As Japan marks the 62nd anniversary of the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, when a total of 105,000 died and countless others had their lives ruined, perhaps the world should reflect how fortunate we are that no nuclear bomb has been used in war since. Many will equally reflect on the failure to rid the planet of these vile, destructive weapons.
At the height of the Cold War, mass fears of mushroom clouds and nuclear winters were the norm. The US and the Soviet Union faced off with an Armageddon arsenal fit to annihilate the planet multiple times. Apparently there were 20,000 US-Soviet false alarms between 1977 and 1984 alone. Back then, it seemed a question of when, not if, another bomb would be used. Today, fears of nuclear war seem to not rank high on people’s threat perceptions.
Are we perhaps a little too comfortable with nuclear weapons still in the hands of a handful of global hegemons, just because they have not been used in anger since 1945? In 2017, we have nine states with acknowledged, if not declared, nuclear weapons. Much of the focus is currently on the so-called rogue states, North Korea and Iran. North Korea, estimated to have around 20 bombs, launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles this year.
It claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb last year, a dubious claim but alarming if true. Whether North Korea can miniaturize a bomb to put on the missiles is as yet unclear, but as Pakistan and Iran have shown, elements of nuclear programs can be hidden even today from the technological might of the US. This was even the case in the 1960s with China and Israel, which both caught Washington napping.
The US administration is bullish. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said bluntly: “It is impossible to overstate the danger associated with a rogue, brutal regime.” In reality, despite President Donald Trump’s bluster that North Korea will not be able to arm a missile capable of hitting the US, it appears inevitable, and neither the US nor China can stop it.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal has only temporarily put this crisis on the backburner. Trump may not renew the sanctions relief under the deal, which he has consistently railed against. Does this mean we return to a “no way out but war” scenario, or is Trump right that Iran can be pushed harder into changing its behavior?
All this has a potential snowball effect for proliferation efforts. Just how long will other Asian powers feel safe without a nuclear shield of their own? After the war and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan adopted a staunch no-nuclear-weapons stance, but will that survive? If Iran makes the breakthrough, which major Middle Eastern powers will go down the nuclear route?
Apparently there were 20,000 US-Soviet false alarms between 1977 and 1984 alone. Back then, it seemed a question of when, not if, another bomb would be used.
Just where the sense will be injected into the system to de-escalate tensions, let alone find lasting solutions, is unclear, but it is far from the only area of concern. Kashmir represents the nuclear frontline between India and Pakistan, a contested area fought over three times so far. Experts are alarmed by the cavalier attitude by both sides at times.
Many also fret over how secure these weapons and associated materials are. The fear of nuclear terrorism also abounds, as it has ever since the first atomic bombs were dropped, amplified by fears of advanced hacking and cyberwarfare. As alarming is that the White House and the Kremlin are inhabited by two gargantuan egos determined to advance their nations’ interests.
Together they control some 14,000 nuclear weapons. Trump has made clear the US has to be “top of the pack” in terms of nuclear weapons, and in December even threatened a nuclear arms race. Trump and Putin may yet form a working relationship, but over Ukraine, Crimea and Syria dangerous tensions exist, and all too quickly actions could be misinterpreted and a full confrontation ensue.
This terrible anniversary is a moment to remember the horror, and rekindle opposition to nuclear war and the spread of nuclear weapons. But let us not forget that the greatest crime is war itself, and as awful as nuclear war would be, conventional war is monstrously devastating.
As appalling as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, the deadliest conventional bombing in history was carried out by the US on the night of March 9-10, 1945, killing over 100,000 people with nearly 400,000 bombs destroying 16 square miles of a city. It was called Operation Meetinghouse. The city underneath was Tokyo. It was not alone. All in all, in the summer of 1945 the US devastated 68 Japanese cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just two of them.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech