As we mourn the loss of all those killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by US atomic bombs, in August 1945, we cannot avoid the fact that we are closer than ever to nuclear war. The war on Ukraine is greatly increasing the risk. So too is Nato’s location of upgraded nuclear weapons across Europe — including Britain — and Russia’s siting of similar weapons in Belarus. Irresponsible talk suggesting that “tactical” nuclear weapons could be deployed on the battlefield — as if radiation can be constrained in a small area — makes nuclear use more likely.
And our own government is leading the charge on greater militarisation and is in denial about the dangers it is unleashing. This is a bad time for humanity — and for all forms of life on Earth. It’s time for us to stand up and say No: we refuse to be taken into nuclear Armageddon.
Help in raising awareness of the existential peril of nuclear weapons is coming from an unusual quarter — Hollywood. Many of you will have seen the new blockbuster, Oppenheimer. Many in the movement have their criticisms but my own feeling is that you cannot leave the film without being aware of the terror of nuclear weapons, and their world-destroying capacity. I attended a screening this week, hosted by London Region CND; it was sold out within hours, and followed by a dynamic audience discussion that lasted till 11pm. I recognised only two people in the audience. That’s the crowd we need to engage with — none of us just want to preach to the converted. Where you have the chance, engage with local screenings — take leaflets to give out as people leave the cinemas. But there is a particular flaw in the film I must raise, as we remember Hiroshima Day.
It was repeatedly suggested that dropping the bomb was necessary to end the second world war. Although there was eventually a quick aside that countered this, it could easily have been missed. So for the record, this is the reality of what happened.
Conventional wisdom, especially in the US, is that it was necessary to drop the bomb to bring about a speedy conclusion to the war and save lives. Even today many people believe that the bomb was necessary to bring about a Japanese surrender and to avoid the need for an invasion of Japan by the US, which might have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But extensive scholarly research in the US, using primary sources from the time, shows that this just wasn’t true. By the time the bomb was ready for use, Japan was ready to surrender. As General Dwight Eisenhower said, Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of face, and “it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
Here’s what was said at the time by some of the key players:
It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective blockade and successful bombing with conventional weapons … In being the first to use it we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. – Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s chief of staff
Nor were the atomic bombs decisive. It has long been held in justification that they made unnecessary an invasion of the Japanese mainland and thus saved the resultant fighting and thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides. On few matters is the adverse evidence so strong. The bombs fell after the decision had been taken by the Japanese government to surrender. That the war had to be ended was agreed at a meeting of key members of the supreme war direction council with the emperor on 20 June 1945, a full six weeks before the devastation of Hiroshima. – Professor JK Galbraith, official US investigator, Japan 1945
It would be a mistake to suppose that the fate of Japan was settled by the atomic bomb. Her defeat was certain before the first bomb fell and was brought about by overwhelming maritime power. – Winston S Churchill, British wartime leader
So if Japan was ready to surrender, why were atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A significant factor in the decision to bomb was the US’s desire to establish its dominance in the region after the war. Those planning for the post-war situation believed that this required US occupation of Japan, enabling it to establish a permanent military presence, shape its political and economic system and dominate the Pacific region. But the US’s key strategic concern, above all, was the position of the Soviet Union in the post-war world.
Evidence suggests that the US wanted to demonstrate its unique military power — its possession of the atomic bomb — in order to gain political and diplomatic advantage over the Soviet Union in the post-war settlement in both Asia and Europe. So nothing to do with ending the war with Japan.
I leave the final word to Joseph Rotblat — the true hero of the Manhattan Project. Whatever qualms Oppenheimer may have felt after the event, as shown in the film, the fact is he pursued the bomb to the bitter end. Rotblat was a nuclear physicist from a Polish-Jewish family. He had seen the development of the atomic bomb as a necessary evil in the arms race to defeat Hitler, and went to work on the Manhattan Project. At the end of 1944, it was clear that Germany was not going to succeed in making an atom bomb. In these circumstances, Rotblat left the Manhattan Project. Others tried to alert politicians to the dangers ahead. But top politicians pressed for the rapid completion of the bomb.
As Rotblat himself later pointed out: “There is good reason to believe that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not so much the end of the second world war as the beginning of the cold war, the first step in a fateful chain of events, the start of an insane arms race that brought us very close to a nuclear holocaust and the destruction of civilisation.”
In memory of all those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who have suffered the consequences since, let us do our utmost to prevent the same catastrophe happening again; let us take action to prevent our politicians catapulting us into nuclear war — and the destruction of all life on this planet.