Gwynne Dyer: Nuclear war avoided for 70 years

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      We have been hearing a lot about the 70th anniversary of the first use of a nuclear weapon on human beings, in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The more important anniversary, however, is August 9, when the last nuclear weapon was used in war, on the city of Nagasaki.

      It was predictable that atomic bombs would be used as soon as they were developed in 1945. It was the sixth year of the Second World War, and more than 60 million people had been killed already. But nobody would have believed then that nuclear weapons would not be used again in future wars.

      We cannot be sure that they never will be used in war again, of course, but 70 years is already an impressive accomplishent. How did we manage that? One way to answer that question is to consider the behaviour of U.S. President Harry S Truman, who was the man who decided to drop the first atomic bombs in 1945—and the first man to decide not to drop them, in 1951.

      Truman’s decision to drop the bombs in 1945 probably didn’t seem as momentous to him at the time as it looks now. Killing tens of thousands of civilians in cities by mass bombing (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo) was practically routine by 1945, and the atomic bombs would have seemed like just a more efficient way of doing the same thing.

      Besides, the fact that Japanese cities could now be destroyed by a single plane carrying a single bomb might well shock the Japanese government into surrendering. That would spare the lives of all the American soldiers (an estimated 46,000) who would die if Japan had to be invaded.

      Truman had fought in the First World War (he was the only major Allied war leader who did). Although he was not generally seen as an imaginative man, he would have been vividly aware of the ordeal that awaited American soldiers if they had to invade Japan. He would also have been conscious that the U.S. public would never forgive him if they found out that he had the bomb but didn’t use it to save those soldiers’ lives.

      So he gave the orders and the bombs fell, adding a last quarter-million lives to that 60-million death toll. But five-and-a-half years later, when U.S. forces in Korea were fleeing south after Chinese troops intervened in the war there (“the big bug-out”), Truman behaved quite differently.

      It may or may not be true that U.S. general Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the United Nations troops in Korea (including a third of a million Americans), wanted to drop atomic bombs on China’s Manchurian provinces to cut the supply lines of the Chinese troops in Korea. It is certainly true that Truman fired MacArthur, and that he did not use nuclear weapons even though thousands of American troops were being killed or captured.

      Truman never explained his decision, but one possible reason is that actually seeing what nuclear weapons do to human beings (which nobody had yet seen when he made his 1945 decision) may have changed his view of them. They were not just another new weapon. They were the ultimate weapon, and they must not be used. And the other reason is obvious.

      By late 1950, the United States had between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons—but the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb in the previous year, and by then it already had at least half a dozen of the things. The era of mutual deterrence had arrived.

      Truman didn’t know for certain that the Soviet Union would go to war if the U.S. dropped nuclear weapons on China. He would have been fairly certain that the Russians didn’t yet have the ability to drop even one on the United States, although they could definitely hit America’s allies in Western Europe. But it didn’t matter: once both sides have nuclear weapons, they get a great deal more cautious.

      In the following decades, many military theorists have worked hard to come up with strategies that would make nuclear weapons useful in war, and many scientists and engineers have worked on new techniques and technologies that would achieve the same objective. But nobody has ever had enough confidence in their promises to use even one of these weapons in a war.

      The number of nuclear weapons in the world (many of them much more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) peaked at around 50,000 in the mid-1980s, and has since fallen to about 15,000. The U.S. and Russia still own 93 percent of them, but seven other countries now have nukes too—and still nobody has used one in war.
      It is also true that no great power has fought any other great power directly for 70 years, which is certainly a first in world history. Is this because the two world wars had been so destructive that they created institutions like the UN Security Council to avoid another, or because they knew that great-power wars would probably be nuclear wars?

      Probably both, but at any rate we’re making progress.




      Aug 5, 2015 at 10:20am

      "70 years is already an impressive accomplishent. How did we manage that?"


      I Chandler

      Aug 5, 2015 at 1:35pm

      DYER: "a single bomb might well shock the Japanese government into surrendering. "

      Japan already wanted to surrender. The Japanese were shocked when the Soviets joined the Pacific war at the same time:

      Dyer: "MacArthur, who commanded the UN troops in Korea , wanted to drop atomic bombs on China. It is certainly true that Truman fired MacArthur..."

      Yes , MacArthur, was fired by Truman, partially because he persistently requested permission to use his own discretion in deciding whether to use atomic weapons on China during the War.
      It wasn't until the 60's that the Generals lost control of the nukes.

      Dyer:"Truman had fought in the First World War (he was the only major Allied war leader who did)"

      As a Colonel, Churchill made excursions to the Front - alcohol was permitted on the front.

      Dyer:"But it didn’t matter: once both sides have nukes, they get a great deal more cautious."

      Cautious? Nuclear brinksmanship was practiced by a few Presidents - Ike also fought in ww1:

      DYER: "In the following decades, many military theorists have worked hard to come up with strategies that would make nuclear weapons useful in war..But nobody has ever had enough confidence in their promises to use even one of these weapons in a war."

      The US had a hard time selling , "limited nuclear war" to Europe - a limited war could have escalated into a full-scale nuclear exchange.

      Greg G.

      Aug 5, 2015 at 4:00pm

      That's complete b.s. that the Japanese government wanted to surrender under *any* conditions. The Japanese government made that abundantly clear with the dogged resistance against the invasion of Okinawa. When word even got out of Hirohito's planned broadcast, that was a massive battle fought around the Imperial Palace with fanatical troops planning on killing the Emperor rather than allowing him to surrender. This is part of a clear historical record, so sorry I Chandler, your sources on this one are dead wrong, and ridiculously so. No credible historian gives any weight to claims to the contrary, there is just too heavy a preponderance of evidence that says the exact polar opposite.

      That being said, there wasn't a pressing need to use the atomic bombs *or* to mount an invasion, an invasion which would have produced around a million Allied casualties and presumably a lot more KIA than the 46,000 figure Dwynne quotes; the USA is still using Purple Heart medals that had been minted in anticipation of the invasion of the Japanese home islands fifty years later, and they still have a massive supply of them.

      So the Allies were definitely planning on the invasion of the home islands, but they really didn't need to as the naval blockade of Japan was *tight*; they could have just starved them out. The problem with this was the massive amount of civilian casualties, and probably of infinitely more concern to the Allies, the death by starvation of the thousands of Allied POWs held on the home islands. But as cruel as it sounds, a few thousand dead POWs seems like an acceptable trade-off to avoid the million casualties an invasion would have caused.

      No matter how fanatical the government and military of Japan were, once massive starvation kicked in there's no way they could have kept the civilian population from revolting against them, Japanese history makes that one point very clear.


      Aug 6, 2015 at 12:17pm

      Agreed, Japan was not about to surrender before the nukes came. Senior members of the government knew the war was lost, but they couldn't agree how to respond to it. Some wanted to quit immediately, others thought it was more honourable to fight to the last like the Germans, and between them were those who wanted to hold out for terms of surrender (even though the Allies had made it clear that there would be none).

      The problem was a serious lack of leadership in the Japanese government. Technically Hirohito was in charge but since he was considered a deity he didn't sully his hands with earthly affairs. All that was left to an executive council that was half military junta and half civilian oligarchy. Those men fought like cats, only never in the open since unanimity and maintaining face was paramount. The system guaranteed political paralysis even in their country's darkest hour.

      As for the Japanese people, most of them thought they were still winning the war in summer '45. What else would they think given the wall-to-wall propaganda? If any thought otherwise they kept their mouths shut for fear of being shot.

      @Greg G.

      Aug 6, 2015 at 2:35pm

      @Bruce "How did we manage that?" Luck.

      Stanislav Petrov got lucky on September 26, 1983:

      "No credible historian gives any weight to claims to the contrary"

      Alperovitz ( author of ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb’) wrote: "Though most Americans are unaware of the fact, increasing numbers of historians now recognise that the U.S. did not need to use the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan in 1945. "

      "there is just too heavy a preponderance of evidence that says the exact polar opposite."

      Alperovitz also writes: "Moreover, this essential judgment was expressed by the vast majority of top American military leaders in all three services in the years after the war ended: Army, Navy and Army Air Force."

      Alperovitz cites then US Secretary of War Henry L Stimson and such military luminaries as General Dwight Eisenhower and Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D Leahy who were explicitly opposed to using the A-bomb on Japan. Eisenhower said it was»completely unnecessary» while Leahy noted: «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 (

      He was right about this...

      Aug 7, 2015 at 3:11pm

      There are voices which assert that the bomb should never have been used at all. I cannot associate myself with such ideas. […] I am surprised that very worthy people—but people who in most cases had no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves—should adopt the position that rather than throw this bomb, we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter of a million British lives.
      —Winston Churchill, leader of the Opposition, in a speech to the British House of Commons, August 1945

      Greg G.

      Aug 7, 2015 at 3:27pm

      This is what Eisenhower actually wrote in his memoir The White House Years:

      In 1945 Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.

      Now keep in mind Eisenhower had no experience in the Pacific Theatre now operational awareness. MacArthur, Nimitz, Marshall, and Leahy though all did, and there was a broad consensus 250,000 American casualties as an absolute minimum. Again, they could have starved the home islands out, but there were tens of thousands of Allied POWs that would certainly have perished and well over a million Asians pressed into service as slave labourers, mainly Javanese and Filipino, that would definitely have been the first to starve to death.

      And I again assert that no widely credible historian takes the position that the Japaneses were about to surrender. They just passed a broad draft law including woman that would have raised tens of millions of new recruits. There was already widespread training of civilian militia in techniques for suicide attacks against Allied armour, etc.; it was no secret that the war was not going Japan's way, not sure where the information that says otherwise comes from, but it's spurious IMO.

      There would have been a minimum 3 million Japanese casualties caused over a planned 4 week campaign that would have relied on overwhelming Allied firepower to minimize casualties hopefully to the quarter million minimum, but those figures are optimistic. The kill ratio was 22:1 in Okinawa, and there's no reason to believe that it would have been any smaller.

      Three choices; starve them out, meaning tens of thousands of dead POWs and over a million slave labourers, invasion with a quarter million Allied dead and min. 3 million dead Japanese, or the use of the atom bombs.

      Yak 9

      Aug 9, 2015 at 11:33am

      A very popular movie in Japan today is Pride, The Fateful Moment, which shows Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo in a favorable light. With six others, he was hanged in 1968 as a war criminal. During his trial, his lawyers stated to the International Tribunal for the Far East (the Asian version of Nuremberg Trials), that Tojo's war crimes could not begin to approach the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The prosecutors immediately objected, and censored their statements. That was the last time there was any official recognition of the atomic bomb massacres in Japan.

      Japanese officials have been effectively prevented from taking any stand on this matter because the American military occupation, which officially ended in 1952 with the Treaty with Japan, was quietly continued. Today, 49,000 American troops are still stationed in Japan, and there is no public discussion of the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      Yak 9

      Aug 9, 2015 at 11:36am

      Admiral William Leahy also stated in I Was There, "My own feeling is that being the first to use it (the atomic bomb) we had adopted an ethical standard common to the Barbarism of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."

      Gar Alperowitz notes, p. 16, "On May 5, May 12 and June 7, the Office of Strategic Services (our intelligence operation), reported Japan was considering capitulation. Further messages came on May 18, July 7, July 13 and July 16."

      Alperowitz points out, p.36, "The standing United States demand for 'unconditional surrender' directly threatened not only the person of the Emperor but such central tenets of Japanese culture as well."

      Alperowitz also quotes General Curtis LeMay, chief of the Air Forces, p.334, "The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. PRESS INQUIRY: You mean that, sir? Without the Russians and without the atomic bomb? LeMay: The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all." September 29, 1945, statement.


      Aug 9, 2015 at 1:23pm

      First of all, there weren't thousands of US prisoners on the home islands. There was a handful of them. Most were in the Philippines where they were taken prisoner in the spring of 1942. But Truman could have waited a few weeks to see if Ike was right. Truman wanted to show the new enemy, Russia, that the US had nukes. As for nuking China, Truman wasn't squeamish about that. The USAF was methodically destroying everything in North Korea, returning it to the Stone Age. And it wasn't fear that Stalin might retaliate. Stalin was the Russian leader, not the Chinese one. In fact, seeing the two powers bogged down in a war delighted him. No, what Truman feared was a much wider war. Would the Chinese have attacked Japan? Would helpful Stalin have given them the airpower to do it? Why not? He gave them MIG 15s and the pilots to fly them. That's what Stalin would have done and he'd have crippled Japan into the bargain.