Monday, October 09, 2006

Nukes, North Korea, and Nausea

The news has elicited protests from leaders worldwide, from the UnitedNations Security Council, and of course from our President: North Korea,that charter member of the "Axis of Evil," on Sunday October 8 defied allthe world and tested a nuclear weapon. Predictably, President Bushre-asserted his longstanding threat: North Korea cannot be allowed to becomea member of our nuclear club.
Despite the fact that no one in his right mind would welcome a NorthKorea (or any other nation) armed with weapons of mass destruction, thecontext of this latest gambit in nuclear gamesmanship, historical, politicaland hypocritical, must be given its due. To begin with the massive hypocrisyinvolved, it is necessary to remember that several U.S. "allies" in the explosive Near and Far East also possess nukes‹with our blessing. Pakistan,India, and little Israel‹none of whom signed the nuclear non-proliferationagreeement which North Korea is accused of violating‹all have nucleararsenals. So the lesson here is a grim one: signing the nuclearnon-proliferation agreement puts a nation at a disadvantage relative tothose nations which simply thumb their noses at the international community.This lesson cannot have been lost on North Korea, or on Iran. Neither canthe lesson that developing nuclear weapons works wonderfully to discouragepre-emptive strikes by the United States‹witness the example of a now-brokenIraq. The historical hypocrisy is even more extreme. Americans would do wellto remember what happened during World War II, when the first atomic bombswere developed. Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's recent biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, provides stunning details of this history. First of all, nuclear scientists like Oppenheimer, Fermi and others were persuaded to work on developing this ultimate weapon because of the fear that Hitler's scientists would invent it first, and use it to enslave the world. This rationale for the bomb evaporated even before Nazi Germany surrendered in 1945: intelligence proved that German scientists were noteven close to developing a deliverable weapon. Instead, however, theAmerican military pushed development even harder so they could use the bomb on Japan.
Here is where American Prometheus disabuses us of the commonnotion that the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to ŒsaveAmerican lives that would have been lost in a huge American invasion ofJapan.¹ Rather, we learn that ŒMagic¹ intercepts of Japanese communications indicated that Japan's leaders knew the war was lost, and were desperately searching for a way to surrender. Moreover, even finding a target for the ultimate weapon was proving difficult. This is because Japan's major cities and military targets had virtually all been destroyed by firebombing: "On the evening of Mar 9-10, 1945, 334 B-29 aircraft dropped tons ofjellied gasoline--napalm--and high explosives on Tokyo. The resultingfirestorm killed an estimated 100,000 people and completely burned out 15.8square miles of the city. The fire-bombing raids continued and by July 1945,all but five of Japan's major cities had been razed and hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians had been killed." "The fire bombings were no secret." ("The Logic of Mass Destruction," inKai Bird and Lifschultz, eds., Hiroshima¹s Shadow, pp. 55-57, as quoted inAmerican Prometheus, p. 291. ) Necessity or no, the American military selected targets and pushed forward with plans to use the Bomb. Horrified by such irrationality, several scientists, including Leo Szilard and Oppenheimer himself, kept trying to persuade the Truman administration to refrain from using the bomb, thus proving that the United States was truly interested in keeping a lid on such a cataclysmic weapon. Under the guidance of Nobelist James Franck, scientists prepared a report for the President concluding that a surprise attack on Japan was inadvisable from any point of view, especially because: "It may be very difficult to persuade the world that a nation which was capable of secretly preparing and suddenly releasing a weapon as indiscriminate as the [German]rocket bomb and a million times more destructive, is to be trusted in its proclaimed desire of having suchweapons abolished by international agreement." (p. 297)The report recommended instead a demonstration of the bomb's power before the UN, and was sent to the President. It never got to him. The WarDepartment secretly seized the report, and had it classified. The dismayed scientists were then told that an invasion of the Japanese mainland was necessary and inevitable. What they were not told was the real reason for using the bomb was the imminent entry of Russia into the Pacific war. President Truman knew this, knew of Japan's desperation to surrrender, knew that the Russians would be entering the war on August 15 and that anAmerican invasion couldn't take place until at least November 1, and knewthat even General Eisenhower felt the use of the bomb unnecessary because the Japanese were done for. But Truman and his Secretary of State, JamesByrnes, were determined to use the bomb and end the war before Russia entered. As Byrnes later explained, "...it was ever present in my mind thatit was important that we should have an end to the war before the Russians came in." On July 18, 1945, Truman wrote the same thing in his diary:"Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in." (Truman, Off the Record, pp. 53-54.). And on August 3, Walter Brown, a special assistant to SecretaryByrnes, wrote in his diary, "President, Leahy, JFB [Byrnes] agreed Japs looking for peace. Presidentafraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country likeSweden." (all cited in American Prometheus, p. 301).
All the world knows what happened next. The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and another on Nagasaki two days later. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were vaporized. And what we now know is that this first and only use of nuclear weapons amounted to nothing short of a terror bombing of innocent civilians designed to, first, impel Japan to surrender immediately, second, keep the Russians from entering the war and sharing in the victory, and third, leave the Russian leaders in nodoubt as to who was now top dog on the planet.
Given all this, no sane person can observe the belligerent U.S. threats continually aimed at North Korea and Iran and not be sickened by a) the growing danger of nuclear proliferation and annihilation now facing the world, and b) the bottomless hypocrisy of the United States in condemning smaller nations for daring to develop weapons that it alone has everused‹weapons that we now know were not needed to save lives in a putativeinvasion of Japan, but rather to impress a rival with our new-foundstrength. More chilling still, that weapon was dropped not on a military target, but rather on a prostrate and already terrorized civilianpopulation. Most nauseating of all, while our President prattles on about the danger to Americans of North Korea's test, he is at the same time makingit far more likely that it will be the United States which, with its new nuclear posture review, will once again be the first to employ new, nicely-miniaturized nuclear weapons on other humans.
Lawrence DiStasi

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