Are Nuclear Weapons Necessary?

by David Veloz

Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, by Ward Wilson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Pp 206.

On August 6th, 1945, an American B-29 bomber flew over the historic city of Hiroshima with the World’s first nuclear weapon.  The Americans hoped that this new weapon would force Japan to surrender unconditionally thus ending the bloody four year struggle for the Pacific between the United States and Japan. 
At 8:45 that fateful Monday morning, the B-29 named the Enola Gay dropped its payload over the city. Forty-five seconds after being dropped from the Enola Gay, the uranium chain reaction inside Little Boy–the name for the bomb–unleashed a massive amount of energy that devastated Hiroshima, killing more than 80,000 civilians and injuring another 120,000. Three days later, a larger, plutonium bomb, named Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 73,000 civilians. After these two bombimgs, Japan surrendered unconditionally bringing to an end the war in the Pacific. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marked the first and only time that nuclear weapons were used in a war, and their shocking destructiveness forced the Japanese government to surrender. Or so we are led to believe.

In his new book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, Ward Wilson succinctly writes why the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is just one of the many myths surrounding the usefulness of nuclear weapons.  The destruction of both cities, according to Wilson were comparable to the destruction of other Japanese cities by conventional weapons. In fact, the use of conventional weapons were far more destructive in Tokyo than the two atomic bombs, with over 95% of the city destroyed. Yet, the atomic bombings of these two cities gives nuclear weapons an aura that conventional incendiary bombs and other weapons do not have. And this aura, this believe that nuclear weapons are somehow different than other weapons, gives rise to others myths about its usefulness. 

One of the myths covered by Ward is the believe that the awesome destructive power of the bombs dropped in Japan, shocked and awed the Imperial government into surrender. The classic interpretation of the end of World War II thus holds that without the weapons Japan wouldn’t have surrendered, and the planned invasion of the Japanese home Islands would have resulted in over 1 million American casualties. Ward counters this view, not through the prism of revisionist history surrounding the necessity of the bombs usefulness,  but from the point of view of Japanese indifference and concerns over a possible Soviet invasion.

Ward carefully notes how the Japanese Imperial council didn’t give much thought to the reports of extensive destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but fretted over a possible Soviet invasion that could have resulted in a communist take over of the Japanese.  Ward convincingly shows that the Soviet declaration of war tipped the balance in the Imperial council in favor of surrender. The usefulness of the weapon is therefore questioned, not from popular anti American revisionist history, but from a different interpretation of the facts as documented.

Other myths include the technological advances in nuclear weapons that makes them more destructive than the first uranium bombs. Here Ward shows that destructiveness is irrelevant.  Most nuclear weapons have about the same yield in kilotons, about 140 kilotons.  Whether it’s a uranium bomb or a hydrogen bomb, the bombs are actually.  Both can be destructive at an awesome scale, and as we saw above, contribute to the myth that weapons can stop states like Japan to continue offensive wars. The technological details Ward uses to compare these bombs show how ignorance of these facts contribute to the myths these weapons receive.

Overall, Ward gives an excellent account of myths not known to most people, but fails to include instances in which nuclear weapons have been useful in diplomacy. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, was used by Ward as an example in which nuclear deterrence failed. But he seems to dismiss the role these weapons played in ending the crisis. Or how these weapons today provide a diplomatic advantage in negotiations to states that possess these weapons. Clearly,  a majority of the World would like to be nuclear free, but the advantages these weapons possess would be hard for states to give up.

Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons
does provide arguments for those who believe these weapons aren’t necessary, but falls short of making a convincing argument for a nuclear free world.