A “purely military” target? Truman’s changing language about Hiroshima

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 19th, 2018

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about a hypothesis I had regarding President Truman and the decision to use the atomic bomb. My basic thesis then (and continues to be) is that there is good reason to think that Truman did not understand that Hiroshima was a city with a military base in it, and not merely some kind of military installation. Truman’s confusion on this issue, I argue, came out of his discussions with Secretary of War Henry Stimson about the relative merits of Kyoto versus Hiroshima as a target: Stimson emphasized the civilian nature of Kyoto and paired it against the military-status of Hiroshima, and Truman read more into the contrast than was actually true.

I have kept poking around this issue for some time now, and written an article-length version of it (more on that in due time). I feel even more confident in it than before, having gone over the relevant documents very closely and talked about with many scholars (including at a conference in Hiroshima last summer), though there are some aspects of the original blog post that I would refine or revise.

But I thought I’d share one set of documents that I found extremely illuminating and interesting, and useful for thinking about how the “narrative” of Hiroshima changed over a very short period of time in August 1945. I have not seen any reference to these in the work of any other historians, not because they are slouches (they are not), but because you have to be asking very specific questions to think they are a possible source of the answers.

The press release sent out under Truman’s name after the bombing of Hiroshima was not written by him. It was largely written by Arthur Page, a Vice President at AT&T and the “father of modern corporate public relations,” at the request of the Interim Committee of the Manhattan Project. Page was an old friend of Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, and Stimson wanted the first statement to be a very carefully-written document, as it was meant to credibly describe a new weapon and outline possible paths forward for the Japanese. Truman was shown the final version of it, but he didn’t add or remove anything from it. It is interesting (for my purposes) to note that if you did not know whether Hiroshima was a city or an isolated military base, the initial announcement would not clarify that for you, even if you were (like Truman) the one reading it aloud.

A far more interesting case is the second speech that Truman gave which mentioned the atomic bomb. This was a radio address given on the evening of August 9, 1945, not long after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The atomic bomb only occupies a small part of the overall speech — it is really a speech about what had happened at the Potsdam Conference the weeks previous. But the parts on the atomic bomb are fascinating to read. Here are the parts I’d like to draw your attention to in particular:

The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and, unfortunately, thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities immediately, and save themselves from destruction. […]

Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against  those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.

Two things interest me about the above. One is that the first paragraph emphasizes that Hiroshima was a “military base,” and that they wanted to avoid, “insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” Now, Hiroshima was not, strictly speaking, a military base — it was a major city that contained a military base. There is a difference there, and fewer than 10% of the casualties were military. The paragraph further warns that bombing cities might occur — it doesn’t ‘fess up to having already done it, but puts it as a thing for the future.

The second paragraph quoted does something a bit different: it justifies the bombing, first by saying that the Japanese were awful and deserved it, then by saying that the use of the bomb was really a humane act, and using it would “shorten the agony of war,” and would save American lives.

We will come back to both of these in a minute. Let’s instead ask: who wrote this speech? Given the background of the first press release, one might be surprised to find that the answer is… Harry Truman. Well, he wrote the first draft. As he wrote in a note on August 10th:

“While all this has been going on, I’ve been trying to get ready a radio address to the nation on the Berlin conference. Made the first draft on the ship coming back. Discussed it with [James] Byrnes, [Samuel] Rosenman, Ben Cohen, [William] Leahy and Charlie Ross. Rewrote it four times and then the Japs offered to surrender and it had to be done again.”

When Truman says he “made the first draft on the ship coming back,” he’s referring to his travel back from Europe aboard the USS Augusta. In fact, there is a photograph in the Truman Library that claims to be showing him writing this very draft:

“President Harry S. Truman at his desk aboard the U. S. S. Augusta, returning from the Potsdam Conference. He is preparing his “report to the nation.” August 6, 1945.” Source: Truman Library, 63-1453-47; scan from Wikimedia Commons

So, while many hands were no doubt involved, we can say with some reliability that Truman was very involved in the drafting process. How involved is a hard thing to say — but it gives us something to think about when looking at the specific language used, to question how much of it reflects the President’s own thoughts (something we cannot do with the original Hiroshima press release, which was written without Truman’s input).

I wrote the Truman Library awhile back and asked if they had any information about this statement, and they helpfully sent me a whole sheaf of papers taken from the papers of Samuel Rosenman, who was a Truman speechwriter and staffer. They included not only five different drafts of the radio address, but also many pieces of correspondence that helped contextualize it. For example, I was interested to find that the radio address as a means of communication was decided upon around July 20, 1945, as an alternative to giving Congress a full address, because Congress was going to be out of session when he got back.

The drafts are of course themselves the most interesting part. There are, as noted, five in the folder. They are all typed, and numbered but not dated. The fifth draft is not exactly the same as the version that Truman delivered, so we can deduce that there was at least one last round of changes, perhaps by Truman himself, perhaps not. There are, as we will see, some ways to date some of the drafts, based on the relationship between their content and some of the other letters in the folder.

The first draft, presumably related to the version first developed by Truman while on the USS Augusta (August 2–7). The atomic bomb was only mentioned very briefly, and in no detail:

What we are doing to Japan now — even with the new atomic bomb — is only a small fraction of what would happen to the world in a third World War. […] We have laid down the general terms on which they can surrender. Since then they have seen what our atomic bomb can do. They can foresee what it will do. They would be wise if they would accept the inevitable before it is too late; otherwise their fate will be even worse than Germany’s.

That’s it. I suspect this was written before Hiroshima, when Truman knew the bombing was scheduled to occur. What’s really interesting, though, is that underneath the final paragraph quoted above, someone has written in (by hand), the following: “Why we dropped bomb on Hiroshima.” So we can put some kind of boundary on when this draft was written: potentially before Hiroshima (as early as August 6th), but sometime soon after the bombing someone decided that there needed to be more on the atomic bomb in it.

“The scrawl,” as I think of it.

How does this scrawl date it? Hiroshima was the preferred target for the first atomic bomb but it wasn’t until the mission was successful that anyone would have known it was the actual target. There were two backup targets as well (Kokura and Nagasaki); it is only on August 6th that it would have been talked about definitively as the bombing of Hiroshima. (Whose scrawl is it? I don’t know. Could it be Truman’s? Maybe. I am not a handwriting expert and it is not much to go by on itself.)

The second draft of the statement is much the same on the passages already quoted, but true to the penciled suggestion on the first draft, a new statement about the bombing of Hiroshima was added:

The world will note that the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima which is purely a military base. This was because we did not want to destroy the lives of women and children and innocent civilians in this first attack. But it is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on war industries and thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge the Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities and save themselves from destruction.

This is not so dissimilar to the language in the final statement but the differences are important. Let’s put them side by side:

  • Draft #2: The world will note that the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima which is purely a military base.
  • Final: The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base.

First, we have a confusion about how many bombs (singular or plural) were dropped. I don’t read much into that other than as an indicator of how quickly this was probably written.

Second, the original language is even more emphatic about the military status of Hiroshima: here it was purely a military base. “Purely” is a very strong modifier. Ask yourself under what conditions you would describe a city as being “purely a military base” — it’s hard to come up with any that are honest, if you understood the target to be a city. It is interesting, as well, that in the final version, Hiroshima is still listed as a military base — but the “purely” has vanished. Still a misleading statement (again, it was a city with a base in it), but it’s not as egregious as the original draft.

  • Draft #2: This was because we did not want to destroy the lives of women and children and innocent civilians in this first attack.
  •  Final: That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.

This is another interesting and, I think, important juxtaposition. In the first one, it is claimed that “women and children and innocent civilians” were spared in the first attack. In the final version, this has been watered down quite a lot — only “civilians” (not even innocent!) are mentioned, the killing of which was only avoided “insofar as possible.”

Am I reading too much into language? I don’t think so. Because, strikingly, this language mirrors very closely another Truman passage, his Potsdam journal entry of July 25th, 1945, which he wrote just after making final decisions about the question of the bombing of Kyoto:

I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance.

These two phrases are pretty distinct. Truman wants to avoid the killing of “women and children.” This is a phrase he uses again and again when talkig about the atomic bombs — first in talking about how his choices would avoid it, later to emphasize that this is what atomic bombs do. For example, in a speech he wrote in December 1945, Truman noted that the bomb would involve, “blotting out women and children and non-combatants.” In 1948, he told a group of advisors and generals that the atomic bomb was not a regular weapon of war, because, “it is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses.” I just point this out because Truman (like many people, including myself) has distinct turns of phrase that he deploys and redeploys repetitively, what at least one historian has called “Trumanisms.”

From the third draft (emphasis added).

Even more striking is the repetition of the “purely military” phrase, which is much more extreme and particular to Truman. No one today would describe Hiroshima as “purely military,” and the scientists and military men who chose it as a target explicitly noted that it was not one. At the Target Committee Meeting at Los Alamos in May 1945, it was recommended that “pure military” targets not be considered: “It was agreed that for the initial use of the weapon any small and strictly military objective should be located in a much larger area subject to blast damage” — that is, a city, an urban area — “in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.”

In my interpretation, the timeline so far looks something like this:

  • Prior to the Hiroshima bombing (sometime between August 2 and sometime August 6), Truman drafts the radio address (little to no mention of atomic bomb)
  • After the Hiroshima bombing (August 6), but before Truman knows the full extent of civilian casualties, Truman and others revise it to talk about Hiroshima
  • Sometime before the final version is released (August 9), it is revised to indicate an awareness that Hiroshima was not “purely military” and that civilians were in fact killed in great numbers

On the second point — do we know that Truman himself modified the statement? We know he was (by his own account) involved in the revisions over the days. And the language is strikingly similar to his Potsdam journal. I suspect he was to some degree (even just in discussions) involved in forming that language, but the other possibility is that the Potsdam journal was used as “raw material” for writing that section (and it may have been why he kept the journal; Truman was not a diarist, and the Potsdam journal is unusual).

Do the rest of the drafts help us refine this timeline and the shifts in language? A bit. By the third draft, the singular/plural nature of the bombing of Hiroshima was resolved (“the first atomic bomb was dropped”), but it is still “purely a military base.” Most importantly, though, is that someone has added a line to it (on page 5) indicating that the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan the day before, putting it at around August 8th or 9th in Washington (midnight in Tokyo is 10am the previous day in Washington, DC).

The fourth draft moves the paragraphs about the atomic bomb towards the end (from page 6-7 to page 17), which is an interesting change by itself. But it otherwise does not change them.

In the fifth draft, however, a change occurs. The language about Hiroshima as “purely” a military target still remains. But a new bit of text has been added:

Its production and use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. But we knew our enemies were on the search for it. We now know they were close to finding it. And we knew the disaster that would come to this nation, to all peaceful nations, to all civilization, if they found it first. […]

We won the race of discovery against the Germans.

Having found it we have used it. […] We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of Americans.

This is an interesting addition: it is the justification for having made it (the Nazis were going to make one) and having used it (we wanted to save lives). That it takes until the fifth draft — the last one in the archival file — for this to appear is fascinating. It is almost as if the speech drafters realized, all of the sudden, that they were going to have to account for its use, to make a case for the manufacture and use of the bomb that went further beyond their original one.

So when and where did this language enter into this text? Fortunately, there is another piece of documentation in the file that helps us. The Assistant Secretary of State (and former Librarian of Congress) Archibald MacLeish sent a letter to Rosenman dated August 8th, with “a paragraph which has some ideas you might wish to use about the atomic bomb.” It is not an exact match for the fifth draft’s language but it is so close on many points as to be the obvious source: “Its production and its use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. … Only the certainty that the terrible destructiveness of this weapon will shorten the agony of the war and will save American lives has persuaded us to use it against our enemies.”

So that indicates clearly that the fifth draft was finished sometime after MacLeish sent his memo on August 8th. What happened on August 8th that would provoke MacLeish and others to think they needed to justify the creation and use of the atomic bomb? On the morning of August 8th, the first damage reports came back from Japan. These included the famous aerial photograph of Hiroshima, which was shown to Truman by Stimson that morning:

Damage map of Hiroshima, 8/8/1945. Source: National Archives and Records Administration / Fold3

The Japanese also began to talk about the bomb damage for the first time in their newspapers, as the survey team sent to Hiroshima by the Japanese high command had finally sent its report back. (Someday I will write something here on this — it is its own interesting topic.) American newspapers on August 8 and 9th were reporting huge casualties: “Atom Bomb Destroyed 60% of Hiroshima; Pictures Show 4 Square Miles of City Gone” (New York Herald Tribune, 8 August); “200,000 Believed Dead in Inferno That Vaporized City of Hiroshima” (Boston Globe, 9 August). This latter estimate of the dead too high — it was created by just assuming 60% of the Hiroshima population were killed, as opposed to 60% of the area destroyed. But this is the sort of estimate that would persist until full surveys, by the Japanese and Americans, were done in the postwar.

If Truman believed that Hiroshima was “purely” military, there is no way he could have continued to believe that after August 8th. So sometime between that final draft in the Rosenman files (the fifth draft) and the final version delivered, the language about Hiroshima’s military status, and the sparing of civilians, got significantly watered down.

Is this conclusive? Not at all! This is highly interpretive, based on a smattering of sources. But history is the work of interpretation, and if one wants to understand the interior mental states of the long dead, one has to engage in this kind of triangulation of sources. I think it is plausible that Truman did not understand the nature of Hiroshima, and was rudely surprised by it on August 8th. That another atomic bomb would be used on another city on August 9th, I suspect, came as a surprise to him (he was not given any immediate prior warning).

Boston Globe (9 August 1945), page 2. Notice the typo in the first sentence: “Horoshima.” Just a typo, to be sure, but perhaps reflective as to how quickly this news was coming out, how unfamiliar these cities were to the American populace…

In my full paper, I discuss a bit what I think my conditions are for choosing one plausible interpretation over another. In this case, I think my interpretation solves some of these tricky questions about why Truman would persist in many ways to label Hiroshima as a “purely military” target. But more usefully, it also explains Truman’s sudden change in language after August 8th and 9th, in which he bluntly acknowledges that the atomic bomb was a killer of civilians. At his December 1945 speech mentioned earlier, he — in his own handwriting — refers to the atomic bomb as “the most terrible of all destructive forces for the wholesale slaughter of human beings.”

This is not the language of a man who is under a misapprehension about what the bombings did. On August 10th, he told his cabinet that “he had given orders to stop atomic bombing” because, as Henry Wallace recorded in his diary, “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’” This is a far cry from his initial reaction to hearing that the Hiroshima mission was successful: “This is the greatest thing in history!” I think something changed in him, and I think it was a horrible realization of his own misunderstanding of what this weapon would do.

Account of the cabinet meeting of 10 August 1945 in the diary of Henry A. Wallace.

We remember Truman primarily as the person who was president when the atomic bombs were first used. We should also remember him, as I have argued before, as the person who ordered that the atomic bombs stop being used. And the person who, over the course of his presidency, did the most to establish that atomic bombs were not weapons to be deployed lightly ever again. One might see this as irony, but in my interpretation, it is not: it the reaction of someone who realized he had been badly out of the loop once, and wore that on his conscience, and determined it would not happen again.

Articles » Washington Post

“The Hawaii alert was an accident. The dread it inspired wasn’t.”

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 16th, 2018

I wrote a short piece for The Washington Post on the Hawaiian nuclear false alarm last Saturday.

The Hawaiian incident was an unacceptable mistake, indicative of a poorly-designed system. False alarms are dangerous for a lot of reasons, not the least in that there will be a significant amount of doubt about the veracity of any future messages from the same source (or any other governmental source).

But we should at some level take it as a welcome wake-up call. The possibility of a nuclear attack is real. It won’t go away tomorrow. People need to know what they ought to do during one, so they don’t (as many were reported to have done) run out into the open —the absolute worst thing one can do, if one is interested in improving one’s chances of survival. And there are things that should be done, at a diplomatic level, to reduce the chances of it happening.

If a missile was in-bound to Honolulu from North Korea, it would only take about 30 minutes to reach its target after launch — less time than it took the Hawaiian agency to revoke its warning! Assuming it was as powerful as the last North Korean nuclear test, it  could kill upwards of 140,000 people almost immediately, and injure another 170,000. Most Hawaiians would survive — and have to deal with the cleanup, the lingering health issues, and the political and literal fallout. It would not be the end of the world for all, but it would be a disaster unparalleled in American history, killing nearly a hundred times more people than the attack on Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. It could happen. To embrace fatalism, or to simply deny the threat should not exist, is not nearly enough.

News and Notes

2017 in review, and plans for 2018

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 8th, 2018

Last fall was considerably more quiet on here than I intended it to be! I have not stopped blogging; it was just a combination of being unusually busy (nobody could have known that starting new projects could be so complicated), and, if truth be told, I found 2017 as a whole an unusually difficult environment to get work done in. From talking with other academics, I am aware this is not exactly an uncommon complaint. When the news cycle lurches from one horror to another, it is hard to do more than focus on what you need to get done in the immediate (such as teaching), and the blog kept getting short shifted as a result.

I’ve gotten some things done, to be sure. In fact, with my career, to borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, “the worse things get, the better” — the scarier the world gets, the more my work and expertise gets in demand. Being a “public expert” on top of teaching, project work, advising undergraduates, etc., has taken a fierce toll on my blogging time. I am well aware this is a situation that has its enviable aspects (being “in demand” is a good thing), but it does mean corners have been cut here and there.

I don’t have a scholarly/public intellectual bucket list, but if I did, this would probably be on it… for those who track mushroom cloud imagery, this is an unusual one: a vertically compressed British test from 1956, Operation Buffalo, One Tree.

When I did do public writing last fall, it tended to be for other venues:

It’s also not escaped my attention that the more scary things get in the nuclear world, the busier I get, for better or worse:

To list just a few of my recent media appearances. I even made an appearance on C-SPAN to discuss Presidential nuclear authority:

This is my serious and concerned face.

And, surreally, got re-tweeted by Edward Snowden:

I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this.

And even more surreally, NUKEMAP (but not me) made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (and, grossly, Breitbart; at least one can say it is bipartisan). And while this has not been a secret, I have not really talked about it on here, but I have also been a Guest Curator for the Intrepid Museum in New York City, helping to create a new exhibit for their submarine USS Growler, which was part of the first-generation of nuclear-armed submarines fielded by the United States. The exhibit will open this summer. Rest assured I will talk more on that in due time.

Anyway, I’ve completely revamped and updated my list of Articles and appearances, so if you’re really interested in seeing my written output beyond the blog, check it out. In fact, I’ve revamped the blog a bit in general. The basic stylesheet had not been modified since 2011 or so, which felt like an awful long time in the web world, so I gave it some minor aesthetic improvements. (There is still some work to be done on that front, like making it responsive for phones and whatnot, but I haven’t quite committed to that chore yet.)

The biggest functional improvement is that it is in theory much easier to browse the contents of the site, as I have taken my Post archives code and adapted it for tags, categories, and the search function. So now you can very easily see all posts tagged as “Bad ideas,” for example. A feature you didn’t even know you wanted. I’m also going to make sure that these articles and appearances get more notice on the blog (and not just my Twitter feed), which I’ve been bad about lately.

More substantively, I have a number of blog posts I am writing for the coming year. I am going to try keeping them mostly short and sweet, because the long ones take a lot of time and a lot more reflection than I suspect my schedule has time for (or to put it another way, the kind of effort that they require is effort I need to put into my book manuscript). I should have a new post discussing my Kyoto thesis (which has evolved a bit over the years, but is now in a publishable form) in the next week or so, with a deep-dive into a rich archival document that has, as far as I can tell, not been studied by historians.

Where does “nuclear weapons historian” fit on this scale? A question I have been pondering the last few months. Source: XKCD

On our prospects for 2018: I remain deeply worried about the possibility of a new war in the next year or so. I would be happy to be wrong. It is very difficult to sort out the bluster from the reality, the threat from the possibility. At some level, I am not sure that they can be sorted out — my reading of history is that things have often been worse behind the scenes than they even look on the surface. We have a very dangerous dynamic set up in the world today — I am certainly not the only one who has said it, but I think it is true that we are closer to a nuclear weapon being used in anger again than we have been since the Cold War, and I suspect if we are fortunate we will look back on 2017-2018 or so as being one of the key “close call” periods along with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the War Scare of 1983. If we are unfortunate we will judge it even worse, and the future will judge us even more poorly. But fatalism is not the answer — we must create the world we want to live in, we must all do our parts (however insubstantial they may feel when taken piecemeal), and I’m trying to do my part, as well. So keep an eye out.


Global Hiroshima: Notes from a bullet train

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 7th, 2017

I am writing this blog post while on a bullet train between Hiroshima and Kyoto, having spent the last seven days in the city that was, 72 years ago, destroyed by the first atomic bomb, but was reborn as something quite vibrant and alive. I intend to write several blog posts about my visit to Japan; this first one focuses on the more formal academic issues that have come up during my stay in Hiroshima.

After a very long plane ride (though frankly I have been on worse ones — ANA, like most foreign air carriers, puts American air carriers to shame), I am in Japan. This visit is part work, part tourism; work provided the excuse to come (and helped defray much of the cost), but as someone who has spent so much time writing and teaching about Japan, especially in the context of World War II, it seemed an absolute requirement that if I could make the time for it, that I ought to spend more time here. So I am staying in country until August 13th, splitting my time between Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

The beginning of the Hiroshima lantern lighting ceremony, August 6, 2017. These photos are all from my trip. Photo by author.

The main “work” reason for coming to Japan was to participate in a conference hosted by Princeton University and the Prefecture of Hiroshima called “Global Hiroshima: The History, Politics and Legacies of Nuclear Weapons,” as well as to sit in on the “Hiroshima  Roundtable.” The former conference focused on the history and legacy of the atomic bomb decision, whereas the latter was focused more on the present day and future of nuclear weapons. Both were of immense interest and I am extremely grateful to Princeton and the Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture for making them all happen (and especially to the indispensable Cynthia S. Ernst and Takuya Tazawa, who together made this trip so much easier than I think it otherwise would have been).

The Roundtable involved an interesting number of political scientists and a few historians, representing at least seven countries. The US representatives, John Ikenberry, Jeffrey Lewis, and Scott Sagan, are all heavy-hitters, and there were a handful of other Americans there (myself included) as observers. The discussion focused on major questions related to the future of nuclear weapons, with three issues really taking center stage.

One was North Korea, whose missile capabilities seem to grow by leaps and bounds each week. I have personally felt, and was glad that other more informed people seemed to feel the same way, that the current US rhetoric about finding a “solution” to the problem of the North Korean ICBM capability seems both misguided and terrifying. (The North Koreans have made very clear that they would consider any attempt at a “decapitation” of any sort of their high leadership as a “line” that, if passed, would result in a nuclear response against either the United States or its allies. I see no reason not to believe them.) I feel quite strange arguing that the old Cold War policy of “containment” seems like a better solution, but really almost anything seems like a better solution that starting (yet another) war, much less one with a state whose nuclear capabilities are not as trivial as people make them out to be. (These discussions inspired me to make some real progress on my new MISSILEMAP web application which I will be launching very soon, with any luck.)

A koi feeding frenzy in the Shukkei-en park, which was completely destroyed by the bombing, but, like most of Hiroshima, eventually rebuilt. The Japanese translate the koi as “carp,” and the Carp is the baseball team of Hiroshima. Photo by author.

Another issue that ran through these discussions was the precarious position of the US leadership in nuclear matters. I have been asked several times over the past few months what I, personally, am “afraid of” — i.e., what looms highest on my list of “threats” at the moment? I’m not sure (we live in a world where many very unpleasant possible future paths are acutely visible), but I will say that if the question is which nation do I think is most likely to defy the “nuclear taboo” in the next few years, the United States has shot to the top of the list. Aside from the rather disturbing research by Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino which was published last week, which indicates significant American public support for the use of nuclear weapons against Iran (a “clear majority” would be willing to kill millions of Iranians, if they believed it would save a much smaller number of American lives, and even more Americans would be willing to kill 100,000 Iranians if they thought it would “intimidate” Iran into surrendering in a war), nothing I have read and seen about the Trump administration has reassured me that the adults are running the show.

It is hard to believe that a President who cannot follow a rather simple conversation about policy is going to be able to make good decisions on nuclear matters, and I am not as optimistic as many about the supposed restraining force the military would play, or any other imagined restraining force (fear of impeachment, Twenty-Fifth Amendment, etc.). I hope I am wrong, but it seems a dark thing when Kim Jong-un seems like a more traditional “rational actor” (in the sense that his actions seem quite in line with deterrence theory, and you can see the logic of them, even if you don’t agree with them) than the sitting US President.

A small group of the conference attendees stayed in Hiroshima a few more days, to attend the anniversary ceremonies. Here, from behind, I am following Kiichi Fujiwara, David Holloway, and Shampa Biswas into the seating area. Photo by author.

But most of the discussion was focused on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed a few weeks ago (and which the nuclear-weapons states and those under their nuclear umbrellas predictably did not sign). I’ll admit I haven’t wrapped my head fully around that yet — I’ve read some of the arguments for and against it, and given that I have not yet wrapped my head around whether pushing for nuclear disarmament is a good idea (I can see the arguments for and against it very clearly, and am truly not sure whether total disarmament leads to a safer world than, say, a minimal deterrence posture), I suppose that is not a surprise.

But the position emphasized at the Roundtable, though, was one I hadn’t thought about at all: that this Treaty is a reflection of a growing chasm between the nuclear-weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for example, requires relatively close cooperation between these two groups, even as it maintains that they retain different legal statuses. As an American, it is easy to assume that the non-nuclear weapon states recognized, even when they signed it but certainly now, that the United States had no real interest in total nuclear disarmament. That much has always seemed obvious, and it is clear that from the beginning the US regarded the NPT’s requirements for the nuclear-weapon states to pursue “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” as extremely non-binding.

One of thousands of statues at the Daisyoin buddhist shrine complex on the island of Miyajima, about a 30 minute boat ride from Hiroshima. The specific symbolism is unknown to me, but those who study nuclear matters often find themselves contemplating skulls. Photo by author.

But if the non-nuclear weapons states grow frustrated enough with the lack of progress (and the current nuclear “modernization” programs pursued by the major nuclear powers can be easily read as flying right in the face of NPT’s Article VI), what will the results be? I don’t know, and it seems like a development that bodes ill for the long-term goals of arms control, yet another tension that has been a long time simmering, perhaps put temporarily on hold during the hopeful aspects of the Obama administration, but back with a vengeance once those hopes were not realized, and in the face of the present “America first” position on foreign policy.

The historical workshop, “Global Hiroshima,” was quite interesting as well. Along with the people already mentioned, there were a great number of others as well: Michael Gordin (Red Cloud at Dawn), Frank Gavin (Nuclear Statecraft), David Holloway (Stalin and the Bomb), Nina Tannenwald (The Nuclear Taboo), Mark Walker (Nazi Science), Sean Malloy (Atomic Tragedy), Shampa Biswas (Nuclear Desire), Campbell Craig (The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War), Sonja Schmid (Producing Power), among others, and a wonderful group of Japanese scholars whose work I (and presumably most American scholars) are less familiar with: Yukiko Koshiro, Wakana Mukai, Takuya Sasaki, and Kiichi Fujiwara, among others. For my own part, I gave the latest version of my research into the sparing of Kyoto. My thoughts on it have evolved since I first wrote about them on this blog; the blog post has aged reasonably well, in my mind, though there are a few things I have nailed down that I did not have at the time. (More on this in a future post.)

Three of the many, many statues of “Jizo” scattered around the Daisyoin complex on Miyajima. The baby-like monks are all wearing knit caps or bibs, usually bright red (these ones are unusual in that they have been allowed to grow moss), and are apparently doted upon by parents who have lost children. Photo by author.

Of the papers (that I cannot hope to do justice in a brief summary), a few brief thoughts on the ones that stuck out to me, to give a flavor of the proceedings: Campbell Craig had a very ambitious paper which attempted to parse Franklin Roosevelt’s feelings about the atomic bomb as an instrument of national strategy, a matter of particularly interesting difficulty given how little of his thinking on this topic Roosevelt shared with others, but I thought the effort interesting and credible (e.g., Craig looked closely at Roosevelt’s lack of interest of communicating with the Soviets on the matter, even though he had been told that they had penetrated the project with espionage); Sean Malloy’s paper on the issue of racism and the use of the atomic bomb was provocative and gave me much to think about; Yukiko Koshiro’s discussion of pre-August 1945 projections by the Japanese military about the Soviet entry into the war was new to me (much of it apparently is discussed in her book published a few years ago) and really strengthened, in my mind, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s contentions (even as it brought up some contradictions and questions; this is perhaps a subject for another blog post); Nina Tannenwald’s paper on the future of the “nuclear taboo” (the belief that nuclear weapons cannot be used, not just the act of non-use) was important if depressing (there are some worrying indications, as noted already); Kiichi Fujiwara’s discussion of the changing ways in which the Japanese people have viewed Hiroshima (it did not become a “special” city to them until the Bravo accident in 1954, which I thought was interesting), and the way its role in Japanese domestic political discourse has shifted over the decades, was a particularly appropriate and important way to end the conference. There were many other interesting papers, to be sure (two, Holloway’s and Schmid’s, looked at the Soviet context, while others looked at the postwar nuclear situations of Brazil, Japan, and West Germany); these are the ones that meshed most closely with my present interests (and my ability to process new information — the jet-lag has not been as bad as I thought it might be, but it’s been a factor).

The conference, in a sense, was quadruply juxtaposed. You had the juxtapositions of nationalities (not just American and Japanese, but several others as well: Australia, UK, Sweden, Brazil), and juxtapositions of specialties (political scientists and historians were both heavily represented in several different flavors, but there were other approaches on offer as well).  Does traveling to Japan change the discourse of American scholars? Could we have had this same conference in New Jersey, to the same effect? In some sense, yes; the conversation was entirely in English, considered many of the same topics that we tend to talk about whenever this sort of group comes together (and a nearly identical group had a similar conference in 2015, in Princeton). On the other hand, there is something more resonant and “destabilizing” to have these discussions in a different context, and especially of that context is Hiroshima itself. Historians, at least, will almost always agree that context matters, that who is in the room, and where the room is, affects what is said and thought in the room. As one elderly Japanese man remarked to me and my wife when we visited Shukkei-en, a historic garden in Hiroshima, “there are many sad stories here.”

I will try to write at least two more posts while I am here: one on my thoughts on being in Hiroshima on 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombings, and another on my latest findings on the sparing of Kyoto and its impact on nuclear history. 

News and Notes

The Reinventing Civil Defense project

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 13th, 2017

This has been one busy academic year for me, and the non-stop news cycle has not helped matters. As is painfully obvious by my decreased production of blog posts. Don’t worry — I’m not going anywhere, and I will make up some of the difference in August when I visit Japan for the first time, in time for the Hiroshima bombing anniversary. Below is a description of one of the projects that has been occupying my time these last many months.

I am extremely pleased to be able to announce one bit of “secret” work that is finally going public: a sizable grant that I am involved with has been chosen for funding by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is one of 11 projects funded by a joint effort from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to support projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

The project is called “Reinventing Civil Defense,” and it’s been fun to tell people about the proposal and watch their eyes get very wide at the name. That’s intentional. When CCNY and MacArthur put out their call for proposals, they said they wanted new ideas, things from outside the box. So we decided to try and go pretty big in that direction.

Bendix dosimeters, for tracking personal radiation exposure. The two Civil Defense photos accompanying this post were all taken by me in order to illustrate the Reinventing Civil Defense website, from various Cold War bits and pieces I have lying around the apartment. I wanted something that nodded at the Civil Defense imagery we are familiar with, but also indicated that this was going to be a new take on it.

The “we” here is our team of co-PIs at the Stevens Institute of Technology, myself, Kristyn Karl, and Julie Pullen.  Together, we created and will run the Reinventing Civil Defense project, with key contributions from Ed Friedman. Kristyn Karl is a political psychologist who works across the hall from me, in the College of Arts and Letters, and whose work involves studying how people evaluate risk, especially in response to communications about it. She has researched the ways in which people evaluate different types of reporting about terrorism, and how that impacts their emotional responses and subsequent policy support (or lack thereof). Julie Pullen is an associate professor of oceanography and meteorology who I have known since I came to Stevens, who works in the School of Engineering and Science, who has done a lot of research into port and maritime security in the New York City area, and has studied technical issues relating to nuclear terrorism. Ed Friedman is an emeritus professor of physics, and one of the reasons I am at Stevens in the first place: it was Ed whose initial interest in my work brought me here to give a talk, at which point I not only realized where Hoboken was (I grew up on the West Coast, so my East Coast geography was pretty poor), but learned there was a job search going on in my field. Ed has had one of those lives that looks so jam-packed with interesting and important work (as a sample, he worked in Afghanistan for many years before the Soviet-Afghan war, teaching at the engineering school in Kabul) that no matter what one accomplishes, one feels like one has done almost nothing, but he is a generous and concerned scholar who is deeply interested in matters relating to nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Kristyn Karl, Julie Pullen, myself (Alex Wellerstein), taking a somewhat awkward picture (the weather was not entirely behaving) at Castle Point Lookout at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Ever since I took the job at Stevens, Ed, Julie, and I had been talking about ways in which we could leverage the essential principles and success behind something like the NUKEMAP in a way that would have even wider impact. This led to a lot of discussions about how digital tools might produce different ways to think about science and risk communication, beyond the more traditionally “didactic” modes associated with formal education. Study after study has shown that didactic, lecturing approaches to getting information across only works in a very limited way — and as a teacher, it is clear that it is extremely inefficient even within the confines of a formal educational setting (e.g., people who are taking out massive loans with the idea of getting an education). If your goal is to affect a much broader spectrum of people, about pressing policy issues, you have to find another way. Kristyn’s work on science communication and risk perception was a natural fit with these interests, and so we brought her into these discussions not long after she was hired at Stevens.

Around the time of the Carnegie/MacArthur request for proposals (October 2016), I had been thinking about Civil Defense quite a lot. Ed and I were co-teaching a seminar on nuclear policy topics, and had dedicated a week to the subject, having the students (and ourselves) read various Civil Defense texts and critiques from a few different “eras” of US Civil Defense work. I had looked into a lot of these issues when designing the codes for the NUKEMAP (which are still being worked on, as an aside; there will be some interesting new features added in the very near future), and it seemed like there was a lot of discussion of this issue “in the air” then (and even more since). And, when I lived in DC, I had some very productive discussions with my friend Ed Geist (now at RAND Corporation; we recently co-authored an article on the Soviet H-bomb project in Physics Today), who wrote his dissertation on US and Soviet Civil Defense policies. The general feeling I had about Civil Defense was, some of it was nonsense (the quick evacuation of big urban centers always seemed infeasible), some of it certainly expressed a blasé approach to mass destruction, but it was not as crazy as the anti-nuclear activists often made it out to be, and indeed many of its core approaches have been integrated into preparation for other kinds of major hazards (Civil Defense eventually morphed into Emergency Management, which takes a somewhat different approach with regards to engaging the general public). It seemed highly politicized and polarized, by both the anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear folks (having Edward Teller be ones of its chief advocates was not going to “bridge that gap,” either).

A Victoreen radiation detector. The units of this are pretty high — it’s not meant to budge unless you’re in a bit of trouble. To get it at something other than a zero read I did a circuit check and let it work its way back down again.

So when I was thinking about the Carnegie/MacArthur request, suddenly this idea flashed in my brain (in the way of all of my ideas, both good and bad, it just appeared all at once): what if Civil Defense wasn’t politicized and wasn’t dumb? What if you approached it in a truly even-handed, non-partisan way? What if you thought very seriously about the deficiencies of Cold War Civil Defense, notably its approach to messaging, and thought about what that would look like in the early-21st century, where the more probable nuclear threat is not the multi-megaton, thousands-of-targets exchange of the late-20th century, but single-use detonations of terrorists or so-called “rogue states”? What would that look like? What would it look like if your approach was not the government producing lectures and pamphlets (because American trust in government has notably plummeted from the late 1960s onward), but non-governmental organizations producing digital products and tools?

And, of course, what would be gained from this approach? Potentially much, for people of all political stripes. Those who believe that Civil Defense should be embraced because it would lessen the consequences of a nuclear detonation (and if risk is probability times consequences, then you are reducing the risk by doing this) would be pleased by the reduction of preventable casualties that might come with such an effort. Those who are more concerned with galvanizing public opinion about nuclear weapons would, perhaps, be pleased that the lived experience of nuclear risk — nuclear salience — would be increased, in a way that it has not been since the height of the Cold War. It is my belief, and I will have a piece about this coming out pretty soon, that the elimination of Cold War Civil Defense education ironically allowed nuclear weapons to pass out of public awareness, which was certainly not what the people opposed to Civil Defense were interested in.

The logo of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, from the side of the aforementioned Victoreen detector.

And on top of all that, this kind of project would create an opportunity to explore new kinds of risk communication and messaging (with new media, like Virtual Reality), and its effectiveness (which someone like Kristyn designs experiments to test). So at its most ambitious, this project is about potentially altering American nuclear culture (and maybe non-American, ideally, but you’ve got to start somewhere), and potentially facilitating the means to save thousands of preventable casualties in the event of a nuclear detonation. And even if those very lofty goals are not possible to be achieved (changing culture is obviously a very difficult thing!), it could still be a catalyst for a lot of interesting prototypes.  Much of our budget is earmarked for sub-awards that will generate “deliverables” meant to be focal points for these conversations about nuclear salience (think VR apps, games, graphic novels, along with more traditional output like studies and whitepapers and reports), and two workshops where we will hash over these questions and come up with some recommendations (the workshops are invitation-only, but if you are interested please get in touch and we’ll see what we can accommodate within our space and budget).

Ed, Julie, Kristyn, and I bounced this idea around, to great effect. The germ evolved into a full-fledged proposal. We also decided that we would need some kind of Advisory Committee to help make sure that we weren’t barking up the wrong tree, and to give us perspectives that a bunch of engineering-school professors might not have. You can see the list of the Advisory Committee members on our project website — I’m pretty amazed at the people we were able to convince to agree to be part of this project, and just getting them all together in a room, talking about this issue, will no doubt be an interesting conversation.

Fallout protection: What to know and do about nuclear attack,” was a pamphlet created in 1961, intending to spread the word about fallout shelters and radiation protection. Aside from having some pretty interesting graphics (which always brings things to my attention), and being printed in apparently huge numbers, it is notable to me in part because it was one of the few Civil Defense messaging techniques that was actually studied by social scientists at the time, to see how it changed people’s views and understanding on fallout. You can buy well-preserved originals of it on eBay for a song.

Anyway, after various rounds of peer review and discussion, we finally got notice that we were funded, though we had to keep it under wraps until all of the coordination between the foundations was completed. I am pleased to be able to reveal it all now, at long last, and to promise that you will be seeing many interesting things coming out of this work in the near future. And if you know of someone whose work might fit into the category of a good project to fund, please send them the website link and tell them to be in touch (or get in touch yourself, if the person is you) — we are going to try and make the application/funding process as streamlined as possible, with a minimum amount of red tape, if we can.

To explicitly invoke Civil Defense — with full recognition of its controversy, its complications, and its ups and downs — was, as I indicated earlier, a very deliberate move. I’m well aware it is a polarizing subject, and the looks my colleagues and friends have given me when I tell them the name of what we’re working on have been… interesting. But I think that approaching nuclear risk through this lens will be productive and stimulating, and I also think that we live in a time when it is time to re-think, and re-invent, our approaches to these issues. And I’m grateful the funders and our peer reviewers agreed!

I just want to finish this note by thanking my three collaborators (Ed, Julie, Kristyn), the Carnegie Corporation of New York (esp. Carl Robichaud), the members of our all-star Advisory Committee who agreed to have their names attached to such an unusual venture, the N Square Collaborative (esp. Erika Gregory, whose efforts at getting nuclear people to network outside of their normal groups are deeply reflected in the makeup of our Advisory Committee and our approach in general),  Alex Glaser at Princeton (whose team also got one of the grants, and who helpfully shared ideas and thoughts with me during the process), and my ever-supportive Dean, Kelland Thomas, who is not just an impressively capable administrator, but has some pretty impressive musical chops.