On this day, seventy years ago, Hiroshima was turned into an abattoir. It was chosen because, built around rivers, and therefore not a good target for the firebombing which the US unleashed on Japan from 1944, it was unscathed at a time when most Japanese cities had been reduced to ashes. Since the US wanted to measure the damage nuclear weapons would cause, it needed targets that were pristine. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the three other cities chosen for attack by nuclear weapons were spared carpet-bombing, preserved like sacrificial victims for ritual slaughter. That slaughter was immense, though only 1% of the uranium in the bomb over Hiroshima went through fission. An inefficient bomb killed over 50,000 people in the twinkling of an eye. They were the lucky ones. Another 100,000 died horrible deaths from their wounds over the next few months. Many more suffered from the trauma, and the toxicity of radiation, for what remained of their lives. If the bomb had worked better, there would probably have been no survivors, and nothing left of the city to preserve or to remember, except the name.
The plutonium bomb over Nagasaki three days later did not work very efficiently either, and it was dropped by mistake in a valley which contained the blast. Even so, another 100,000 lives were taken there. These numbers numb the imagination, but they were not unprecedented: the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, exactly five months earlier, killed over 100,000 of its residents in a single night, but it took 350 bombers, and the loss of 243 US lives to do what a single bomb did over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Debate over military necessity
The US has always argued that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives, Japanese as well as American, because they forced the Imperial Government to surrender. Since the power of a myth fades only with that of the myth-maker, this is still widely believed, but, while ending the war was certainly a motivation, it was not the only one. If the US wanted to force a surrender, it made little sense to give the Japanese government so little time to react after Hiroshima. Nagasaki was attacked on the 9th August, because the US feared a quick surrender, after which the plutonium bomb could not have been tested.
In pure military terms, since the Soviet Union had committed itself to entering the Pacific theatre three months after Germany surrendered, and invaded Manchuria with 1.5 million troops on the 8th August, Japan, already brought to its knees by the firebombing, was at its last gasp. Studying their archives, Japanese historians believe the collapse of the Kwantung Army under the Soviet assault influenced the decision to surrender more than the massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese military, which had opposed a surrender, now admitted that, with their forces concentrated in the east of the mainland to meet a US invasion, they had none to counter a Soviet landing in the west. If the US had held its hand and let the Soviet offensive continue, the imminent threat of an invasion on two fronts, which Japan could not repel, may have brought about its surrender, but then the Soviets, late entrants to a war the US had fought for over three years, could claim equal credit.
Did the US use its two atom bombs to pre-empt this? Perhaps. Some Japanese believe it had an even more strategic motive, that the US already saw the Soviets as its next enemy, and the nuclear weapons were used, not to hasten Japan’s surrender but to awe Moscow. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in this view, were not the final, needless butchery of the Second World War, they were the first salvoes of the Cold War.
Under the nuclear spell
Apologists for nuclear weapons claim that without them, without the accumulation of warheads and vectors which made mutually assured destruction inevitable, as well as the extinction of life on earth, the Cold War would inevitably have morphed into the Third World War. If Hiroshima was a trailer for the apocalypse, which nuclear weapons warded off, the moral of this script must be that nuclear-weapon states are war-mongers, deterred only by the fear of nuclear weapons. It follows that they will explore every means possible to defend themselves from nuclear weapons, and if they succeed, revert to what comes naturally, at which point the weapons they now have, exponentially more destructive than those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will bring in the end of days.
It would be logical then for the world to bend every sinew to getting rid of these weapons, but they cast a hypnotic spell. No other weapon, doctrine or ideology has spawned so much self-righteous hypocrisy. Every other weapon of mass destruction has been banned through international treaties, starting with the use of poison gas, moving on to chemical and biological weapons, and extending even to some weapons that cause indiscriminate death, like land-mines. It has been impossible to get the world to agree to a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, or to forbid their use. Long-standing Indian attempts, dismissed as self-serving, have foundered.
Instead, the world has embraced the bizarre caste system of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which decreed that the security of the five nuclear-weapon states depended on their having nuclear weapons and that of the other signatories on their never having them. In the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed on July 14 this year, the five nuclear-weapon states (and Germany) have unblushingly wrung from Iran a commitment that it “reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
A crime the world won’t act on
Astonishingly, the NPT was negotiated in 1968, seven years after the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Prohibition of the Use of Nuclear Weapons in which it laid down that:
- The use of nuclear or thermonuclear weapons is contrary to the spirit, letter and aims of the United Nations and, as such, a direct violation of the Charter of the United Nations;
- Any State using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilisation.
In 1995, fifty years after the first use of the atom bomb, the International Court of Justice took up a request from the UN General Assembly for an advisory opinion on the question: “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?” Among those who deposed were the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there is no reference to their testimony in the Opinion. This is in contrast to the procedure the ICJ followed in 2004, in its Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where it considered the impact of the wall on Palestinian lives to come to a determination that it was illegal.
In July, 1996, hopelessly split, the ICJ held by a vote of eight to seven that:
“….the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law;
“However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”
In 1998, at the Rome Conference which finalised the Statute of the International Criminal Court, India argued that it was now necessary to go beyond the tepid findings of the ICJ, and list the use of nuclear weapons among the crimes that could be tried by the ICC.
This was shot down, with Japan the most stridently opposed to the Indian proposal. Which was not strange, considering that Japan now predicates its security on the US nuclear umbrella. Which is also why there was the surreal episode in 2009, revealed by WikiLeaks, when the Japanese government rejected President Obama’s wish to apologise for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fearing that an apology would strengthen the anti-nuclear lobby in Japan. Seventy years on, therefore, there has been no accounting for a terrible crime.
A truth that is self-evident
But perhaps the last word on whether it was a crime was one of the first. In 1948, in his dissenting judgment at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Justice Radha Binod Pal of India wrote of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
“Future generations will judge this dire decision. History will say whether any outburst of popular sentiment against usage of such a new weapon is irrational and only sentimental and whether it has become legitimate by such indiscriminate slaughter to win the victory by breaking the will of the whole nation to continue to fight…It would be sufficient for my present purpose to say that if any indiscriminate destruction of civilian life and property is still illegitimate in warfare, then, in the Pacific war, this decision to use the atom bomb is the only near approach to the directives of the German Emperor during the First World War and of the Nazi leaders during the Second World War.”
Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission.