Hypocrisy at Hiroshima

President Barack Obama is the first American president to visit one of two atomic killing field sites since the US attacked Japan with nuclear weapons in 1945. But Obama didn’t go to Hiroshima to apologize. He went there in an attempt to uphold his Nobel-Prize-winning legacy as the world leader most committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. But the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not solely intended to save American lives as the US has long claimed. And Obama’s anti-nuclear reputation and legacy are stained with hypocrisy and outright falsehoods.

Japan surrendered on the same day in 1945 that Russian troops were poised to attack the Japanese Army in Manchuria. That day coincided with the US nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. The US knew Japan would be defeated through conventional arms because the Americans had insisted at Yalta that the Russians needed to enter the war against Japan with haste. What was left of the very strongest part of the Japanese Army was situated in Manchuria. The last thing the Japanese leadership wanted in 1945 was a situation similar to the dual US-Soviet occupation that had taken place in Germany. It was the threat of a Soviet occupation to be preceded by the destruction of the Japanese troops in Manchuria which ended the Pacific Theatre of WWII.

So why did the US drop two atomic bombs on Japan? Simply put as a warning to the Russians that the post-war political environment in Western Europe would be shaped by US policy and not Soviet communist military coercion. Hence, the atomic age was initially conceived as an unconventional leverage to compensate for a conventional military weakness. In 1945, and throughout most of the Cold War, it was the US who faced a superior Soviet conventional alignment within Europe. It was this reality, in conjunction with the strength of the non-Soviet communist political movements within Europe, which convinced the Americans to drop the bomb on Japan.

But by 1949, both the Americans and the Soviets had the bomb. At first, the US Strategic Air Command was far superior to the Russians’ nascent nuclear forces. This allowed the US the time to establish NATO and bring West Germany into the American-led alliance system. It also allowed the Americans the time necessary to begin the economic rebuilding of Western Europe. Once the Russians achieved and established a nuclear balance, the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) became the official policy of the US. However, a much darker undeclared nuclear scenario persisted. If the new nonconventional weapons cancelled each other out (MAD), what was to prevent a conventional war in Europe against a far more powerful Soviet conventional presence? The answer is as true today as it was back then. And the potential for grave consequences has become an even graver reality today.

The sad truth of the nuclear age is that First-Strike capability is just as potent a concept as Mutually Assured Destruction. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, without a robust conventional balance, the weaker conventional force in possession of nuclear arms must seek its advantage in the psychology of either a potential successful First-Strike capability or the blind willingness to completely disregard MAD. First-Strike means that the weaker conventional side possess the ability to fight and win a nuclear war through a combination of either superior offensive or defensive nuclear technology or the advanced integration of both. The blind willingness to completely disregard MAD is defined as the weaker conventional side’s refusal to capitulate. In doing so the weaker side publically withdraws from the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. It either adopts First-Strike capability or a “mad dog” nuclear posture. The stationing of intermediate nuclear forces is a prime example of such posturing.

Why did Israel get the bomb in the 1960s? The Israelis had to believe they were conventionally weaker than the combined armies of the Arab World (i.e., without the strategic depth of the West Bank and the Golan Heights). They needed nuclear weapons to compensate for their geographic weakness. But there was also another reason. During the Suez Campaign of 1956, Israel was threatened with a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The US refused to come to Israel’s aid. Israel felt — if it were forced to once again act alone — that it needed a nuclear arsenal to deter a superpower. And how could that be accomplished? By feigning insanity through a “mad dog” nuclear posture. That is; by acting as if Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) simply does not matter.

This is precisely what both Pakistan and North Korea are engaged in today. Pakistan wants to regain all of Jammu and Kashmir as leverage against a conventionally-superior India. However without a strong enough army, such a conventional liberation is impossible. So Pakistan has adopted a policy of using non-state terrorist groups to pressure India. They have simply adopted a “mad dog” nuclear posture to undermine what would be an overwhelming Indian conventional push-back. Their hope is to wear down India in Jammu and Kashmir.

But India could hardly relent on Jammu and Kashmir, for if they did, China would literally be at their backdoor. In this case nuclear deterrence (i.e., MAD) becomes fragile and dangerous. Pakistan believes that Jammu and Kashmir will give it conventional balance, while India knows that if it were to lose these territories, China would become conventionally superior. This proves that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is only as good as a strong conventional balance. But strong conventional balances appear rare in the war-torn history of planet earth.

The same can be said for North Korea. Pyongyang faces tens of thousands of American troops over their border. The US is a nuclear-armed superpower. North Korea needed nuclear weapons in order to assure some sense of conventional deterrence. They certainly didn’t want to go the way of Libya. Tripoli gave up its nascent nuclear program only to be eventually attacked by NATO. Like North Korea, the same predicament can be said for many others, including Iran. Tehran is surrounded by either strong conventional powers with nuclear weapons or simply countries with nuclear weapons — Russia to its north, Pakistan to its east, Israel to its west and the US Navy to its south. Is it any wonder that the Obama administration knew that Iran would need a major “sweetheart deal” in order to comply with a temporary hold on its nuclear program.

In the 1990s, North Korea got a similar kind of temporary deal. Now they have nuclear weapons and have adopted a “mad dog” nuclear posture. This cannot be blamed on Obama but Iran’s situation falls directly in his lap. Obama didn’t legalize Iran’s actual possession of nuclear weapons. He just froze the program for the next 10-13 years for another American government to deal with. However, Obama did legalize Iran’s potential breakout time for nuclear weapons to a matter of a few weeks, perhaps even days (on his own admission). It is with the Iran nuclear deal that Obama’s hypocrisy at Hiroshima becomes clear. But the great irony is that Obama can be held responsible for an even far greater expansion of the nuclear-weapons reality.

Now it appears that Russia has adopted a “mad dog” nuclear posture. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the NATO Alliance has moved closer and closer to Russia’s border. This has been accomplished over the course of the last twenty years. But the direct involvement of the Obama administration in the overthrow of the government in the Ukraine was a “bridge too far” for the Russians. The Ukraine is to the Russians what the West Bank and the Golan Heights are to Israel. These territories represent conventional strategic depth. Jammu and Kashmir, Tibet, Syrian Kurdistan, even the Hawaiian Islands are similar strategic territory. Russia is no longer the conventional strongman of Europe. But it is not afraid to use the “mad dog” nuclear posture to upset NATO, weaken the concept of extended deterrence and attempt to overcome the gross conventional imbalance in Europe.

So how has the Obama administration responded? Although the American president would never admit to such a policy, the US is no longer content with a simple Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) policy. Putin’s “mad dog” nuclear posture has left the US at a serious crossroad. Either the Americans pursue a First-Strike capability — a winnable nuclear war strategy — or, they diplomatically attempt a new conventional security architecture for Europe. Obama has chosen First-Strike capability — a winnable nuclear war strategy. What does this new strategy consist of? Unlike Reagan’s dream in the 1980s with his Star Wars system, a 21st century First-Strike capability will consist of a vast array of defensive missile protection in combination with hypersonic (five times the speed of sound) offensive missiles. These extremely fast hypersonic missiles in operation with defensive shields have the Russians very concerned that its strategic nuclear arsenal will become outdated.

This new nuclear program is well documented. US hegemony in Europe and Asia has been the policy of the Obama administration. To assure superiority, or at least the perception of superiority, Obama must be willing to overthrow MAD. Can the Americans develop systems which would eventually make nuclear war winnable? This is their new strategy. Originally conventional imbalance led to nuclear advantage and counter balance (1940s and 1950s). The nuclear advantage was overcome and led directly to MAD (1960s through the 1990s). But MAD could not be maintained without some semblance of a conventional balance. This balance was eventually overthrown (2000s). A “mad dog” nuclear posture became the alternative to conventional imbalance (now). This posture has succeeded so well that First-Strike capability — always present during the MAD Cold War era, but never dominant — is now back on the global agenda in its most extreme form.

Israel must be watching all this very closely. The nuclear arms race in the Middle East is upon the Jewish state. What will be Israel’s policy visa vie Iran and the other potential nuclear states of the region? Can the states of the Middle East act rationally in possession of nuclear weapons? Or is First-Strike nuclear hegemony the only answer to a “mad dog” nuclear posture from the other side? Europe and the US can’t seem to answer that question.

Maybe First-Strike nuclear hegemony is a blind alley, leading us back to an irrational application of Mutually Assured Destruction (i.e., nuclear war). If this is true, perhaps Israel will choose a serious peaceful conventional architecture with a nuclear-weapons-free zone. However no one should expect any clear answers soon, especially from Obama at Hiroshima. Obama’s nuclear legacy will either be overthrown by the actions of others leading to a true era of peace: Or, the 2020s will become the gateway to a hair-trigger nuclear dystopia. In other words, Hiroshima and Nagasaki be damned, full speed ahead! This is Obama’s undeclared message at Hiroshima.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).