By Ward Wilson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
This book could appeal to a broad audience. Long-time anti-nuclear activists, who keep finding that the general public is no longer viewing the nuclear threat with the urgency required to actually address it, should be delighted to have a new perspective. To quote Jonathan Schell, author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, “It is unusual, as we near the seventieth year of the nuclear age, that someone says something genuinely new about the nuclear dilemma. This is such a book.”
Those with a more general interest in historical events will be pleased that this recent book, published in 2013, is only 124 pages, and both interesting and very readable.
Wilson acknowledges that people are discouraged because so little headway has been made over the past 65 years to find sensible policies for dealing with nuclear weapons. But he feels that such pessimism is unnecessary. In his opinion, “the essential conversation, the one that will make a difference, is one we have not yet had. We have not yet had a realistic conversation about nuclear weapons.”
Wilson contends that “We have talked about the horror and the military stakes; we have told stories very much like myths; we have shouted angrily about morality and survival; but we have never examined the practical problems —the usefulness of nuclear weapons—closely or objectively. It is an exciting, engaging, and even hopeful prospect. After careful review, we could well draw radically different conclusions about nuclear weapons than thinkers have in the past.”
This book attempts to begin that conversation.
As we know, in spite of the Cold War ending, there are still 17,300 nuclear weapons in the world, with several thousand on “high alert,” able to be launched in under 30 minutes, either by intention or accident (computer or human).
The weapons are a source of deep anxiety and concern, and of course no one wants them to be used. Yet, as Wilson points out, the prevailing view is that “we can’t get rid of them because they are—apparently—necessary.”
This way of thinking has led to our current impasse.
In the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, Wilson contends that “new scholarship has been quietly revolutionizing the thinking about nuclear weapons,” and “a careful review of the facts shows that the usefulness of nuclear weapons has been overblown.”
What would happen, Ward asks, if people knew that “our thinking about nuclear weapons is flat-out wrong?”
He feels that pragmatic arguments that banish myths and errors with facts from the historical record are the way to deal with nuclear weapons sensibly, and in a practical way. We don’t have to wait until “we have changed our hearts and made war impossible” before we can deal with the practical problems that nuclear weapons pose.
The book examines the five main myths used to argue for the retention of nuclear weapons., I am only going to discuss briefly the first one—the widely held belief, called a myth by Wilson, that it was the dropping of the atom bomb, when all other strategies had failed, that forced the Japanese to surrender at the end of World War II. When you read the book, you will find out more about what happened in Japan, and about the other four myths that make up the rest of the book.
At the beginning of August, 1945 Japan was almost in a state of collapse, but her leaders were still resisting unconditional surrender. Sixty-six cities had been destroyed by saturation bombing with conventional weapons, in addition to an economic blockade and numerous devastating military defeats. But none of these actions had forced Japan to admit defeat. Then the atom bombs were dropped, and a few days later the emperor surrendered, saying that he did so because of the bomb.
However, Wilson points out that even though “this version of events has been confidently told as fact for more than 60 years, and even though the lessons drawn from this episode have hardened into certain beliefs, there are problems. Over the past twenty years, new, more detailed evidence has gradually been unearthed in archives in Japan, Russia and the United States,” (given detailed examination in Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s 2005 book, Racing the Sun), “that often starkly contradicts the traditional narrative.” Even though “almost every Japanese official, from Emperor Hirohito on down, acknowledged that it was the bomb being dropped that compelled them to surrender, there are troubling actions, meeting minutes and diary accounts that contradict this assumption.”
In other words, there may have been something else that prompted the Japanese leaders to surrender.
The other key event occurring during those crucial days in August, was the Russian invasion of Japan, which started just before midnight on August 8th. While there was no move to surrender after Hiroshima was bombed, surrender was discussed only hours after the Russians commenced their invasion, and before the bombing of Nagasaki.
The Japanese leaders certainly took note of the bombing of Hiroshima, and as one said, it made things “more gloomy.” But it appears that it was the imminent Russian invasion which made them realize they were defeated, and precipitated their surrender.
So why did the Japanese leaders say it was the bomb which led to surrender? In the book, Wilson quotes several sources, who explain why it was convenient for them to blame their defeat all on the bomb. Everyone could save face. No one had to be blamed, just the bomb. The myth that everyone wanted to believe was created.
Why does this matter? It matters because since the atom bombs appeared to be so vital in ending the war, the foundation was laid underpinning the prevailing wisdom that nuclear weapons are the only weapons that can guarantee a country’s safety. And more myths regarding their usefulness have developed over the years.
But Wilson wants us to consider that these ideas are, as he says, flat out wrong. The book gives us a chance to rethink these ideas, and these weapons, and to restart the conversation. If we can put the myths aside, he believes that nuclear weapons can be then be evaluated sensibly and prudently, by normal measures of security and effectiveness.
He considers this cause for hope. I agree.
_Reviewed by Martha Goodings, co-founder of no2nuclearweapons