Nagasaki and the End of Nuclear War

The significance of the anniversary of the bombing of the Japanese city of Nagasaki, which this week (Aug. 9) in 1945 became the second city ever destroyed by a nuclear weapon dropped in anger, is simply this:

Nagasaki is also the last city destroyed by a nuclear weapon dropped in anger.

Before the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (three days earlier) and Nagasaki at the end of WW II, advances in weaponry had always expanded the scope of war’s possibility and destruction. The machine gun killed more soldiers in five minutes than the rifle killed in fifteen. The submarine created a new battleground — under water.  The tank made the battlefield mobile. The aircraft carrier allowed aerial battles in conjunction with naval ones.  The bomber put distant cities in harm’s way.  In sum, every new invention in the field of weaponry increased the likelihood of war as it increased the number of combatants and casualties. Until the nuclear weapon.

The nuclear weapon crossed a unique threshold because, for the first time in history, a weapon that was more destructive than anything before it became less feasible.  In Nagasaki’s wake, the U.S. and the Soviet Union built huge nuclear weapon stockpiles, conducted countless nuclear tests, and were joined in the “nuclear club” by a half-dozen other countries, including several dictatorships, some of dubious stability.  Yet not once in more than 50 years has a nuclear weapon been used in war.  In effect, the ultimate war weapon became the ultimate guarantee that it would not be used. The costs of using nukes so far outweigh the benefits that there literally could be no victor in such a war. So why wage it?

In his book Now We Know: Rethinking Cold War History, author John Lewis Gaddis illustrates this point thusly:  “Their (nuclear arms) distance from conventional arms—to resort to a football metaphor—was roughly that between getting a new kind of shoe allowing better traction in tackling the other team’s players, on the one hand, and on the other, developing a device capable of instantly destroying not only the other team, but also one’s own, to say nothing of the playing field, the spectators, the stadium, the parking lot and the television rights.”

Which is not to say that someday, somehow, somewhere, a nuclear explosion won’t cause massive destruction, either by terrorism or by accident.  But that is a different subject.  The nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for sometime now and there is no putting him back.  My point is simply that with the advent of nuclear weapons a new phenomenon occurred. Their unimaginable power has made using them in war almost equally unimaginable.