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THE BOMB : Hiroshima: Changing the Way We Think About War

August 06, 1995|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is co-author of "Total War: What It Is, How It Got That Way" (Morrow). His most recent book is "Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb" (Knopf)

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended the war in the Pacific 50 years ago changed forever the way people think about science, war and international politics. But while some felt the bombs had introduced a new dark age of barbarism, in which human technical genius threatened to destroy us all, others decided the bomb offered a cheap and useful tool for keeping the peace.

This hopeful attitude was at first hidden by the sheer horror of what happened on the ground--the scores of thousands who died of blast, heat and radiation, and the cities reduced to a waste of blackened rumble over a palimpsest of streets. U.S. military authorities in Japan did their best to keep journalists away from the grim facts but the public got the picture--no painter's vision of hell could match the reality at ground zero. The darkening of the modern mind, begun in the nightmare of the trenches of the Western Front in World War I, was completed at Hiroshima. In the half-century since, no one paying attention has been free for a day from the fear that it will happen again.

But it has not happened again. Credit for this happy but unexpected turn of events must be shared--in what proportion it is hard to say--by the workings of Divine Providence and by the U.S. military policy of reliance on nuclear weapons, lots of them, for that sober circumspection in the minds of potential enemies that we call deterrence. Critics warned that the embrace of nuclear weapons for defense would prove fatal. But the White House and the Pentagon never looked back, and the history of the Cold War is largely the history of the arms race that paced it--a spiraling growth of nuclear weapons in numbers and sophistication that ended in the 1980s with the bankruptcy and collapse of the Soviet Union.

The public discussion of Hiroshima in recent weeks, reaching a climax all over the world today, has focused on the decision itself: Was it necessary to destroy Hiroshima to end the war promptly and save countless lives, American and Japanese alike? Or were the Japanese so close to admitting defeat that even a promise by President Harry S. Truman not to depose or arrest the emperor would have been enough to end the fighting?

Barely hidden by this is the more dangerous question: Was it right. To call Hiroshima "unnecessary" comes close to asking whether it was wrong, something to be ashamed of, to apologize for. By their nature such questions can be clarified, but never truly answered. The morality of an act is not an absolute quality, like mass or velocity. Ignored in this long argument about necessity has been the principal legacy of Hiroshima--which is not so much a memory of horror as a revolution in the way nations think about and prepare for war.

On the day Hiroshima died, the U.S. under-secretary of war, Robert Patterson, cabled his congratulations to the scientists at Los Alamos, insisting it was no time to slack off--efforts must be redoubled to keep the peace. The man who replaced J. Robert Oppenheimer as the laboratory's director, Norris Bradbury, spent the next 25 years refining the bomb. Its destructive power dwarfed all previous weapons, but the bomb was heavy, hard to deliver, dangerous to handle, subject to decay if left unused. Bradbury set out to fix all that; and he and his colleagues and eventually his rivals at a second bomb laboratory in Livermore, Calif., made the bomb in every way a more convenient, trustworthy and lethal instrument of war.

Because the bomb--any bomb--is supremely dangerous, the difference between having one and not having one is far, far greater than the difference between having a basic device and having a sophisticated fourth-generation weapon that can fit on the end of an artillery shell, or deliver a flood of designer radiation. But the truth is modern American bombs bear as much relation to Fat Man and Little boy as a new PC with a pentium chip and an 80-megabyte hard drive bears to an abacus.

The zillions of dollars spent on nuclear warheads and their delivery systems over the last half-century resulted in weapons that can destroy anything on or within a few hundred feet of the surface of any known location on the face of the earth. In the mid-1980s, these tens of thousands of weapons were tightly wired to warning systems and computer-driven war-fighting strategies that, set in motion, probably could not have been halted short of the destruction of every society more complex than an ant colony. This perfection of the nuclear infrastructure was intended to make war so "possible" that it was, in effect, "impossible"--too dangerous to justify any conceivable gain.

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