled musket, firing Minie balls for bullets.  They were much more accurate than the guns used in previous wars, but they still took awhile to reload; they were clumsy and inefficient weapons.  So what happened when a new weapon was introduced, a repeating lever action breech-loaded rifle?  Because the Henry repeating rifle was invented during the Civil War, and Northern soldiers had them as early as 1862.  Mass production began in 1864, and maybe 14,000 were in service by the end of the war.

Southern soldiers hated those things.  And even when they were able to capture one, they didn’t have ammo for it.  What a huge advantage, to have a weapon you could fire five times before reloading (and which you could reload really easily).  Should have changed the course of the war.  Should have been as decisive as an H-bomb.  But it didn’t change anything.  The North had this far superior weapon, much superior firepower, but the South kept fighting nonetheless.  And they killed plenty of Northern soldiers too, with those old-fashioned muzzle-loading muskets.  They were ferocious opponents before the Henry rifle went into production, and they were just as formidable afterwards.  They weren’t about to surrender based on a technological advantage, and didn’t give up until Lee’s army was finally surrounded.

Same thing. So the Americans had this nifty new weapon, way more destructive than what they’d previously been using.  One bomb could destroy an entire city.  Well, so what?  Conventional weapons had already destroyed plenty of cities.  One bomb wasn’t a game-changer.

So what happened in Japan?  Between August 6, 1945 and August 9, what new element was introduced that changed the nature of the war so completely (from a Japanese perspective) that they immediately met and immediately surrendered?

On August 8, the Soviets invaded Manchuria.

That was it.  A one-front war suddenly became a two-front war.  The non-aggression pact they’d signed with the Soviets was violated.  From that point, the remaining Japanese war objectives (basically to hang on long enough to negotiate a peace with better terms than the unconditional surrender the Americans were calling for) were unaccomplishable.  From that point on, the war was over.  And at that point, the suffering of the Japanese people really did seem to be in vain.

Is this just supposition on Wilson’s part?  Just a theory?  Not at all.  Every extant Japanese source confirms it.  They didn’t care about Hiroshima.  Manchuria was the game-changer.

And there’s the first major myth about nuclear weapons, rendered null and void.

Nuclear weapons are valuable as psychological weapons.  That’s the way we’ve sold them, and that’s why North Korea and Iran want one. They’re so scary that if you have one, it changes the way the rest of the world views you.  Proof?  The Japanese surrendered three days after the first time anyone used one.  But if that initial proof turns out to be untrue?  Maybe it changes how we view them overall.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but the whole book is that good.  It’s a slim book: less than 150 pages.  But you’ll never think of Hiroshima the same way again after you read it. It’ll change what you think of the Cuban missile crisis (easily the most terrifying chapter I’ve ever read in any book ever).  It’ll change how you think about international politics.  And it’ll change what you think about nukes.

Right now, as I speak, the President is meeting with Republicans, trying to figure out some places where our government can cut spending.  Let’s start with nukes.  Let’s get rid of them, all of them, everywhere.  It can be done, and it’s time.

 

6 thoughts on “Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons: A Review

  1. John Michael Graham

    Wow. There goes that theory. Of course, the people making the decisions in the summer of ’45 didn’t know any of this. Does the book also explore the thinking that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was done so soon after Hiroshima so as not to let Japan surrender before the military could analyze the differences between the two types of bomb: uranium vs. plutonium?
    BTW, and not to be nit-picky, but it wasn’t a Hydrogen Bomb that was dropped on either city, but an Atom Bomb. The first Hydrogen bomb was successfully tested in 1952.

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  2. Curtis Bray

    Eric, just how do you propose to rid the world of nukes? Is the US ever to trust the likes of Kim Jong-un or Ahmadinejad? Or China, Russia, or Pakistan for that matter? Admit this is a pipe dream and let’s move on.

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  3. admin Post author

    It’s not remotely a pipe dream. Our possession of nuclear weapons obviously has no deterrent effect on Iran or North Korea; on the contrary, nuclear weapons have primarily symbolic effect, which is why rogue nations want them. Obviously, international diplomacy needs to continue its pressure on guys like Kim and whoever mullahs are actually in charge in Iran. But we can continue our efforts to disarm. The former Soviet republics certainly don’t want them anymore.

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  5. Ward

    This is really a great review. And I love the Civil War example with repeating rifles, which I didn’t know, and makes the point neatly and forcefully. Thanks.

    Reply

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