The United States is the only nation to have ever waged nuclear war, and that against an already beaten and virtually helpless foe known to be on the verge of surrender. Not just one, but two atom bombs were dropped on two different Japanese cities of no military significance. The second bomb was of an unproven design; it was tested on Nagasaki, in one of history’s cruelest experiments.
At the end of World War Two, 85 percent of Americans approved the atom bombing of Japan. The official story, then and now, is that the nuclear attacks were an agonizing but brave and unavoidable choice to end the war and save a million lives. In fact, what the US really wanted was to demonstrate to the entire world, and especially the Soviet Union, that it possessed the ultimate weapon and would henceforth rule the roost. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less the final shots of World War Two and more the opening shots of the Cold War.
More than 70 years have passed and nuclear weapons have never again been used. There have been many close calls, but so far no deliberate attacks. It is now known that the US seriously considered using atom bombs during the Korean war. It is now known that the US explicitly threatened adversaries with nuclear weapons on multiple occasions. It is now known that during the early Cold War the US developed operational plans for a massive preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
The threat of nuclear war, and the holocaust of destruction that would flow from such a war, has hung over the world ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nevertheless, in 70 years, the Bomb has never again actually been used, not by the US and not by anyone else. Have we just been lucky? Or, despite all the threats and all the plans, has something like a taboo developed around nuclear war? Has the use of these weapons—at least the preemptive use—become unthinkable? Indeed, public support for the atom bombing of Japan has declined from 85 percent in 1945 to just 46 percent today. Maybe we have been spared a nuclear holocaust by the development of something like a nuclear moral code.
It would be unwise to count on this.
A new study, entitled “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran,” specifically looks at whether public opinion is likely to be a restraint or a goad to nuclear war. How well does the public adhere to “just war” principles such as noncombatant immunity, proportionality of response, and willingness to accept risks? The answer is: not much. Most Americans would approve a nuclear strike against a non-nuclear foe if it would save American lives.
Respondents in this study were presented with the following scenario:
- The US places “severe sanctions” on Iran because of allegations it is violating a nuclear deal.
- Iran retaliates and sinks a US aircraft carrier, killing 2,402 personnel.
- The US carries out devastating air attacks that destroy Iran’s military infrastructure, including nuclear facilities.
- The US demands “immediate and unconditional surrender,” but Iran refuses.
- The President orders a ground invasion of Iran which stalls after several months of fighting and 10,000 US fatalities.
At this point the President must choose between 1) ontinuing the ground invasion, costing 20,000 more US deaths before victory, or 2) dropping a nuclear bomb on an Iranian city, killing 2,000,000 civilians but “shocking” Iran into surrender.
Sixty percent of the respondents would approve the nuclear strike. In other words, most Americans are willing to nuke 2,000,000 enemy civilians to save 20,000 American military in a war to make a non-nuclear country “unconditionally” surrender. As the authors say,
The main conclusions of these survey experiments are clear. The majority of the U.S. public has not internalized either a belief in the nuclear taboo or a strong noncombatant immunity norm.
The study also demonstrates American have no sense of proportionality or willingness to accept limited costs to avoid mass death: 2,402 initial US military losses are ultimately avenged by nuking 2,000,000 civilians.
Seventy years have passed without nuclear war, but the threat persists. Don’t count on moral restraint. We’ve just been extraordinarily lucky—so far.
- Kaku, Michio, and Daniel Axelrod. To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans. Boston: South End Press, 1987.
- Chilling Survey Reveals Majority of Americans Willing To Preemptively Nuke Other Nations
- Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants