We Americans like our holidays to be celebratory rather than melancholy, opportunities for mutual congratulation rather than regret. Even the solemn ones, notably Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, are opportunities for patriotic reflection and gratitude, only rarely involving any national soul-searching and certainly no apologies. Combine this with the fact that many Americans consider the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to have been legitimate war-ending tactics, and it isn’t surprising that Hiroshima Day (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki Day (Aug. 9), haven’t made it onto the national calendar. And probably never will.
Nonetheless, there is much to be said for reflecting on these two events, and not simply for their historical significance. August 6, 1945 was the first time a nuclear weapon was used to kill people and August 9, 1945 was the last. So far. On this, everyone can agree. In addition, use of nuclear weapons at any time in the future would constitute a tragedy of immense proportions. Nearly everyone likely agrees with this, too.
Although there is debate about whether nuclear weapons in any way “keep the peace” via their avowed role as deterrents, informed opinion – including increasing numbers of military and strategic authorities – has been moving strongly toward the position that these weapons are more liability (to everyone, including their possessors), than asset. In a much-noted piece appearing in The Wall Street Journal in 2007, four nuclear luminaries - George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn – endorsed “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.”
Seven years later, and 69 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world is assuredly not a peaceful place, and there is no evidence that more than 16,000 bombs and warheads have made the nuclear states any more secure than their non-nuclear counterparts. Nor have nuclear arsenals provided any discernible leverage in their various conflicts. Imagine a policeman armed with a backpack nuclear weapon, confronting a bank-robber. His “deterrent” would simply be too blunt, too destructive, too lacking in credibility, to provide any benefit.
Thus, Russia hasn’t been able to leverage its megatonnage on behalf of interventionism in Ukraine; moreover, if there is a worse scenario possible in that currently beleaguered country, it would be if Ukraine hadn’t made the wise decision, upon achieving independence from the USSR, to denuclearize.
Similarly, the US arsenal hasn’t provided tactical or strategic support in extricating itself from the quagmires of Iraq or Afghanistan. Israel has been and will continue to be unable to take advantage of its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East … until the awful day arrives when this monopoly no longer exists, whereupon things will doubtless be even worse, for everyone. No one seriously thinks that a nuclear strike will ever be used to prevent Iran from acquiring its own nuclear weapons; here, as in other cases (notably India and Pakistan, and North Korea), nuclear weapons are the problem, not the solution.
Various national and international leaders can be expected to reliably “condemn” despicable acts of terrorism and murder, especially when perpetrated against noncombatants – but of course, only after they have happened. By contrast, taking the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki seriously – thinking of Aug 6 and 9, perhaps, as “Nuclear Awareness Days” – would give us an opportunity to meditate on not only the terrible reality of what transpired in 1945, but to condemn the world’s worst weapons before they are used again and even, with luck and perseverance, to generate momentum toward eventually eliminating them.
The world’s weapons of mass destruction are under increasingly tight legal restraints and prohibitions; this is true of chemical and biological weapons, landmines, and cluster munitions, leaving only the worst of all: nuclear. The opportunity now exists to further stigmatize them. Thus, the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons will be held in Vienna in early December, aiming to hammer out an international treaty declaring nuclear weapons in violation of international law. The concept is strongly supported by a wide majority of the world’s non-nuclear states, as well as such organizations as the World Council of Churches, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.
Although it can be argued that such a treaty would be meaningless unless ratified by the nuclear powers, there is little doubt that a widespread acknowledged ban on nuclear weapons would be a major step (psychologically no less than legally), toward delegitimizing these terrible devices whose use would be not only abhorrent but literally self- and planet-destructive.
Regrettably, the US is not even planning to attend the forthcoming Vienna conference. Rather than being the “indispensible nation,” we and the other nuclear powers seem content to be status quo states and thus, increasingly irrelevant. Fortunately, the world is increasingly prepared to move on without us, such that maybe, just maybe, we will eventually catch up with those forces of fundamental decency and basic planetary hygiene.
Toward that end, I fervently recommend Nuclear Awareness Days, an opportunity to reflect not only on what has happened but also what might yet be achieved.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and peace activist, and professor of psychology at the University of Washington; his most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science.