The Dawn of the Nuclear Age

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the detonation of 'Little Boy', the first nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal to be used as an act of war, and changing the world upon its use. The bomb, which was followed by 'Fat Man' on August 9th, caused casualties in the hundreds of thousands, with its effects lasting far into the present day. The United States marked a change in policy earlier today when Ambassador John Roos attended the reemergence ceremony earlier today. The onset of nuclear warfare marked a massive change in the structure and hierarchy of the world.

The culmination of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent implementation of nuclear arms into the U.S. arsenal was the result of years of work and research on the part of the United States, and one that remains fiercely debated to this day. The first, and only use of the weapons over Japan sparked much attention, but in and of itself was a single element in a larger strategy that was used to extend U.S. military power abroad. Earlier bombing runs, notably with the switch from conventional explosives to incendiary explosives on the part of the Army Air Force over Japan yielded similar results to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings: a high number of civilian casualties and military targets were directly attacked, killing hundreds of thousands. The nuclear warheads are in and of themselves notable because of the sheer destructive force, and the ease to which an opposing force can destroy a comparable target when examined alongside prior methods. Previously, it required a large bombing force over enemy territory, where planes were susceptible to anti-air craft fire and mechanical breakdown. With a single air craft, the ability to do the same appeared.

It would seem that with the smaller force, and ease of destruction, that nuclear warfare would be an inevitable end to civilization as we know it. Large military forces require far more expenditure, logistics and manpower to accomplish their goals, with steep casualty costs, as seen in the casualty rates of the airmen who ventured over Axis-occupied territory during the Second World War. This misses the point, I believe, of the ease of destruction often predicted by science fiction authors. The scary thing itself isn't the bomb itself, but the system in which deploys it. The Second World War industrialized warfare to an incredible degree due to military necessity, and as a single nation almost untouched by war on its own borders, the United States found itself with the manpower, equipment and weapons in which to enforce its will across the world. When the Soviet Union joined the nuclear club, it acted as a balance of power, but one that tread upon very uneasy ground, as the potential for nuclear warfare grew immensely, and teetered on the edge at such moments like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fortunately, the fears of apocalypse never came to pass: cooler heads prevailed, and the implimentation of strategy that was designed to deter, rather than to destroy outright came to pass, but the introduction of nuclear weapons demonstrated that the balance of power had changed in a profound way: nations could enforce their will through the threat of force, and advances in science and technology allowed for a continued strategy on the part of the countries that were involved in the Cold War. In a real sense, with such advances, the world became a truly global, interconnected place, and affairs that had once been inconsequential now became important to the world as a whole.

The Nuclear age arguably never began with the Japan bombings, but earlier, as military strategy attempted to find ways in which to end the threat to U.S. interests. In doing so, unprecedented measures were undertaken: cities were destroyed, in what can be looked at as the closest thing to apocalypse and speculative fiction one has ever seen, and examining the aftermath provides for some almost surreal accounts: it is no wonder that people believed that the world would end with a flash of light, and it is uncomforting to realize that this sort of threat is one that is ongoing: the Cold War has since ended, but the threat of nuclear power is still one that will exist while such weapons exist, and will undoubtedly continue to influence those who look towards the future. What needs to be determined from policy makers and strategists as to the true risk, and to determine if the stakes are high enough.

On Nuclear Politics

This evening, President Obama announced a series of limits on the use of nuclear weapons against other countries, even in the event of a non-nuclear attack. The new rules are designed to curb the risk involved with nuclear warfare by removing some elements of gray area from the policies from the Cold War. With the first use of the bombs against the Japanese at the end of the Second World War, the nuclear bomb has remained a central focus of American power abroad, representing a nexus in military/political power and scientific technology as a means of projecting the country’s might against its enemies abroad.

The atomic element of warfare became a missing link in airpower theory, providing a massive level of shock and awe that overcame even the massive fire bombings of Europe and Japan, and scientific advances allowed for the pairing of nuclear bombs and missile technology, allowing for an unstoppable weapon, fundamentally changing how warfare was conducted. (Lawrence Freedman, Makers of Modern Strategy, 736)

This change from conventional to nuclear warfare came with ever growing changes on the part of both the United States and the Soviet Union. With the USSR’s detonation of their own bomb in 1949 and their rapid advances in missile technology, the US response was to do the same, and with competing doctrines of mutually assured destruction, the threat of conflict between the two countries diminished, as two rational states found that the consequences would have been unacceptable. According to Freedman, “the study of nuclear strategy is therefore the study of their nonuse of these weapons.” (735) in a large way, the nuclear option is a chain around the nuclear countries, limiting their options and forcing alternatives, such as actions through other nations, the careful placement of strategic missile launch sites and a healthy dose of fear of their use.

With the current plan that has just been imposed, further chains have been placed on the nation’s ability to respond to threats to it’s borders. In the larger scheme of things, this is a positive move for much of the world, because it removes the possibility of destruction from US bombs.

But at the same time, nuclear weapons are essentially weapons that aren’t intended for use: their primary use is one of deterrence against a major enemy that maintained similar stockpiles and opposing political intentions.

However, the United States had still used the weapons once before, and the continual threat of hostilities allowed for the use of such weapons in extreme instances, and because of this gray area, any rational state would recognize the real threat behind a country armed with a nuclear stockpile. Removing this ambiguity, then, helps to realize the flaws in the country’s nuclear policy by removing the threats associated with it.

Still, this move shows change with the modern times, where warfare has changed from a series of rational states working against one another to far more unpredictable players on the field, ranging from terrorist organizations to irrational states. In this world, one much question the use of a deterrence-based policy to far more realistic expectations of the policy in the first place.