Seventy-two years ago, the United States launched a pre-emptive nuclear strike against a hated faraway Asian nation. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, which killed some 146,000 men, women, and children—and the subsequent devastation of Nagasaki, a few days later—opened a new era for humanity. Not one of hope or progress, but of the very real possibility of annihilation of most life on Earth.
That such an immeasurable catastrophe has not befallen us, despite so many nations’ being armed with weapons of mass destruction, was because deterrence worked. Every actor in this dance of death understood that mutually assured destruction made the use of nuclear weapons unconscionable and, yes, MAD. Though the theory of deterrence was tested several times—almost to destruction during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—we have managed to remain safe so far.
Until now. For today, we seem to be edging—if not rushing—toward a clash between two belligerent nations: the most powerful on the planet, the United States, and North Korea, whose leader sees nuclear weaponry and the development of long-range missiles as crucial to the survival of his constantly menaced country and his rule over it. Kim Jong-un’s grandiose warnings of an attack on the American mainland have been met by Donald Trump’s promise to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
At the United Nations this week, the president ratcheted up the tension by threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” and taunting its leader, saying, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.” Kim Jong-un answered with his own insults, calling the US president “a frightened dog,” “a mentally deranged US dotard,” and “a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire,” and promising the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
But there was another, more telling aspect of Trump’s UN speech. This most thoughtless and impetuous of American presidents also called the possibility of nuclear conflict “unthinkable.” On the contrary, we must think about it. And crucial to any understanding of the moral import of the possible use of nuclear weapons is to go back to the foundational moment of this nuclear age and ask again: Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes?
We have no way of knowing what the people of North Korea would make of that question, any more than we know what their views are about their leader’s avowed willingness to order a nuclear first strike. After all, the citizens of the so-called Democratic Republic are closeted in a “dense fog” created by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, “to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”
We do, on the other hand, know something about what Americans think. Two years ago, a Pew Research poll found that 56 percent of American respondents regarded the bombing of Hiroshima as justified, a clear majority, though significantly down from the 85 percent who felt that way in 1945.
There is still much controversy around the issue. The traditional justification for the attack was that it was the only way to force the Japanese High Command to surrender immediately, and to avoid a long and costly invasion of island after island that would have led to countless American and Allied casualties. But subsequent historical research has revealed that Japan capitulated out of fear that the Soviet Union would land forces on the Japanese mainland and occupy half the country. The findings of historians Gar Alperovitz, Murray Sayle, and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, among others, refute the conventional wisdom that the first nuclear attack in history was an absolute necessity.
Yet the myth persists. The question is: To what extent does Americans’ belief in the rightness of President Truman’s fateful decision in 1945 provide moral support for the brimstone rhetoric of nuclear conflagration that President Trump is deploying today?
Polling may provide only a partial answer to that, but it is suggestive. In May, a Zogby Analytics survey found that 52 percent of respondents would support a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s WMD program (though a nuclear strike was not specified in the poll question). Another, more recent study suggested that American public approval of a nuclear first strike could be as high as 60 percent if such an attack would save thousands of US soldiers’ lives, even at the price of millions of civilian casualties in the enemy country. Sound familiar?
This week’s trade in brawling insults between Trump and Kim has eroded the comforting notion that such scenarios are purely hypothetical. Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea should encourage the American people to ask whether they would countenance another nuclear first strike to be launched in their name. If a majority still believes, mistakenly, that the cataclysmic blasts that ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were a necessary evil, at a time when the United States was the world’s sole nuclear-armed power, what can persuade our fellow citizens that striking a pariah nation with a nuclear arsenal in 2017 would not also be a necessary evil?
To debate these issues is an urgent intellectual task, a national conversation that should be taking place in every home, school and workplace. John Hersey’s reporting for The New Yorker in “Hiroshima” shocked many in 1946, but over the decades America has largely escaped thinking too deeply about its responsibility for the devastation and suffering of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the burnt bodies, the radiated air, the screams amid the rubble. The power of the US nuclear force today is thousands of times greater than it was in 1945; the ruin it might inflict on the people of North Korea unimaginably worse.
Debating whether Hiroshima was a war crime is, at this moment, anything but an academic exercise. America’s presumed innocence is not benign. It allows an ignorant and bellicose president to open the door not just to the Kim regime’s destruction, but to a possible act of collective suicide on a global scale. If Trump nukes North Korea, what will China do? And Russia?
In 1888, the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche predicted the coming of “wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.” It seems unlikely that Trump was recalling Ecce Homo when he echoed Nietzsche’s phrase with his promise of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” but he should consider the warning of Albert Einstein, four years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
If this president is seriously considering the first nuclear attack in more than seven decades of uneasy atomic peace, it won’t matter this time whether we call it a war crime. It would be an apocalypse that might leave no one to claim they were innocent.
An earlier version of this essay misstated the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was 1962, not 1963.