(Robert Oppenheimer reflects on the moments following the first successful detonation test of a nuclear bomb)
While the teaching of WWII in 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. 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, torture 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 accounts of Japan's participation almost solely focus on Pearl Harbour and the Japanese hold out to surrender following Germany's defeat.
It will always be relevant to re-examine the moral implications of the first use of the nuclear bomb. Yet we can't be naive - to stand against nuclear proliferation and work towards peace, we are obligated to confront all the complex layers of that position. To charge that the bomb should never have been used whatsoever would require a vast accounting of facts and intimate knowledge of all political and military intelligence available at that point in history.
Hiroshima - Ground Zero
For my part, the only stance I can take is that a nuclear bomb exploded near the coast of Japan would have been sufficient to illicit surrender. 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?
Japan's War Minister did not initially want to surrender even after the bombing, he believed America had used all the atomic power it possessed. Fortunately Emperor Hirohito chose surrender on August 12th, 1945 and part of his statement 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 human civilisation.
This statement could be used to argue that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was indeed necessary, and obviously the choice to use civilian targets was instrumental in Japan's surrender. I contend Hirohito's words equally convey that the absolute power of the bomb could have been demonstrated on a different, wholly non-civilian and non-populated target to the same effect.
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 simple-minded 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.
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 in the revelation that a nuclear reaction could be used as a bomb, and he spent the rest of his life campaigning against it.
May many others follow his example.