As figures from the world military powers raise the threat of the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear arms, with the war in Ukraine and tensions over Taiwan in the background, the 77th anniversary of the second atomic bombing, over Nagasaki, on 9 August 1945, which killed 70,000 people, is more poignant and relevant than it has been for several decades. Berkay Kartav looks at the background to the use of the two atomic bombs by US imperialism against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (note: this article was first published on socialistworld.net in August 2020).
As World War Two was drawing to a close, United States forces dropped two atomic bombs above the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is still one of the most deadly and vicious military attacks in human history.
The first atomic bomb on 6 August immediately killed more than 100,000 people in Hiroshima; the second bombing on Nagasaki on 9 August killed a further 70,000 people, and wounded as many, or even more. Both cities were instantaneously destroyed. It demonstrated the immense destructive capabilities of US capitalism at the time.
Although conventional bombs in a single attack had also killed tens of thousands of civilians – in Dresden and Tokyo, for example – the use of the atomic bomb was far more destructive and deadly than any other weapon used in the war. It ushered in the era of nuclear proliferation.
At the time, when the atomic bomb was dropped over Japan, Nazi Germany had already been defeated. Stalin’s Soviet Union – at enormous cost to its oppressed population, and despite the treacherous mistakes of its bureaucratic leadership – had played a crucial role in the defeat of Hitler’s regime. The Soviet Union had recently declared war on Japan and invaded its northern islands.
That the Soviet Union was expanding beyond its agreed ‘spheres of influence’ worried the capitalist regimes in the West.
An important reason why the political representatives of the US ruling class were so keen to use the atomic bomb was that they wanted to show their military and technological superiority to the Soviet Union.
A protracted war in the Pacific region, which had already killed many US soldiers and became materially costly for the US, was also cited as one of the factors behind the decision to drop the atomic bomb. But a report produced by the US Strategic Bombing Survey suggested that Japan was already suing for peace.
To develop the nuclear bomb, massive funds had been secretly invested by the US government in the Manhattan Project, which included scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi.
Even though the overwhelming majority of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were against the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, the decision to use a destructive weapon lay in the hands of a tiny minority of society.
In the aftermath of World War Two, with the escalation of the conflict between the capitalist regimes on the one hand, and the Stalinist regimes, based on a bureaucratically planned, nationalised economy on the other, the number of nuclear warheads stockpiled massively increased. Given the destructiveness of these weapons, however, both the Western powers and the Soviet Union wanted to avoid a nuclear war and their ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD).
Since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the US remains the only country to have ever used the atomic bomb. Today, not only has technology developed to an unimaginable scale compared to 1945, but more countries are in possession of nuclear weapons – including China, Israel, France, India, Pakistan, and the UK, while Iran has resumed its attempt to build a weapon. Currently, Russia and the US possess over 90% of the world’s total nuclear warheads.
Several treaties have been signed in the past to limit the number and the range of these nuclear weapons. But US President Donald Trump withdrew from both the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) last year – which he accused Russia of reneging on – and also the Obama-era nuclear weapons deal with Iran.
The Trump administration views the ‘Russian bear’s’ invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine as a threat, notwithstanding the expansion of the US-dominated western military alliance of Nato into eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The US also wants to build up its military forces against China, which didn’t sign the INF. This treaty withdrawal, therefore, is a reflection of the growing competition between major capitalist powers as the global economic crisis intensifies.
Capitalist competition is leading to increased international tensions between states. The US drone attack which assassinated Iran’s top general, Qassem Suleimani, earlier this year, has underlined the volatile and dangerous situation which exists in the Middle East. Iran retaliated to the assassination by carrying out a ballistic missile attack on US bases in Iraq.
It is possible that future military skirmishes could escalate and threaten regional wars between states with nuclear arsenals, for example between India and Pakistan. The US or Israel could also pre-emptively attack Iran if the latter comes near to achieving nuclear weapons capability.
Meanwhile, Stalinist North Korea remains wedded to its nuclear arms testing programme. The ratcheting-up of tensions between the US administration and North Korean regime – which reached its highest point in 2018 when the latter tested a nuclear bomb – once again underlined the fact that none of the attempts to demilitarise the Korean peninsula since the 1950-53 war has worked.
The US maintains its massive military presence in South Korea. But the Korean working class also has a proud record of struggle against militarisation.
Capitalist rivalry or socialism?
The intensifying competition between China and the US in world markets, and these super-powers’ attempts to further their geopolitical aims, have already led to a trade war and an expanding militarisation of the Pacific Rim region. On top of that, the present world economic crisis has triggered a new wave of international tensions.
The current situation poses the question of whether there will be a military conflict between these two powers.
Although the ‘MAD’ consequence means that their use of nuclear weapons can be ruled out, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are an indication that conflicts over strategic trade routes can lead to some sort of military clash.
As long as the capitalist system remains, geopolitical rivalry and capitalist competition to enhance profit means that the threat of conventional wars, and even a regional nuclear exchange, remains a real possibility, albeit not in the short term.
The working class is the only force in society that can overthrow this war-inducing, rotten system of capitalism and replace it with a socialist society.
Introducing a socialist plan of production, on a world scale, will lay the basis for international cooperation to bring an end to the horrors of nuclear and conventional wars and secure permanent peace.
Fight for a communist world or capitalism will destroy humanity!
Excerpts from the editorial of the August 1945 supplement of Socialist Appeal, the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party (British Trotskyists), on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
“… During the war, technology has evolved faster and faster. Labour productivity has increased enormously in the most important warring countries. Thus, the problem of exploiting the surplus produced in capitalism has reached a more acute stage than a quarter of a century ago.
The technique of destruction has progressed even faster than the technique of construction. As weapons of destruction, the V1 and the V2 are already obsolete. The lightning war of tanks, planes, and guns is another age’s product. The horrific bomb attacks on the world’s major capitals are just a child’s play compared to the destructive forces of the nuclear bomb.
The atomic bomb is the highlight of this war in the cold-blooded search of the imperialists for the best way to scientifically destroy entire populations in war. Imperialism goes far beyond the primitive looting of cities and the slaughter of her inhabitants by amateurs like Ghengis Khan and Atilla the Hun. The extinction of every man, woman, and child in a city, in seconds, is a massacre that is unequal in the long cruel, and bloody history of humanity.
The Japanese reported on the effects of the nuclear bomb on the former city of Hiroshima:
“Medical aid organizations that rushed from neighboring districts were unable to distinguish the dead from the injured, let alone identify the dead.”
“The effects of the nuclear bomb were so powerful that virtually all living beings – humans and animals – were literally burnt to death by the enormous heat and pressure generated by the explosion. All the dead and injured were burned beyond recognition.”
The hypocrisy of the Allied imperialists in their condemnation of fascists in the use of poisonous gas in Abyssinia, as well as the rockets and flying bombs against Britain, is hardly credible.
And the imperialist lackeys – the Stalinists and Labour leaders who scourged the crimes of the Nazis yesterday, are boasting today about the horrific tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not a word of condemnation or protest against these atrocities committed by their masters. All of this is an educational lesson in the classic mechanisms of morality. There is no crime that would be too horrifying for the imperialists to commit when their class interests are threatened.
The madness of capitalism is so great that Anglo-American imperialists spent $500 million to develop the bomb. This almost corresponds to the entire pre-war budget of Great Britain, one of the richest countries in the world. But in peacetime, the money for researching scientific problems was only $100.000
Against this background, the total anachronism of the capitalist system stands out. The existence of state borders, customs barriers, state armies, navy, and air force, the delirium of production for profit seems like a horrible nightmare.
The survival of humanity requires the working class to destroy the bonds of production built by the existence of the capitalist system. The need for international socialism as a planned global economy has never been more obvious in history than it is today.
…All the traitors and renegades in the working-class ranks, the Stalinists and reformists who relied on a gradual solution to the evils of capitalism, have experienced a shocking refutation as the nuclear bomb develops. The main task for those who even want the continuation of the human species, even civilization, is to clearly explain the alternatives to the workers of all countries.
…The age of nuclear energy is a warning to the working class of all countries that it is no longer a question of communism or barbarism, as Lenin urgently warned – it is now a question of communism or nothing. The continuation of the capitalist system anticipates the complete destruction of humanity.
Workers of Great Britain and the world! The nuclear bomb is the final warning. Fight for a communist world or capitalism will destroy humanity.