In "Blood on our Hands?" (column, New York Times, August 5, 2003), Nicholas Kristof correctly recognizes that lingering questions about the morality of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 58 years ago have a direct bearing on the current global crisis regarding weapons of mass destruction. Kristof nonetheless defends the devastation of Hiroshima, arguing that it averted a death toll in the millions from an invasion of Japan. The underlying logic is that if a nation's leaders believe that the commission of atrocities is the only way to bring to an end a horrible war, the atrocities are justified. Surely this is not a principle we would wish other countries to apply in today's world.
Even if we assume that without the atomic bombings, Japan would not have surrendered, the U.S. actions were both morally wrong and profoundly unwise. As Michael Walzer argues in Just and Unjust Wars, if an invasion costing very large numbers of lives and the bombings were the only two alternatives, then the objective of unconditional surrender should have been dropped. Japan had already been contained. Aside from the deaths they caused and are still causing, the bombings set the precedent of use of nuclear weapons and launched the nuclear age.
In its 1996 opinion on nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice held that the international law prohibition of attacking civilians predated the invention of nuclear arms. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were thus illegal as well as immoral. Whether Japan would have surrendered absent the bombings is still under debate, as Kristof acknowledges. But the precepts of law and morality are a more trustworthy guide to long-run security than inherently uncertain assessments of historical contingencies. If the United States had followed those precepts 58 years ago, the world might not now be facing the terrifying risks of the ongoing nuclear age.
Today, the United States demands that North Korea and Iran refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But the NPT also requires the United States to eliminate its own nuclear arsenal through good-faith negotiations. Instead, top-level Pentagon officials are meeting in early August at STRATCOM, the nuclear command and control center in Nebraska, to discuss plans for the production of new or modified nuclear weapons. Programs are already underway at the Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories to upgrade every weapon type in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And the Bush administration has announced that in order to defend its national security, "America will act against ... emerging threats before they are fully formed," including, potentially, with nuclear weapons.
Let us never forget that over 200,000 people were killed outright by the radioactive explosions and firestorms unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, and that many survivors and their children still suffer today. As awesome and terrible as the destruction caused by those first A-bombs was, it is miniscule compared to the destructive capability of today's nuclear weapons. If the most powerful military force in history - and the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons - reserves for itself the right to threaten a nuclear attack in the name of "national security," other countries will inevitably follow its example. It's time to hold the United States to the treaty obligations it demands of others. Global disarmament starts at home.
Jacqueline Cabasso is executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland, California (www.wslfweb.org), and John Burroughs is executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy in New York City (www.lcnp.org).