Book review: Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons

Maybe this has happened to you…

You’re an activist and an idealist and you’ve invested a lot of time into promoting the ideas of nuclear disarmament because you want to live without the insecurity that makes you worry about the future.  One day you find yourself at a dinner with family or friends and you get onto the subject that you’re passionate about: nuclear weapons.

You talk about the demonstration you went on or the conference you attended.  You’re very enthusiastic and give all the many good reasons why these weapons should be banned: the impact on civilians, the impact on the environment, the radiation poisoning, etc., etc.

All your friends and family members agree with you and support what you do even if they don’t have too much time to get involved themselves: all except for one person.  There’s always one person who is sceptical and even downright negative towards you and when you’ve stopped talking passionately, that person says, “But without nuclear weapons Japan would not have surrendered in World War II.”  Or they say, “We need a deterrent to stop other countries attacking us.” or even, “nuclear weapons have kept peace in Europe ever since 1945.”

And they have you stumped because everything you’ve been taught at school tells you that they’re right.  You hate nuclear weapons and you want them to be a thing of the past because you’re idealistic and there should be no war or violence, or hunger or any kind of suffering that science and technology can alleviate.

So you say sheepishly, “Yes, well the world shouldn’t be like that because if we’re not careful some idiot is going to launch a bomb or they’ll be an accident and it will kill us all.”  And this is true, but it doesn’t win the argument because secretly you know that this ‘pain in the ass’ friend or family member is correct.

Well, worry no more because there is a book that will change your life!!

The Five Myths of Nuclear Weapons is a brilliant book by Ward Wilson that will change your experience of dinner parties and family gatherings FOR EVER.  You’ll be able to hold your head up high as an anti-nuclear activist and respond to all the points mentioned above without having to have a degree in history or politics.  And all it takes is to review and relearn everything we’ve been taught about nuclear weapons because the entire subject has been wrapped in fantasy and mythology.  It turns out that the truism that ‘history is written by the victors’ is correct, even in wars of the 20th century.

Wilson sets out in a little under 100 pages the responses to the following myths.

  • Japan was forced out of World War II by the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Bombs today are thousands of times bigger than those first two bombs
  • The policy of nuclear deterrence works
  • Nuclear weapons have kept the peace for the last 67 years.
  • There is no alternative to nuclear weapons

I don’t want to go too much into the answers to all the myths that Wilson lays out in his book because if you’re an activist you really should get a copy and read it for yourself.  I’m sure this book won’t turn Ward into a rich man because it is only likely to be read by activists and hopefully increasingly by students of nuclear weapons and international politics, so rather than give all the answers here I encourage you to buy it.

But I will go into the first myth: Japan left World War II because of the nuclear bomb, because it turns out that there is a much more likely reason why Japan left the war.

Of course for any of us imagining a bomb like Hiroshima falling on our city it would be a reason in itself to surrender so it is easy to accept this idea and all the subsequent accepted truths about nuclear weapons but the author takes us back to August 1945 and lays out the situation in Japan at that time.  Here it is briefly.

  • At the time of the war Japan had 78 cities.
  • Although one nuclear bomb is devastating, it is no more devastating initially than dozens of conventional bombers unloading their bombs on the same night, and this had largely been done on 66 cities before the 6th of August.  Most were not as badly damaged as Hiroshima, but many were, both in terms of surface area devastation and absolute numbers of dead.  Tokyo took the prize with 120,000 dead in one night on March 10th 1945 and something like 40 square kilometres destroyed.
  • Having already lost 66 cities, for the Japanese to lose one more was no big deal, even if it had only taken one bomb and one plane to do so.
  • It took four days for the Japanese high command to meet and agree to surrender.  They were already in this meeting when the news of Nagasaki arrived so this bombing is not the reason for the meeting.  What kind of emergency meeting is convened after 4 days?  News of the Hiroshima bomb had reached the high command within hours.  Why the delay?
  • Wilson very convincingly proposes that the reason why they were in the surrender meeting was because at midnight the night before, the Soviet Union entered the war and sent their troops into Japanese occupied territories in China and were expected to reach the Japanese islands within a fortnight.
  • Japan had no chance to fight an expected war against the Americans coming from one side and the Soviets coming from the other.  They had no choice but to surrender.
  • Conveniently they could blame this surrender on the nuclear bombs saying that they’d been forced out because of the US scientific development of a miracle bomb and not because of any superior military capability, which would have been a huge humiliation for the Japanese High Command to accept.
  • This explanation also suited the Americans who had invested 2 billion dollars in the development of the bomb (in 1940 US dollars) and needed to justify the expense.

When I read this book I felt exhilaration at the thought of never again being humiliated at dinner!! It turns everything I thought I knew about the end of the war on its head and, of course, the implications run throughout the entire philosophy of nuclear deterrence.

Ward, in a very engaging and matter-of-fact way, goes through the other myths.  Everything is nicely referenced for follow up if you doubt any of the points and he carves through all the myths like your mum carves through the Christmas turkey: neatly and efficiently.

Before writing this review, I wanted to check what is being taught in school today because I wasn’t quite sure if maybe this was shocking to me because of the education of my generation and it could be that things have changed.  Therefore, I consulted the 13-year old son of a friend of mine in London, Matthew, who told me, “The end of the war was because the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on two cities killing over 130,000 people and forced japan to surrender.”

So the myth is being reinforced and repeated from generation to generation.  It is no wonder it is so difficult to move towards disarmament.

This book is a treasure for anyone remotely interested in nuclear disarmament because it allows you to wake up from the deterrence mythology and understand why we are in the situation we are today.

I’m going to be optimistic and say that when the world’s politicians finally read this book it will cause a paradigm shift in the nuclear disarmament debate.  The Non-Proliferation Treaty will be able to move forward and a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons will be possible.

In fact, it should leave clearly isolated the only people who have any reason to keep nuclear weapons in place: the ones making millions of dollars out of them.  It is to be hoped however that despite these parasites that live off human fear and misery, the majority of the nations of the world and peace-loving people of the world will be able to force through their will and help us reach nuclear abolition, not in a distant future as President Obama would have us believe, but in the next two decades.