Why Americans Won't Give Up the Nuclear Option

More than sixty-four years after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb is still very much with us, as evidenced by this week's great nuclear summit and new proposals to curtail stockpiles, and loose nukes, presented by President Obama. But the thousands of weapons in the hands of the current or former superpowers, the United States and Russia, draw less controversy in our country than the notion that Obama is either going too far or not far enough in limiting but not banning our possible "first use" of the bomb in any conflict (or responding to a perceived threat). Opposition to a no-first-use policy, in fact, has been a cornerstone of U.S. nuclear policy for decades.

Yet despite some positive signs from Obama, I fear that moving very far in the direction of no-first-use is still a long way off in America.

Perhaps the strongest reason is this: most Americans, our media and our leaders (including every president), have endorsed our "first-use" of the bomb against Japan. This remains true today, despite new evidence and analysis that have emerged for so many years. I've been writing about this for almost thirty years -- most recently at The Nation and earlier in book form -- with little shift in the polls or change in heart among our policymakers and elected officials.

There has also been little change abroad -- where the use of the bomb in 1945 has been roundly condemned from the beginning. Indeed, U.S. support, even pride, in our use of the weapon has given us little moral standing in arguing that other countries should not develop nuclear weapons and consider using them, possibly as a first, not a last, resort (that's our policy, remember).

So it all goes back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While I respect the views of a range of historians on this matter, and the opinions of the men who fought in the Pacific, I happen to believe the bombs should not have been used against Japan, directly over cities, at that time. The war would likely have ended very shortly without it (or a bloody American invasion planned for many months later), largely because of the Soviets finally declaring war on Japan -- an event long-dreaded by Japanese leaders.

Yes, there was a day when conservatives like John Foster Dulles, columnist David Lawrence, Admiral William Leahy and General Dwight D. Eisenhower clearly condemned the use of the bombs. They knew that the argument of "saving tens of thousands of American lives" only counted if an invasion actually was necessary. We had demanded "unconditional surrender," dropped the bombs, then accepted the main Japanese demand--keeping their emperor as figurehead.

But the key point for today is this: how the "Hiroshima narrative" has been handed down to generations of Americans -- and overwhelmingly endorsed by officials and the media, even if many historians disagree -- matters greatly.

Over and over top policymakers and commentators say, "We must never use nuclear weapons," yet they endorse the two times the weapons have been used against cities in a first strike. To make any exceptions, even in the past and in a horrid situation, means exceptions can be made in the future. Indeed, we have already made two exceptions, with over 200,000 civilians killed. The line against using nuclear weapons has been drawn... in the sand.

And, as I noted, the fact that the United States first developed, and then used -- twice -- the WMD to end all WMDs has severely compromised our arguments against others building the weapon ever since. Hiroshima was our original sin, and we are still paying for it, even if most Americans do not recognize this.

That is why I always urge everyone to study the history surrounding the decision to use the bomb and how the full story was covered up for decades. There is certainly, in the minds of the media and the American public, no taboo on using nuclear weapons, and it all started, but did not end, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is what nuclear abolitionists--or even those who (like Obama) simply want a partial easing of our first-use policy--are up against.

Greg Mitchell's new blog for The Nation will launch this month--he's now tweeting it here. He is the former editor of Editor & Publisher and author of nine books, including "Hiroshima in America" (with Robert Jay Lifton).