7. The critics of nuclear weapons

Just as nuclear weapons were developed in a number of nations over time, so were the weapons, and nuclear power generally, criticized from a variety of vantage points and for a number of reasons. In the United States, some scientists who had initiated, designed, or built the bomb had profound second thoughts, or articulated emphatically after the war doubts that had crept in earlier. ‘If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb,’ said Albert Einstein, ‘I would never have lifted a finger.’ Robert Oppenheimer’s deputy at Los Alamos, Samuel Allison, confessed: ‘I don’t have a comfortable feeling for having helped cremate a hundred thousand Japanese civilians.’ Oppenheimer himself later wished that the Japanese had been warned explicitly about the bomb. Cyril Smith, co-director of the Experimental Physics at Los Alamos, told an interviewer: ‘Sometimes I wake up at night feeling the plutonium metal in my hands—metal that I personally helped fabricate for the bomb—and realize that it killed hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not a pleasant feeling.’ Several leading nuclear physicists walked away from weapons’ work forever; others, including Arthur Holly Compton and Hans Bethe, would campaign, quietly but openly, against developing a thermonuclear bomb. So too did radical intellectuals, including the pacifist A. J. Muste and the social critic Dwight Macdonald, excoriate the use of the bomb. Muste, and others, compared Hiroshima to Dachau. ‘Like all great advances in technology of the past century,’ wrote Macdonald in 1945, ‘Atomic Fission is something in which Good and Evil are so closely intertwined that it is hard to see how the Good can be extracted and the Evil thrown away.’10

In Britain and the Commonwealth, voices were raised against the bomb, though they were at first scattered and most prominent among pacifists (who objected, obviously, not only to nuclear weapons but to war in general) and communists, who could be stigmatized by their countries’ governments and whose moral footing became slippery once the Soviets had tested a bomb in 1949. Vera Brittain, one of a few British writers who had protested during the war against the policy of bombing German cities, was bolstered by the surprising extent to which many ofher countrymen and -women now criticized the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, appalled if not by the bombing of civilians then at least by the use of nuclear weapons against them. The physicist P. M. S. Blackett was among the first to argue that the bombs had been used as tools of diplomacy against the Russians rather than to end the war against Japan, the implication being that the bombings’ purpose had been ignoble and, worse, that they represented, wrote Blackett, ‘not so much the last military act of the second world war, as the first act of the cold diplomatic war with Russia now in progress’. Drawing from Aristotle (‘one must not do evil that good might come’) and Catholic doctrine, the philosopher Gertrude Anscombe attacked the Allied policy of unconditional surrender as ‘visibly wicked’, rejected arguments based on military necessity for bombing enemy cities, and in 1957 protested when her university, Oxford, gave the atomic bomber Harry Truman an honorary degree. In Canada the government largely preempted opposition by declaring that it would not pursue a bomb, but organizations of scientists and technicians issued statements deploring nuclear weapons anyway. Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett went to Hiroshima in early September 1945 and found abundant evidence that thousands had died, and continued to die, from exposure to radiation. When American representatives in Japan insisted that radioactivity had not been a problem, Burchett contradicted them. In his home country, a relatively favorable popular response to the atomic bombings in their immediate aftermath had been reversed by late 1948, when by a margin of 10 percent Australians said they had a negative view of atomic energy in general. Speaking as the first anniversary of the bombings neared, Mohandas Gandhi allowed, as Anscombe would not, that ‘good does come out of evil’. But the bomb had ‘deadened the finest feelings that have sustained mankind for ages’, bringing only ‘an empty victory to the Allied armies’. The bomb had destroyed two cities in Japan, and over time was likely to corrode the souls of those who had perpetrated the destruction.11

Elsewhere in the world, there were glimmerings of anti-nuclear activity as well. In France, Albert Camus wrote immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima of the ‘most awful destructive rage’ the attack manifested; ‘civilization has just reached its final degree of savagery.’ An American bomber pilot named Garry Davis renounced his citizenship, set up a tent on the UN office lawn in Paris, and demanded the creation of a world government. Praised by Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Andre Gide, among others, ‘Davis created an enormous sensation’ in France, as Lawrence Wittner has noted. The German Social Democratic Party condemned war, though without specifically targeting the bomb; in Italy, the atomic attacks faced sharp criticism from the Vatican, the philosopher Benedetto Croce, and Enrico Fermi’s sister, Maria; and peace movements galvanized by opposition to the bomb rose from postwar ashes in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. There were murmurings of anti-nuclear feeling and support for world government in such places as Hungary, the Philippines, and Venezuela.12

What precisely the critics wanted was never fully clear. Expressions of worry and dismay became sharper from the 1950s through the 1980s, and movements formed around the world—the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Great Britain, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), especially in the United States, the Campaign for a Nuclear Freeze, and numerous national groups that opposed atomic power and atomic weapons. Influenced in part by such groups, governments moved to curb weapons’ testing, prevent new nuclear development in nations that had not yet made bombs, build confidence so as to prevent the accidental launch ofmissiles or bombers, and, eventually, trim their own nuclear arsenals. The United States and the Soviet Union, far and away the largest possessors of nuclear hardware, signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (affecting intercontinental missile launchers and anti-ballistic missiles most prominently) in 1972, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty of 1987, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (1991), which limited not just launchers but the nuclear warheads that sat atop them. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968 and extended indefinitely in 1995. Anti-nuclear organizations surely had a hand in persuading the world’s governments to impose these limitations and restrictions; it would be wrong to pretend otherwise, and cynical to claim that the treaties have not done much good. Yet no one is so naive as to claim that the threat of nuclear war has vanished. The powers retain nuclear stockpiles, smaller nations continue to develop weapons or remain mysterious as to their capacity and willingness to do so, and refined uranium disappears from storage facilities to know-not where with alarming frequency. No world government exists to regulate nuclear energy or nuclear weapons; inspectors for the United Nations are viewed with suspicion or derision. And, in some ways, the battle against nuclear weapons, difficult as it is, remains a good deal easier than the philosophically more complicated fight to prevent attacks, of any description, on civilians. One cannot kill as many civilians at once with a ‘conventional’ bomb or a car bomb as with a nuclear weapon. But, if humankind has, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stepped back across the nuclear threshold, it has stridden grimly forward in its willingness to target the innocent. ‘Do not do evil that good might come of it.’ That would seem to be easier said than done.13

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