Building a Lasting Peace
Today marks the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the first use of atomic weapons in war. The world fundamentally changed at that moment, so it is worth reflecting on the circumstances that lead to it and how it continues to affect us to this day. This also comes as the other major nuclear power, Russia, continues its war of aggression against Ukraine and with communist Chinese continuing a massive nuclear buildup. It doesn't hurt that a blockbuster like “Oppenheimer” has tens of millions of Americans are thinking about nuclear deterrence, many for the first time in their lives. All told, this is an important opportunity to reflect on these most destructive of weapons and the role they play in our security.
We are best served by a levelheaded approach to such weighty matters. This is a challenge given the emotionality of the issue. After all, the thought of so much damage caused by such a small amount of fissile material is scary and the human toll it creates is significant. As a young missileer who had to be prepared to conduct a nuclear strike and at any given moment, I had a chance reflect on these things more than most.
A basic acknowledgment of the history of August 6th will help us better understand the present. The decision to drop the bomb was an extension of the conventional bombing campaign against Japan. The firebombing of Tokyo, for example, was meant to cause maximum damage to the civilian infrastructure supporting the war effort, which was concentrated in both residential and commercial areas. In one night, hundreds of B-29s dropping incendiary weapons destroyed 16 square miles of the city, killing around 100,000 people in the process. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Tokyo_(10_March_1945)
The Operations Order for August 6th, 1945
The two atomic bombs were clearly a leading factor in ending the war early, saving millions of lives in the process – most of them Japanese. By forcing an early conclusion to the deadliest war in the history of the world in such a spectacular fashion, we set the tone for preventing the most catastrophic types of wars well into the future.
Nuclear deterrence has ushered in a risky, but nevertheless profound peace. Worldwide casualties due to war are lower than they have been since the beginning of the industrial era. The world is far from perfect and I don’t want to dimmish the significant sacrifices my fellow veterans have made in the decades since. But we also need to appreciate the fact that full scale war between major world powers doesn’t happen anymore. This relative amount of peace and stability comes with some risk. The good news is we have actively sought to reduce that risk to near zero.
This day is often used to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. While I agree this is a worthwhile goal, it must be pursued in a logically coherent manner. In the decades after the cold war, it was entirely appropriate for the U.S. and Russia to reduce their arsenals to fit the new geopolitical reality. But it is foolish to think we could continue these efforts indefinitely and pass them off as meaningful progress towards totally eliminating nuclear weapons. The law of diminishing returns clearly plays a role here. Additionally, at some point you have to involved other nuclear armed states, vastly complicating already difficult negotiations. But these limitations are covering up a more fundamental problem.
In order to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, we need to build up other foundations of stability. Nations will pursue their own interests, by the use of force if needed. The nuclear risk associated with a military escalation between the nuclear powers most capable of industrial scale warfare has forced us to resolve our differences by far less violent means. Prematurely eliminating the most significant basis for this stability before there is some other compelling incentive to prevent war on a massive scale would be a catastrophic error.
An honest assessment of the effectiveness of previous attempts to achieve this goal is a good starting point. For example, for decades we have been hoping that opening our economy up to China would create more cooperation and stability between our two countries. This hope has been clearly dashed by reality. All we have received in return for stronger economic ties to communist China is intellectual property theft and a more robust and aggressive military posture on their part, not to mention a global pandemic.
We are routinely reminded of how difficult it is to drive internal changes in other countries, whether by force or soft power. This is especially true of those countries who have an adversarial posture towards us and our basic values. The good news is these regimes have a habit of collapsing under their own hubris. Perhaps the best way forward is to build stronger ties with other willing trade partners even as we expand our own manufacturing capabilities for critical needs in areas such as national security, energy, agriculture and health care.
I hope this day is a chance to reflect on both the horrors of nuclear weapons and the stabilizing effect they have had on our world. True progress towards reducing the role such weapons play in our lives cannot be achieved by naivety or good intentions. Nor can we blindly assume previous or current strategies will continue to produce results. Rather, true progress requires a level-headed assessment of what has worked in building systems that can help prevent massive, all-out war between industrialized nations. I hope we can take advantage of this moment to do just that.