The world was thrust into the nuclear age when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 killing 135,000 people instantly and another 100,000 later from radiation. Three days later it dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, extinguishing another 80,000 Japanese lives. At the time it was explained as necessary to end the war without a land invasion that would have cost thousands of American lives. This official explanation was widely accepted until historian Gar Alperovitz published his carefully research study of President Truman’s decision to use the top secret weapon its scientists had developed. Alperovitz showed that the story was more complicated than that. It had a lot to do with wanting to finish off Japan quickly before the Soviet Union could contribute to the defeat of Japan and claim a role in the peace settlement. And also to awe the Soviets with our country’s new military power and establish that we were the top dog now.
On this 76th anniversary of that fateful decision Gar Alperovitz will examine some of the moral issues. Was it even necessary to use the bomb in order to end the war? Why destroy a second city? Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not military targets. How to justify killing hundreds of thousands of civilians when there was no military necessity? The fire bombing of Dresden and other German and Japanese cities had erased the moral barrier to killing civilians in an era of “total war.” What limits does international law place on governments in time of war? What is the moral responsibility of the scientists who developed this awesome weapon of mass destruction, entrusting political leaders to decide on its use? Today, what is the responsibility of our leaders to limit nuclear weapons and restrain their use? What is the responsibility of citizens?
First published in the 1960s, Alperovitz’s Ph.D. dissertation Atomic Diplomacy, was controversial at first. Now most historians of the period agree that diplomatic considerations related to the Soviet Union played a major role in the decision to use the bomb. His later book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, critiqued the official myth around that decision. Gar Alperovitz has had a distinguished career as a historian, political economist, activist, writer, and government official. He has served as a legislative director in both houses of Congress and as a special assistant in the State Department. In the academic world he has been Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founded its Democracy Collaborative, a research institution developing practical, policy-focused, and systematic paths towards ecologically sustainable, community-oriented change and the democratization of wealth. The author of numerous books, his most recent is Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth