Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the New Logic of Nuclear Deterrence

Whether or not they ended the war, nuclear weapons changed the world. And they'll do so again.

Historians have decided that Japan’s surrender was not just about the A-bomb, and many people are taking this to mean that nuclear weapons are, after all, irrelevant. The historians may be right about the surrender, but the new conventional wisdom about nuclear deterrence is wrong.

A cottage industry has developed to puncture holes in the “myths” of nuclear deterrence. One particularly common theme is to argue, usually with exaggeration, that the Americans and Soviets may have been closer to thermonuclear war during the hair-raising 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis than was previously thought.

But perhaps no incident of the nuclear era has quite the same resonance as the U.S. dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. For many years the argument that the clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki quickly ended the war has been a stock in trade of discussions over the role of nuclear weapons. Thus it is no surprise that here too there has been a pronounced shift in how many historians and analysts look at this seminal event. Gone is the untroubled assumption that the mighty power of the A-bomb turned Japan from a fanatically suicidal nation at war to one begging for surrender. Some scholars today argue instead that the bombs competed with the Soviet intervention in the war against Japan, the impending loss of Manchuria and the looming threat of American invasion in driving Tokyo’s decision to sue for peace. The atomic bombs were not, in this line of thought, the magic weapons that ended the war.

From this reassessment many people have taken a further step and drawn the lesson that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence just don’t really work as advertised—and thus that they can be dispensed with. As Ward Wilson, one of the most fervent advocates of this view, argues, “The collapse of the Hiroshima case undermines one of the cornerstones of nuclear deterrence theory.” This has become something like the conventional wisdom, highlighted in thoughtful retrospectives of the sixty-sixth anniversary of the bombing and The Atlantic’s recent assessment of President Obama’s nuclear-abolition vision.

The notion that Hiroshima shows that nuclear weapons aren’t all they’re cracked up to be rests on the argument, as Wilson puts it, “[t]hat the destruction of cities does not sway leaders…[and] that what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not overly remarkable.” Elsewhere he adds that, “the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki merely extended what was already a ferocious campaign of city bombing and were generally within the parameters of destruction for these conventional attacks…[Also,] a close examination of diaries, letters, and official documents makes clear that the Soviet invasion touched off a crisis [in Japan], while the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not.” As he summarizes, “The assertion that nuclear attacks are peculiarly effective because nuclear destruction is peculiarly horrible is unpersuasive.” In other words, Wilson argues, committed countries won’t give up even if they’re subjected to withering atomic attack. In fact, they might even be downright sanguine about it—burning down a country’s entire urban infrastructure, as the United States did to Japan, barely registers in people’s diaries, according to Wilson.

The trouble with all this is not that the reinterpretation of why Japan surrendered is wrong. In fact, it does seem that the Soviet entry into the war contributed substantially to Tokyo’s decision to surrender. The problem is the argument that nuclear weapons are irrelevant and can be dispensed with. If anything, the reverse: The logical implication of a really thoroughgoing assessment that nuclear weapons had little to do with Japan’s surrender is not that nuclear weapons are dispensable, but rather that they should be treated like any other weapon. For if the Japanese could withstand the near-total annihilation of their urban infrastructure and the dropping of two A-bombs, well then there truly is a lot of ruin in a nation. If you’re going to beat a nation like that, you’ll need to use every weapon available, which is why we haven’t gotten rid of rifles or precision-guided cruise missiles just because they aren’t war winners on their own. Thus, this argument would suggest, if Iran or North Korea gets into a fight with the United States or its allies, we had better use every weapon at our disposal because they and their leaders might well act like the Japanese.

This way of looking at things, though rarely heard now, has a distinguished pedigree. The influential U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey found after World War II that the massive bombings of Germany and Japan did not break their will to fight, and many prominent political and military leaders, even the eminently sane Ike, argued for treating nuclear weapons just like any other weapon.