The Next Hiroshima

August 6 provides a critical moment to reflect not only on the terrible events of that day, but also on current nuclear threats.

Noam Chomsky

Paper lanterns to mourn the atomic bomb victims float in the Motoyasu River in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

August 6 should have been a day of somber reflec­tion, not only on the ter­ri­ble events of that day in 1945, but also on what they revealed: that in their ded­i­cat­ed quest to extend their capac­i­ties for destruc­tion, humans final­ly found a way to approach the ulti­mate limit.

This year’s August 6 memo­ri­als to the vic­tims of Hiroshi­ma have spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance. They took place short­ly before the 50th anniver­sary of the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, the most dan­ger­ous moment in human his­to­ry,” in the words of his­to­ri­an and Kennedy advi­sor Arthur Schlesinger. Gra­ham Alli­son writes in For­eign Affairs that Kennedy ordered actions he knew would increase the risk of nuclear war, with a like­li­hood of per­haps 50 per­cent, an esti­mate that Alli­son regards as real­is­tic. Kennedy took Chair­man Khrushchev right to the brink of nuclear war and he looked over the edge and had no stom­ach for it,” accord­ing to Gen­er­al David Burchi­nal, then a high offi­cial in the Pen­ta­gon plan­ning staff. One can hard­ly count on such last-minute san­i­ty forever.

Dis­as­ter was per­ilous­ly close in 1962, and there have been extreme­ly dan­ger­ous moments since. In 1973, in the last days of the Arab-Israeli war, Hen­ry Kissinger called a high-lev­el nuclear alert. India and Pak­istan have come close to nuclear war. And there have been cas­es when human inter­ven­tion abort­ed nuclear attack after false reports by auto­mat­ed systems.

The events of Octo­ber 1962 are wide­ly hailed as Kennedy’s finest hour. Alli­son offers them as a guide for how to defuse con­flicts, man­age great-pow­er rela­tion­ships, and make sound deci­sions about for­eign pol­i­cy in gen­er­al.” In par­tic­u­lar, today’s con­flict with Iran.

Alli­son joins many oth­ers in regard­ing Iran’s nuclear pro­grams as the most severe cur­rent cri­sis – even more com­plex than the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, because of the threat of Israeli bomb­ing. The attack against Iran is in fact already well under­way, includ­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions that have reached the lev­el of unde­clared war,” in the judg­ment of Iran spe­cial­ist Gary Sick, who served on the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil under Pres­i­dents Ford, Carter and Reagan.

Con­sid­er, for anoth­er exam­ple, the Flame virus, revealed in mid-July, devel­oped joint­ly by the Unit­ed States and Israel, and used to secret­ly mon­i­tor Iran­ian com­put­er net­works. The Wall Street Jour­nal reports that the Pen­ta­gon regards cyber­war­fare as an act of war” that autho­rizes the tar­get to respond using tra­di­tion­al mil­i­tary force” (though with the usu­al excep­tion: not when the Unit­ed States or an ally is the perpetrator).

The esca­la­tion of the unde­clared war against Iran increas­es the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a large-scale war being sparked, even acci­den­tal­ly. The dan­ger was illus­trat­ed when a U.S. Navy ves­sel, part of the huge deploy­ment in the Gulf, fired on a civil­ian fish­ing boat July 16, killing one and wound­ing three. It would not take much more to ignite a major conflict.

The Iran threat has recent­ly been out­lined by Gen­er­al Gio­ra Eiland, who Haaretz describes as“one of the most inge­nious and pro­lif­ic thinkers the [Israeli mil­i­tary] has ever pro­duced.” Of the threats he cites, the most cred­i­ble is that any con­fronta­tion on our bor­ders will take place under an Iran­ian nuclear umbrel­la.” Israel might there­fore be con­strained from resort­ing to force. Eiland agrees with the Pen­ta­gon and U.S. intel­li­gence, which also regard deter­rence as the major threat Iran poses.

One sen­si­ble way to avoid such dread con­se­quences is to pur­sue, in the word­ing of U.N. Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 687 of April 1991, the goal of estab­lish­ing in the Mid­dle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruc­tion and all mis­siles for their deliv­ery and the objec­tive of a glob­al ban on chem­i­cal weapons.” The U.S. and the U.K. invoked those words in their effort to pro­vide a thin legal cov­er for their inva­sion of Iraq 12 years lat­er. The goal has been an Arab-Iran­ian objec­tive since 1974, reg­u­lar­ly re-endorsed. It now has near unan­i­mous glob­al sup­port, at least for­mal­ly. An inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence to con­sid­er ways to imple­ment such a treaty may take place in Decem­ber. Progress is unlike­ly unless there is mass pub­lic sup­port in the West.

Fail­ure to grasp the oppor­tu­ni­ty will, once again, length­en the grim shad­ow that has dark­ened the world since that fate­ful August 6.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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