10 Things We've Learned about Nukes Since Hiroshima | Sojourners

10 Things We've Learned about Nukes Since Hiroshima

A primer for those who were in diapers during the Cold War
natrot / Shutterstock
natrot / Shutterstock

Quite frankly, I never thought much about nuclear weapons.

Like many of my millennial peers, I was barely in diapers when the Cold War ended, never practiced fallout drills in school, and only recently learned what those yellow-and-black signs on old buildings meant. As a kid, if I thought about nukes at all, it was in a passive tense, World War II-history sort of way: decisions were made, bombs were dropped, people were killed, the Axis was defeated. Unspeakable destruction and horrific deaths, yes, but the result of a choice made long before I was alive. In other words: not my problem.

Fast forward a couple decades: thanks to the Iran Deal, concerns about the aging U.S. missile system, and even Beth Fowler’s role as a radical, nuclear-protesting nun in Orange is the New Black, nuclear weapons — and the moral questions surrounding their production and use — have re-entered the public consciousness.

So as we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — when U.S. aircraft dropped bombs on two Japanese cities, killing 135,000 people, by conservative estimates — I spent some time in the Sojourners archives trying to fill the gaps in my nuclear education.

Here’s what I found:

1. Japan would have surrendered without the bombing — and U.S. leaders knew it.

​“The use of the atomic bomb, most experts now believe, was totally unnecessary,” said Gar Alperovitz in a 1995 interview with Sojourners. “Even people who support the decision for various reasons acknowledge that almost certainly the Japanese would have surrendered before the initial invasion planned for November. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stated that officially in 1946.”

2. The military chaplain who blessed the U.S. bombers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later prayed for forgiveness and became a pacifist.

“I walked through the ruins of Nagasaki right after the war and visited the place where once stood the Urakami Cathedral,” said Father George Zabelaka in a 1980 interview with Sojourners. “I picked up a piece of censer from the rubble. When I look at it today I pray God forgives us for how we have distorted Christ’s teaching and destroyed his world by the destruction of that teaching.”

3. The goal of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty was disarmament. It hasn’t gone so well.

“Forty-five years after the treaty went into effect, the P-5 have yet to fulfill their part of the bargain, leading to a loss of faith by a growing number of nations and the danger that some will opt out of the treaty to equalize the imbalance of nuclear terror,” wrote Joseph Gerson earlier this year. “P-5” nations are the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the U.S., the U.K., France, China, and Russia.

4. The U.S. and Russia still have 1,800 fully operational nuclear warheads on high alert. And they’re pretty expensive.

“According to Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, the cost of replacing the nation's nuclear delivery systems will top $100 billion and require another $300 billion over the next 10 years to keep them operational,” said Sojourners editor Jim Rice. “Not exactly a concrete step toward a non-nuclear world.”

5. It's hard to convince other nations not to build nuclear weapons when the U.S. refuses to get rid of its own arsenal.

“While political and media attention has been focused on Iran and North Korea for their nuclear technology developments, little attention is paid to the heart of the nuclear weapons problem: the refusal of the major powers to negotiate the elimination of their own nuclear weapons while proscribing acquisition by any other state,” wrote Canadian diplomat Douglas Roche. “Brazil put the issue tartly: ‘One cannot worship at the altar of nuclear weapons and raise heresy charges against those who want to join the sect.’”

6. Some argue nuclear weapons promote global peace. Evidence suggests otherwise.

“The safer that states perceive their security environment to be, the less incentive they have to seek weapons of mass annihilation,” wrote David Cortright, the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “Empirical evidence confirms that peace is most effectively promoted by a cluster of democratic practices, economic interdependence, and commitment to international norms and institutions.”

7. Christians — and leaders from all faith traditions — all pretty much agree: nuclear weapons are immoral.

“In 1983, the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of 347 denominations from virtually all Christian traditions in more than 120 countries, rejected the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and unequivocally declared: ‘That the production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and that such activities must be condemned on ethical and theological grounds,’” reported Douglas Roche in 2008.

8. And, no, by “Christians,” we don’t just mean “liberal Christians.”

“Within my own conservative Christian community, the present day flows toward greater national security,” wrote Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior. “So I was surprised to learn that in 1983, in an essay titled 'Noahic Covenant and Nuclear War,' Reformed theologian John Piper, while saying that war was sometimes necessary, warned that 'the indiscriminate annihilation of thousands or millions of God’s image-bearers is such a blatant assault on God and his revealed will that Christians must not share in the act.'”

9. Even Billy Graham described himself as a “nuclear pacifist,” albeit quietly.

“Always trying to keep focused on winning converts, even in his biography he seems reluctant to raise controversial social issues that he himself worked out in the course of his ministry,” wrote Tony Campolo in a review of Billy Graham’s 1997 biography Just As I Am, “lest these issues deflect the reader from what he believes is his primary mission.”

10. Come to think of it, Jesus had some ideas about weapons and enemies.

“The Bible says, ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads,’” said Jim Wallis.