This week marks 75 years since the United States attacked two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with nuclear weapons. The solemn annual commemorations on the 6th and 9th of August, respectively, grow more poignant each year as those Hibakusha who remain—the victims of these bombings—push ever-harder to share their stories so the world understands the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons.
Sadly, this year’s commemorations also follow vivid, horrible images from massive explosions in Beirut. Though nuclear weapons were not involved, and the causes remain somewhat unclear, the devastation in Beirut is yet another wake up call to the incredible explosive power many countries hold.
In this 75th year after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I urge readers to to check out the many great articles, photo essays, and interviews with victims of the attacks in the media this week. The world cannot forget the destruction and suffering inflicted by the use of nuclear weapons on Japan.
Spending time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystalized my belief that, while much nuclear debate focuses on policies for the circumstances in which our countries would use nuclear weapons, the technicalities of the actual weapons we create and their capabilities must take a more central role in considering how we decrease the threat of nuclear war.
As CSR’s late founding Board member Dr. Janne Nolan often and eloquently conveyed, day to day practicalities—what nuclear technologies we have, and their related delivery systems, handling requirements, plans, and routine processes—affect the world’s trajectories regarding these weapons more than high rhetoric or politics.
As it is their job to do so, war planners will plot out how their countries may act in conflict based on their nation’s technical capabilities, advantages, and limitations. Put another way, if we have certain nuclear weapons, we will create contingency plans for using those specific weapons in warfare. If such wars occur, these plans can of course become a reality—facilitated by the countless small steps our forces take to posture and prepare for such plans to potentially be ordered into action.
We see this in stark detail in the histories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which often read less as decisive actions and more as a void in political leaders stopping plans from being carried forward. This is especially acute for the days after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. While the effects of the first nuclear attack on Japan were still being documented and transmitted to Washington (and indeed, they were still unfolding), American forces were preparing the nuclear bomb dubbed “Fat Man” at an island in the Pacific for a second attack. Late August 6th and into the 7th, then the 8th, and the first hours of the morning of the 9th, no one put the breaks on these preparations.
Nagasaki was not even on the initial list of potential targets for the second nuclear bombing of Japan, but as hours passed after the Hiroshima attack, the weather made dropping Fat Man on other potential targets too difficult. On August 9th, the aircraft circled for hours, eventually burning through much of its fuel. A clearer shot on a target opened up. The pilot was given authority to drop the bomb. Plans and their backup plans were put into action. Brakes were not applied.
Planning can become reality all too easily. The history of decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and actions that occurred (and that did not occur) in the days of interlude between them, make this clear. The use of one nuclear weapon can lead to the use of the next one (and, we can assume, when they are available, others thereafter, including in retaliation). While many untested theories state that humans will control such escalation in conflict, a few months of plans being carried out 75 years ago indicate otherwise.
To be clear, I write this not to put blame on the actions taken by the planners, pilots, and other personnel who carried out their orders regarding the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the steps leading up to those points. Even if it was not formalized in the same ways 75 years ago as it is today, the president was ultimately responsible.
Today, for the United States, there are systems in place to ensure deliberate decision-making at the presidential level would be required for the use of nuclear weapons. Even so, that president’s decisions can be heavily influenced and their options shaped by the range of capabilities on hand and related plans that are presented.
This is one reason why I and many colleagues (at CSR and around the world) are working to nudge away from the types of nuclear weapons most likely to be seen as usable or play a central role in miscalculations due to their technical specifications. This includes types of nuclear weapons that are viewed by some as more acceptable to use in conflict, those for which a receiving country may not know if it is nuclear or not—and those for which countries may delegate decisions regarding their use to those on the perilous front lines of a conflict.
Of course, there are people who point to the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons the United States, Russia, and to a smaller degree other countries have built since World War II, coupled with the fact that they have not (yet) been used. We convince ourselves that escalation occurring relatively on autopilot would not occur these days, especially if nuclear attacks each require active presidential decision. Or that because we know the devastating humanitarian effects of nuclear war, this will restrain future political leaders from taking a conflict across the nuclear threshold.
Here we must be persistent in ensuring that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the world does not stop reexamining the histories and lessons of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We don’t know what will come of untested theories of what humans will do or not do with nuclear weapons in conflict unless the day comes that they are put to that test.
But we do know that when we develop new nuclear weapons capabilities, there are men and women whose jobs will be devoted to planning, training, and preparing for using them. That daily, persistent work will shape the conditions for future nuclear weapons use or restraint. Our nuclear plans and posture must account for this reality if we are to truly learn from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if there is hope for ensuring they mark the last uses of nuclear weapons in warfare.
Christine Parthemore is the CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks