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75 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the arms race isn't over

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U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un in 2019 (image by the White House via Flickr)

The twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945 are always moments that warrant a tick on the commemorative calendar. 

This has become fairly functional fare: those were the only occasions where atomic weapons were used on humans, mostly civilians. In the United States, the occasion has had to be regaled with a degree of necessary patriotic gush. No other country has ever used them in war. 

Much ink and paper have been expended on the justifications, the salvations and the guiding considerations behind using these killers to conclude the Second World War. U.S. President Harry S. Truman either comes out a torn, anguished statesman who did what the thought best in a terrible situation, or a devilish huckster determined to score a success that would not merely knock out Japan but prevent the rise of Soviet (USSR) influence in East Asia.

The USSR was far from intimidated. For one, Soviet officials knew well in advance of the race for the weaponised atom between the Allies and Nazi Germany, and kept abreast of advances made by the U.S.-led Manhattan Project, the name given to the development of the world’s first atomic weapon. Despite the acclaimed secrecy of the project, regular gobbets of information were conveyed back to Moscow via a network of well-planted Soviet agents

On July 24, 1945, when President Truman made mention to the Soviet Union’s Generalissimo Joseph Stalin “that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force”, the unfazed leader:

'Showed no special interest. All he said was he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make "good use of it against the Japanese".' 

U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes was 'surprised at Stalin’s lack of interest', naively concluding 'that he had not grasped the importance of the discovery'. 

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill similarly thought

'That at that date Stalin had no special knowledge of the vast process of research upon which the United States and Britain had been engaged for so long.'

In a meeting in Moscow on August 8, 1945 between Stalin, his Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, and Minister Counsellor George F. Kennan, the atomic bomb dominated the conversation. 

At that point, high ranking U.S. officials should have been in little doubt about foreknowledge. Stalin acknowledged the views of the Soviet scientists that turning the atom towards military use 'was a very difficult problem to work out'. Harriman was dreamily pondering the future application of atomic energy for “peaceful purposes”, albeit kept secret by the Allies. 

The pokerfaced Stalin suggested that 'the secret would have to be well kept'. One can just discern an inward chuckle.

The arms race that followed between the United States and USSR was horrendously costly, needless and indicative how the human species can have those shuddering moments when extinction might just be around the corner. Both sides attempted various methods of restraint through arms-control agreements but these made only modest efforts to empty their respective arsenals. 

What international instruments from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks I (SALT) to New START did was create employment for an industry that has never been threatened by termination: that of nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear club also expanded, though membership numbers were restricted, at times poorly, to an elite.  The international document doing so was the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). 

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs is not being ironic in describing the NPT 'as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and an essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament'. 

Roguish claims to master the nuclear option presented themselves in due course. South Africa, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea have all sought membership via back channels and duplicity.

Now, the 75th anniversary of the bombings has caused discomfort amongst the pundits and policy wonks. Is there a new arms race before us? Ishaan Tharoor, writing in The Washington Post, fears that might be the case. The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and mutterings about not renewing the New START Treaty in 2021 are cited as possible incentives to avoid limiting arsenals.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, assistant editor of the Irish Times, is even more pessimistic. He recalls the hopes of 2010, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev met in Prague to sign New START capping strategic warheads on each side, followed by the quinquennial review of the NPT. 

That review led to a plan bolstering three salient principles of the treaty: that all states share in the non-military applications of nuclear technology; that all nuclear weapons states pursue disarmament and those without such weapons eschew possessing them.

Cormaic rattles off the list of Trump’s destabilising treaty withdrawals, all doing their bit to foster the spirit of international insecurity. To the INF treaty already noted by Tharoor, he also adds Washington’s repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and exiting from the Open Skies Treaty permitting state parties to conduct, according to the Arms Control Association, unarmed reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory on military forces and activities. 

Not renewing New START or finding some successor could fire “the starting gun” on 'a new arms race between the cold war’s protagonists'.

From the Russian perspective, encouragement for a splurge of spending, particularly in the field of tactical nuclear weaponry, abounds.  In January this year, President Vladimir Putin boasted that: 

“For the first time in the history of nuclear weapons, we don’t have to catch up with anyone.” 

Russia had stolen a lead and “the world’s other leading nations will have to first create the weapons that Russia already has.” 

Such a call to arms did its bit to encourage Trump’s arms control negotiator and special presidential envoy Marshall Billingslea, playing every bit the cocksure arms promoter:

“The President has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here.” 

That practice? Reaching for the wallet:

“We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

The 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings might have encouraged some reflection on current attitudes to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Passed on July 7, 2017, it has become a focal point for advocates of a nuclear weapons-free world and a source of irritation for nuclear weapons states. 

Most perversely of all are those powers not in possession of nuclear weapons yet derive some form of security from states who have them, a strategic figment of the military imagination known as the 'umbrella of extended nuclear deterrence".  For that reason Japan, despite being a global town crier for the banning of nuclear weapons, has refused to add its name to the nuclear weapons ban treaty. 

Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui took the commemorative occasion to encourage the Japanese government to abandon that position: 

“Hiroshima considers it our duty to build in civil society a consensus that the people of the world must unite to achieve nuclear weapons abolition and lasting world peace."

Australia, another U.S. annex in the Asia Pacific, similarly refuses to join the club of prohibitionists. When it participated in the UN working group on nuclear disarmament in 2016, Australian diplomats made it clear that they had no interest in seeing any document banning nuclear weapons emerge. 

The disruptive involvement of Australian officials in the group was keenly exposed in documents obtained under Freedom of Information by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). 'So long as the threat of nuclear attack and coercion exists,' states one document from foreign ministry officials, 'U.S. extended deterrence will serve Australia’s fundamental national security interests'

Such a position would have to be renounced were Canberra to sign up to any treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. To avoid that outcome, they were to serve as spoilers, providing 'a strong alternative viewpoint, notably against those states who wish to push a near-term ban treaty'.

During the course of negotiations, Australian officials also served as the ears and eyes of Washington, a role they have been accustomed to for decades. As the United States had boycotted the meetings, Canberra felt it necessary to remain in “close contact” with Washington 'about our shared concerns' on the working group’s disturbing move towards recommending 'negotiations on a ‘ban treaty”'.  Happily, Australia’s spoiling role merely served to strengthen the resolve of the other parties.

Canberra’s current position is that of a jaded cynic in realist’s clothes. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade states:

'Australia does not support the "ban treaty" which we believe would not eliminate a single nuclear weapon.'

It scoffs at efforts that have ignored powers possessing nuclear weapons in negotiations, avoiding 'the realities of the global security environment'. The document, furthermore, lacks the teeth of the NPT and 'would be inconsistent with our U.S. alliance obligations'.

As long as the nuclear weapons option remains genuine, credible and desirable, there will always be a prospect for use. Once acquired, their abandonment has only ever proven exceptional (South Africa provides a unique case of this). 

As things stand, a good number of countries could go nuclear overnight. It has taken much persuasion, and long discussion, to reassure South Korea and Japan not to do so before the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. The atom, in other words, still retains a deadly magic, tempting to upstarts, arrivistes and possessors.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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