Robert Oppenheimer reflecting on the moments following the first successful detonation test of a nuclear bomb
The teaching of WWII in our schools nearly always implies that the use of the atomic bomb was crucial to end the war. That is, to stop Hitler and his allies, to subdue the Japanese and obtain retribution for Pearl Harbour. The truth is that Germany and Japan were well and truly defeated before the atom bombs were dropped on Japan. In large part due to the merciless firebombing campaign the US had already been engaging in that killed more than the atomic bombs combined. This is not to discount that Japan was a formidable and brutal adversary, another aspect of WWII that is rarely appropriately taught is the scale of death and crimes against humanity that were committed by the Japanese military across Asia. Nazi Germany is the symbol of the great enemy, the swatsika blazoned perpetrators of the Holocaust, while the education generations have received about Japan's participation almost solely focuses on Pearl Harbour and the Japanese hold out to surrender following Germany's defeat. History, education, and therefore our entire popular culture, has been misinformed about the truth behind the 'good' war. Yet with all the modern threats we face, it's often dismissed and to continue discussing the use of the atomic bomb in WWII is usually only left for history or military buffs and academics.
It will always be relevant to re-examine the moral implications of the first use of a nuclear bomb. Though we can't be naive - to stand against nuclear proliferation and work towards peace we are obligated to confront all complex layers of that position. Supporters of the popular theory that the bomb did 'end the war' would charge those their opponents who say the bomb should never have been used whatsoever cannot make that claim because they lack the intimate knowledge of all political and military intelligence available at that point in history. So as almost no one currently alive can ever be privy to those facts we are utterly unqualified to say we would have made a different choice in President Truman's position. Yet with a bit of research it's easy to discover that the statements of key military figures and a former president who did have access to all that relevant intelligence in 1945 - also support the conclusion that the bombings were essentially demonstrations of power, nothing more. (See Was Hiroshima Necessary? and The Bomb Didn't Beat Japan - Stalin did).
The propaganda that has been infused in our collective historical education paints America as making a hard choice that they were loathe to do but that 'saved the world'. There is an obvious flipside perspective to that decision that is rarely considered. A key physicist, on the Manhattan Project, Leo Szilard (who also worked equally hard to convince two presidents not to use the bomb), pointed out that we would not have been so tolerant if that decision if the enemy had struck first:
"If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them."
The allied propagandists and world media would have wasted no time condemning the use of such a weapon as further proof of the depravity and disregard of the Nazi regime to the wellbeing on everyone on earth. It's not difficult to picture the headlines that could have been, and how offensive it is to consider how the heroism of America ending the war with the bomb (the headlines even equated it with peace being restored) is taught in the vast majority of education systems decade after decade.
Hiroshima - Ground Zero
It seems obvious if America needed to reveal the effectiveness of their new weapon that a bomb exploded near the coast of Japan would have been sufficient to cement a surrender on US terms. Though holding that position begs the question; considering how tenacious the Japanese were and what they were capable of, what if a warning shot had not been enough? Logically of course, there is no way to know the answer to this question, but we can consider the Japanese reaction to the attack.
Part of Emperor Hirohito's statement of surrender on August 12th, 1945 read:
"Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of the human civilisation."
The civilians killed in the world's first nuclear attack were not only largely non-military, there were also an estimated 20,000 Korean and Chinese conscripts between both cities. The initial death toll was 210,000 and many more died soon after from radiation poisoning, burns, and high rates of cancer continued for decades following the attacks.
The total number of innocent lives affected will never be calculated with certainty. Images of the attacks were actively suppressed by the allied governments. Photographs of the victims and the devastation were deemed inflammatory and unnecessary for the allied civilian populations to witness.
Hypocritical, considering allied soldiers forced German civilians to view the concentration camps near their towns and cities, so they could bear witness to hell that the Nazis had wrought. The gravity of using the power of atomic energy against human beings demands that every one of us be exposed to it's aftermath. Not through fictionalized accounts, (though there is a nuclear scare film from the UK that comes close), but by facing with the incomprehensible suffering of the victims.
The choice to use a nuclear bomb is fundamentally incompatible with justice. To engage in this type of nuclear strike is to be culpable for mass murder of innocent human beings almost solely due to their unfortunate circumstance of having been born of that particular place and time. Not only that, by not actively working to eradicate the use of nuclear weapons, we put the world's population at risk.
To stand and speak against war, nuclear war and nuclear proliferation we will have to be vigilant, but also objective, and prepared to be thought idealistic and foolish. As great as the strength of our convictions, if it happens that well-meant appeals for peace stop a nuclear strike that can be unequivocally proven to have been necessary to prevent a truly greater evil, then we will deserve to be judged harshly for our idealism. I am willing to be held accountable if that is the case.
If you intend to be a part of the movement for nuclear disarmament, let it bolster your confidence to know that far more reputable thinkers than you and I have come to the same conclusions. Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein's manifesto asks us to imagine renouncing war, and implores those in power to admit that our destructive capabilities have left every one of us in peril.
"I tried for years to find out what had happened to her, but I never did," he said. "She died in one of the camps, I imagine."
There were no children of the marriage and Rotblat never remarried. He was a man who had every vengeful reason to work towards a bomb to be used to stop Hitler. However, when he discovered that the primary goal had become to intimidate Russia, and the Japanese and Germans were already subdued, he resigned from the project immediately. His name may not be familiar, yet he is a Nobel Prize winner and spent his life working with fellow scientists and academics to stop nuclear proliferation.
Unlike other scientists on the Manhattan Project, Rotblat believed that science has a moral obligation to speak out and to be held accountable when discoveries are used for immoral purposes. His own research was instrumental to the revelation that a nuclear reaction could be used as a bomb, and he spent the rest of his life campaigning against it. As the Cold War continued Rotblat continued to fear for the future if nuclear weapons were not brought under some control:
"The most terrifying moment in my life was October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I did not know all the facts - we have only learned recently how close we were to war - but I knew enough to make me tremble."