Sunday, August 9, 2015

Seventy Years Ago Today

"The atomic bomb is too dangerous to be loose in a lawless world. That is why Great Britain, Canada and the United States, who have the secret of its production, do not intend to reveal that secret until means have been found to control the bomb so as to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from the danger of total destruction."

Harry Truman
Aug. 9, 1945

Seventy years ago today, an atomic bomb was dropped on one country by another for what was the last time — so far.

The rationale for using the bombs in 1945 was to prevent what was widely believed to be a bloodier invasion of the Japanese mainland. But that has been questioned from the start, and proponents of the use of the bomb have been raising the estimate of lives saved ever since. If one is to defend the use of the atomic bomb, I suppose, any lives that are saved, even if it is only one or two, not hundreds of thousands or millions, is justifiable.

But then we start getting into complicated math — because there were casualties, between 50,000 and 150,000 initial civilian casualties, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. It is hard to be precise. Harry Truman had been told that a quick resolution of the war in the Pacific would save about 200,000 soldiers who could be expected to be lost in an invasion of Japan.

If you are of the opinion that all lives matter, though, even if the civilian casualties were the low–end figure, that would produce a much smaller net gain than simply focusing on the invasion that was prevented.

But that is just one part of the story, and it really only compares apples to oranges. The estimated casualties from an invasion would be accumulated over weeks and months of painstakingly capturing ground from a determined enemy; the civilian casualties I just cited came from the bombs' immediate detonations. To be more accurate, you would have to include those who died weeks and months later from radiation poisoning, which would further reduce the number of lives that were presumably saved.

Those who supported the use of the bomb kept raising the estimate over the years; recent estimates have been in the millions.

Of course, the whole subject of how many lives were saved by dropping two atomic bombs 70 years ago is a purely hypothetical one — and, as a rule, I prefer to avoid hypotheticals. What really is of greater importance is where we are now, seven decades later.

I suppose the nuclear technology that was born in World War II could not have remained secret for long, especially when you consider that so many scientists on both sides had been trying to harness the power of the atom; showing the world what the bomb could do may well have made the world, as some people claimed, safer — for awhile.

Until other countries began to get the technology, by legitimate or illegitimate means, and that was inevitable because, throughout history, unconventional weapons have, in time, become conventional weapons. It might have been delayed for a time by withholding the revelation from the public — but it could never have been kept under wraps forever.

That visual display of the bombs going off — and the photographs of victims that circulated later — may have been more valuable than anyone knew in preventing the use of nuclear weapons in the last 70 years. As more nations have joined the nuclear club, a sense of the awesome responsibility in their hands seems to have come with it. Perhaps that has been because, until fairly recently, everyone who acquired nuclear technology felt the weight of a moral obligation not to use it.

But now nations that sponsor terrorism are acquiring the technology, and I fear they will not hesitate to use it. They have already expressed their objectives, and the annihilation of perceived enemies is at the top of their lists. They have made no attempt to conceal their intention, and the United States has made no real attempt to prevent them from achieving it.

The "secret" to which Truman referred has been out for a long time, and there is much work to be done if his pledge to "control the bomb" is to be fulfilled.