No more Hiroshimas
Amid the anniversary fever now gripping the media, there is one date from
the Second World War that the authorities seem rather less keen to celebrate.
In August 1995, it will be 50 years since the Americans, with British support,
dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
August 1994 marks the start of an international year of anti-war action
leading up to that anniversary. Living Marxism will be supporting
protests and other events throughout the year - not to commemorate the past,
but to sound the alarm about the threat of militarism and war in the present.
The bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 killed an estimated 130-150000
people; the bombing of Nagasaki, three days later, left 60-80 000 more dead,
the only occasions on which nuclear weapons have been used in war. These
unique, awesome events are often depicted as something separate from the
rest of human history. The Bomb is portrayed as a mysterious and terrible
consequence of the clash between modernist science and nature, a technological
monster that somehow acquired a momentum of its own, quite inde- pendent
of capitalism and the struggle for political power.
But there is nothing mysterious about Hiroshima. In many ways it was the
moment of truth of modern times. The moment when the facade of freedom and
democracy in a class society was stripped away, and the reality of capitalist
rule laid as bare as the feshless bones of the victims in those ravaged
Japanese cities. What happened there offers a damning insight into Western
civilisation, then and now.
Hiroshima shows what American presidents, British prime ministers and the
rest are prepared to do to in order to defend their power. They will commit
mass murder --and present it as a humanitarian act.
Announcing that the frst Bomb had been dropped, US president Harry S Truman
asked the world to note that he had chosen Hiroshima, 'a military base',
because 'we wished in this frst attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the
killing of civilians'. Washington insisted that the Bomb had only been used
in order to bring the Second World War to an abrupt end, saving the half
a million American lives and million Japanese which it claimed would have
been lost if its ground forces had had to invade Japan. This humanitarian
line has remained the offcial explanation for Hiroshima and Nagasaki ever
It is a lie. They did not drop the Bomb to prevent the need for a bloody
invasion. Having cracked the enemy codes, the US authorities already knew
that Japan was on the verge of collapse, and would soon have surrendered
without a shot being fred on Japanese soil, never mind two bombs that killed
200000 people. Saving lives was the last thing on their minds. A recent
American study notes how, at a meeting of Truman's nuclear advisory committee
on 31 May 1945, called to discuss the use of the atomic bomb against Japan,
US secretary of war Henry L Stimson 'agreed that the most desirable target
would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely
surrounded by workers' houses'. In other words, they wanted to kill as many
people as possible, to make the most dramatic impact upon world opinion.
The city of Hiroshima ftted the bomb-sights perfectly.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a cold-blooded, premeditated display
of destructive power. It was staged as a global demonstration of America's
imperial might. When that blinding white freball engulfed Hiroshima, it
gave the peoples of the colonial world a warning of what could happen if
they got out of line; it put Stalin's Soviet Union on its guard for the
Cold War to come; and it put Britain and France in their places as second
class powers, deputy sheriffs to Washington's world policeman.
There is a widespread assumption today that Hiroshima could never happen
again. But why not? To this day, no American or British leader has ever
recognised the criminal character of the massacre. When they say that it
was justifed at the time, they are really saying that they would do it
again if the need arose. Nobody has to wait for a nuclear Third World
War to see the proof of that. See what the US-led Western alliance has done
since Hiroshima with non-nuclear weapons, as it has sought to stamp its
authority on the third world.
Between 1965 and 1972 in Vietnam, for instance, the USA unleashed the greatest
food of frepower in history, dropping seven million tonnes of explosives - the
equivalent of almost one 500lb bomb for every man, woman and child in the
country. The Americans' use of carpet-bombing, napalm and chemical warfare
defoliated and depopulated great swathes of South-East Asia.
In the Gulf War of 1991, the USA, Britain and their allies killed perhaps
200000 Iraqis. The public image is of a hi-tech 'robo-war' fought against
military targets. The reality was a bloody war of attrition, in which the
allies used every weapon at their disposal to blast a developing country
back into the Stone Age: carpet-bombing, Cruise missiles, napalm, 'fuel-air
explosive' devices (which suck the air out of the lungs), 'daisy cutters'
(15000lb bombs flled with gelled slurry explosive). For good measure they
left behind tons of radioactive depleted uranium shells.
Nor is the Bomb itself a thing of the past. The Cold War might be over,
but the USA is modernising its still huge nuclear arsenal with a new generation
of missiles aimed against third world countries. President Bill Clinton's
recent threat to 'annihilate' North Korea with nuclear weapons showed that
the threat to stage another Hiroshima remains an important instrument of
Western diplomacy. The British government is pressing ahead with plans to
bring its new multi-billion pound Trident submarines into operation by the
end of 1995, complete with nearly 100 nuclear warheads each.
Just as they did at the time of Hiroshima, the Western powers have a good
excuse for every act of barbarism. In the language of the nineties, their
wars and foreign interventions tend to be presented as crusades for democracy
or human rights, or missions to save the starving. But these people care
no more for human life today than their predecessors did when they wiped
out two Japanese cities with the fick of a switch. Whatever the pretext
they offer, their real motive for intervening abroad is always to project
and protect their own power in the world. Their 'peacekeeping missions'
and 'relief operations' today do about as much good for the peoples of Africa,
Asia and Latin America as Truman's humanitarianism did for the citizens
Hiroshima shows what the Western powers are capable of inficting on the
world. And it also reveals how they get away with it - by successfully waging
a race war using ideological weapons.
The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made publicly acceptable by
the fact that the victims were of an 'oriental race'. It was unthinkable
that the Americans or British would have dropped the Bomb on their white
European enemies in Germany. But the Japs were different. Throughout the
war, they were treated as a lower form of human life. American newspapers,
tabloids and broadsheets alike, routinely referred to the Japanese as 'mad
dogs' and 'yellow vermin'. Cartoons usually depicted them as monkeys, but
also as insects, reptiles and even bats. In every Hollywood war flm, the
Japanese were portrayed as sadists and war criminals.
The US and British forces in the Pacifc war put these racial ideas into
action. One American veteran described the Japanese --'small, a strange
colour' - as 'the perfect enemy': 'Marines did not consider they were killing
men. They were wiping out dirty animals.' Since that view dominated Western
opinion, Hiroshima was widely celebrated as the wiping out of dirty animals
on the grand scale. The success of the US and British authorities in instilling
their people with the racial attitudes of Empire ensured that they could
kill 200000 Japanese civilians within four days without worrying about serious
protests at home. After all, who cares what happens to mad dogs and vermin?
Today, American and European elites are waging a silent race war. They no
longer spell out the racial politics which inform their attitude towards
Asia or Africa, they never use words like 'yellow vermin', but the underlying
message is much the same. Every foreign policy discussion in Washington
or Whitehall in the 1990s, whether it is about population control or war
crimes tribunals, is based upon the same assumption: that there is a fundamental
divide between the civilised nations of the West and the dangerous races
of the rest of the world.
That was the assumption which allowed president Truman to declare the bombing
of Hiroshima to be 'the greatest thing in history'. It is the same assumption
which has allowed the Western allies to bury Iraqi troops alive in the desert
with bulldozers, > \ blow Somali homes and hospitals away with helicopter
gunships, and still preserve their image as international peacekeepers.
If they can get away with that, who is to say that they could not stage
another Hiroshima with impunity - so long as the victims were 'a strange
The double standard of racism today dominates an issue that relates directly
to the legacy of Hiroshima - the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which
is due to be renewed in 1995.
Renewing and strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty is seen by many
peace activists in the West as an important safeguard against the threat
of nuclear war. In reality, this treaty is a blackmailer's charter, which
the nuclear powers of the West can use to threaten any third world regime
with war unless it submits to their will.
The preamble to the Non-Proliferation Treaty talks about it as a step on
the road to total nuclear disarmament. Yet in practice, the treaty has nothing
at all to do with getting rid of nuclear weapons. It is a declaration of
who should and should not be allowed to have their fngers on the nuclear
trigger. The basic rule is that 'we' should, and 'they' should not.
The treaty enforces a legal monopoly on the ownership of nuclear weapons,
under which the signatories agree that only the great powers of the United
Nations Security Council can legitimately have the Bomb. Since it was signed
in 1968, the USA, and to a lesser extent Britain and France, have constantly
'proliferated', updated and improved their own nuclear arsenals without
infringing the treaty. They have also quietly helped selected allies, like
Israel and the apartheid state of South Africa, to develop nuclear weapons
The Non-Proliferation Treaty has really come to the fore as an instrument
of Western foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In the past couple
of years, the USA has talked up the alleged threat of nuclear proliferation
in the third world as the new justifcation for its own global militarism.
In 1992, a special summit meeting of the United Nations Security Council
issued a warning that any state suspected of violating the treaty would
now be punished severely. Washington has since got all fve permanent members
of the council - including the Russian and Chinese regimes - to agree to extend
the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so guaranteeing their exclusive status as
'legal' nuclear powers. It seems that the murderers of Tiananmen Square
are the only people of 'a strange colour' whom the West is willing to trust
The scare about nuclear proliferation entirely distorts the truth about
the threat to peace. Attention is always focused upon the alleged (and largely
imaginary) development of nuclear weapons in a third world state; the Islamic
Bomb in Iran and Iraq, or the Madman's Bomb in North Korea. These invisible
missiles become the subject of major international incidents. Meanwhile,
the real power to destroy the world many times over, which rests in the
military arsenals of the great powers, is ignored.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty pulls off a considerable conjuring trick; it
both ratifes the right of UN Security Council members to maintain and modernise
their nuclear arsenals, and casts them in the role of global campaigners
against the Bomb. The USA, the greatest war machine on Earth and the only
state ever to use nuclear weapons, is transformed under the terms of the
treaty into the leading force for world peace. On the other hand, a ruined
country such as Iraq can be bombed again by the Western powers, and a backward
country like North Korea threatened with annihilation, in order to make
their governments agree to stop developing nuclear weapons which they do
not have in the frst place. Meanwhile UN inspectors are granted the right
to trample over any third world or East European nation's sovereignty, in
the endless search for the illusory nukes.
The irony is that the Non-Proliferation Treaty imposes the same division
on the world which was made so clear by the bombing of Hiroshima; the divide
between the West and the rest, between the civilised nations and the barbarian
races, between those mature enough to handle the Bomb and those so backward
that they are only ft to be bombed.
Once that racially loaded way of looking at the world is accepted, just
about anything goes. Overnight, the media can convert North Korea from a
funny little place that nobody knows about into the most dangerous military
power of our times, without anybody batting an eyelid. And the Non-Proliferation
Treaty can be used as a nuclear blackmail note against the entire third
The demand 'No more Hiroshimas' should become a battle cry for the next
12 months. Some might support the year of action as a commemoration of past
horrors, coupled with a vague hope that such things will not be repeated
in the future. But it should be much more than that. For us, the 'No more
Hiroshimas' campaign is not primarily about the past or the future, but
the present. It is based on a cool assessment of the real dangers of militarism
and war which we face in the 1990s.
Everywhere we look today, we see Western governments trying to resolve their
domestic diffculties by intervening more forcefully in the international
arena. Beset by corruption scandals, political crises and economic slump
at home, prime ministers and presidents in every major nation are seeking
salvation on the world stage. They instinctively understand that it is far
easier for them to regain a degree of authority by lecturing Asia on nuclear
proliferation or pledging to save lives in Africa, than by facing up to
the intractable domestic problems of Western capitalist societies.
That is why Bill Clinton, despite his wish to avoid messy international
entanglements, can be seen trying to throw his estimable weight around everywhere
from North Korea to Haiti. It is why John Major, who is not keen to be seen
out on the streets of Britain, loves strutting about at international summits.
It is why Francois Mitterrand's France has gone into Rwanda with guns blazing.
And it is why the (for now) non-nuclear powers of Germany and Japan are
reinterpreting their postwar constitutions, to allow them once more to play
a more muscular military role in international affairs.
Global politics are becoming more and more a matter of gunboat diplomacy.
The arms bazaars are militarising the world. The Western powers increasingly
display a colonial-style arrogance towards the third world. And the nuclear
and conventional technologies of mass destruction advance apace. Is it scaremongering
to suggest that all of the ingredients for another Hiroshima are falling
into place? Let's not wait another year to fnd out.
Join the Campaign Against Militarism protest at Aldermaston on 6 August, and help launch the
year of action.
No more nuclear blackmail
abolish the Non-Proliferation Treaty
No more military threats
stop imperialist intervention
No more arms bazaars
fight global militarisation
No more rearmament
not a penny more for war
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 70, August 1994