Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons

Ward Wilson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

A book about the flawed thinking that created and maintains our nuclear arsenal. Being a book about the alleged thinking of others (an obvious unobservable), I can't evaluate the book's validity.

However, the first chapter, "Myth 1: Nuclear Weapons Shock and Awe Opponents", changed my thinking about the atomic bombing of Japan, events that I spent half a century assuming was responsible for my father not dying in Operation Olympic, the planned autumn 1945 assault on the islands. About 20 folio volumes in the basement of the Dwinelle Library at UC Berkeley were the plans for that invasion; it would have cost millions of lives. Wilson's book suggests this invasion never would have happened, atomic bombs or not, because of the Soviet attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria.

Wilson's main "myth" is the common belief that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs convinced Japan's rulers to surrender. Far more damage was caused by conventional bombing, with no apparent shift in ruling attitudes. Wilson claims it was the Soviet invasion of Manchukuo on August 9 that led to the August 15 radio broadcast by Hirohito. Surrendering to the atomic bomb was a more palatable excuse than admitting military defeat. It avoided losing more territory to the Soviets, perhaps a Soviet invasion of the northern home islands. It was in both US and Imperial interests to pretend that the atomic bomb was decisive. I presume the resulting single-power occupation worked out much better for Japan than a north/south split similar to Korea or the east/west split of Germany. A Tokyo Wall - shudder!

Three charts and six pictures tell the story of the genocidal American bombing of 68 cities in Japan in 1945. The charts are histograms of number of people killed, square miles destroyed, and percentage of cities destroyed. The Tokyo raids killed more people, and Hiroshima wasn't even in the top 5 for square miles destroyed or percentage of city destroyed. The six pictures show cityscapes bombed into ash; two are of Hiroshima and one is Nagasaki, but the other three are Tokyo and Osaka, almost leveled by conventional firebombing. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a small part of the total destruction, and certainly not so significant as to move the minds of the Imperial war planners that initiated and perpetuated the wholesale slaughter of millions, including millions of their own soldiers and citizens.

A ex-pat friend living in Tokyo, who sometimes weeps to think of what Americans did to a city he loves, points out that the American bombings had purposes beyond the ending of a war that Americans hated. It was clear that World War II would be quickly followed by a struggle for world domination with Stalin and the growing Soviet empire. The genocidal attack on Japan was a message intended for the genocidal despot of Russia: Americans were willing and able to slaughter millions from the air to win a war.

That was not enough to keep Stalin from blockading Berlin in 1948, but our support of that city through air power was another demonstration. At the time, the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and the infrastructure to make thousands more; those planes could have destroyed the cities of Russia instead of feeding Berlin, a message that Stalin seemed to understand.

But again, that is also mind reading and probably fallacious. By many accounts, Stalin was far more worried about threats from within the Soviet Union, and mercilessly purged potential opposition to protect his dictatorship. Some say the Berlin blockade resulted from a power struggle within the Kremlin, and the reopening of land routes to the city happened when the struggle resolved against the blockading factions.

The Soviet Union was never a monolith. Rather than creating a massive external threat that unified the country, our response should have been creating conditions that favored those within the Soviet Union less inimical to our interests. Of course, the US was never a monolith, either, so the type of weapons we built and how we threatened others with them was mostly determined by our own internal power struggles, rather than a logical strategy aimed at optimum results.

Finally, there is the question of capability; the US had a massive navy in the Pacific, thousands of landing craft, and vast experience in using those craft to take islands away from the Japanese. The Soviet Pacific fleet was much smaller, and though they used it for the successful conquests of North Korea, southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril islands, the fleet would have been laughably inadequate for an amphibious assault on the Japanese home islands across hundreds of kilometers of hostile seas.

Whether this book, a myth about myths, holds up to scrutiny is uncertain. The more important question is whether it leads to rethinking the US reliance on our remaining nuclear arsenal, or whether we repurpose the missiles to something more useful.

As a space geek, I would love to see those missiles launch hundreds of thousands of tons of useful stuff into space, rather than threaten other cities. I would love to see the remaining warheads processed into fuel. But I must recognize that 8 trillion dollars worth of missile research, and the vestigial side effect of our first tentative steps into space, would not have occured if those missiles had not originally been developed for lobbing H-bombs over the pole. I must also recognize that the small size of the launch market in 2013, and the stranglehold of the launch cartels, means that those rockets would probably be destroyed rather than repurposed.

Lastly, at the same time that von Braun was experimenting with the rockets that would evolve into the V-2, and then into US and Soviet ICBMs, others like E. F. Northrup were experimenting with electromagnetic space launch. These machines were no more impractical than any rocket launch system built before 1940. If Northrup had continued his work, and von Braun's had died instead in the bombing raids on Peenemunde, perhaps practical (and much lower cost) electromagnetic launchers such as the launch loop would have developed instead.

"What if" is a game that quickly leads to imponderables. We have what we have, legacy systems that resulting from decades of fears, desires, and myths. It is our task now to replace the old myths with better myths that repurpose those systems into something less destructive.

Nuke5Myths (last edited 2013-07-13 23:30:16 by KeithLofstrom)