Watching Fat Man and Little Boy seemed fitting tonight, considering the alleged problems in the US-India nuclear deal. What good are all the constitutional safeguards, if no one follows them?
I also recall an excellent post concerning the deployment of the world’s first two atomic weapons.
Duck of Minerva’s M. Gemmill questions one leg of the standard arguments offered for the benefits of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in a book review.
During World War II, teams of scientists raced to build the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb. This weapon, everyone believed, was so powerful that it would force the Japanese to surrender immediately, eliminating the need for an extremely costly invasion of the Japanese main islands. They built two weapons using two different models: Little Boy, a uranium gun-style weapon, and, just in case the first one wasn’t enough, the Fat Man, a plutonium implosion weapon. When the weapons were ready, President Truman, who knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until Roosevelt’s death, struggled mightily with the moral implications of using these ultimate weapons. The atomic bomb, once dropped on Hiroshima, and then three days later, on Nagasaki, proved America’s overwhelming military superiority to the Japanese, and they promptly surrendered.
Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August challenges the central premise of this story: that the atomic bomb was perceived as a weapon qualitatively different from what we now call conventional weaponry. Instead, he argues, many (though not all) of the scientists and political and military decision makers understood the new nuclear weapons as simply a more powerful and efficient method of delivering destruction than conventional weaponry, and that this viewpoint was dominant. Although the atomic bomb was part of a larger plan to “shock and awe” the Japanese into surrender, it was only one component of that plan, along with the conventional firebombing of Japanese cities and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific. Most people involved expected the war to continue for some time longer–at the very least, into September, and they expected that they would need to continue to deliver additional atomic weapons throughout this period. The true impact of the atomic bomb, particularly its radiological effects, was unknown, even to the Manhattan Project scientists, who initially discounted reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Japanese propaganda. The US was surprised not only by the effects of the atomic bombs, but also by the speed of the Japanese surrender.
In the movie, there is also a scene where the value of a demonstration, witnessed by the Japanese, is debated, instead of dropping the atomic bomb without warning. Like so much in the film, the issue is not handled fully. However, this is another piece of the standard account of that fateful decision usually glossed over.
With all its flaws, and with the US-India deal in the background, the film did impress upon me one conclusion. The decisions that propelled the creation of an atomic device were voluntary, and not necessitated by any conditions, such as the Pacific War. Information existed and military and political leaders struggled with momentous moral arguments, but no conclusion just presented itself. If there is a lesson in this opening episode, it is that people can make mistakes even when they know full well they should deliberate carefully. It seems optimal to accept that the final decision will be flawed, and begin the deliberative process humbly with that failure in mind.