Learning to Live with the Bomb

By BILL ONASCH

 [Aug. 14 marked the 70th anniversary of V-J Day, the armistice with Japan that put an end to World War II.]

There were some World War II firestorm air raids on targeted civilian worker neighborhoods in Hamburg, Dresden, and especially Tokyo that were nearly as horrible and deadly as the first crude atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. But those earlier atrocities—in violation of international law—required the use of hundreds of planes striking at peak weather conditions. The world was shocked to learn the devastation in the two medium-sized Japanese cities was the result of a single bomb dropped on each from a B-29.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of this darker day for humanity we are still told it was really a humanitarian act. It is claimed this demonstration of horror actually saved millions of American and Japanese lives that would have been lost in a ground invasion of the Japanese homeland.

Rarely mentioned in the mass media, but confirmed by multiple sources, were the desperate efforts during the summer of 1945 by Japanese officials to initiate back-channel surrender talks. They sought only one condition—a guarantee that their Emperor would remain.

These overtures were curtly rejected as Truman, Attlee, and Stalin stuck to the game plan of the Potsdam accords insisting on unconditional surrender. Of course, after the Japanese capitulated, and General Douglas MacArthur was designated to oversee the occupation of Japan, his first order of business was to retain the Emperor he saw as a valuable buffer against the revival of the Japanese communist and socialist movements.

The use of atomic bombs was not essential to the total Allied victory that the Japanese—running out of food and fuel and even morale—were prepared to accept months earlier. Their introduction was not intended to end the Second World War but rather to serve notice on the postwar world that the USA was now a super-power on a scale never before seen.

Not only did America emerge with a robust economy while others were in shambles—the ruling class in this country could boast of having a monopoly on a new terrifying weapon of mass destruction. More than that, they had shown they were prepared to use it. This not very veiled threat was particularly aimed at the Soviet Union and the emerging Chinese Revolution. Further expansion of the Red Menace, now embracing a third of the world’s population, would not be tolerated.

But this monopoly was soon broken as the Soviet Union quickly developed its own nuclear weapons. That led to a Cold War arms race—building ever bigger bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, launched from both land and sea, capable of delivering them. The now two super-powers soon accumulated between them enough power to destroy every living thing on the planet—many times over. Each side had the capability to launch “massive retaliation” if attacked.

There could be no winners in such a war. The two great powers adopted a doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, known by the appropriate acronym MAD. There was one really close call during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that was resolved through compromise just short of Doomsday.

When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate 25 years ago—in no small part due to enormous spending on MAD—Russia took control of the nuclear forces. A series of treaties between the new ex-KGB Moscow regime restoring capitalism and the USA agreed to stop targeting one another’s cities and drastically reduced their number of strategic nuclear weapons. The current limit for the U.S. is a “mere” 1605—down from a truly mad Cold War peak of more than 31,000.

Paltry as this new limit might seem, it’s enough to destroy every major population center outside the USA. Surely even Dr Strangelove would be satisfied with that firepower, and you would think there would be no plans to build new ones. But even common sense is no match for the ambitious goals of “our” ruling class.

In an informative piece on the Aljazeera America site, Michael Pizzi and Micheal Keller write, “…. American taxpayers will soon be spending more on nuclear weapons in real dollars than they have since the end of the Cold War. In October 2013, just four months after calling for yet another one-third reduction in the stockpile, President Barack Obama announced plans to ‘modernize’ the entire nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years, arguing that updating and replacing the so-called nuclear triad—the submarines, jets and ballistic missiles designed to deliver warheads—will help create a leaner, sleeker nuclear fleet.

“But leaner doesn’t mean cheaper, at least not in the short term. According to a recent study by two researchers at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Jeffrey Lewis and Jon Wolfsthal, Obama’s modernization program could carry a price tag of over $1 trillion, vaulting nuclear weapons spending relative to the overall defense budget to a level comparable to the 1980s.”

Of course, while not unimportant, cost is not the only objection that should be raised to this bipartisan backed plan. As long as these weapons exist there is always the danger that they will be used, if not intentionally like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then accidentally, or through miscalculation. From what I hear from many eager candidates for president, I would not trust them with the launch codes.

Fidel Castro was at Ground Zero during the closest we have come to MAD becoming reality during the 1962 Missile Crisis. Now retired at age 89, he still writes perceptive observations about the state of the world. He has said, “Numerous dangers threaten us, but two of them, nuclear war and climate change, are decisive, and both are ever farther away from coming close to a solution.”

Fidel is spot on. Nuclear War, followed by Nuclear Winter, would be swift and catastrophic. Climate Change will be more insidious, spanning decades. Both threaten the future of civilization, perhaps even our species. Both are caused by human activity that can be altered. Fidel goes on to say, “I think it is a basic duty of all serious and sane persons, who number in the millions, to fight to postpone and perhaps to prevent that dramatic and imminent event [nuclear or climate catastrophe] in today’s world.”

It is the American ruling class and their government that has been, and continues to be, the prime culprit in the crimes leading to both overarching crises.

While a promising climate action movement is shaping up, the same cannot be said for the nuclear weapons threat. Many have become complacent over the quarter-century of weapon-reduction treaties with Moscow.

One of the biggest employers in my hometown is a plant making triggers for warheads, operated by Honeywell and unionized in the IAM. They recently moved in to a giant new facility—leaving an environmental mess behind at the old. Both the bosses and union bureaucracy are enthusiastic supporters of “modernizing” the nuclear arsenal because it means huge profits and some decent paying jobs.

That’s why we also need to pay attention to this other crisis. We must develop a Just Transition program to protect the nuclear industry workers as we advocate eliminating new production, and dismantling existing stockpiles—just as sane and serious worker climate activists are starting to do for the vast economic restructuring needed to stop climate change.

A version of this article appeared at kclabor.org/wordpress. Photo: A view of the devastation in central Hiroshima shortly after the atomic blast in 1945.