The Legacy of the Atomic Bomb

Reuters
August 6, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarBomb

The Legacy of the Atomic Bomb

There has been a lingering debate whether a demonstration would have been sufficient, and even Robert Oppenheimer—the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and among those who are credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb”—initially had his doubts whether such a demonstration would have in fact been dramatic enough.

 

Seventy-five years ago, on August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb codenamed “Little Boy” was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. While the bomb weighed just ninety-seven hundred pounds it had a blast yield that equaled fifteen kilotons of TNT. An estimated sixty-six thousand people were killed as a direct result of the blast while sixty-nine thousand were injured to varying degrees.

A second atomic bomb, an implosion-type nuclear weapon codenamed Fat Man, was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki three days later on August 9.  

 

Since that time the question has been asked repeatedly whether it was necessary to use the bomb against a civilian city. Seven of America’s eight five-star admirals and generals in 1945 went on the record to say that the atomic bomb was either militarily unnecessary, morally reprehensible, or both.

There has been a lingering debate whether a demonstration would have been sufficient, and even Robert Oppenheimerthe wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and among those who are credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb”—initially had his doubts whether such a demonstration would have in fact been dramatic enough.

He changed his mind when he witnessed the Trinity Test in New Mexico on July 16, and Oppenheimer later recalled that a passage from the Bhagavad Gita entered his thoughts, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project—the U.S. military’s effort to develop the atomic bomb—were opposed to its use against a civilian target.

However, in the end, there was no mere demonstration and the atomic bomb was used twice against Japanese cities. World War II had become the first—and hopefully last—“nuclear war.”

A Lasting Peace:  

The two atomic bombs used seventy-five years ago may have killed as many as 226,000 people, while countless more may have died from exposure to the radiation in the years following. It could be argued however that the bombs also resulted in a lasting peace.

The threat of mutually assured destruction may have kept the Cold War from turning into World War III, and even today the legacy of the bombs remains in various treaties but also in the threat of shared annihilation.

“Most countries supported the UN nuclear ban treaty,” explained Peter Kuznick, professor of history at the American University. 

“Some, however, like Iran, feel surrounded by hostile powers, some of which have nuclear weapons,” Kuznick told the National Interest via an email. “It is true that using such weapons would be clinically insane and risk self-annihilation, but many leaders believe that having such weapons brings national prestige and serves as a deterrent to attack. The North Koreans, for example, said that if Saddam Hussein had had nuclear weapons, the U.S. would never have invaded. Maybe they’re right. It looked like the U.S. would attack North Korea in late 2017, but U.S. leaders didn’t want to risk the consequences of North Korean nuclear weapons.”

Likewise, nations such as India and Pakistan have engaged in a full-blown war as each is a nuclear power. 

“There is a perverse logic to wanting to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent,” added Kuznick. “Scientific studies show that because of the effects of nuclear winter, even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which one hundred Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons were used could cause up to two billion deaths worldwide. And there are still almost fourteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world mostly between seven and eighty times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. Do the math and you realize how insane our nuclear-armed, conflict-ridden world still is.”

However, there is still a danger in relying too much on the weapons as a deterrent—America’s nuclear arsenal didn’t stop the 9/11 attacks or subsequent acts of terror. And while the end of the Cold War saw a reduction in nuclear weapons the world now faces new threats from hypersonic missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes that can hit targets hundreds of miles away. 

"With (President Donald) Trump’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons and his statements about welcoming an arms race, it could get scarier and more dangerous,” warned Kuznik. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had good reason to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock to one hundred seconds before midnight. It the New START Treaty is allowed to expire in February 2021, they’ll be certain to move the hands much closer than that.”

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. 

Image: Reuters