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Lessons of Nagasaki for Fighting Terrorism

Op-Ed, Boston Globe

August 9, 2004

Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School

 

THE NUCLEAR bomb dropped on Hiroshima became an icon of the nuclear age, seared into the collective consciousness of postwar Americans by John Hersey's classic book. Fewer Americans remember much about the destruction of Nagasaki three days later on Aug. 9, 1945, and fewer still have reflected on lessons it offers for threats we face today.

The bomb dropped over Nagasaki—dubbed “Fat Man”— was a plutonium-implosion bomb, producing an explosion greater than all the conventional bombs dropped during the 2003 ‘Shock and Awe’ air campaign against Iraq. Within four months, the blast and thermal radiation killed 70,000 people. In less than five years, half of the population of Nagasaki was dead. 

In response to this second blast -- and the implied threat of more to come -- Emperor Hirohito raised Japan's white flag in unconditional surrender, announcing in a radio broadcast: "The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization."

While the world avoided the extinction threatened by the Cold War, today we face a new nuclear threat in the form of terrorism. Today, in countries all over the world, thousands of bombs' worth of nuclear weapons and materials remain poorly guarded, vulnerable to theft by terrorists or opportunists looking to sell them to the highest bidder.

What if Al Qaeda acquired a nuclear bomb? In releasing its report, the 9/11 Commission underscored bin Laden's nuclear ambitions. As the commission members said, "Our report shows that Al Qaeda tried to acquire or make weapons of mass destruction for at least 10 years." In commission chairman Thomas Kean's words, "Everybody feels that they are trying to mount another attack, and everybody feels that, given their ideology, they're doing their best to make it chemical, biological and nuclear because it kills more people."

For most Americans, the question of what bin Laden could possibly hope to achieve by such devastation has been confused by Bush administration rhetoric that characterizes Al Qaeda as "nothing but cold-blooded killers."

To the contrary, any careful reader of bin Laden's fatwas, statements, and tapes will find a chilling but quite specific list of strategic objectives. Bin Laden's demands of America include:

Withdrawal of all American troops from Saudi Arabia.

Elimination of American political and economic influence from Muslim countries.

End of the "Judeo-Christian crusades" that have occupied and/or corrupted Muslim countries.

End of American's military, financial, and public support for regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Arab countries.

Imagine, God forbid, that bin Laden acquires two nuclear weapons in the months ahead and conducts a nuclear terrorist attacks on an American city. As horrible as that first attack would be, what would he then demand of the United States to prevent the second, and what would President Bush or his successor be willing to do?

This unthinkable scenario, in which an American president would have to consider compromise, even secretly, with a nuclear terrorist, need not become reality. The largely unrecognized good news about nuclear terrorism is that this ultimate catastrophe is, in fact, preventable. What is required is to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on a nuclear weapon or material from which such a weapon could be made.

A serious campaign to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons will require both more political will from the United States and our allies and a new strategic approach, emphasizing a doctrine of Three Nos.

The first strand of the strategy -- no loose nukes -- requires securing all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material, on the fastest possible timetable, to a new gold standard.

No new nascent nukes means no new national capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.

The third No -- no new nuclear weapons states -- draws a bright line under the current eight nuclear powers and says unambiguously, no more.

Such an approach is ambitious, and negotiating the politics of implementing it will require sustained attention at the highest levels. But it is feasible and affordable, and more important, it is absolutely essential to ensure that no American president is ever left with no better choice than Emporer Hirohito, forced to surrender, not to an army of liberation, but to a terrorist's blackmail.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe." 

 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Allison, Graham. "Lessons of Nagasaki for Fighting Terrorism." Boston Globe, August 9, 2004.

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Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former top official at the Pentagon, and one of America’s leading scholars of nuclear strategy and national security, presents the evidence and argument that led him to two provocative conclusions: a nuclear terrorist attack on an American city is inevitable on our current course and speed, but preventable if we act now. 

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