Michael KreponOn the 73rd Anniversary of Hiroshima

The imprint on public consciousness of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred 73 years ago today, has faded greatly. The hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed more than 130,000 and left tens of thousands of others with horrendous injuries, have been the most ardent proponents of nuclear abolition. Now they are few in number and nuclear-armed states seem deaf to their pleas.

This anniversary arrives at a time when the “Nuclear Enterprise” in the United States is gearing up to spend over $1 trillion on new missiles, bombers and submarines over the next three decades. Meanwhile, the competing “Arms Control Enterprise” is unraveling: There are at present no negotiations underway to reduce US and Russian nuclear forces, while China, Pakistan, India and North Korea are increasing their number. And yet at the same time the situation isn’t completely bleak. Here are five key points to keep in mind about nuclear weapons on this somber anniversary.

1. The taboo against using nuclear weapons in warfare has held since 1945 — contrary to expectations.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, few were so bold or foolish to predict this. Instead, there was widespread fear and dread after the Bomb’s surprise unveiling that it would become an instrument for surprise military attacks, a decisive “war winning” weapon and — the greatest fear — a civilization-ending weapon.

It hasn’t turned out that way — so far. The Bomb could have been used by the Truman administration to end the Korean War, or by the Eisenhower administration either in Korea or in Indochina (to bail out France from its losing military campaign there), but it wasn’t. Mushroom clouds could have appeared by accidents, breakdowns in command and control or during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Despite close calls, we humans have been extremely fortunate. Sure, the concept of deterrence and the prospect of retaliation have induced caution, but deterrence is all about threats to use nuclear weapons — and threats generate more threats. Diplomacy was essential to curtail dangerous military practices and eventually, to achieve deep nuclear arms reductions, such as the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which still permits each side to retain 700 deployed missiles and bombers. Overall, US and Russian stockpiles are down around 85 per cent from Cold War highs. Such nuclear excess makes it all the more remarkable that, for different reasons at different times, a seven-decade-long record of non-battlefield use has taken hold. When it comes to the Bomb, this taboo is the best thing we’ve got going for us.

2. Nuclear weapons are becoming too provocative to test.

Russia hasn’t tested since 1990, the United States since 1992, China and France since 1996, India and Pakistan since 1998. The biggest outlier, North Korea, recently declared a closure of its test site.

During the Cold War, there was, on average, about one test per week somewhere in the world at test sites, in the atmosphere or at sea. Each test was a declaration of the Bomb’s power and utility. Every test demonstrated faith and commitment to battlefield use in the event of a breakdown of deterrence. The absence of nuclear testing conveys a very different message — that nuclear weapons aren’t like other instruments of war. They are different, a class apart. All of this is reversible, to be sure, but the longer the moratorium on nuclear testing continues, the greater the uproar should a nation violate the norm, and the greater the pressure on national leaders to abide by it.

3. Unfortunately, the nuclear taboo might be weakening.

Few survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain, and memories of mushroom clouds and the close calls of the Cold War are becoming dim. Public opinion polling suggests that many Americans would not think twice if there were a great many casualties against evildoers. For example, a 2017 survey found that 60 percent of Americans would support a nuclear attack on Iran that would kill 20 million civilians, to prevent an invasion that might kill 20,000 American soldiers.

A new generation of deterrence strategists believes in the utility of low-yield nuclear weapons for small forays across the nuclear threshold. The Trump administration is working on two new options to add to existing choices, which include B-61 “dial-a-yield” bombs that could be less than one kiloton. (The weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15-20 kilotons.) The idea of limited nuclear options and low-yield weapons isn’t new, but wiser heads have always been skeptical, questioning whether escalation can be controlled once the nuclear threshold has been crossed — especially since Moscow has never showed much interest in escalation control.

4. More bad news: traditional instruments of nuclear arms control are either weak or have been set aside.

Moscow is disregarding the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and a 1989 agreement to prevent dangerous military practices on the ground or in the air. These executive agreements were designed to avoid provocative actions that could result in hull scrapes and aircraft collisions. The George W. Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, which had facilitated deep cuts in offensive arms. Moscow then withdrew from a treaty banning the placement of multiple warheads atop land-based missiles in 2002 and is proceeding to build new heavy missiles that can carry ten or more warheads. Moscow has also violated a treaty prohibiting intermediate-range missiles, a move that ratchets up the perceived (and intended) threat to European members of NATO; the United States is taking steps to violate this treaty, as well, to counter Moscow’s leverage. New START, which caps the longest-range instruments of nuclear war fighting — intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers — is set to expire in 2021 and may not be extended. In short, an era of superpower arms control that helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot is coming to a close.

5. International division about nuclear weapons is growing.

A ban-the-bomb movement has picked up steam in states that have foresworn nuclear weapons, while strong pro-bomb constituencies exist in nuclear-armed nations. “Arms control” has lost its appeal to the American public, but arms races aren’t popular either. New approaches to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons are not being advanced, even as treaties that have served us well are being cast aside or are unraveling. So what’s the central organizing principle to prevent cataclysm for this era? Deterrence alone is insufficient and dangerous, while US diplomacy has been either erratic or absent. How can we proceed with friction on the rise with Moscow and Beijing, hyper partisanship on Capitol Hill, and growing isolationist sentiment among Republican voters? The Bomb isn’t going to be banned anytime soon. So, what’s our game plan? On this 73rd anniversary, we don’t have one.

Any sensible plan will protect positive developments since Hiroshima and curtail the downward slide we are in. The taboo against mushroom clouds in warfare is absolutely essential. Any crossing of the nuclear threshold could undo all of the hard work of previous generations. The resumption of nuclear testing by major powers would be a devastating development; extending the moratorium against testing is crucial to devaluing nuclear weapons. It’s also essential to affirm codes of responsible conduct when US and Russian or Chinese ships, aircraft and troops are operating at close quarters, to prevent sparks that could lead to military confrontations. Many treaties have lapsed. Only New START and its on site inspections governing long-range missiles and bombers remains in force. At a minimum, it would be wise to extend it and further reduce their capacities for nuclear overkill.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted to end a world war that cost between 50 and 80 million lives. If nuclear weapons are used again in warfare, the costs could be higher because no one knows how this would end. This is the most important lesson to absorb on this 73rd anniversary of Hiroshima.

Note to readers: A version of this essay appeared on August 6th in Vox.com. 


  1. oliver (History)

    Hi Mr. Krepon,
    just a crazy thought, how about no?
    No nuclear weapons at all, complete and utter destruction of all of the stockpiles. Then there is no longer a need for deterence?

    Cheers, Oliver

  2. jamicajoe (History)

    Sadly when the US embarks on a WMD saber rattling crusade with Iraq, NK or Iran, there is little discussion stateside about the US being the only country to use a nuclear weapon in anger, and that it was used twice against a civilian population. It is hypocritical for the US to claim the high road in any WMD negotiations. A great bit of humility is needed.