75 Years of Nuclear Terror

On Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 100,000 people and began what might be called the “Age of Nuclear Terror.”  Ever since the horror of the bombing of these two Japanese cities, the nightmarish possibility of nuclear annihilation has hung suspended, like a permanent mushroom cloud, haunting the imaginations of every generation of humanity. 

People have argued about whether the atomic bombings were justified, and with time, more Americans have begun to consider the invention and use of nuclear weapons as a curse.

Are the incinerated bodies, atomic shadows of what once were people burned into concrete walls and stoops, and the irradiated walking dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the ultimate “Mark of Cain” to be inflicted someday upon all of us, or upon our children?  

The obliteration of two Japanese cities unquestionably was horrific and inhumane for the victims. But war is horrific and inhumane.  

The 1945 bombing of Tokyo, using incendiary bombs designed to ignite titanic firestorms, killed as many, and perhaps more, people than Hiroshima or Nagasaki and was equally horrific and inhumane.

The atomic bombings ended World War II, which claimed the lives of at least 60 million people worldwide. Had Japan not surrendered to the A-bomb, millions more casualties likely would have resulted from invasion of their home islands. In 1945, Americans celebrated Japan’s surrender, knowing our troops would finally come home and not be destined to die overseas.   

The 75 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki might also be called the “Age of Nuclear Peace.” There have been many wars — but no world wars — since the use of nuclear weapons.

Many scholars credit nuclear weapons with breaking the cycle of increasingly destructive great wars that plagued Europe every century, culminating in the 20th century in World War I and World War II — the most destructive wars in history. Nuclear weapons preserved peace throughout the Cold War, deterring a thermonuclear World War III.

Nuclear deterrence made possible the seemingly miraculous, comparatively bloodless victory of the United States over the Soviet Union. Never before in history have two diametrically opposed and hostile superpowers ended confrontation peacefully, without a great war.

Yet, is the Age of Nuclear Peace and the long-term efficacy of nuclear deterrence an illusion? Deterring nuclear war for 75 years, since 1945, is not very long in the span of history.

Every war ever fought, before and after the invention of nuclear weapons, is an example of deterrence failure. Perhaps we will not know if nuclear deterrence has really broken the cycle of great wars every century until 2045 or after, at least 25 years into the future. Who has high confidence there will be no world war, and no nuclear war, over the next 25 years? Nuclear weapons may or may not have recalibrated the likelihood of world war, but they have changed the nature of “peace” since everyone now lives under the sword of Damocles.  

Cold War examples of risky nuclear moments include the Berlin Blockade (1948), Berlin Crisis (1961), Korean War (1950-53), Suez Crisis (1956), Hungarian Revolution (1956), Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Czechoslovakian Crisis (1968), Sino-Soviet Crisis (1969), Yom Kippur War (1973), Able Archer-83 (1983), and the Soviet Coup Crisis (1991).  

There have been more nuclear close calls since the end of the Cold War, involving actors other than the now-defunct USSR.

Nuclear-armed actors include the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Britain, France, Israel, and soon (if not already) Iran. Nuclear proliferation specialists used to worry about the strategic stability of a world with 20 to 30 nuclear-armed states, as theoretically this greatly increases possible pathways to nuclear war. However, nuclearization of North Korea and Iran, two of the most dangerous actors in history, is a worse nightmare by far than 20 or 30 nuclear-armed “Swedens.”

Can the U.S. muster enough political will to maintain nuclear parity with potential adversaries — the proven formula for deterring nuclear conflict and winning the Cold War? It’s doubtful.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has not been able to muster the political will to maintain nuclear parity with Russia. It soon may be eclipsed by China, and is regularly threatened by North Korea.

Nuclear weapons are antithetical to democracies, whose legitimacy derives from protecting the people, and to the values of Judeo-Christian civilization that abhors mass killing of peoples, instead of defending life.   

In contrast, totalitarian states love nuclear weapons, parading their missiles in public squares, because they are the highest technological embodiment of “might makes right” and the most effective means for erasing democracies.

Can we “ban the bomb” worldwide? No. And nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. Our adversaries understand their nuclear weapons confer disproportional strategic, political and psychological advantages. They would cheat on any treaty meant to ban the bomb.   

Our best hope is to invent a better military technology — space-based missile defenses — to make nuclear weapons obsolete and the world much safer, as envisioned by President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Just one of SDI’s innovative proposals, “Brilliant Pebbles,” or small orbiting anti-missiles, could be deployed for $20 billion in five years.

That would be a bargain, if it kept the world free of another cataclysm, nuclear or otherwise, for another century or more. 

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry was chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission and served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and at the CIA. He is the author of several books on weapons and warfare.

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