Why Did Americans Accept Barbaric Slaughter of Japanese Civilians? – Peter Kuznick

Video Thumbnailhttps://vimeo.com/443876955 In 1939, President Roosevelt called on nations at war to refrain from the "inhuman barbarism" of targeting civilians. In 1945, the U.S. firebombed Japanese cities and dropped nuclear weapons killing hundreds of thousands. On the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshim

In 1939, President Roosevelt called on nations at war to refrain from the “inhuman barbarism” of targeting civilians. In 1945, the U.S. firebombed Japanese cities and dropped nuclear weapons killing hundreds of thousands. On the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Peter Kuznick joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.

Transcript

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th, 1945, I think it’s important to understand how the mass killing of civilians in war became acceptable, and how U.S. public opinion and media, on the whole, supported the use of weapons of mass destruction. Now joining us to discuss this is Peter Kuznick. He’s a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and is the author of “Beyond the Laboratory Scientists as Political Activists in the 1930s America” and with filmmaker Oliver Stone, he co-authored the twelve-part Showtime documentary film, series, and book, both titled “The Untold History of the United States.” Thanks for joining us, Peter. 

Peter Kuznick

Happy to be with you, Paul

Paul Jay

So my understanding is that, more or less in the 19th century, even up until the First World War, as a tactic of war, strategy of war, the mass killing of civilians was more or less considered outside the bounds of acceptable warfare. Now, of course, civilians got killed and there was a certain amount of targeting, but mostly armies fought armies. But in the Second World War, that really changes where civilians on a mass basis become targets. And it’s not just by any means the Nazis that do it. It’s the British and the Americans as well. And so this targeting of civilians before the use of the atomic bomb, I think, created the conditions to help make it acceptable to make the decision to drop the bomb. Can you talk a little bit about the history of the development of this large scale killing of civilians and then up to leading us to the decision to drop the bomb? 

Peter Kuznick

You’re correct to say that this really is a phenomenon that occurs during World War Two. And that’s partly because even in World War I, air warfare was just taking off. In World War I there was some bombing of civilians. WWI is really the first time that airplanes are used to drop bombs on a large scale. And that happens during World War I. By the end of the war that was happening much more commonly in the interwar period. The British were using bombings to secure their empire in places like Iraq in the 1920s. But still, at the start of the war, there was a general sense that killing civilians deliberately was off-limits. The US State Department in 1937 condemned this and said “Public opinion in the US regards such methods as the slaughter of civilian populations, in particular women and children – as barbarous. Such acts are a violation of the elementary principles of those standards of human conduct which have been developed as an essential part of modern civilization.” The State Department was very clear in its moral condemnation. Franklin Roosevelt, when war broke out in Europe in 1939, called upon the combatants to refrain from this “inhuman barbarism,” but it was already starting. The most interesting comment that I’ve seen about it at the time, before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was by Dwight MacDonald, founder of Partisan Review, Politics, and other publications. MacDonald says in the summer of 1945 before Hiroshima, “I remember when Franco’s planes bombed Barcelona for the first time. What a chill of unbelieving horror and indignation went through our nerves at the idea of hundreds, yes, hundreds of civilians being killed. It seems impossible that that was less than 10 years before. Franco’s Air Force was a toy compared to the sky-filling bombing fleets deployed in this war. And the hundreds killed in Barcelona have become the thousands killed in Rotterdam and Warsaw, the tens of thousands in Hamburg and Cologne, the hundreds of thousands in Dresden and the millions in Tokyo. A month ago, the papers reported that over one million Japanese men, women, and children perished in the fires set by a single B-29 raid on Tokyo – one million. I saw no expression of horror or indignation in any American newspaper or magazine of sizable circulation. We have grown callous to massacre and the concept of guilt has spread to include whole populations. Our hearts are hardened, our nerves steady, our imaginations under control as we read the morning paper. King Mithridates is said to have immunized himself against poison by taking small doses, which he increased slowly. So the gradually increasing horrors of the last decade have made each of us, to some extent, a moral Mithridates, immunized against human sympathy.” So that was the process. 

Paul Jay

And tell us again who that was, and when?

Peter Kuznick

Dwight MacDonald, a very, very brilliant progressive political analyst, in the 1930s and -40s, and that was the reality. In the beginning, people were horrified that hundreds of people would be killed. By the end of the war, we had grown so callous. The Germans start it, and the British retaliate and say they’re going to pay them back tenfold, targeting civilian populations. The reality was that bombing was very, very inaccurate during the beginning of World War II, especially against heavily defended targets. In 1941, for example, the British reported that only 22% of bombers got within five miles of targets and only 7% got within five miles of heavily defended targets. Therefore the British, who couldn’t do the precise bombing, would do mass urban area bombing. The interesting thing is that the US avoided that until the end of ’43. The US went after transportation sites, industrial sites, key strategic nodal points in the German economy, and war machine. But we avoided urban bombing because it was so offensive to our ethics at the time. And that begins to change at the end of ’43 and ’44. But still, for the most part in the European war, we avoided targeting civilian populations. Of course, it happens in Dresden and that’s horrific and we regret that. But overall, we avoided it.

Paul Jay

The British were doing massive fire bombings of German cities and that seemed to help create acceptability to doing such.

Peter Kuznick

Some acceptability for the United States not really yet. The attitude was still that this was horrendous and inhumane. For example, General Ira Eaker comments: “Hap Arnold, the head of the Air Force, feared the reaction of the US public to urban-area bombing of women and children. He pointed to a large percentage of German people in this country and those who felt we should have not have become involved in a war with Germany at all. But 90 percent of Americans would have killed every Japanese.” So there was a big difference in attitude between the European war, where we showed some restraint and the Pacific War where we showed no restraint. In fact, Major General Haywood Hansell, the head of the 21st bomber command that was doing the bombing in Japan, resisted orders to abandon precision bombing at the end of’44. He didn’t want to bomb urban areas. So Hap Arnold sacked him and installed General Curtis LeMay as commander of the 21st Bomber Command and LeMay had no such compunction. The large-scale bombing on the night of March 9th through 10th when 324 aircraft attacked Tokyo and killed probably one hundred thousand people, destroyed 16 square miles, injured a million, at least 41,000 seriously injured, more than a million homeless. The air reached eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. LeMay says that the victims were scorched and boiled and baked to death. He referred to this as his masterpiece. 

Paul Jay

So Roosevelt must have had to OK this.

Peter Kuznick

This is while Roosevelt was still alive – a month before his death. What we know is that the political leaders did not micromanage the military side of this. They put this responsibility in the hands of Gen. Arnold and people in Tokyo. But Roosevelt bears responsibility for this and not just Roosevelt. Robert McNamara was involved in this planning in the Pacific War – he was on Lemay’s staff. And Lemay said to them, if we lose this war, you know, we’re all going to be tried as war criminals because of the strategic bombing. and MacNamara has acknowledged that and said that they should have been, because of the killing, targeting Japanese cities. We’re using mostly incendiary bombs by the end of the war three-quarters of the bombs were incendiaries. And they were designed to burn down Japanese paper cities, paper and bamboo cities, and they succeeded: destruction reached 99.5% in the city of Toyama. However, and I write about this in “Untold History,” the Toyama city leaders invited us to come to Toyama a couple of years ago and we met with some of the victims of the US bombing. We did some big public events and they actually began a bombing museum in Toyama, based on our visit there. But the U.S. firebombed more than one hundred Japanese cities. And it gets so bad that in June of 1945, Secretary of War Stimson says to Truman, I don’t want to have the US get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities. Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, who was an aide to MacArthur, described the bombing of Japan in a confidential memo as one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of noncombatants in all history. But clearly, the policy in Japan was very different and it went against everything decent that the US was supposed to be doing. It wasn’t just the US, of course it was the British as well. Freeman Dyson, the renowned British physicist, was part of the tiger force fleet of 300 British British bombers and was set to go over to Okinawa.

And he says, “I found this continuing slaughter of defenseless Japanese even more sickening than the slaughter of well-defended Germans. But still, I didn’t quit. by that time I had been at war so long I can hardly remember peace. No living poet had words to describe that emptiness of the soul which allowed me to go on killing without hatred and without remorse. Shakespeare understood it. He gave Macbeth the words, ‘I am in blood stepped in so that should I wait no more returning were as tedious as going over.’ And that that was what we did.” So, yes, we did lower the moral threshold. Strategic bombing and pervasive racism lowered the moral threshold. And when we did drop the atomic bombs, there was almost no expression of regret and remorse. Not in terms of the killing of Japanese civilians, women and children. 

Paul Jay

Was it seen as just an extension of the firebombing?

Peter Kuznick

On a moral level, I think it was. The US media reacted very strongly to the atomic bombings. It was, as H.V. Kaltenborn says in his evening address on August 6, in his national radio address: “We’ve unleashed a Frankenstein and someday the weapons that we’re using against Japan will come back to haunt us; that we’ll be victimized ourselves. And that was the refrain that was widely repeated by the American media at the time – August sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, up to the end of the war. That, as Edward R. Murrow says, there’s no sense of exhilaration and elation over the end of the war. There’s this sense of remorse and foreboding and the fear that eventually we’re going to be a victim of the same horrific weapons that we’re using now. And what you see is that newspaper after newspaper, in the city of Minneapolis or Denver, they have a map of their city and they show what would happen in terms of the layers of destruction if a bomb the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were dropped on their cities. So that was fascinating. There is none of that attitude of, Wow, we gave it to ’em. Truman in his initial statement about the atomic bomb said “This is revenge for Pearl Harbor” – that’s what he talks about initially. Then he later changed to the idea that we had to drop the bomb as the only way to avoid an invasion. Hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of Japanese were killed in the invasion, and that’s why the bombings were necessary and humane and benevolent.

Paul Jay

What does this tell us about a very complex person of FDR who is seen as this sort of progressive visionary? Certainly in defense of private property and capitalism, as he said, but, heading towards a kind of social democracy, when you see what he was trying to achieve. That being said, this all had to happen under his watch. The development of the bomb and the fire-bombings are as bad or worse than the actual destruction caused by a nuclear bomb. What does it tell us about who Roosevelt was?

Peter Kuznick

I don’t know what it tells us about Roosevelt, being Roosevelt. I know what Roosevelt said about using the atomic bombs. He was very ambivalent about it, he talked about it. Initially, US develops the bomb under Roosevelt as a deterrent against the German bomb. And if we go back to that early history after the Germans split the Uranium atom in December of 1938, scientists knew that meant theoretically the capability of developing atomic bombs, but the American military was not interested in what that represented because they thought that it would take years and this war bomb, and this new weapon wouldn’t be ready in this war, and so they wanted to focus on other things. The ones who got the United States to build the bomb were the emigres, the physicists who had escaped from Nazi occupied Europe and had come to the United States and were terrified of what it would mean if Hitler got ahold of atomic bombs. So they tried to pressure American leaders to develop the bomb, but Americans were not interested. That was why on July 16th, 1939, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, two brilliant Hungarian physicists, went out to see Einstein, who was vacationing in Peconic, Long Island and told Einstein that the Germans had split the uranium atom, Einstein didn’t even know. And Einstein wrote that famous letter to Roosevelt urging the US to begin the bomb project and it got off the ground very, very slowly. It doesn’t really take shape until the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942 with the establishment of the Manhattan Project.

And it was because, the idea was that the bomb would be a deterrent against a German bomb. There was no thought initially to using the bomb against Japan because we knew Japan did not have the technological scientific ability at that point to develop their own bombs.

Paul Jay

Ellsberg writes in Doomsday Machine, somewhere in the 42-43 period, I believe the Americans find out that Hitler is not building a bomb. One of the theories is that when they try to test one of these bombs, it might set the entire atmosphere on fire. And Hitler actually decides it’s not worth the risk to set the entire world on fire.

Peter Kuznick

It’s a little different. What happened was Arthur Holly Compton told Oppenheimer to develop a brain trust in the summer of 42′ and Oppenheimer, Bethe, Teller and other luminaries went out to Berkeley and they were doing their deliberations. And during that, they all froze in terror because they realized that an atomic bomb could either ignite all the nitrogen in the atmosphere or the hydrogen in the seas and set the world on fire so they stop what they’re doing. Oppenheimer gets on a train, rushes out to see Arthur Holly Compton, who is vacationing in Michigan, and lays this out to him. And Compton says, “better to live in slavery to the Nazis than to bring down the final curtain on mankind”. And they swallowed the bomb project, they go back out to Berkeley and they realized they didn’t account for all the heat that would be absorbed by radiation it’s complicated. But they realize that the odds of blowing up the world were only three in a million. They say those odds are acceptable and so they go back and they continue the bomb project.

Hitler actually did begin it in 42′. Paul Hardtack, who had been a Rutherford student, alerted the German war office in April 42′ to the possibility of making atomic bombs and they began the project. But then Hitler and Speer decided that rather than spend so many resources on a weapon that wouldn’t be available for another two years or more, maybe not in this war, they focused instead on the V1 and V2 rockets. The debate there is whether Heisenberg was head of the cars of Vilhelm Institute, actually was undermining the bomb project deliberately, as he later claimed. But we find out in late 44′ that the Germans aren’t developing a bomb, 

Paul Jay

And that does not stop the U.S. from continuing to develop theirs once it’s known the Germans are not?

Peter Kuznick

No, in fact, Oppenheimer says that at that point they sped it up faster than ever because the pressure was to have it ready for when Truman met with Stalin at Potsdam. And so Oppenheimer said, we will work around the clock at breakneck speed to have it ready for Potsdam. One of the things about it is that, when they found out that Germany was not developing a bomb, only one scientist left the Manhattan Project, and that was Joseph Rotblat, a wonderful man who later gets the Nobel Peace Prize.

And Rotblat left on principle when he found out. But it was also Rotblat who Leslie Groves said, Groves shocked Rotblat over dinner in March of ’44 when he said, you realize, of course, that the main purpose of this project is to subdue the Russians. I mean, Groves was clear about that, that the bomb project was designed as a tool against the Soviet Union, he later said, “There was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project any illusion my part that Russia was our enemy and the project was conducted on that basis”.

Paul Jay

And the scientists went along with it based on this, even though they’d all gotten into it because they thought they were going to stop Hitler from having a bomb.

Peter Kuznick

Well, the scientists at some point, the momentum of doing it just carries them away. Not all the scientists, because many of them urged the government not to use the bomb. In fact, Leo Szilard circulated a petition after they formed committees that met in Chicago. And in June of 45′, the Frank Committee, headed by James Frank, said that even if the United States develops the bomb, which we probably shouldn’t use because it’s going to lead to an uncontrollable arms race with the Soviet Union and put the world in mortal danger.

And then they blocked them from circulating that statement. And so Szilard drew up his own petition and says, we’re opening the door to an era of slaughter on an unimaginable scale. He said these weapons can be made as big and powerful as people wanted. And that’s what they understood for quite some time, is back in ’42 that, Edward Teller said to the other luminaries and Oppenheimer’s group, “let’s not waste our time on the atomic bomb, it’s trivial. Let’s immediately go for the Super bomb”, and Oppenheimer briefs the members of the interim committee on May 31st, America’s top political and military leaders and says that within three years the US will likely have weapons between seven hundred and seven thousand times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. And we knew that we went into this with our eyes wide open. And that’s what I call the apocalyptic narrative because Truman understood this better than anybody in his own primitive way.

Truman writes that he first got seriously briefed on the bomb by James Byrnes and on his first day in office on April 13th. And Truman writes that Byrnes told me this is a weapon great enough to destroy the whole world. Truman gets a fuller briefing on the bombings from Stimson and Groves, Secretary Stimson and General Groves, head of the Manhattan Project on April 25th, after which he writes, Truman writes, “Simpson says gravely that he didn’t know whether we should or could use the bomb because he was afraid that it was so powerful it could end up destroying the whole world. I felt the same fears as he and Groves continue to talk about it when I read Groves 24 page report”. And then the kicker for me is on July 5th when Truman is at Potsdam and he gets the full briefing and how powerful a bomb tested on Alamogordo was, and Truman says, “We’ve discovered the most terrible weapon in history. This may be the fire destruction prophecy and the Euphrates Valley era after Noha’s ark, not a more powerful bomb, but the fire destruction and still knowing that Truman proceeds to use it, knowing there are alternatives, knowing the Japanese are defeated, knowing that they’re trying to surrender, knowing that the Soviets are about to come in, that the Japanese will certainly surrender then, he goes ahead and he uses this in precisely the way he was warned was most likely to trigger an arms race between the US and the Soviets, that could spell the doom of all life on our planet. Truman is not a bloodthirsty evil individual, but his actions certainly are incomprehensible from an ethical standpoint.

Paul Jay

Well, trying to make them comprehensible, what motivates it? The Soviet Union does not have the bomb at that point. There was the opportunity to close it all down after the Second World War and not enter this world of potential, even imminent, total annihilation.

One of the things that Ellsberg talks about now is how much the commercial interests of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, that a lot of the impetus for developing all kinds of weaponry, including nuclear weaponry, but also the impetus for creating this Cold War, that there was a commercial imperative. That was one of the things that drove it. Do you agree with that?

Peter Kuznick

I agree with it, but I consider that less than the military and strategic imperatives. You know, certainly, during the bomb project in World War Two, the commercial motives were not driving force at all. Commercial interests are not part of the decision to use the bomb and the military-industrial complex does certainly play an important role in the development of American armaments and American research and the misdirection of American scientific research at the universities in the laboratories after the war. And I think that’s all very important. 

And you could talk about the commercial interests in the sense that so many of the top leaders during World War Two and after with these dollars a year, men who came from Wall Street. I mean, if I did an accounting at one point about all the people who were the main planners of the Cold War policy who came out of Wall Street, whether it’s a Forrestal, I mean, you go through the list, almost all of them came from that world. So the way they saw the world was a banker’s worldview in developing an American empire. But that, to my mind, doesn’t really explain the use of the bombs in World War Two, because American leaders knew, full well, that there were two ways to end the war without using the atomic bombs. And they were very clear about this and they were explicit about it. 

And the first way was to tell the Japanese they could keep the emperor because the main stumbling block to Japanese surrender was the idea that the emperor would be tried as a war criminal. Now, the emperor to them was a deity to most Japanese. MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Command issued a background briefing the summer of 45′ that said execution of the emperor to them would be comparable to the crucifixion of Christ to us, all would fight to die like ants to stop it. Leahy, Stimpson Forestal, almost everybody around Truman told him that this might be impossible to get the Japanese to surrender under any circumstances. They implored Truman to change the surrender terms. Joseph Grew, who was at times the acting secretary of state, and former US ambassador to Japan, a very conservative man, Joseph, who was one of the only ones who knew anything about Japan.

And he urged Truman over and over again change surrender terms, not just the people in the administration, but you’ve also got The Washington Post writing an editorial in June of 45′ called Fatal Phrase saying they’ve got to change the surrender terms. They’ve got the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Senator White, making a speech in July in 45′, urging Truman to clarify the surrender terms. They all knew that that was a huge stumbling block and we knew it in part because we’d broken the Japanese codes. We were intercepting their telegrams and they said over and over again explicitly, these are especially the telegrams of Foreign Minister Tōgō in Tokyo to Ambassador Sato in Moscow, trying to get the Soviets to intervene on Japan’s behalf to get better surrender terms. And Togo and Sato, back and forth, said the only obstacle to surrender is a demand for unconditional surrender. We can have peace tomorrow if the Americans would recognize our honor and our future existence if they would allow us to keep the emperor on the throne back and forth explicitly.

And Truman knew that because Truman refers to the intercepted on July 18th cable as the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace. Those are Truman words. Everybody around him shared that understanding. As Walter Brown, who is James Byrnes assistant, commented on the USS Augusta on the way back from Japan on August 3rd, three days before the atomic bomb says aboard the Augusta, the president, Admiral Leahy and Byrnes agree the Japanese are looking for peace. That was very, very clear. It was obvious to everybody. And we also know it from the Japanese war cabinet meetings at the time, again, explicit comments along those lines. But Truman, instead of listening to almost all of his advisers, listened to James Byrnes, and Byrnes kept telling him, don’t change the surrender terms, if you allow them to keep the emperor, you’ll be politically crucified.

Paul Jay

Now, who is Byrnes and why did he have so much influence? My understanding is even people like Dwight Eisenhower were against dropping the bomb. Why did Byrnes have so much sway with Truman?

Peter Kuznick

Truman had a very difficult childhood. He was born to John Peanuts Truman, who was about five feet four inches tall and would go around picking fights with guys a foot taller and beating them up to show how tough it was. He really wanted a macho son. Harry, his firstborn, didn’t fit the bill. He was forced to wear what they called hypermetropia, flat eyeballs, he wore these thick glasses. He couldn’t roughhouse, couldn’t play sports. And the kids would always treat him very badly and chase him home crying. And his mother would greet him at the door and say, Harry, don’t worry, you were meant to be a girl anyway. And he had a lot of psychological issues and is a failure in most aspects of life. He wasn’t able to go to college, not because it wasn’t smart enough, of course, but because family didn’t have money. And he went to work on his father’s farm. He went to three businesses and they all went bankrupt and was a failure in life and he says to his daughter at turning 49, he says, “Tomorrow I’ll be 49, for all the good in the world, they may as well take away the 40, I am maybe nine years old, for all the good I’ve done in the world”.

So he does well in World War One and he comes back and he gets offered a job by Tom Pendergast’s, who runs the Pendergast machine in Kansas City and is a dirty, corrupt machine. Truman is about as honest as they come, but at age 50, felt he was going nowhere. He wanted to run for Congress. Pendergast overlooked him. And so he was going to tell Pendergast’s on his 50th birthday that he’s going back to the farm and leaving the machine.

Pendergast meets with him and says, no, you can’t do that. We want to run you for the Senate. He says, running for the Senate, what do I know about the world? I just know how to build courthouses. The roads here, Missouri, Pendergast says, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you elected. We’ll get people to tell you what to do”. He does get him elected. Truman goes there and the other senators shun him. They call him the senator from Pendergast.

They won’t give him the time of day. This is 1934 the one person who befriends him is James Byrnes. And so while Truman is isolated there and shunned, Byrnes, who’s a very prominent senator from South Carolina, reaches out to befriend Truman. Truman is very grateful for that. When Truman is running for reelection in 1940, Roosevelt didn’t even support him and Truman was coming in third, looked like he was going to lose. Pendergast couldn’t help him because he was in federal prison in Kansas City.

So Truman then at the last minute, turns to the Hannegan Dyckman machine, the corrupt machine that runs Saint Louis, they cobble it together, they give them enough support, and he barely ekes out a victory in nineteen forty. So but Truman had this relationship with Byrnes. The story that Truman should never become vice president in 1944, that the man who was vice president between 41′-45′, Henry Wallace was the second most popular man in the United States.

Gallup released a poll asking potential voters who they wanted on the ticket as vice president in 44′, 65% of potential voters said they wanted Wallace back as vice president, 2% said they wanted Harry Truman. But Truman gets in there, is vice president for 82 days, Roosevelt dies, Truman becomes president on April 12th, 1945, the day that shall live in infamy. And so Truman on April 13th, his first day in office, Secretary of the Navy, Forrestal sends his private plane down to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to bring James Byrnes back to Washington. Truman was desperate. He sits down with Byrnes and he says, I don’t know anything, Roosevelt didn’t talk to me about what was going on, or the agreements at Yalta, I don’t know anything, fill me in on everything and Byrnes then starts to lay it out. That the Soviets can’t be trusted, that you know, that they’re breaking their agreements. So that’s a Truman who was inclined to think that way anyway, starts hearing it from Byrnes.

And even though that was the opposite of what Roosevelt believed and Roosevelt said right up to his dying day, Roosevelt was sure that the US and the Soviets would get along after the war.

Paul Jay

And Wallace’s as vice president was very much for cooperation with the Soviet Union.

And while Wallace was still in the cabinet, Roosevelt begged him to stay in the cabinet as Secretary of Commerce, and from that position, he wages a fight for more than a year or almost a year and a half against Truman’s Cold War nuclear proliferation policies from inside the cabinet until finally, Truman fires him in September of 1946. So that’s why he turns to Byrnes and trusts Byrnes and he looks to Byrnes, and he says from the first day that I can’t make you my secretary of state now because we’re finishing up the negotiations for the United Nations but as soon as that’s over, I’m going to make you secretary of state. But I want you to be my main adviser from behind the scenes. And so he looks to Byrnes for advice and Byrnes urges him not to change the surrender terms. Byrnes is the one who poisons his mind about the Soviet Union more than pretty much anybody in the beginning. And so Byrnes is his trusted adviser and values Byrnes over all these other advisers. 

Paul Jay

So why does all this matter now? Because it does because we continue to live in a world, populated by more nuclear weapons and more destructive nuclear weapons, and including let’s jump ahead to the Obama administration, where Obama during his term decides to expand, I believe it’s a trillion-dollar investment over 30 years, but most of it’s spent in the first 10. And the Russians apparently are going to spend the same amount or are spending to modernize and create a whole new arsenal of nuclear weapons. In other words, we’re into another nuclear arms race. And barely a noise is made when this big expansion of nuclear weapons takes place. And I have to make one note here. As much as I’ve been mostly critical of Biden’s foreign policy positions, with the exception of Iran, apparently he was against doing this expansion and Obama went ahead with it anyway. So where are we now?

Peter Kuznick

We are a mess. Number one, because what you’re saying about Obama, we had great hope for Obama. Obama marched, in a huge anti-nuclear march in Central Park. Million person march, in 1982, Obama was there. Obama wrote critical things at Columbia about nuclear weapons. There was reason to believe that Obama would actually do something dramatic about it. It gives his Prague speech in June of 2009 in which he calls for nuclear abolition, but even there, if you look at the wording carefully, says the United States won’t be the first country to give up its nuclear weapons, it will be the last country. So Obama was never you know, that’s the thing about Obama, even when his heart was in the right place, he never had the backbone to follow through on any of the good things that he thought or wanted to do. But then he does pass the new START treaty, (a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation with the formal name of Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms). And it’s a very important treaty because it limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons and it limits the number of delivery vehicles that you have. But as part of that, he agrees to this modernization, a 30 year modernization, one trillion dollars. Initially, the estimate then jumps to 1.2 trillion, and we now assume it’s 1.7 trillion, this is going to cost over 30 years. The modernization of the entire nuclear arsenal making it more efficient and more deadly, more lethal. And how do other countries respond? As you said, Russia responds, Russia really started back in 2003 when the U.S. pulls out of the ABM Treaty. Then Russia decides, and as the US is building its missile defenses, that they’ve got to find a way to circumvent it. And in March of 2018 in Vladimir Putin’s State of the Nation address, he announces that Russia now has five new nuclear weapons, all of which could circumvent American missile defenses. So all those tens of billion dollars that we spend are largely wasted at this point. So Russia is modernizing the US and in fact, all nine nuclear powers are modernizing. But to make it worse then, Obama gets the Nobel Peace Prize for that speech he made in Prague in 2009. But then update to Trump, and we’re really in much more dangerous territory from the beginning, at least. Obama and his nuclear posture review does lower the status of nuclear weapons. Trump and his Nuclear Posture Review in 2018 elevates the status of nuclear weapons, number one. 

Paul Jay

What does that mean, “elevated” in terms of how early you might make such a choice?

Peter Kuznick

Yes. And the circumstances under which you can make that decision. So it’s not just going to be in terms of nuclear retaliation, it would be in terms of any kind of attack that has a fundamental impact on the United States. So that could be a cyberattack, we can use nuclear weapons for now, other kinds of WMD attacks. So it’s not just in retaliation for a nuclear attack. Number one, Trump’s attitude and he says explicitly is “what’s the point of having nuclear weapons if we can’t use them”? To a sane person that means get rid of nuclear weapons to a madman like Trump, it means make nuclear weapons more usable.

Paul Jay

And he talks about tactical nuclear weapons battlefield. Which, he or people that think like him, may think it’s possible to use against non-nuclear powers like, for example, Iran.

Peter Kuznick

Yes, in fact, Sy Hersh reported back in the George W. Bush administration that one of the things that was on the table when it looked like we were going to invade Iran or attack Iran was the use of nuclear weapons. So, yeah, there’s always that kind of planning. And the idea is that if Israel ever tries to take out those nuclear facilities in Iran, that they would have to use nuclear weapons in order to do so for the hardened targets, the underground targets. So in terms of the Trump policy, Trump’s first phone call he had with Vladimir Putin, Putin implores him to extend the new START treaty when it expires in February 2021.

Paul Jay

And just quickly, what are the most important parts of the START treaty? 

Peter Kuznick

Well, I guess we have to back up a little bit because you look at Trump’s record on this. First thing he does is he dismantles the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. That was as successful nuclear deal as we’ve ever had. There’s not just the United States, it was also the other original nuclear powers in Germany that negotiated this. Russia played a very important role in negotiating that deal with Iran. It was a great deal from the American perspective and the Israeli perspective, even though Netanyahu did everything he could to undermine it. It basically shipped 97% of the enriched uranium outside of Iran. It mothballed a high percentage of Iran’s nuclear reactors in the centrifuges and put great limits on the amount and the degree of enrichment that was acceptable for Iran’s nuclear program. It was tremendously successful. There were inspections after inspection of what was going on in Iran. The U.N. was reporting that this was working and Trump tears it up, okay, that’s number one. Then he pulls the United States out of the INF treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear forces treaty in 2019. Then he pulls the United States out of the Open Skies Treaty. So the only piece left now of this nuclear architecture, the anti-nuclear arms control architecture, really is the new START treaty, which expires on February 2021. And the new START treaty had put sharp limits on the number of strategic weapons that each side can deploy and on the number of other delivery systems. So Trump’s on the phone with Putin and Putin says we have to extend the new START treaty. Some Trump excuses himself puts the phone down and asks the people at the table his advisers, what’s the new START treaty? He didn’t even know what it was, idiot. And then he gets back on it, says, no, no, I don’t like that treaty. And so the understanding since then has been that the United States will likely withdraw from the new START treaty. Now, there are discussions going on and maybe even Trump will reconsider.

Certainly, Biden will renew the new START treaty, once he’s in power 

Paul Jay

In the journalist, Kaplan’s, book on nuclear weapons, he has a section where with the START treaty, Obama’s trying to get the Republicans to go along with it and they don’t want to. And they often say, well, if you put a trillion dollars into nuclear weapons, then we’ll go along. Biden apparently, according to the book, said you don’t need to make this kind of a deal to get to do the START treaty because these guys never keep their word anyway.

Do you know anything about this whole thing? It tells us something about who Biden is, if the story’s true.

Peter Kuznick

I’ve seen that from other sources as well, that insiders knew that Obama was giving away the store unnecessarily. And that’s always the history of the Obama presidency. He always negotiates against himself and gives away and makes concessions that were unnecessary. And what Obama has done there is open the door to this, the worst kind of nuclear arms race that could happen because as Biden apparently understood, this was a terrible policy to allow this kind of extension, making it more lethal, making nuclear weapons more deadly, more efficient. There’s just no rationale that justifies that. I also have heard that Biden pushed Obama to go to Hiroshima, and that was a great thing that Obama did. He undermined it by with what he did there and even more so with what he said there. But it was certainly the right thing to go to Hiroshima. So, we know that Biden is a super hawk or had been throughout much of his life, but maybe he’s learned some lessons.

Even Robert Gates now just came out with a new memoir. And Gates has said that he learned a lot of lessons. Gates was opposed to the US operations in Libya, he said he was opposed to the bombing of Syria, said we haven’t we learned anything from Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya that these kinds of things have unintended consequences? I think Biden’s learned some of that, too.

Paul Jay

So, so many of the former secretaries of state and military leaders and others have been sounding the alarm about not just the possibility of an accidental or deliberate nuclear war. They almost say it’s inevitable. It’s as if there’s a 100% chance there will be something, you know, if and when, but not if. I shouldn’t say if, just when. Don’t the Bidens and others in the elites understand how dangerous this is, and yet they seem, in terms of their policy, to be completely blind to it?

Peter Kuznick

One of the ones who felt most strongly that way was Robert McNamara. Having lived through the Cuban missile crisis, McNamara shared Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s understanding that when these crises start, they go out of control. What terrified Kennedy and Khrushchev the most during the Cuban missile crisis was that even though they both were doing everything they could to try to prevent a war and a nuclear war, they both knew that they had lost control of the situation and that we avoided annihilation in ’62 during the Cuban missile crisis, not by brilliant statesmanship, but by pure blind, dumb luck.

And that’s why Khrushchev writes to Kennedy afterwards and says, “From evil, we must make some good. Our populations that felt the flames of thermonuclear war, we have to do now is take advantage, turn that into something positive. We have to eliminate every conflict between our two nations that could cause another crisis”. And Kennedy responded in kind, with Norman Cousins help, Kennedy did respond and toward the end, the two of them were moving toward ending the Cold War and mean we could have entered a period of great peace and prosperity for the human race. Kennedy was assassinated, Khrushchev was ousted, and we went back to the old Cold War.

But that potential was there. And so even now, the idea is that by accident or by design, and it’s not just US and Russia and US and China and those US relations, Russia and China are the worst they’ve been in decades. But you look at India and Pakistan, the latest scientific studies show that a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, which 100 Hiroshima sized nuclear weapons were used, to create partial nuclear winter, the cities would burn five million tons of smoke and soot would be raised into the stratosphere within two weeks circle the world, block the sun’s rays, lower temperatures on much of the earth below freezing, destroying agriculture. And that limited nuclear war could lead to up to two billion deaths. That’s one hundred Hiroshima sized nuclear weapons. The reality is we’ve got almost 14,000 nuclear weapons between 70-80 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. And that’s the reality. India, Pakistan almost went to war last year after the terrorists killed 40 Indian troops in Kashmir and they bombed each other’s countries.

And we know that the previous one, the former head of the Pakistani army, says, well, you could get killed getting hit by a car. You can get killed in a nuclear war. What’s the difference? You have to die sometime. We look at who we have making policy. So you’ve got Trump, “Make America Great Again” and Modi, “Make India Great Again”. 

Paul Jay

And Trump and Biden are competing in their anti-China rhetoric. 

Peter Kuznick

Isn’t that something 

Paul Jay

Larry Wilkerson says when he was in government, in the Army, they did various war games where they would play out what a conflict with China would look like if there became a confrontation in the South China Sea. And he says each time they played it, it ended up in nuclear war. So they had to stop the game.

Peter Kuznick

And the other thing is that for years, they did these nuclear war studies about limited nuclear war. OK, so we drop one on Russians and they drop one on us and then we negotiate. But study after study found it impossible to reach an endpoint that these limited nuclear war scenarios don’t work in the war games that we’ve tried to conduct, that they almost always go completely out of control and to complete nuclear war. So, yeah, it just becomes increasingly untenable to maintain these nuclear weapons 

Paul Jay

As much as there’s a nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia, to a much lesser extent, apparently, China. And there’s been studies, according to Wilkerson as well, about how many nuclear weapons are really needed to defend the United States. And it’s like thousands less than there are.

What do we know about what the Chinese are doing?

Peter Kuznick

The Chinese approach makes much more sense. First of all, they’ve got a no first use policy, which means they would never use nuclear weapons to initiate a war. Right now, Russia and the United States have about 93% percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. China has had a very different approach. They’ve got about 300, whereas we have maybe 7,000, they have three hundred. What they understand is that 300 is as effective as 7000 as a deterrent.

Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, asked McNamara. He said, what is it? What are the chances, the likelihood that even one Soviet bomb will get through? And McNamara said, it’s inevitable. And Kennedy said, even that makes this unthinkable. One nuclear bomb, Einstein and Russell in the manifesto in 1955 said that if there’s a nuclear war and New York, Moscow and London are destroyed, then within a few hundred years, the human species will recover from that from the cities being wiped out.

But the danger is a complete annihilation and a full-scale thermonuclear war with the Chinese, understand, is that to deter another country from attacking them, three hundred nuclear weapons is more than enough of a deterrent. 300 nuclear weapons would end the United States as a nation and probably cause enough pollution in the atmosphere and to cause billions of deaths worldwide, including in China. But what Trump keeps saying is, I don’t want to extend the new START treaty unless China is involved.

China’s got to become part of this, too. That’s nonsense. The Chinese arsenal is a fraction of the arsenal of the United States and Russia and the Chinese are not going to be involved in this. So we need an arms control deal between the United States and Russia immediately because that’s where the real threat is. But we also need to deal with the situation between India and Pakistan, India and China. I mean, there are so many hotspots around the world.

The situation in Europe seems to have come that calm down a little bit in Eastern Europe from what it was. But that’s still a powder keg. Syria could unravel at any point. The situation with North Korea, despite Trump’s bluster, has not improved. So all of these scenarios are still hotspots, which is why the Bulletin Atomic Scientists have the hands of the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds before midnight because any one of these could still unravel and spiral out of control.

Paul Jay

And we hear next to nothing about any of this in any presidential election campaign and most of the mainstream media. It’s just not even part of the discourse.

Peter Kuznick

No. And it’s too bad because Biden could make a big issue out of this. Biden could talk about the new START treaty and could show what Trump’s been saying and messaging and show that Trump’s been calling for a new arms race and make it clear what that means. And he can put himself on the other side of this and he could even talk about the UN nuclear ban treaty, which the United States doesn’t support, and neither have any of the other nuclear powers thus far, but the rest of the world, over a majority of nations in the world, have called for the banning of nuclear weapons, which was something, as mentioned before, that could have happened as early as nineteen 1945-1946.

Henry Wallace fought for this, the Atcheson Lilienthal plan in 45′ and 46′ before the United Nations would have eliminated nuclear weapons. We’ve had various opportunities, at Reykjavik in 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev came within one word of eliminating all strategic offensive nuclear weapons there. If Reagan had been willing to limit testing of Star Wars to the laboratory for the next ten years, Gorbachev would have signed the agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons. So we’ve come close. It’s not impossible and there’s no reason for us to give up. There’s no reason to even be totally pessimistic about this. Human species is in some ways potentially evolving positively. Look at how history is being rethought of in the United States in terms of slavery, in terms of Confederate monuments, in terms of women’s issues. We can rethink our nuclear history. We can understand that the atomic bombs in World War Two were not only unnecessary, they were reprehensible. We can understand that seven of America’s eight, five-star admirals and generals are opposed to using nuclear weapons, that Truman himself says he went to Potsdam to make sure that the Soviets were coming in. And then he says when Stalin tells them for coming in, he says, Finie Japs (ed: finish the Japs). When the Russians come into the war, Truman knew the war was over without using atomic bombs. Let’s restudy this history, let’s learn the lessons and let’s project them into the present and the future and begin to develop the kind of anti-nuclear movement that we had so powerfully in the 1980s in this country and around the world. But that doesn’t exist anymore on the campuses, in the state, houses, and the media. There’s been silence about this issue, and we have to try to bring this to people’s attention again, because this is the near term way of ending life on the planet and not giving ourselves a chance to solve global warming, to solve global poverty, to solve issues of environmental degradation. The other things that we want to solve so that human beings can live a decent life, they should be living. 

Paul Jay

All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Peter.

Peter Kuznick

Thank you, Paul. 

Paul Jay

And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.

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  • Americans suffer from the need for prejudice. I mean they find it difficult not to look down on someone because of our history of westward conquest, slavery, immigration, and geography, too! We generally looked down on Europeans during the 20th century: “the Europeans and their wars!” By culture, we look down easily on others. We give the inferiors names to express our contempt more openly and freely – to get comfortable with it. No need to list them; you know them, I am sure. Now, we are suffering increasingly from being surpassed by others, especially the Chinese. We used to be somewhat begrudging of the Swedes. I remember the admiration of many for the Swedish “middle way” during the post WW2 decades. Of course, they had the unfair advantage of having stayed out of that war. To be bettered in technology and commerce by (once) ignorant Chinese peasants is a hard pill to swallow. Even the offspring of Russian serfs are challenging us in gas production, aviation and space, as well as music and chess. I think their movies with English subtitles are quite popular on youtube. With our Blacks shutting down traffic nationwide, it is hard to find any group we can name for disparagement. Ooh! I know a couple of good ones: Democrat! Republican!

    • Well, you see, LeMay didn’t get the Nobel Peace Prize. The Japanese elites hoped their Order of Merit would make it up to him. If LeMay had lived longer, he might have shared the Nobel with Henry Kissinger or Barack Obama, great peacemakers all!