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The Recorder - My Turn: On the limits of speculation

I’d like to comment on Paul Abrahams’ thought-provoking My Turn of Aug. 22 [“Thoughts on the atomic bombing of Japan”]. I’m impressed with the amount of informed discussion I’ve seen in the Recorder’s pages about this most controversial historical matter. I agreed entirely with his initial assessment that the war could have been won without the bomb, for the variety of good reasons litigated elsewhere; I’ll focus on his final point, as I understood it: the atom bombings, despite their horror, may well have prevented their future use in an unanticipated Armageddon with the Soviets. Indeed, the actual history of the Cold War seems to bear out the somewhat terrifying success of the bizarre, guarantee-of-lethality posture of mutually assured destruction in avoiding World War III. (I’ve always believed this is as much a matter of pure luck as of any special foresight or good judgment.)

However, let us assume, for a thought experiment, that Mr. Abraham’s “alternate timeline” comes to pass, and the war ends without two of Japan’s few unbombed cities falling victim to the bomb. The U.S. was indeed rapidly expanding its atomic arsenal; the Soviets would not successfully explode their atom bomb for another four years. Thus, from August 1945 to August 1949, the U.S. enjoyed atomic hegemony.

During this turbulent early Cold War period, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. experienced numerous documented hazardous near-shooting exchanges in Germany and elsewhere. For the purposes of this alternate timeline, let us further assume that one of these encounters escalated unexpectedly, as wars will, and the U.S. feels Berlin is sufficiently threatened that a B-29 drops an atom bomb on a Soviet tank army. The instant vaporization of 30,000 troops and their associated hardware might well prove an instructional and de-motivational example for both sides of the conflict as to the appalling consequences of waging “strategic war.” The Soviets would have little recourse than to surrender immediately to the planet’s sole atomic power or risk total destruction (and, let’s not forget, having recently suffered nearly 20 million deaths in the war, or 15 percent of the population of the country might make them somewhat war-weary). Presumably, Harry S. Truman would present agreeable terms to Joseph Stalin, thus, perhaps obviating a frighteningly fragile, monstrously wasteful and ultimately pointless Cold War.

Perhaps, further: Korea, Vietnam, large amounts of Eastern Europe, and other U.S./U.S.S.R. proxy wars would likewise have been avoided, thus assuring a gleaming, Utopian conflict-free world that instead focused on art, science, truth, music and the philosophy of the mind, all benevolently administered by a thoughtful and kindly Uncle Sam … probably not, though, and this illustrates the limits of, as Don Rumsfeld waggishly termed it, “the unknown unknown.”

History, in this timeline, as it unfolded, renders both Mr. Abrahams’ speculations and mine (and Rumsfeld’s, come to think of it) equally fanciful. The plain facts are considerably more dismal: to quote Mr. Abrahams’ words, though the bombings might well have prevented a worse future, I would pointedly add that they quite certainly needlessly killed 300,000-pluls human beings, which is the larger point to the involved parties and the pitiless judgment of history.

Sean Callaghan is a resident of Greenfield.

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