9 August 1995
On this 50th anniversary of the Nagasaki atom bomb, and during a summer of multiple atom bomb retrospectives, I am most struck not by the debates over hypothetical casualty figures from an invasion of Japan or over the motivations of Truman or Byrnes vis a vis the Soviet Union, but by two less-discussed issues:
(1) How small a step the atom bomb decision really was, since the giant leap into deliberate mass civilian casualties came months and even years earlier with both Axis and Allied bombing of cities.
(2) How well-remembered (and hotly debated) Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, compared to the moral dimensions of what Bruce Blair calls the central characteristic of nuclear weapons policy (beginning with the bombings and continuing even today) -- "a mass revenge killing of people," i.e. deterrence through mutually assured destruction, a suicide pact involuntarily joined by all of us.
With the support of the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the Archive's nuclear specialist, Dr. William Burr, for the past several years has been unearthing U.S. documentation on the history of nuclear weapons policy. Bill also did the bulk of the work for a detailed chapter on nuclear secrecy he and I contributed to a Brookings Institution study -- Atomic Audit, released last month -- on the costs of nuclear weapons. Even Bill, who is used to reading the TOP SECRET musings of war planners contemplating the annihilation of nations, blinked when he obtained this month's document through a Mandatory Declassification Review request at the National Archives.
Written by the State Department's then-Director of Policy Planning, Gerard C. Smith, to Eisenhower's Undersecretary of State, Christian Herter, this memo points out in chilling terms the nuclear consequences of public commitments by the U.S. to defend Quemoy and Matsu, the islands between Taiwan and mainland China occupied by Chiang Kai-Shek's forces but claimed by the Chinese Communists. Smith describes the Joint Chiefs of Staff war plans for defense of the islands as moving automatically into nuclear strikes on Shanghai and Canton, among other mainland China targets, resulting in "millions of non-combatant casualties."
Combined with the revelations in Richard Rhodes' new hydrogen bomb book on Air Force General Curtis LeMay's nuclear adventurism, this document gives me even more reason to conclude that we avoided a nuclear holocaust for 50 years not because of, but in spite of, the way we planned and built and managed nuclear weapons. And even today, we still have not recovered the security, the morality, or the freedom that the nuclear age has diminished for us. We may never.
Return to the National Security Archive home page
The National Security Archive,
The Gelman Library, George Washington University
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 701, Washington, DC 20037
Phone: 202-994-7000 / Fax: 202-994-7005
Last Change: January 17 1996 / by Reza Rafie/ email@example.com