Hiroshima and Nagasaki Sabotaged Prospects for a True Post-War Peace

Recently John Dower’s Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton, 2010) was reviewed by Greg Chaffin for Foreign Policy in Focus. Halfway through it, I find Cultures of War, in which the author uses a comparison between U.S. reactions to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as a starting point, powerful and convincing. In the course of the book, he delivers a compelling analysis of the “terror” or area — as opposed to precision — bombing campaigns that the allies waged against, in large part, the citizens of Germany and Japan. After that, it only seemed natural to the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dower writes:

The euphoria of victory over Japan, and of the end of the struggle against Axis fascism and aggression more generally, was extraordinary.

It was also fragile and ephemeral. The underside of triumph was profound anxiety — a presentiment that making and using the atomic bomb had birthed not peace but vulnerability of a sort inconceivable just a few years earlier.

In other words, instead of laying a solid foundation of peace, the use of nuclear weapons ensured that it was constructed, as it were, of inferior materials. As a result, the whole house of our national security could come crashing precipitously down at any time. Dower quotes Manhattan Project physicist I.I. Rabi, reflecting on Trinity, the first nuclear test: “Suddenly the day of judgment was the next day and has been ever since.”

Two sentences after his first quote above, Dower writes:

When the twin towers of the World Trade Center were taken down on September 11, this suppressed or diluted dread [of nuclear attack] erupted, certainly among Americans, as full-blown collective trauma.

Our arms race with the Soviet Union instilled a deep-seated fear in our hearts. Damped down and building pressure over the years, that fear only needed to be ignited by 9/11 before it came spewing out. Hence, most of us were all too happy to, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “go massive.” Our wide-of-the-mark reaction to 9/11 paralleled area as opposed to precision bombing and, in the process, only stiffened the resolve of the opposition.