Thursday, October 15, 2015


Thoughtful Phronesis reader Jim Dubbs sent me an email in which he expressed disagreement with arguments I made in my The Legacy of the Hiroshima Myth posting.  Critical responses, like this one from Jim, are what Chuck and I hoped to receive when we launched Phronesis.  Dubbs’ main point is well taken; I did “put a lot of consequential eggs in my Hiroshima basket.” I knew I was reaching a bit far. In doing so, I hoped to elicit critical responses from readers who disagreed with my arguments. In the case of Mr. Dubbs, it appears to have worked, though I must admit it doesn’t take much stretching of a point to fire up Jim’s inquisitive mind. For me, he has long served as a “proof reader.”

This said, I still stand by my contention that America’s failure to confront the truth about Hiroshima has had a monumental impact on the formulation and conduct of U.S. national security policy; I leave it to our readers to probe the question further and decide if I overstated the Hiroshima legacy.

As to the truth about why President Truman used the bomb and why Japan surrendered, I believe that newly uncovered documents (especially American and Japanese war diaries) affirm what had previously been the informed hunches of revisionist historians: Truman’s main motive in using the bomb had more to do with Moscow than the driving desire to prevent an invasion and thus save lives, and Tokyo seemed more concerned about a Russian invasion than about the promised reign of ruin. On these points, academic historians are by no means in agreement. My hope in writing the piece was not to convince readers of my historical interpretation, but to simply open minds about the possibility of a counter-Hiroshima narrative. Hopefully, the various critical reflections that have greeted the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings will motivate Americans to revisit the Hiroshima truth. There’s a great deal riding on this.
Below is Jim Dubbs’ critique followed by some personal reflections on US nuclear strategy.


You certainly have put a lot of consequential eggs in on Hiroshima basket. I hate to say it, but both your arguments regarding a myth and its legacy require some rather extraordinary leaps of faith to come to the conclusions/observations you draw. I responded to your first two parts, but maybe you did not receive them. Here are some thoughts I have.
As to the role of the bomb being less of a factor in Japan surrendering than Russia's declaration of war, have you considered that the strategic thinking behind Stalin's strategy regarding Japan was undermined by the A-bombings? The bomb was important, just not for the reasons given by the myth makers. (Why invade? We controlled the seas and could, presumably, embargo the island nation. Maybe that was too time-consuming for a war-weary US?)
Next, the importance you attribute to the time that elapsed between the bombings and the decision to surrender seems odd -- a matter of a few days to make a profound decision seems quite normal for any government, especially in the fog of war.
Back to legacy, Eisenhower may have referred to those "awful things", but his Secretary of State Dulles developed the doctrine of "massive retaliation," which was ludicrous even before the Soviets had a bomb. It was military defense on the cheap and no deterrent to local wars of liberation like Viet Nam. JFK quickly jettisoned that doctrine and began a significant expansion of our military spending, a continuing process even post-SALT I, II.
I also think that the secrecy of national security policy-making has been a constant in our history (Pres. Wilson notwithstanding), hardly attributable to the H myth. My feeling is that our current resurrection of gunboat diplomacy around the world is the child of the collapse of the USSR and a misperception of US hegemony in a unipolar world. (Maybe Putin will save us from ourselves?) Even way back, Walter Lipman realized we could not be the policeman of the world. That's truer now than ever. And once the nuclear genie got out of the bottle, proliferation was inevitable.

Fortunately, so far, we are the first and only nation to use the weapon. We have to figure out how to be the last. Flexing our less than effective muscles around the world is clearly not the way -- it has brought us to being seen as the imperialists, which in many senses, economic and military, we are.

J. Dubbs

Reflections on US Nuclear Strategy:

Massive Retaliation was established as our guiding strategic defense doctrine in 1954, but this was five years after the Soviet Union exploded its first bomb. Eisenhower did indeed believe this provided the U.S. “more bang for the buck.” JFK (actually it was Robert McNamara) shifted the doctrine to what was called “flexible response, which simply meant we should respond to a Soviet provocation selectively in a manner appropriate to the provocation: conventional all the way up to full-out nuclear. McNamara envisioned a ladder of escalation. As long as we were superior at every rung of the ladder, the Soviets would be facing increasing risks by escalating. This would, in theory, give us escalation control.  (The flexible strategic guidance was set forth in Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)-62)

This “limited” nuclear war idea recognized that massive retaliation was no longer credible now that the Russians could also launch a massive nuclear retaliatory strike. As a guide to weapons acquisition, it was a recipe for endless nuclear spending.
Upon more thought, McNamara changed his mind, concluding that that ideas like flexible response, counterforce, escalation dominance, and limited nuclear war were pure fantasies: once the nuclear threshold was crossed, he reasoned, a war would quickly escalate to an all-out nuclear exchange that would destroy both countries and much of the rest of the world. Moreover, he understood that this open-ended strategic doctrine would spark a dangerous and endless nuclear arms race.
So in 1964 he was instrumental in switching US nuclear strategy to what became known as “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD. This strategy was supposed to place limits on nuclear spending since we and the Russians only needed to concentrate on developing assured nuclear retaliatory capabilities that could destroy each other's major cities.  With Soviet and American cities held hostage, both countries would be deterred from initiating a nuclear attack.

MAD would serve as official US strategic doctrine for several years, though it imparted little restraint on our nuclear spending, which became increasingly devoted to putting multiple, independently targetable warheads (MIRVs) on ICBMs, increasing their yield and accuracy, improving command, communication, control and intelligence capabilities, and, later, developing anti-ballistic missile (ABM) strategic defense systems.

These technological developments ran contrary to the logic of MAD, which stressed deterring rather than fighting a nuclear war. They fit comfortably, however, with the idea of counterforce, which had been germinating in the minds of nuclear strategists at the Rand Corporation since the 1950's.  With the necessary technologies coming on board, the time was ripe for a formal strategic shift.

The thought that we might be able to destroy Moscow’s nuclear deterrent in a decapitating first strike, while sparing Russian cities, gained appeal among several of our more hawkish-inclined strategic thinkers and fellow travelers on the Hill. The procurement and weapons-maker communities fell happily into line with the new thinking (if, in fact, they weren’t pushing it).  US strategy shifted in the direction of counterforce beginning in 1974 with National Security Decision Memorandum-242 (known as the Schlesinger Doctrine), and more explicitly in President Carter's 1980 Presidential Directive 59, which also laid out plans for fighting a protracted nuclear war.  President Reagan's 1982 Defense Guidance added a more militaristic tone to the counterforce doctrine.
At the time, I remember wondering if these “strategists’ really believed a decapitating first strike was possible, or whether counterforce was just posturing, or perhaps simply an instrument to promote the interests of friends in the gluttonous military-industrial complex.  The thought that we might initiate a nuclear first strike struck me as not only delusional, but outright insane.  I labelled the emerging counterforce doctrine a “nuclear utilization targeting strategy,” or, appropriately conveyed by its acronym: NUTS!  It was nuts; nevertheless, the fantasy served as a guide for future nuclear weapons research and development.
The biggest fallacy in the nuclear age is that a nuclear war can be fought and won. Mikhail Gorbachev came to realize this as did Ronald Reagan. Sadly, the message apparently hasn’t fully registered with their successors, who continue to talk about nuclear bombs as if they are usable weapons of war.   Please tell me, dear readers, how nuclear weapons could be effectively used in any of the current global conflicts?

While basic logic suggests a nuclear power would be very unlikely to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, one can't be so certain an accidental, unintentional, or unauthorized launch of one of the 16,000 nuclear weapons that exist on the planet won't occur.  My greatest fear, however, is that the proliferation of nuclear secrets and fissile materials will one day find their way into the hands of an extremist group like ISIS.  (The Associated Press has reported that this possibility may be much closer than we would like to think.) Irresponsible talk about using nuclear weapons, about their serving a winning military purpose, like atomic bombs allegedly did in Japan, and loose safeguards on radioactive materials, almost guarantee this will happen.  This Hiroshima legacy is the one of the great danger of our times.


  1. Ron,
    Spot on. You are right of, course, regarding the timing of the Dulles pronouncement of the "massive retaliation" doctrine. It was in early 1954 and the Soviets had already tested their first A-bomb in 1949. However, delivery of same took a bit longer. I don't believe that they had similar planes to the B-52 that could reach US targets. It was not until the late fifties ('57-'59) that they developed their ICBMs, which was before we did, I believe. As far as the escalation doctrine goes, it was meant to begin at a non-nuclear level, with escalation involving tactical nuclear weapons futher up the ladder. Some believe it was precisely the strategy that was successfully employed during the Cuban missile crisis. As for the debates regarding counter-city (or counter-value) vs. counter-force strategies or about the "tactical" use of nuclear weapons, I agree with you: they seemed nutty (and morbid), relevant only to the "military-industrial complex," if you will. The only reasonable threshold is not using the weapon at all. Unfortunately, while reason would dictate this, nations still take policy risks (brinkmanship) that have the potential for unleashing them. Add in non-state actors, zealots of all stripes, or other madmen eventually getting their hands on the weapons, the risks only get bigger. Non-proliferation is a step in the right direction, but the science is out there, so we have to figure out a way to put this genie back in the bottle. That is what we need to be thinking about, not about the "unthinkable," as Herman Kahn wrote. Eliminating its possibility, not surviving nuclear war should be the focus. I wish I had some suggestions...

  2. Let's try again.


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