Skip to content

Haass on Oppenheimer

In his Substack column, Richard Haass discusses the US decision to use the atomic bomb to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He raises some issues I had not considered, such as whether we did it to intimidate the Russians. As someone whose father was serving in the Army in the Pacific during World War II, I am glad we did it. Japan started the war; they don’t get to decide how it is fought. We didn’t outlaw poisonous chemical warfare until after it had been used extensively in World War I. What if the Japanese had won World War II using conventional means? Would the naysayers be happy? I am grateful that we were able to end the war when we did, instead of letting it drag on for more years and more lost lives. So, thank you Robert Oppenheimer.

In regard to Oppenheimer and Hiroshima, Haass says:

I had the chance to see Oppenheimer this week. (I have not, for the record, seen Barbie, but if that changes, I promise to write about its geopolitical import.) As one might expect, the focus of the film is on the personal, on Oppenheimer’s anguish over his central role in developing the nuclear bomb and his concerns over its use on Japan as well as its implications for relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, for which he held some sympathy.

The film had relatively little to say about the decision to use the bomb. That decision, one taken by Harry Truman in the initial months of his presidency, remains one of history’s great “What Ifs.” The conventional wisdom is that the bomb hastened Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II and eliminated the need for what would have been an enormously costly military invasion of Japan. Some challenge this, arguing there were other options (continued fire-bombing of Japanese cities, a blockade, a detonation of a nuclear bomb over some uninhabited island) that promised much the same result but at a lower human cost.  And even if the decision to bomb Hiroshima can be explained by what was thought at the time, it is far from clear that the decision to bomb Nagasaki days later was warranted.

Adding to the complication is that historians still debate what, if any, role the belated Soviet entry into the Pacific war played or might have played in Japanese decision-making. Revisionists argue that a principal motive for using the bomb was to intimidate the Soviet Union. It is true that Truman told Stalin at Potsdam about a terrible new weapon, but the exchange was perfunctory by all accounts. All of which is to say that concerns about a looming competition with the Soviet Union seems to have had little impact on U.S. actions in August 1945. Oppenheimer became a proponent of internationalization of the bomb and wrote about this in a 1948 essay for Foreign Affairs, which was a non-starter as the Soviets were determined to get one, which of course they did sooner than expected, in no small part owing to their successful espionage efforts.

One more point. The movie understandably focuses on the horrors of nuclear weapons. Missing was the suggestion of what in fact turned out to be the case, that they introduced a significant degree of caution into what would become the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nuclear weapons are arguably the main reason the Cold War stayed cold, as they deterred not just nuclear use by either superpower but any use of military force by the United States or the Soviet Union directly against the other.  It is another “What If” whether this would have been the case absent the use of nuclear weapons at the end of War World II. Alas, this discussion (as interesting as I find it) does not necessarily make for riveting viewing, which helps explain why my career took me to Washington rather than Hollywood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *