A Teachable Moment

Written by FAS President Dr. Charles Ferguson

Views on nuclear weapons are often linked to strong emotions. On August 6, 2010, the text announcing my podcast on nuclear security issues to FAS members and on the FAS Website used a strong, emotionally charged word to describe the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That word was “unconscionable.”

An FAS member wrote to me expressing her disagreement with the use of that word because it is:

“an unequivocal judgment about the American decision to drop the two bombs.  This may be the opinion of whoever wrote the text, but it is NOT necessarily the opinion of all of the members and supporters of FAS.  I do not believe it was the opinion – before the end of the war – of all of the founders of the original organization that became FAS.  It is an arrogant claim that we would have all made a different decision under the circumstances of the war.”

FAS staff and I did not intend to imply that American political leaders, the founders of the organization, and others involved with the building of the atomic bombs and the decision to detonate the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unethical or lacking in conscience concerning these events. I regret the use of the term “unconscionable.”

Another member urged FAS to also address the issue of the conventional bombing of 65 Japanese cities including the firebombing of Tokyo. In that member’s view, “The legacy of strategic population bombing has to be confronted.”

While FAS should not shy away from controversial subjects, I personally do not think we will be able to resolve the very complex issues surrounding these historical events. As we all know, the subject of the atomic bombings has a rich intellectual debate, which does not need to be recapitulated here.

Nonetheless, we cannot escape our responsibility to redouble our efforts to make the world more secure. An essential aspect of this responsibility is to reduce the likelihood of nuclear weapons use, either by a state or non-state actor such as a terrorist. It is, however, debatable whether this means that the United States and other nuclear-armed states must in the near term eliminate their nuclear weapons. Short of fundamental changes in international security, leaders of these states are extremely reluctant to commit to near-term nuclear disarmament.

But more can and should be done to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons, to reduce and secure weapons-usable nuclear materials, and to increase the security of all nations. By doing so, we can create a world in which the likelihood of more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis is very close to zero.

To read more articles by FAS President Dr. Charles Ferguson, please visit the “From the President’s Desk” blog.

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