[Our Guest Writer is John Repp who was born in a small town in the Midwest and eventually migrated westward, completing his graduate work at the University of Washington. There in 1969, he protested against the war in Vietnam. He later joined the Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation to protest the invasion of Iraq. John is a retired Boeing machinist and programmer who moved to Bellingham in 2020.]
The possible use of nuclear weapons is back in the news after Vladimir Putin made veiled threats that if any nation tries to stop his aggression in Ukraine, he will use nuclear weapons. Putin knows he has not done anything worse than the United States has done over the past seventy-seven years. However, he threatened publicly, while American presidents have threatened using diplomatic channels.
Most people think President Truman used atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the Japanese to surrender. But Truman already knew the Japanese were ready to surrender because the U.S. government had learned to read their communications. Actually, Truman dropped the two atomic bombs the United States had constructed to show the Soviet Union what we could do. He used them to improve America's negotiating position after the war.
Daniel Ellsberg is best known as the man who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that our government had been lying to us about the Vietnam War. What is not as well known is that from 1959 until 1971, Ellsberg was a nuclear war planner. In the 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Ellsberg claimed the United States had used nuclear weapons the way a bank robber uses a gun: as a threat to get what they want.
The threat worked for Eisenhower. During the Korean War, Eisenhower communicated to China, through a diplomatic channel, that he would use an atomic weapon in North Korea unless China pulled back and agreed to an armistice to end the conflict. By using a diplomatic back-channel, the American people did not know such a threat had been made. The scheme worked.
Nixon was Eisenhower’s vice-president. In 1968, he ran for president saying he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg wrote that Nixon threatened North Vietnam with a nuclear strike thirteen times to try to end that war. Unfortunately, his threats did not work, and the war was prolonged for five more years.
According to Ellsberg, there is a reason the United States produces so many more nuclear weapons than would be needed as a deterrent. The reason is to prevent a nuclear-armed enemy from any possible retaliation. Ellsberg says first-use threat has been, and continues to be, a keystone of American foreign policy. We have all heard our presidents use the phrase, “all options are on the table.” Every single U.S. president since 1945 has refused to enact a formal “no-first-use” policy.
The majority of the world’s nations want nuclear weapons abolished, and on January 22, 2021 the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was ratified. Most Americans know nothing about this treaty. To nations that do not possess nuclear weapons, i.e. the majority of the nations on the planet, these weapons are seen as profoundly immoral and a threat to all humanity and the natural world.
We can see the high monetary cost of nuclear weapons to American taxpayers by looking at the costs just to Whatcom County, Washington. Whatcom County could pay for 526 public housing units for one year if the portion of our federal taxes that went to nuclear weapons modernization went instead into public housing. We could make a dent in the scandalous situation of the homeless we all see on our streets today. Even though American nuclear weapons policy and the monetary cost of it remain “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” for most of our citizens, it touches each of us deeply
Comments by Readers
Randy PettyOct 25, 2022
I suppose there are many views about whether both the U.S. and the Japanese would have lost millions trying to invade in 1945 and whether there was a real offer of unconditional surrender on the table. I’m not one to white-wash our history, but I don’t want to be quick to judge decisions made by leaders facing problems such as Nazi Germany, the expansion and tactics of the Soviet Union, Pearl Harbor, etc. ( as I sit here on my comfortable couch decades later)
How much of our responses to Stalin, Kruschev, Putin etc was due to their actions?
Did we kill off millions of our own people?
Dick ConoboyOct 25, 2022
I hardly think anything regarding the run-up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki amounts to being in the category of “quick to judge” given all that is written on the topic in the intervening 7+ decades, a portion of which you provided to us as a link. It is for us to learn from these events by discussing them as we are doing here.
I have had the good fortune to visit many historic sites during my travels, including Hiroshima. Viewing the regrowth of that city along with the safeguarded remnants of buildings from that day in August 1945 is a reminder of the horrors of war and the capacity to rebuild. Modern day Hiroshima is unrecognizable from the pre-bomb photos of the city. I took my wife out to the T-shaped Aioi Bbridge which was the aiming point for the bombardier of the Enola Gay. Two thousand feet above (more or less) was the point of explosion of that A bomb. It puts much in persepective.
John M ReppOct 26, 2022
It has been a long time since I looked closely at the question of whether the two atom bombs we dropped on Japan were necessary for their surrender and our occupation. Yes, our leaders had much on their plates, but the two front war was over. Germany had surrendered in May. our leaders were thinking about a post-war world. That is the context in which the atom bombs were used.
Now, again, the historical context has changed, with the size and numbers of weapons and the knowledge we have of nuclear winter. I think we have no choice but to work for their elimination, especially since more chaos will result from climate change.
Randy PettyOct 27, 2022
John, I certainly have no problem with working to eliminate nuclear weapons. It can difficult to find the balance between idealism and realism, as just evidenced by the progressive caucus and their letter about negotiations with Russia over Ukraine. Can you negotiate with a bully? It would be magnificent to be able to spend a chunk of our defense budget on other problems.
I’m reading Unknown Valor which focuses on the Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima aspect of WWII. I think it’s good to review the horrors, to both sides, of trying to conquer island strongholds over and over and over again. Okinawa was no picnic either. If our leaders in 1945 were not looking at post-war considerations would we have been able to end the war with Japan at the negotiating table? Who knows but I wouldn’t have been optimistic. It would have been interesting to see a survey of parents who’s boys would have had to invade the Japanese mainland.
What would Putin do right now if we had mostly disarmed on the nuclear side? ( I know you’re not proposing unilateral disarmament) Why has he not used nukes in Ukraine?
If Putin can be contained/deposed/de-fanged, we can hope that China is a more rational actor with economic interests tempering their actions ( and perhaps keeping their foot on North Korea’s neck in the process)
Dick ConoboyOct 27, 2022
Jaypal, et.al. were correct in their assessment and demands (You can read the actual letter HERE).
Serendipitously, this appeared yesterday in Counterpunch: Writing on War by Chris Hedges (Bold lettering is mine).
“I [Hedges] naively thought we would see the promised “peace dividend,” especially with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reaching out to form security and economic alliances with the West. In the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, even he lent the U.S. military a hand in its war on terror, seeing in it Russia’s own struggle to contain Islamic extremists spawned by its wars in Chechnya. He provided logistical support and resupply routes for American forces fighting in Afghanistan. But the pimps of war were having none of it. Washington would turn Russia into the enemy, with or without Moscow’s cooperation.
“The newest holy crusade between angels and demons was launched.
“War unleashes the poison of nationalism, with its twin evils of self-exaltation and bigotry. It creates an illusory sense of unity and purpose. The shameless cheerleaderswho sold us the war in Iraq are once again on the airwaves beating the drums of war for Ukraine. As Edward Said once wrote about these courtiers to power:
“I was pulled back into the morass. I found myself writing for Scheerpost and my Substack site, columns condemning the bloodlusts Ukraine unleashed. The provision of more than $50 billion in weapons and aid to Ukraine not only means the Ukrainian government has no incentive to negotiate, but that it condemns hundreds of thousands of innocents to suffering and death. For perhaps the first time in my life, I found myself agreeing with Henry Kissinger, who at least understands realpolitik, including the danger of pushing Russia and China into an alliance against the U.S., while provoking a major nuclear power.”
Dianne FosterMar 04, 2023
Interestingly, Kissinger is on the Ukrainian Nazi’s kill list, for criticizing the US-backe coup in 2014 that installed the Azov Battalion. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post exclaiming that this regime change was over the top, and could lead to nuclear war…. hence, they are not happy with him.