Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

Why do we pay so much attention to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima, by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima. Photo by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

By Matthew Seligmann, Brunel University London 
August, 2015

There have been countless articles, protests and commemorations in recent days on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But why is there so much focus on these events?

This may seem an odd question to ask, especially at the time of their 70th anniversaries, but it is not as flippant as it sounds. True, at least 200,000 people died – an appalling waste of human life and the source of countless personal and family tragedies. But such horrors were anything but unique at that time – the bombing of Hiroshima took place in the context of a war in which, on a reasonable estimate, some 60m people were killed.

A high proportion of these were innocent civilians, meaning that the mass murder of non-combatants was already commonplace by the time that this blight reached the unsuspecting and essentially defenceless citizens of Hiroshima.

The city, spared until that point, certainly suffered badly, but it was not the only – let alone the first – metropolis to be struck from the air. Coventry, Hamburg and Berlin, to name but three, were also scenes of aerial devastation. Admittedly, they were wrecked in different fashion. Fleets of aircraft were necessary to flatten them.

By contrast, Hiroshima was destroyed by one bomb from one warplane in one sortie – a startling demonstration of brute force and the escalating power of modern weaponry. Yet, as the US air force had demonstrated earlier in 1945, worse results were obtainable by conventional means. More people died when Tokyo was firebombed than were killed on the day from the blast and flames at Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did the same job more efficiently, but it was the same job.

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault. May 26, 1945.


Widening the context a little further, it is worth stressing that the hostilities in Asia were particularly brutal and Hiroshima was but one cataclysm among many. This was not purely because of the much commented upon hatred, racial and otherwise, that fuelled the Japanese-American contest, intense though that was. Japan had been fighting in China since at least 1937 (arguably since the Mukden Incident of 1931) and little that had taken place in that conflict had conformed to that most unsatisfactory and contradictory of phrases “civilised warfare”.

Japanese military close up on Nanking Castle.

Japanese military close up on Nanking Castle

The rape of Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China, is possibly the best known of these atrocities. However, the fate of Chungking (Chongqing), the city chosen as the replacement capital, demonstrates that it was not alone. Selected as the new seat of government in part for its inaccessibility, Chungking could not be reached by Japanese armies – so a repeat of the pillage suffered by Nanking could not occur. But it could be reached from the air. As a result, from 1938 onwards it was subjected to sustained and continuous aerial attack. In terms of frequency rather than the weight of ordnance dropped upon it, it was one of the most heavily bombed cities of World War II.

Unsurprisingly, the history of these bombing raids is replete with tragic tales of loss and the city undoubtedly suffered badly. That, however, was preferable to Japanese occupation. The miseries of this do not need to be catalogued here, although it says something about their intensity that they are still well remembered in Korea, China and elsewhere in Asia. But it is worth recording that by 1945 hundreds of thousands of people were dying each month in Japanese occupied Asia, a reminder that the evils of war extended well beyond the battlefield and were not just experienced by the bombed.


None of this makes what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki any less objectionable – no tragedy is any less of a tragedy because there are other tragedies taking place at the same time – but it does make it, in the literal sense, unremarkable.

Nothing illustrates this better than the reaction of the Japanese military leadership to the news of Hiroshima’s destruction. The dominant political authority in Japan in 1945 was the Supreme War Council, a body that brought together in one institution the six main representatives of the army, navy and “civilian” government.

The three most military members of this council were utterly unmoved by the reports of Hiroshima’s fate. For them, the destruction of one more city was no reason to change their plans to fight the war to a victorious conclusion by smashing the long expected American invasion on the beaches. The “civilian” members felt otherwise, but could not carry the day. So no change in policy took place.

The resolve of these soldiers and sailors was also unaffected by news of the similar holocaust that hit Nagasaki three days later; and for the same reason: cities had been destroyed by the US air force at will for months; it was not deemed a new factor. As is well known, the intervention of the Emperor was needed to persuade the army and navy to adopt a different course. Seventy years down the line, the idea that two examples of destruction by atomic bomb would not have any affect on policy seems unbelievable, but by 1945 the banality of mass death and destruction was such that this was the case.

Given this, why should we mark this event after all this time? The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is special not because of the numbers that died nor because of the extent of the destruction, but because of their symbolism. They have come to stand for the future that we want to avoid in a way that some of the other horrors cannot.

Plenty of wars have been fought since 1945 – and many more people have been killed either fighting them or as innocent victims caught up in them. It is a sad reflection on the human condition, but this is unlikely to change. Equally, it is no less tragic that despite the vivid lesson of the Holocaust, acts of genocide still blight our world, as the “ethnic cleansing” in former Yugoslavia and the killings in Rwanda prove.

But the use of atomic weapons in anger has not occurred since those fearsome August days in 1945. Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki helps remind us of the need to keep this lesson firmly to the fore.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Matthew Seligmann is Reader in Modern History at Brunel University LondonThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related on F&O:

Japanese Remorse: Once More With Feeling, by Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs columnist (*subscription)

Japan’s current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is having another crack on August 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, at finally drawing a line under the country’s imperial past.

 European Scientists and Yankee Managers build ‘The Bomb,’ by Thoughtlines columnist Jim McNiven (*subscription)

A week short of a year after America’s entry into World War II, on December 5, 1942, an enemy alien set off a nuclear reaction about five miles south of the Loop in Chicago.

Shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a photo essay by Issei Kato

Hiroshima’s literary legacy, by Daniel Cordle

Related:  Iran, nuclear waste, and Fukushima, by Penney Kome


*Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. Some of our work is behind a paywall because we do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us, with a subscription (click here for our subscribe page) or a donation, and/or by spreading the word.

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Deja glasnost all over again


“I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.” — – Ronald Reagan to Mikhail Gorbechev at their first meeting in November, 1985.

United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland, during the Reykjavik Summit, 1986. Photo courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library

April, 2015   

It’s never easy making peace with an enemy. And it takes great moral courage to make the decision to do so, for no matter how good the intentions or necessary the initiative or useful the agreement , there will always be a cacophony of voices decrying your every step.

We have certainly seen this scenario in the current negotiations between the Obama administration in the United States and the Rouhani administration in Iran about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. No doubt some of the opposition to these negotiations is rooted in genuine concern about the veracity of anything that the Iranian regime says. There is more than enough evidence that Iran has been less than forthcoming about its nuclear plans in the past, and is without a doubt one of the leading supporters of anti-Western individuals and groups, many of which are terrorist in nature.

But conditions change, and the economic sanctions imposed on Iran through the United Nations and by individual countries, combined with the current free-fall of world oil prices, along with the growth of the anti-Shia Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, led to a situation where an economically-crippled Iran was more than likely to acquiesce to certain demands about its nuclear project then it would have been in the past.

As I said above, however, there will be some people who will only see calamity and disaster, regardless of the reality of the situation. One only has to think back to the Ronald Reagan – Mikhail Gorbachev negotiations about nuclear weapons in the mid-to-late 80s to remember how loud these voices of doom and destruction can be. While in 2015 Ronald Reagan has become an untouchable icon for conservative hardliners, many of them seem to have forgotten just how outspoken they were when Reagan dared to do the unthinkable. At least the unthinkable in their worldview.

Peter Beinart wrote a great piece1 for The Daily Beast in September 2013 about how the conservatives who hate what Obama is doing today, also hated what Ronald Reagan did 30 years ago:

But the same “Reaganites” who will bash Obama for compromising with Rouhani once bashed Reagan for compromising with Gorbachev. As late as December 1987, Charles Krauthammer was writing that “the fundamental misconception about Gorbachev is that he has somehow broken the ideological mold.” Until virtually the day the Soviet empire collapsed, Rep. Dick Cheney was calling glasnost a fraud. In 1988 George Will accused Reagan of having “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West … by elevating wishful thinking [about Gorbachev] to the status of public policy.” When Reagan brought the intermediate missiles deal to Congress for ratification, a right-wing group called the Anti-Appeasement Alliance took out newspaper ads comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.”

The tired Neville Chamberlain analogy, so popular among hard-core conservatives in all similar situations since at least the end of World War II, is back with a vengeance.2 

Numerous GOP politicians have been bandying the name around like a beach ball in the bleachers of a Red Sox game, while that paragon of misinformation Fox “News” has been doing non-stop numerous variations on ‘Barack Obama – Neville Chamberlain: Separated at birth?’ Meanwhile, that master of mendacity, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has said the deal confirms “his worst fears.” Mind you, he would’ve said that even Iran had agreed to totally destroy every single weapon it owns of every kind. While it is important to take the concerns of the Israeli government into consideration in the deal with Iran, the most important considerations must be America’s, not Israel’s. 

The deal that was reached Thursday between United States and its allies and Iran is just the first step of a long process. (The Reagan-Gorbachev agreements took more than two years.) It still might not work. Getting to this point was difficult when you consider the hostilities that exists between the two sides. But we did get here. And more than a few voices are saying it is a very good deal indeed.3 

We owe it to current and future generations of Americans, Europeans, Iranians, Israelis, and many other people to do our best to find a way to peacefully resolve the situation. 

Hard-line conservatives will always see peace as weakness. But that is in fact the weakness of their position.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com  

UPDATE: A technical error, which removed the quotation marks around Peter Beinart’s comment, has been corrected.

Notes and References:

1. What Ronald Reagan can Teach Barack Obama, by Peter Beinart, The Daily Beast
2. Republicans’ Hitler Idiocy, Salon: http://www.salon.com/2015/04/03/republicans_hitler_idiocy_why_their_hysterical_iran_pushback_exposes_a_secret
3. Iranian Nuclear Deal is a Breakthrough, Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2015/04/iranian_nuclear_deal_is_a_breakthrough_why_the_agreement_is_the_best_option.html

Further reading:

Washington and Tehran find common cause against Islamic State, F&O, by Jonathan Manthorpe, August 2014 (paywall)
Reykjavík Summit
page on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reykjav%C3%ADk_Summit

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.








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Verbatim: The Doomsday Clock ticks closer to disaster

January 23, 2015


Scientists, including 17 Nobel laureates, this week moved the minute hand of their terrible Doomsday Clock two minutes ahead, as they urged world leaders to defuse nuclear and climate-change threats to the world and humanity. We humans have, metaphorically, just three minutes to get our act together, they warn.

The decision on the Doomsday Clock is made annually, intended to signal the “world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains,” said the Bulletin.

Eerily, the last time the people at The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists placed their famous clock at three minutes to midnight — essentially the global apocalypse — it was 1984. 

In between , the world breathed a little easier. It was fully six minutes to midnight in 2010, when the group was hopeful enough to proclaim, “”We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons.” Their most optimistic year since they began their time-keeping, in the wake of WW II, was 1991. Back then, they moved the clock 17 minutes away from midnight: “With the Cold War officially over, the United States and Russia begin making deep cuts to their nuclear arsenals.”

The 21st Century has brought renewed pessimism. Following are excerpts of their letter, Three minutes and counting

From: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board

To: Leaders and citizens of the world

Re: It is only three minutes to midnight

In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth …

A climate catastrophe looms—but is not inevitable.

According to US government environmental scientists, 2014 was the hottest year in 134 years of record keeping. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000. This pattern is deeply disconcerting.

In November 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Synthesis Report encapsulating the key findings of its just-completed multivolume assessment of climate change. The IPCC reported that global warming is unequivocal and unprecedented and already responsible for widespread damage. It warned that warming—if unchecked by urgent and concerted global efforts to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions—would reach 3 to 8 degrees Celsius (about 5.5 to 14.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

This may seem like a modest rise in the average global temperature. After all, people at a given location often experience much greater temperature swings in the course of a single day. But that is a local variation, not a change in the average temperature of the surface of the entire planet. A similarly “modest” global average warming of 3 to 8 degrees Celsius brought Earth out of the frigid depths of the last ice age, utterly transforming the surface of the planet and in the process making it hospitable to the development of human civilization. To risk a further warming of this same magnitude is to risk the possibility of an equally profound transformation of Earth’s surface—only this time the planet’s hospitality to humanity can by no means be taken for granted … 

Nuclear modernization programs threaten to create a new arms race.

Although the United States and Russia have reduced their arsenal sizes from Cold War heights, the pace of reduction has slowed dramatically in recent years. According to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, “in terms of warhead numbers, the Obama administration so far has cut the least warheads from the stockpile” of any post-Cold War administration.

Meanwhile, as they slow the pace of disarmament, the nuclear weapon states have given other strong indications that they are committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. The most worrying evidence of this commitment: huge and expensive programs of nuclear arsenal modernization that all nuclear weapon states are pursuing. These massive modernization efforts undermine the nuclear weapons states’ promise to disarm, a central tenet of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and they therefore also threaten the global nonproliferation regime …

The leadership failure on nuclear power.

Nuclear energy provides slightly more than 10 percent of the world’s electricity-generating capacity, without emitting carbon dioxide. Depending on the type of fossil fuel displaced by the electricity nuclear power plants generate (that is, coal or natural gas), nuclear power plants help the world avoid approximately 0.5 gigatons of carbon emissions annually. But the international community has not developed coordinated plans to meet the challenges that nuclear power faces in terms of cost, safety, radioactive waste management, and proliferation risk.

Nuclear power is growing sporadically in regions that can afford it, sometimes in countries that do not have adequately independent regulatory systems. Meanwhile, several countries continue to show interest in acquiring technologies for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing—technologies that can be used to create weapons-grade fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Stockpiles of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel continue to grow (globally, about 10,000 metric tonnes of heavy metal are produced each year). Spent fuel requires safe geologic disposal over a time scale of hundreds of thousands of years …

Dealing with emerging technological threats.

The world’s institutions were proven arthritic during the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Medical scientists had a good grip on what to do to quell the outbreak of that deadly virus. But social and political institutions stuttered and, at times, failed to respond effectively. In the age of synthetic biology and globalization, world governance must develop ways to react quickly and effectively to confront emerging disease and the possibility of bioterrorism.

Unfortunately, microbes are not the only emerging technological challenges to civil society and international governance.

It is clear from the recent hacking of major organizations and government facilities that cyber attacks constitute a threat with the potential to destabilize governmental and financial institutions and to serve as a medium for new escalations of international tensions. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence have led a number of prominent individuals to express concern about human command and control capabilities in the field, on national and international scales, over coming decades.

The Bulletin is concerned about the lag between scientific advances in dual-use technologies and the ability of civil society to control them. …

These stunning governmental failures have imperiled civilization on a global scale, and so we, the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, implore the citizens of the world to speak clearly, demanding that their leaders:

  • Take actions that would cap greenhouse gas emissions at levels sufficient to keep average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The 2-degree target is consistent with consensus views on climate science and is eminently achievable and economically viable—if national leaders show more interest in protecting their citizens than in serving the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry.
  • Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs. The United States and Russia have hatched plans to essentially rebuild their entire nuclear triads in coming decades, and other nuclear weapons countries are following suit. The projected costs of these “improvements” to nuclear arsenals are indefensible, and they undermine the global disarmament regime.
  • Re-energize the disarmament process, with a focus on results. The United States and Russia, in particular, need to start negotiations on shrinking their strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals. The world can be more secure with much, much smaller nuclear arsenals than now exist—if political leaders are truly interested in protecting their citizens from harm.
  • Deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem. Reasonable people can disagree on whether an expansion of nuclear-powered electricity generation should be a major component of the effort to limit climate change. Regardless of the future course of the worldwide nuclear power industry, there will be a need for safe and secure interim and permanent nuclear waste storage facilities.
  • Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies. Scientific advance can provide society with great benefits, but the potential for misuse of potent new technologies is real, unless government, scientific, and business leaders take appropriate steps to explore and address possible devastating consequences of those technologies early in their development.

Also on Facts and Opinions, read Anders Sandberg’s analysis in our Expert Witness section: Doomsday Clock: can we really predict the end of the world?

Sources and further reading:

Full text of Three Minutes and Counting, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: http://thebulletin.org/three-minutes-and-counting7938

Doomsday Clock Puts Us 3 Minutes Away from Apocalypse, Time magazine

Three minutes to Armageddon: Scientists reset ‘Doomsday Clock’ Deutsche Welle


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On arming North Korea with nuclear weapons and “psychopathic violence”

NASA N Korea

A photo of the Koreas at night taken from the International Space Station January 30, 2014. The image illustrates the stark difference between North and South Korea: North Korea is almost completely dark compared to neighboring South Korea and China. The darkened land appears as if it were a patch of water joining the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. Photo courtesy of NASA.

North Korea is reportedly preparing for an underground bomb explosion at its Punggye-ri testing site, and also to test an inter-continental ballistic missile at its Sohae launch site. And amid rising tensions, there is no international consensus on a response. The country’s leader, writes International Affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe, “has shown a capacity for psychopathic violence that is unsettling in a man who, quite apart from his quest for nuclear weapons, already possesses conventional forces capable of flattening South Korea and much of Japan.” An excerpt of Manthorpe’s new column:

If North Korea’s young and unpredictable leader Kim Jong-un nursed any doubts about his need for nuclear weapons, recent events in Ukraine and Syria will have dismissed them.

With American and other spy satellites showing that North Korea is preparing new tests of a nuclear bomb and an inter-continental ballistic missile, the reality is that Pyongyang’s weapons program can no longer be negotiated away.

Kim, like his father Kim Jong-il before him, has read the lesson of the last decade. That is: if you don’t have or have given up your nuclear capacity, you risk invasion.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein stopped trying to develop weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, and look what happened to him.

Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi figured that cozying up to Washington was the answer, and voluntarily handed over all his nuclear development equipment. But it didn’t help. Gadhafi wound up hiding in a sewer pipe, and being mutilated to death by rebels, who felled his regime with the help of NATO.

Log in to read  North Korea’s Kim renews his quest for a nuclear life-saver. (Subscription or day pass required*)

Click here for Jonathan Manthorpe’s page, with all of his columns for F&O.

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Iran’s President on a High Wire

Manthorpe B&WInternational affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe writes in today’s column that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is performing a dangerous high wire act. An excerpt:

As talks resume in Vienna today for a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, it is increasingly apparent that only political and social reform will deliver the ultimate guarantee that Tehran does not build atomic weapons.

And that outcome depends almost entirely on the skills of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. He undoubtedly has reformist instincts and has the support of many Iranians who want to see a lifting of the political and social repression orchestrated by the conservative and puritanical religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, backed by the security apparatus of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

For the moment, Rouhani has the backing of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. They see him as the best man available to do a deal over the nuclear program that will get crippling international sanctions lifted, and someone who can restore Iran’s stature among nations after it was made a laughing stock by the embarrassing antics of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So Rouhani needs a deal on the nuclear program, and all that flows from that, in order to get the leeway to pursue reforms and the loosening of Iran’s social and political straightjacket.

And what is more, and more evident as negotiations proceed during the six months slated for doing a deal, is that success will ultimately depend on political evolution in Iran that produces administrations whose word can be trusted.

Log in to read today’s column: In Iran, nuclear deal and social reform are intertwined. (Subscription or day pass required*)

Click here for Jonathan Manthorpe’s page, with all of his columns for F&O.


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Executions and backlash loom over Iran rapprochement

Money is flowing into Iran again, but there are signs the reformist movement is being stymied by hardliners, including a dramatic upsurge in executions for “enmity against God” and “threatening national security.”  An excerpt of international affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe’s new column:

As Iran this week received $550 million from eased sanctions in return for curbing its nuclear program, it is evident that resistance is stiffening among hardliners in Tehran to rapprochement with the international community.

At its core, this apprehension appears to be fear that any restrictions on Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons or slackening of its defensive posture against the outside world will bring down the Islamic regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which has ruled the country since 1979.

The target of the hardliners, who may include Khamenei himself, is President Hassan Rouhani, who won managed elections last year and who is usually described as a reformist.

It was initiatives by Rouhani in the first months of his tenure, including a ground-breaking telephone conversation with United States President Barack Obama, which led to a framework agreement in November on Iran’s nuclear development program.

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