Fear and the Nuclear Option

Nevertheless, when Pres. George Bush wanted to wage a war in Iraq, one of his main arguments was fear-based: The nation just couldn’t wait for the “smoking gun” that proved Iraq was developing a nuclear capability to create a “mushroom cloud.” Now that we know Saddam Hussein wasn’t going nuclear (the revelation that led the White House to leak a CIA agent’s name in retaliation), the U.S. right has of course shifted the focus to other fearful prospects.

Al-Qaeda has already smuggled nuclear weapons into the United States, claims extremist talking head Joseph Farah, while Osama bin Laden has been planning an “American Hiroshima” for years. And he’s not the only one peddling paranoia. Add that to worries about nuclear programs underway in North Korea and Iran and you have an arsenal of fear large enough to excuse almost any response.

But fears aren’t facts, and the facts show that no rogue group has detonated a nuclear device, and only one government has conducted mass murder with atomic bombs. It happened in August 1945, when the United States instantly killed more than 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. For years afterward, the official excuse was the need to bring a rapid end to World War II without the need for a costly invasion. In other words, dropping the bombs was a preemptive strategy that saved the lives of U.S. soldiers. Sound familiar?

Like Bush’s misleading statements about Iraq, however, that excuse also has been proven false. According to Walter Brown, assistant to then-U.S. secretary of state James Byrnes, three days before Hiroshima was bombed, Pres. Harry Truman admitted that Japan was “looking for peace.” In fact, he was told by generals Douglas Macarthur and Dwight Eisenhower that there was no need to go nuclear. Later, Eisenhower said, “We did not need to hit them with that awful thing.”

It happened anyway for several reasons. One was primal: revenge for the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an event to which the 9/11 bombings often have been compared. Another, more important for foreign policy planners, was to limit Soviet expansion in Asia. The US knew that: a) the Japanese were ready to surrender if they could keep their emperor, and b) the surrender was likely to come soon if the Soviets entered the war in the Pacific. As it happens, they had developed plans to do just that before the bombs were dropped.

Today, the global dynamics are not so different. Although the rush to invade Iraq was justified by fear and preemptive logic, public support was fueled by a misdirected desire for revenge, the idea that Iraq’s Hussein was somehow responsible for 9/11. Since then, the U.S. administration has begun a push to develop nuclear bunker-buster weapons, refurbish testing facilities, and build plutonium triggers for new weapons. The argument is that a new “nuclear option” is needed to deal with potential nuclear adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.

That North Korea has offered to dismantle its nukes if the U.S. will rescind its own nuclear threat is considered irrelevant. Likewise, the argument that Iran’s plan to reopen a nuclear processing plant is linked to its negotiations for economic and technological cooperation – plus concerns about a possible U.S. attack – is called naïve. But if it’s hard-nosed realism you crave, consider this: Team Bush may prefer to have Iran and North Korea as enemies, rather than negotiate solutions that would make their renewed nuclear ambitions look unnecessary.

This leads us to another reason Truman felt he had to drop the bombs. If he didn’t, he was worried that he would be accused of wasting money to build them. The United States currently has 5,300 operational nuclear warheads, and another 5,300 in reserve. The government spends at least $40 billion a year on its nuclear forces. That’s more than all military spending for most countries and a 150 percent increase over U.S. nuclear weapons spending during the Cold War. Add to this the $100 billion already spent on a so-called “missile defense” program. That’s a lot of money to waste if no credible threat exists.

Sixty years after the first nuclear detonations, the world has reached another crucial crossroad. One path leads to de-escalation. The first steps could include a moratorium on new uranium enrichment and plutonium separation facilities, plus the conversion of all nuclear reactors now using highly enriched uranium to low grade uranium, which can’t be used for bombs. It’s a modest start, but other steps could follow.

And the other path? It leads inexorably to more fear and another devastating choice made for all the wrong reasons.

Greg Guma is co-editor of Vermont Guardian (www.vermontguardian.com), a statewide weekly. This commentary appears in the newspaper’s August 5, 2005 issue.