August 6 asks much of U.S. citizens, as the date silently demands an accounting of the decision in 1945 to drop a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima and unleash on the world the atomic age.
But this date also should compel us to consider our current choices about freedom and security, an equation that has haunted us since 1945 and is at stake today in Iraq.
Harry Truman’s initial justification for using a nuclear weapon was that it would save U.S. lives by compelling Japan to surrender and sparing casualties that would come with an invasion. But this argument that nuclear weapons were a necessary evil hasn’t stood up, as legitimate questions have been raised about Truman’s justification.
Historians have shown that U.S. officials knew Japan was on the verge of surrender before the bomb was dropped and that Truman’s later claims about projected U.S. casualties in an invasion were grossly inflated. Indeed, many of Truman’s own military advisers argued against dropping the bomb or dropping it on heavily populated areas.
There is widespread agreement, however, about one other purpose: Bombing Hiroshima sent an unambiguous signal to the Soviet Union and the world that the United States intended to exert its dominance in the post-war world, by any means necessary. In other words, dropping the bomb was a political statement even if it was not a military necessity. A certain conception of post-war politics led Truman to incinerate upwards of 100,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, and start a costly nuclear arms race. It also led the majority of successive generations of Americans to believe that the risk of nuclear holocaust was acceptable -- that we were, as the saying went, better off dead than red.
This five-decade near-consensus that U.S. political goals were worth the risk of nuclear war remained intact until made irrelevant by the demise of the Soviet Union. The war in Iraq has made it clear that a new consensus about how to secure the “American way of life” is not only desirable but essential.
The war in Iraq began as a promise to the American people: If you risk the lives of your children, we can eliminate a leader who is complicit in 9/11 and has weapons of mass destruction to use in future attacks. When these justifications proved fictitious, the casus belli morphed into a war to spread democracy and destroy terrorists before they cross our borders. This bargain has proven equally problematic, as Americans and Iraqis are killed in a conflict that is creating more terrorists and fueling a coming anti-American century.
The consequences of the new grand bargain we are accepting with respect to our way of life and our own security are becoming clear:
* The economic damage caused by a costly war, not at first honestly acknowledged.
* The reputation of the United States abroad, already on shaky ground, further degraded.
* The use of torture, targeted assassination of civilians, blackmail by detaining children and wives -- tactics that are illegal or considered unacceptable in most of the world -- adding to the moral decline in the United States.
* The transformation of Iraq into a training ground for tomorrow’s terrorists, deepening the hostility toward the United States and the West in the next generation of Arabs and Muslims.
Will it take 60 years to understand that in the aftermath of 9/11 the United States squandered the world’s good will and created a world in which it had to rely upon the repeated use of military force abroad to attempt to assure security at home? Can we understand now that such a policy -- no matter what its morality and legality -- is doomed to fail?
In 1945 Harry Truman ushered in the Cold War with questionable claims about the necessity of using nuclear weapons. In 2005 George W. Bush tells us we’ll be safer from terrorism if we continue to occupy a country that had no connection to the 9/11 terrorists until our invasion and the presence of U.S. troops brought them to Iraq.
Hiroshima’s relevance to Iraq today goes beyond encouraging us to question the president’s initial justifications; it begs us to consider whether acquiescing to this obfuscation won’t put us on a course that we later regret.
Sharon K. Weiner is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Robert Jensen is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and can be reached at: email@example.com.
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