Monday, March 14, 2011

More on Nuclear Catastrophes

When I ask my students which country is the only one to have used nuclear weapons against an enemy, they offer all kinds of answers. Except the correct one.

United States makes huge efforts to limit the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons. What I never managed to understand is how the only country that used these weapons to wreak such enormous destruction can justify positioning itself as a valid judge of who has the right to own them.

This is not a rhetorical question. There must be some doctrine, some philosophy, some logical reasoning that makes this possible. Does anybody know what it is? 

I'm not looking for a response of the "The US is a superpower that never renders accounts to anybody" kind. That's all obvious. However, people always come up with discourses to justify their greatest atrocities. On a purely logical level, it is obvious that the US is the only country that has no right to judge anybody for possessing and even using the nuclear weapons. So how does the official rhetoric explain away this contradiction?


Anonymous said...

In this case, the destructive power of nuclear weapons is so great that I don't really care which country has the moral standing to limit them, as long as they are somewhat effective at it. While the US is probably not a great choice, it is a very good bully and that has worked to some extent.

While it's not a valueless argument, in many ways arguing over who has the moral standing to control nuclear weapons kind of seems like bickering over what color water hose to use while the house burns down all around you.


Clarissa said...

Is that the official argument? :-) "We are the baddest meanest bully around here, so we should do it?" :-)

J. said...

It's not an OFFICIAL argument, but the sense of what I've heard has always been, "We the US are wise and sophisticated, we appreciate the gravity of nuclear warfare and do not take it lightly, and we have all these governmental safeguards in place and can be reasonably sure we would NEVER use such weapons unless we really needed to. Whereas some of these other nations with dictatorships and radical religious dudes in power might go off half-cocked and blow someone else up, and once that's done the someone else would have to blow them up, and all their allies would have to blow up all the retaliatory nation's allies up, and the world goes up in flames."

Except for the "wise and sophisticated" and "would never use such weapons" (c.f. your post), it makes a sort of ironic kind of sense.

Anonymous said...

Well, the US is the meanest bully around, yes?

We like to go up to other countries and grab their hand, hit them in the face with it and say, "What are you hitting yourself?"


Pagan Topologist said...

An alternative explanation is that people in the U. S. feel that what we did was so horrible that we don't want anyone else to make such a mistake. Don't Germans stand strongly against genocide for similar reasons?

I know several people who are "recovering alcoholics" who preach that no one shouls ever take a drink of alcohol.

I am really surprised that none of your students got the correct answer to that, however. It gets mentioned on TV every August.

Nevertheless, no individual American who had anything to do with the decision to use nuclear weapons in the Second World War is likely to have anything to do with the effort to limit the further development/ownership/use of such weapons nowadays, so it would have to involve "collective guilt." to say that Americans are not qualified to work on such a thing.

NancyP said...

The feeling of many WWII vets who fought in either theater is that the bombs shortened the war and that they may owe their lives to the bombs.

US bombing of German cities, using conventional weapons, killed nearly the same number of people as the two A-bombs.

War is terrible.

David said...

I guess if you look at war closely, nobody ends up looking heroic for long.

Pen said...

This issue came up during the Cold War (and before you say that it's not over--I agree with you on that--I'm referencing the bit of history we're studying in class, not current events). I think there was a treaty involved, and the feeling I got from the US hypocrisy was kind of a "just in case" scenario. Supposedly, the US is too afraid to risk nuclear war, but it always helps to be able to threaten your enemy on demand.

In addition, nobody has any feasible way to permanently get rid of a nuclear weapon. I think the US feels that their own fear of nuclear war makes them a perfect candidate to stockpile the weapons, with the excuse being "they have to go somewhere, and they can't go to anyone who'll use them."

That's what I got out of that particular reading, anyway. I'm not sure that it's correct, though, especially if the US is still involved in the creation of nuclear weapons (I don't know if this is happening, but you can't always tell).

Rimi said...

Except a few people who do realise their country is the only one to have deployed nuclear power -- twice! -- I don't think most Americans even realise their nation was the only global culprit. So yes, they see their government's effort as a heroic one.

Heroic because they can manage to stop these other 'crazy dictatorships' into stupidly blundering straight into a nuclear winter (this rests on the other US propoganda: that it is a pro-people, benign democracy, and the rest of the world are blood-thirsty fascists who know no better). And heroic also because they stand valiantly between humanity and any power-crazy dictator who might want to press the button. In the second case, the US's own nuclear arsenal is, of course, for the safeguarding of Humanity, with a capital 'h'.

Tom Carter said...

You have to look at the U.S. employment of nuclear weapons in WWII from a historical standpoint -- what was happening then and why.

NancyP is right. There were a number of conventional attacks in both theaters that killed more people and wreaked more destruction. And it's a fact that those two nuclear weapons saved the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of allied soldiers and Japanese soldiers and civilians. It's easy to sit in the ivory tower and discuss the issue in a largely fact-free environment, with the obligatory anti-American rhetoric thrown in, but that doesn't lead to an understanding of what happened and why.

It's also unfortunate to hear the Japanese referred to as "victims" of nuclear weapons. They were engaged in an aggressive war that they were clearly losing at that point, they were warned repeatedly that it was coming, and they still very nearly didn't agree to end hostilities after suffering two nuclear attacks.