, Volume 71, Number 3

Research Director, International Security

The detonation of atomic weapons over Japan was the dawn of a new age. When it comes to solving the problems that nuclear weapons have created for our species on a global scale, we seem to be intent on making things worse. 

Seventy years ago two US nuclear weapons were detonated over Japan. The first, which destroyed Hiroshima, was a gun-type explosion made from uranium. The second, a plutonium implosion bomb, targeted Nagasaki. 

It is important to remember that in the summer of 1945, 68 Japanese cities were devastatingly bombed by the US at a rate of three to five per week. In terms of numbers killed, the conventional bombing of Tokyo resulted in by far the highest numbers of immediate casualties. Hiroshima comes in sixth in the number of square miles destroyed and 17th when comparing the percentage of the cities in ruins. In other words, such massive devastation was not unusual at this point in the Pacific war.

What was notable was that the destruction was achieved with one aircraft and one bomb in each case. From the distance of London and for people thinking about the technology of weaponry, it was this that was most notable. Why was it so significant? Historians now mainly agree that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not the causal factor in ending the 
Pacific war. So why would the delivery mechanism and the single bomb or warhead come to mean so much in the decades of the Cold War that followed?

The World Today article entitled ‘The Impact upon International Relations of the New Weapons’ was published only a few weeks after the atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The writer, who used only the initials HEW as was the practice at the time, already understood that ‘nothing in the relations between sovereign states can ever be quite the same again’. How prescient HEW was, realizing ‘that a rise in the rate of civilian casualties might hereafter overshadow completely the lower casualty rate among those in uniform’.

The most urgent task, as seen by HEW, was the control of the flying bomb and the rocket (now we would say: cruise missiles, drones and ballistic missiles) which were bad enough but about to become much more dangerous when armed with the new ‘uranium explosive’. Although the potential for nuclear energy to play a peaceful role in creating electric power was obvious from the start, the destructive power of the nuclear chain reaction was clearly going to get far worse quite quickly. The idea, as it was clearly seen then, was that the new UN Security Council would take control of such weapons: 

  • ‘So much for these weapons as we have hitherto known them, but they are capable of considerable development, both mechanically and chemically. The flying bomb can be made speedier – so speedy that no manned aircraft could catch it – and could also have a range running into thousands of miles. The rocket can have its range increased to a similar extent, though only at a great increase in size and cost unless some new form of fuel is obtained. Both can be made far more menacing by the use of more effective explosives. It is here that the discovery of the secret of the atomic bomb opens wide possibilities … A rocket so armed is likely to be “Enemy No 1” of any World Security Organization, for batteries of them could be aligned from one centre on neighbouring capitals and be fired without warning by some new Hitler pressing a button in his madhouse chancellery. That must be stopped. How to do it is the problem.’

Much has been written about the catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons – information has been gleaned from the 1945 detonations and the series of atmospheric tests carried out between 1945 and 1980. From one nuclear weapon state in 1945, there are now nine countries that possess, or are believed to possess, a nuclear weapons capability – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Britain and the United States. At the height of the Cold War Russia and the US each possessed some 30,000 nuclear weapons. The latest figures show a total of approximately 16,000 worldwide – most still belonging to Russia and the US. To develop nuclear weapons arsenals, possessor states have conducted more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions, 25 per cent of which were exploded in the atmosphere. Since the adoption of the Comprehensive (nuclear) Test Ban Treaty in 1996, only India (1998), Pakistan (1998) and North Korea (2006, 2009 and 2013) have conducted nuclear weapons tests and these have been carried out underground.

As time goes by new generations are not being taught about the significance and the humanitarian impact of the devastating impact of the use of nuclear weapons. They are seen primarily as political weapons for deterrence purposes only. The fact that deterrence requires the intent to use under specific circumstances has been ignored in the mainstream literature since the 1980s until a few years ago. 

HEW proposed a set of four measures as a solution: 

  1. The transfer to what became the UN Security Council of all authority over the supplies of fissile material; 
  2. For the UN Security Council to control all laboratories, factories, and experimental stations that may exist, or may be brought into existence, capable of being used for the large-scale utilization of atomic energy;
  3. The equipment of the UN Security Council with such scientific and technical staffs as are necessary to enable it to carry out the above functions, and to provide the necessary intelligence and inspection services to ensure that the Council shall be advised of any infringement of these regulations; 
  4. The UN Security Council to assist in the development of atomic energy as a source of useful power, so that its discovery shall ‘conduce to peace among the nations and … become a perennial fountain of world prosperity’.

In other words, in 1945 HEW was proposing the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency that was eventually launched in 1957. Following on from the IAEA, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was negotiated in 1968 that set in place measures: to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons; to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy; and to negotiate nuclear disarmament.

Unfortunately, HEW’s proposed solution has only been partially successful and perhaps that is why we still cannot solve the conundrum that nuclear weapons pose. The creation of an ‘extra-national’ UN organization and a ‘World Security Council’ was proposed as the way to create world peace – and perhaps it has made a significant contribution in that regard – but arming the Security Council with nuclear weapons and transferring all capabilities to collective control has not worked out quite as imagined in 1945. 

Reading historical accounts about weapons of mass destruction can induce strong feelings of despondency. Why is humanity so ingenious at problem-solving in the scientific and technical spheres but inept in the political arena? 

Engineers, mathematicians and scientists are superb at tackling impossible puzzles and they frequently turn our understanding of the universe on its head – indeed that aptly describes the history of the Manhattan project and the beginning of the nuclear weapons era. But when it comes to solving the problems that nuclear weapons have created for our species on a global scale, we seem to be intent on making things worse. 

As HEW so aptly put it in September 1945: ‘What is at stake is the happiness and well-being of the entire human race’.

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