The first use of a nuclear weapon against people was sixty-seven years ago today, August 6 1945, when the United States Army destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. The city of Nagasaki was destroyed by another bomb three days later. Some two hundred forty thousand people, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians, died from the attack and its aftereffects.
Over the past six decades a historical consensus has emerged: the atomic bombings were by no means militarily necessary. The Empire of Japan, which had begun the war, was by summer of 1945 defeated, the people of its home islands starving, the capital ships of its navy sunk, its army in China about to collapse before a Soviet onslaught. Historians now believe the key motive behind the bombings was political, the American government's goal to intimidate the Soviet Union as generals on both sides looked ahead to the next war.
My parents' generation was the first to live under the guns of that unfought war. As a schoolchild in America in the 1980s I grew up being taught as fact the certainty that the United States and the Soviet Union would go to war with one another someday and that the result would be the horrific deaths of unthinkable numbers of people and possibly the extinction of complex life on this Earth. I wonder how much of the paranoia and zealotry that now typifies American politics sprouted from the contaminated topsoil of that threat of war.
As an undergraduate studying physics I came to understand how trivial the task of building a primitive nuclear weapon, like the one that destroyed Hiroshima, is. The sole real barriers against the proliferation of nuclear weapons into the hands of any country or powerful person who wants one are the scarcity of uranium, and the engineering difficulties of uranium enrichment. A thermonuclear weapon, meanwhile, is more complicated but can be made arbitrarily destructive; J Robert Oppenheimer was able to rationalize the development of the atomic bomb as a weapon to be used against the Nazis, but he refused to work on the hydrogen bomb, as he recognized it was potentially a weapon of genocide. His refusal meant Edward Teller's heading of the project. The neutron bomb, which followed as a small modification of Teller's design, is the ideal weapon of modern war: as an instrument of disputes over property among members of the ruling class, its use carries out mass slaughter against the working class.
As the end of my undergraduate career approached, many of my classmates began looking for work. The CIA and NSA were both heavy recruiters at my undergraduate university. I resolved never to let my scientific abilities be used in the development of weapons. I know for a fact many of my colleagues went on to do postgraduate research that contributed to the development and improvement of the unmanned drones being used now around the world as blunt instruments of assassination.
Technological discoveries cannot be unlearned. With the industrialization of science, the boycotts of individuals, as Oppenheimer learned, will not long delay the beast's slouch toward Bethlehem. We as scientists, we as workers, can only stop the industrial murder war has become in our industrial age through effective and principled organization on an industrial scale.
Passing motions in conferences is not enough. The trade unions, as they stand, are not strong or political enough to make a demand for nuclear disarmament stick. The military, tasked with using nuclear weapons, is not even allowed to unionize.
Ninety-eight summers ago, the capitalist world launched its first attempt at apocalypse; 1914 was the chemists' war, just as 1938 was the war of physicists and, I suspect, a next world war would be a war of biologists. It could have been stopped. The stark choice of 1914 was: establish a Europe for the workers, or let the lights of civilization go out. In country after country, parties calling themselves "socialist" expressed the latent virus of nationalism within themselves and joined in the patriotic frenzy.
History tells us therefore the task ahead of us is enormous -- but not as enormous as the cost of doing nothing. The only thing that can prevent with certainty another Hiroshima is the building of a mass, conscious, and internationalist movement of the working class. The only thing that can bring a permanent end to war is the permanent abolition of that class of society whose members seek to profit from it.
Experience gives us no third option: we as humanity must choose whether to destroy ourselves or to destroy a system that murders.