Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Remember Your Humanity

I will begin where I left off on my previous post about nuclear deterrence, with Rothbard:

This is why the old cliché no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace. For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner.

I conclude that nuclear weapons, along with other such weapons of mass destruction, hold a place different than weapons such as firearms and knives.  In the case of nuclear weapons, the immorality is in the existence, not only in the use.

This also applies to the use as deterrent, because in the end, deterrence means destroying countless millions of non-combatants.  This is a direct violation of both the non-aggression principle as well as common morality. 

It seems easy to speak almost casually about nuclear weapons and deterrence.  As a society, we have gone decades without the use of such weapons in war – and the one time such weapons were used…well many people delude themselves by believing the use was necessary to bring a swift and efficient end to the war.

However, the subject is not casual.  The weaponry available today makes the bombs used against Japan seem like a child’s firecracker in comparison.  The issue of the true meaning of deterrence – that of placing at risk countless millions of current and future generations – is an issue I will explore further, beginning with this post. 

To learn what the deterrent actually is: that is the first responsibility of moralists and religious leaders who wish to talk about the deterrent.  Not to talk in ignorance of the facts; not to substitute wishes for facts; above all, not to pretend that it is something other than it is, or, worse, connive with government officials to obtain fresh descriptions of the deterrent threat, so that an unqualified moral condemnation of it can be avoided.

Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism, by John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez; Chapter XIV, Section 6

I don’t know a better place to start than at the beginning – at the time and place that the first nuclear bomb was used against a civilian population – Hiroshima.  Hiroshima offers a microcosm of the death and destruction that undergirds the concept of nuclear deterrence.  As my guide, I will work through “Hiroshima’s Shadow,” a volume edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz.

The subtitle of the book is “Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy.”  What was this controversy?

Fifty years after the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay was used to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the decision that ushered in the nuclear age is still the subject of fierce historical debate.

In the latest clash, the Smithsonian Institution, attacked by veterans groups and members of Congress for a World War II exhibit that they said was overly solicitous of Japan, has decided to drastically scale back the display: The narrative, already revised five times, will be dropped, and visitors will see only part of the Enola Gay's fuselage, along with a small commemorative plaque.

A small commemorative plaque….

The book, published in 1998, is a compilation of dozens of articles and commentaries regarding the development and use of the nuclear bomb in Japan – including first-person recollections of individuals on the scene in Hiroshima. 

On the occasion of the opening ceremony of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the runner selected as the final torch-bearer was a young man born in Hiroshima on the day the bomb was dropped.  Although this runner was fortunate – he carried no physical deformation from this tragedy – there were many who complained that this symbol would be a reminder of that which many Americans would prefer not to have remembered.  This brought a negative reaction from many, including an American journalist:

…this was an unhappy choice because it reminded the Americans of the atomic bomb.

[The journalist] preferred to erase all traces of Hiroshima from the American memory.  Worse still, this preference occurs not only to the American mind.  Do not all leaders and peoples who at present possess nuclear weapons also wish to erase Hiroshima from their memories?

Kenzaburō Ōe, On Human Dignity (opening page, prior to table of contents)

It is memory that must not be erased.  We live in a world that has grown cold to the risks of such an indescribable weapon.  We live in a world where many have grown indifferent to the use of weapons that kill indiscriminately.  As stated by Finnis, Boyle, Jr., and Grisez, this is an issue the horrors of which must be faced directly if one has design to weigh in on deterrence.

At the same time, we live in a world where the death of a few thousand people and destruction of a few buildings in lower Manhattan has resulted in more than a decade of war and an unsurpassed level of surveillance by the government of the United States.  Yet this event on September 11, tragic as it was, resulted in perhaps one one-millionth of the size and scope of the devastation of a potential nuclear holocaust.

Surely if we mourn this relatively minor event, it is appropriate to stare reality in the face when it comes to nuclear weapons and the risks brought on even by claiming that these are for deterrence.

I begin with the preface, written by Joseph Rotblat.  It is from this preface where I took the title of this post – a quote from Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell:

Remember your humanity… (xvii)

The issue of nuclear weapons – even as deterrent – cannot be addressed without understanding the risks and consequences.  As outlined in my previous post, what is it that is being deterred?  In simple terms, is it better dead than red? 

If I may hark back to those charming debates of the 1950s, it has always seemed to me that red is better than dead because the red can choose to be dead but the dead cannot choose to be anything at all.

With this, let’s begin.  Rotblat was a scientist on the Manhattan Project.  He begins his story:

The British and American scientists feared that German scientists would develop the bomb.  When our calculations had shown that an atom bomb was feasible, it was natural for us to assume that the German scientists had reached the same conclusion. (xviii)

Rotblat explains the purpose (at least for him and many of the scientists involved) behind development for the bomb was the same as offered today – deterrence:

We needed the bomb so that it would not be used.  But as it turned out, we were wrong: the bomb was used; it was used as soon as it was made; it was used against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (xviii)

Five years later, the scientists learned that the Germans were nowhere near this far along, having ended the quest as early as 1942. 

He goes on to address the myth that has built up regarding the use of the bomb, first describing the mainstream story before moving to the reality:

However, there is another version of the events.  It is a version which makes people in the West very uncomfortable, so much so that it is being suppressed.  When, in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the bomb, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington attempted to raise this question, it was met with such a vicious onslaught that the project had to be abandoned. (xviii)

He offers another example of the suppression, this during the height of the Cold War:

…I came across documents showing that the British Government had issued a secret directive to the BBC to play down the effects of nuclear weapons. (xxv)

He addresses the whole-cloth fabrication of the number of lives saved due to the bomb making unnecessary a military invasion of Japan.  He recognizes that the end of the war was delayed by Truman in order to hold open the possibility of displaying this awesome weapon.  He quotes Eisenhower and Leahy – both opposed at the time to the use of and military necessity for the bomb.

Why did Truman choose to extend the war?

There are solid grounds for the belief that the reason was not military but political, namely, that the bomb was from the beginning seen as a powerful instrument in the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Among the political leaders who advised President Truman to keep the war going until the bomb was ready was Secretary of State James Byrnes, who said that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable. (xix)

Of course, it was more than a demonstration – a demonstration could have been done over the open ocean or in the desert.  It was purposeful destruction of human life.  It would seem that the US wanted not only a demonstration for Russia, but to also put the fear into Russia of the insanity of US political leaders – as if to say “we are serious when we tell you we will wipe out your entire population.”

Rotblat goes on to encourage scientists to take responsibility for their work – to consider not just the work but is potential uses. 

Should any scientist work on the development of weapons of mass destruction? A clear “no” was the answer given by Hans Bethe…. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima, Dr. Bethe issued a clear and categorical statement in this regard…. (xxii)

Dr. Bethe was one of the few surviving senior managers of the Manhattan Project, 88 years old at the time of the statement.  Quoting Dr. Bethe:

…individual scientists can still influence this process by withholding their skills.  Accordingly, I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving, and manufacturing further nuclear weapons – and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons. (xxii)

Some have taken a stand: for example, Bertrand Russell, Andrei Sakharov, Vil Mirzayanov, and Mordechai Vanunu – this last one having disclosed that Israel has built up a nuclear arsenal.

Although Rotblat initially believed that his work in the development of the bomb was for a good purpose – deterrence of the Germans – he has since come to conclude that even this purpose is not acceptable:

Many of us have since come to the conclusion that the whole concept of nuclear deterrence is flawed. (xxii)

He sees that it is during wartime that an individual acts in the most abnormal manner – what was deemed unacceptable suddenly becomes acceptable, followed by normal, and then expected.  Therefore, he fears, the question of the widespread use of nuclear weapons (even by mistake or confusion) is only a matter of if, not when.  He cites Einstein and Russell:

Here then is the problem we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war? (xxvi)

The book was compiled (and Rotblat wrote the preface) after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He recognizes that this diminishes the threat of annihilation, but does not eliminate it:

The nuclear states still adhere to the deterrence policy, which is bound to lead to more countries seeking the security which the nuclear weapons states say that the possession of nuclear weapons provides…. The present basic philosophy is nuclear deterrence…. Nuclear weapons are kept as a hedge against some unspecified dangers.

If the militarily most powerful and least threatened states need nuclear weapons for their security, how can one deny such securities to countries that are truly insecure? (xxvii)

I do not intend to review every commentary and article in this volume.  I will spend some time on those commentaries from several notable individuals included in this work.  Most importantly, I am most interested in the view from the side of the victim – those who witnessed the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who saw the after-effects.  This is what must not be forgotten, because this is the game being played when it comes to nuclear deterrence.


  1. Dear BM,
    I've wrestled over your posts and conclusion on this deterrent issue but came to accept your view. I've been following you for a few months and you always write very insightful, interesting, and sometimes challenging articles. Congratulations and keep up the good work!

    Now; are you gonna write about defensive options when facing with a nuclear-armed enemy? If I recall it correctly, the book's authors concluded that there's no effective alternative for defense but you disputed that without really elaborating. I would love to see you explore the real practical implications. It's always easier to be a moral absolutist in theory than in practice... ;-)

    All the best,

    1. Norbert, thank you for the kind comments.

      Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “Saints can be pure, but statesmen must be responsible. As trustees for others, they must defend interests and compromise principles.” (VII.5)

      I think this statement represents the practical view perfectly, and on some levels the statement proves difficult to overcome. For example, the furor over Iran supposedly building a bomb. That state, surrounded and daily threatened by the most powerful military ever on earth: what options do they have? Of course, in the case of Iran, it would be suicide to use such a weapon as a first strike weapon, but as a deterrent?

      Given the regular threats made to that nation – and the examples seen of invasion on both their east and west – I am hard-pressed to make a practical case consistent with the ethical case presented in my writing on this subject.

      However, when I consider the results of using such a weapon – as described in my subsequent post on Hiroshima ( ) – it becomes substantially easier to agree with the statement made by the authors of this volume: “If one finds oneself in circumstances such that there is no moral way to discharge one’s positive duties, then one should not discharge them.”

      My dispute of the authors’ statement was based on nothing more than certain counter-examples in our world – Switzerland being one. There are many states without nuclear weapons today that also do not seem to be in any direct threat of having nuclear weapons (or any other military invasion) used against them. If the US, as an example, held a much more humble foreign policy, might not the threat of nuclear attack also be reduced?

      In any case, the purpose of my posts on this subject was to wrestle with the moral question (as I also struggled with this), and not to resolve the practical issue – although the example given above of Iran still causes me some difficulty, I am satisfied with my moral conclusion.

      An individual does not have the right to threaten untold number of innocents in order to deter an aggressor who may or may not even reside in the same district with those same threatened innocents. Using the Cold War example: to threaten Leningrad in order to send a message to the political leadership in Moscow is immoral. Additionally, to threaten all residents of Moscow is equally immoral.

      If it is immoral for an individual to provide self-defense in such a manner, that same individual does not have a legitimate right to pass this means on to his government to do the same.

    2. Thanks for your response!

      I think your Schlesinger quote and the authors' quote (should not discharge duties if no moral way to do so) represent the dilemma of practical applications perfectly. IMHO you simply cannot ignore the particular circumstances and they always have a great influence on the actual decisions. Switzerland's mountains provide an unsurpassed defense, and Iran (and many other countries) would have much less incentive to build a nuclear weapon with a libertarian US and allies.

      And that last part is the most important: creating a libertarian (or more exactly an Austrian or Ron Paulian one, not some other more "practical" or belligerent ones) minded US government would do the most for world peace in the long run...