SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, when the US dropped a bomb named Little Boy on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the world entered a new and terrifying era.
People on the ground — some distance away — reported a brilliant flash of light (fishermen off the coast are said to have remarked that “the sun is rising in the west today”) followed by a loud booming sound.
Nearly 80,000 people were killed by the immediate blast and resulting firestorm. The same number again died over the next two months from injuries and after-effects, including deadly radiation poisoning.
Together with the atomic bombing three days later of Nagasaki, this was the only occasion so far that nuclear weapons have been used.
The military value of the mass bombing of civilians conducted by the US and British air forces during World War II remains controversial. But in the case of the atom bombs no military justification exists. Japan was already on the brink of surrender; the war was won.
The real target of the atrocities were not the more than 200,000 Japanese people who lost their lives but the Soviet Union, which had liberated half of Europe from Nazi occupation and emerged as a far more powerful actor on the world stage than before.
The atom bombs were a warning, a demonstration that the US had developed a devastating new weapon capable of incinerating entire cities at one go.
The Soviets knew their country was acutely vulnerable while the US retained a monopoly on these weapons. Before the war was even over Winston Churchill had ordered military chiefs to draw up Operation Unthinkable, a proposal for a surprise attack on their Soviet allies “to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British empire.”
Over the next four years the US drafted a series of proposals for nuclear war against the Soviet Union; a typical example, 1949’s Operation Dropshot, called for dropping 300 atom bombs on Russia’s main cities.
Moscow’s race to acquire nuclear weapons itself was inevitable.
So began decades of nuclear rivalry in which the two superpowers stockpiled tens of thousands of warheads according to the theory that “mutually assured destruction” would be a deterrent to conflict.
The acronym “mad” was apt: the world lived in fear of a war so destructive that the extinction of the human race could be plausibly contemplated, and more than once nuclear holocaust was only narrowly avoided.
It took decades of negotiation before serious limits began to be placed on nuclear stockpiles, with the strategic arms limitation and then reduction treaties (Salt I and II and then Start I and II) and agreements like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that removed medium-range warheads from Europe. But the goal of a nuclear-free world continues to elude us.
Where are these agreements now? Donald Trump has torn up the INF and ordered the production of “low-yield” nuclear weapons, with a destructive power estimated at about a third that of the Hiroshima bomb.
This dangerous development is in line with US military speculation that smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons could be used in combat rather than in an all-or-nothing conflict with another nuclear-weapons state.
Britain’s government, in defiance of its international commitments, remains committed to an eye-wateringly expensive renewal of its Trident nuclear weapons arsenal.
Both countries engage in provocative military exercises on the borders of one nuclear power, Russia. Britain is also showing craven subservience to the Trump White House in its increasingly hysterical attacks on another nuclear power, China.
A generation has grown up since the end of the cold war seeing the threat of nuclear war as ancient history. Unfortunately it is again very real.
As the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Kate Hudson says, putting pressure on our governments to defuse tensions and avoid the risk of any such conflict should be a priority for us all.
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