Did Hiroshima Prevent WWIII?

Did Hiroshima Prevent WWIII?

by Michael Earl Patton
John Hersey's 1946 article in "The New Yorker" magazine, which was reprinted in this book that same year, told the real life experiences of 6 survivors of the atomic blast at Hiroshima. This was the first time most Americans had a chance to find out about many of the bomb's devastating effects, which were much more intense than the weapons used against cities before. Photo: Michael Earl Patton

My two articles on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima prompted an actual letter to the editor. Not an e-mail, but a letter through the U.S. Postal Service. It’s very short, but I thought I would reprint it below and respond to its main point. The letter, in full, is below:

“Even Oliver Stone was not aware at a conference on JFK that the important result of the nuke bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the photos prevented WWIII.”

Dan Griffith
Covington, KY

I had written my last couple articles on the subject of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima, the first by a sitting U.S. president. He did not apologize for the bombings, but I wanted to explore the topic more than its usual brief treatments in the media. I pointed out that Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom (Britain), and the U.S. had all engaged in massive bombing campaigns against the civilian populations of cities. Such non-discriminate bombings are a violation of the 1907 Hague Convention, which had been signed by all of those countries. It is noteworthy that at the German war crimes trials at Nuremburg, the Nazis were not charged with violating that aspect of the convention, and neither were the Japanese at their trials. The conventional explanation is that aerial bombardment was not explicitly prohibited, but the treaty is pretty clear as it is. Article 22 states that the right of belligerents to cause injury is not unlimited, and Article 27 states that in sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes. Note that Article 27 covers “bombardments,” not “all bombardments except aerial bombardments.” Carpet bombing with incendiaries, let alone nuclear bombings, meant that no steps were taken, and could not have been taken, to protect these buildings. Other articles from the Hague Convention may also apply. I’m sure there were no such charges against the Germans and the Japanese about their aerial bombardments because that would have exposed the Allies to similar charges.

The irony is that such massive bombardments probably did not significantly diminish war-fighting capabilities. Any actual effect was more than made up by the increased motivation by those who had their homes destroyed to work even harder. Certainly – and there is no doubt about this – that is the effect that the German “Blitz” had on the people of Britain. As for Allied attacks on German cities, German war production increased every month right until almost the end of the war when the transportation system started to fail from the bombings of strategic bridges and railyards, along with the bombing of key installations such as ball bearing factories. Japanese war production was constricted by the Allied sinking of their supply ships from the mainland. Towards the end, the Japanese didn’t even have enough fuel for their warships. It is noteworthy also that the Soviet Union, in their massive counter-offensive from Moscow to the Elbe River in Germany, did not practice carpet bombing of cities as far as I could determine. The bombing of Dresden in eastern Germany in 1945, to which the Soviets were advancing, was done by British and American bombers, not Soviet. The Soviets had not requested that the city be bombed.

Back to the letter. The main point seems to be that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in some way prevented World War III. The letter also states Oliver Stone did not know this, but does not say that he agreed with that statement. Indeed, in his book with Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, the two argue strongly that our dropping of the bombs motivated the Soviet Union to quickly develop their own atomic weapons. And from the relatively crude atomic weapons of the 1940’s, both the United States and the Soviet Union quickly developed the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. Today the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel all have atomic weapons. A few other countries could probably develop them if they so choose, or perhaps already have access to them through an ally. If by World War III the author meant a war with widespread use of nuclear weapons, then it is self-evident that there has not been such a war, so far. It is another matter to show that the singular use of the atomic bombs by the United States has prevented a widespread nuclear war. It is likely that the actual use of the atomic bomb spurred other countries to develop their own. If nine countries having atomic weapons somehow contributes to peace, well, that is a claim that is not self-evident. The question then becomes, does adding more countries to the above list improve world security? There have been serious proposals for Japan to obtain such weapons, for instance, due to both China and North Korea having them. Would that help? My opinion is no, but not one world leader has asked me. And don’t even begin to talk about Iran.

There have also been an unknown number of close calls where the world came close to nuclear war. The best known was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union started placing nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 during the Kennedy administration. Computer “glitches” and human errors led to false alarms in 1979 and 1983 that a nuclear attack was underway. Fortunately, the errors were recognized in time or else I would not be writing this. The first incident was due to American mistakes, the second was due to a malfunctioning Soviet system. It is hard to credit that the use of nuclear weapons during World War II had in any way been a benefit here, helping to resolve these crises.

If by World War III the writer meant any large-scale conflict, that is a more contestable claim. Since World War II there have been the Chinese Civil War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq War, Gulf War (the first one, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait), U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. invasion of Iraq (the second Gulf War), Libyan Civil War, Ukraine, Syrian Civil War, and many other conflicts. The number of refugees from war today is comparable to those of World War II. The total number of people killed seems to be less – so far.

There is one final point I want to make. The historical pattern had been that following a major war, the horrors of that war were burned into the memories of the parties involved at least for a generation. For example, following the U.S. Civil War (or the “War Between the States” for our Southern readers), the U.S. did not engage in another foreign war until the Spanish-American War a generation later. Europe, following World War II, has seen peace. But not the United States. Something is different this time. I do not know what, but one thing it is clearly not: the result of our dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was not peace for the United States for a generation.