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Did We Miss the Lesson of Nagasaki?

It has been 62 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the moral and strategic lessons of those devastating acts have still not been fully learned.

Despite the efforts of scientists like Leo Szilard and diplomats like John McCloy to promote alternative means for ending the war, the bombings went forward. There are still debates among historians and the public at large about the primary rationale for the use of the weapons. Some interpretations accept the official claim that it was done as a way of ending the war as soon as possible, on allied terms. Others note that the intention of the Roosevelt administration had always been to use the atom bomb once it had been developed, and that in this sense President Truman inherited a policy that already had considerable momentum behind it. Other historians suggest that the bombings were aimed at preventing the Soviet Union from entering the war in the Pacific theater.

It is possible that all of these factors were at work to some degree, and they may constitute an explanation - though not a moral justification - for the attack on Hiroshima. But even if one accepts the rationales put forward for the Hiroshima bombing, the use of a second atomic weapon against Nagasaki just three days later seems like an act of gratuitous cruelty on a monumental scale.

We now know that Japanese leaders were still reeling from the impact of the first bombing when the second bomb struck. Debates over terms of surrender were deadlocked, but a few more days' time - especially in light of the Soviet Union's imminent entry into the war - may well have produced an agreement acceptable to the United States without the need to destroy Nagasaki. In addition, the sheer destructive power of the Hiroshima bombing -- killing tens of thousands of people immediately while turning the city into a pile of radioactive rubble -- should have raised qualms about launching another strike in such short order.

The Nagasaki bombing went forward in any case and subsequent efforts to curb the use of atomic energy for military purposes failed. President Truman apparently believed that the U.S. nuclear monopoly would last indefinitely, telling Robert Oppenheimer that he believed that the Soviets would "never" get the bomb. Just a few years later he was proven wrong, and the nuclear arms race was off and running. With so many factors at play, it is by no means certain that U.S. forbearance over Nagasaki would have changed this tragic outcome, but it might have at least opened the door to other possibilities.

Six decades later the United States remains the only nation to have used nuclear arms as a weapon of war. The absence of additional attacks has been driven in part by the moral opprobrium attached to the use of these weapons of mass terror, and in part by the fear of devastating retaliation by another nuclear power -- particularly on the U.S.-Soviet front. But despite this record, the foundations of U.S. nuclear policy remain morally suspect. There has not been another Nagasaki, but it is U.S. policy to engage in veiled threats to launch just such an attack, even if the target nation does not possess nuclear weapons.

The immorality of U.S. declaratory nuclear policy was made evident recently when Barack Obama asserted that "it would be a profound mistake to use nuclear weapons under any circumstance . . . involving civilians." This seemingly common sense statement was roundly criticized by rival presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd, who essentially argued that the nuclear option should never publicly be "taken off the table."

Not only is the prospect of using nuclear weapons in circumstances in which civilians will be killed immoral, but the threat of doing so violates international law, as expressed in an historic 1995 advisory opinion by the World Court.

This policy is also counterproductive at the strategic level. The threat to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is only liable to spur them to seek their own. Taking this stance toward Iran -- even if the actual use of the weapons is extremely unlikely -- will undermine prospects for negotiations to curb Teheran's program while giving leverage to officials within Iran who want to go from nuclear enrichment to nuclear weapons.

Short of getting a global agreement to abolish nuclear weapons -- a goal worth striving for no matter how difficult it may be to achieve in practice -- one of the most important steps the U.S. could take would be to adopt a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons against any nation that is not literally poised to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. This shift in U.S. policy would suggest that it is possible to reverse the mentality that led to the bombing of Nagasaki, even at this late date.

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