WHAT if, contrary to the received wisdom, it was shown that nuclear weapons played no role in the surrender of Japan at the end of World War 2? Perhaps after all the terrible act of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is no worse that many other scathing memories of war waged against mainly civilian populations. Then we would have to start a big rethink of the value of nuclear arsenals.
And before delving into that bit of history consider why the brief US nuclear monopoly after World War 2 did not bestow the US with overwhelming diplomatic influence; and why the nuclear powers have fought a number of wars in which they were unable to find a role for their nuclear weapons, even though they went down to defeat.
Yet the ritual of nuclear deterrence continues without any serious attempt to answer these questions. Indeed it seems to have a momentum of its own. The US has refined the accuracy of its submarine-launched missiles so they pose a far greater threat to Russia than they did during the Cold War. Recently President Vladimir Putin has announced the arrival in the Russian arsenal of a much more accurate land based missile. Yet both sides maintain they live in an era of friendship and what differences they have are not ones for military confrontation.
Nuclear deterrence, many thoughtful generals have long concluded, is nonsense on stilts and long has been. New scholarship, benefiting from access to recently classified documents in Japanese, Soviet and US archives, is more grist for their mill. Scholars working on these papers conclude that the Soviet Union's invasion of Manchuria may have been more important that the nuclear bombardment in coercing the Japanese surrender.
To be fair Soviet scholars have been saying this for a long time -- since my own days in university in the early 1960s. Yet Japanese historians willfully colluded with the US in telling a different story. The Japanese leaders did not want their people to believe they had not been smart enough strategists and could be out-maneuvered by the Red Army. Rather that they had been overwhelmed by a scientific breakthrough they could not have foreseen.
There was in fact nothing totally special about Hiroshima. The US conventional bombing attacks on Japanese cities in the spring and summer of 1945 were almost as devastating as Hiroshima. They often caused more damage and even more casualties. Altogether 66 Japanese cities were attacked that summer, and a typical raid of 500 bombers could deliver 5 kilotons of bombs. The Hiroshima bomb was the equivalent of 16 kilotons, only three times bigger than the average conventional raid.
Yet neither the conventional nor the nuclear bombing turned the heads of Japan's leaders. Its Supreme Council did not meet until two days after the Hiroshima attack of August 6th. Yet when the Soviets intervened on August 9th word reached Tokyo by 4.30 am and the Supreme Council met by 10.30am. Following Hiroshima, Emperor Hirohito took no action. He merely asked for "more details". When he heard of the Soviet invasion he immediately summoned Lord Privy Seal Koichi Kido and told him, "In the light of the Soviet entry, it was all the more urgent to find a means to end the war."
Kido after the war confessed, "If military leaders could convince themselves they were defeated by the power of science but not by lack of lack of spiritual power or strategic errors, they could save face." The Americans were only too happy to oblige in this 1945 political spin. If the bomb did it then the US had been the prime instrument in Japan's defeat. If the bomb did it US prowess would be enhanced throughout the world. But if the Soviets could convincingly claim it was their invasion that tipped the balance then Moscow could claim they did in four days what the US could not do in four years. The Soviets were out-maneuvered in the public relations battle by the self-interest of the Japanese and the American leadership.
Where does that leave us today? It probably means that the Iranians, if they are studying this new scholarship, will not feel intimidated by the threat of a US nuclear attack (on the assumption that even if George W Bush broke the nuclear taboo he would feel constrained to use smaller bombs). The only thing that really works militarily, as the Soviets proved in both the west and the east, is overwhelming perseverance by ground forces. And that, with Iraq still demanding all that the US army can give, is probably a much more difficult political decision to make that using nuclear weapons.
There are no short cuts with Iran; negotiation should be the only weapon used. Why have we had to wait since 1991 for Washington to decide that?
Jonathan Power is a widely published commentator based in London. He can be reached at JonatPower@aol.com