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How Many Lives Have Atomic Weapons Saved?

How Many Lives Have Atomic Weapons Saved?
People visit the altar for victims of the 1945 atomic bombing in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on April 9, 2016. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

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Monday, 28 May 2018 09:30 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Memorial Day reminds us of the Americans who have died while serving in the military forces. In November, Veterans Day honors the millions who served and survived the wars in which they fought.

Paradoxically, the number of survivors has probably been increased by atomic weapons. The potential dangers posed by these weapons and the horrible inhumanity of their actual employment are obvious, but we often forget they have also produced substantial benefits including a reduced likelihood of major wars.

Without the atomic bomb, the end World War II by conventional military means would probably have cost hundreds of thousands of additional American lives, not to mention a very large number of Japanese lives. Many American soldiers who had been preparing for a massive invasion of Japan were thereby saved from that ordeal, which would have been very bloody on both sides.

It wasn't just American soldiers whose lives were saved by that war's abrupt end. I personally know one person who wouldn't even have been born if the United States had not employed atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. His father, a missionary in the Far East before the war, had been caught while working as an American spy in Japanese-occupied China. His captors were going to execute him, but changed their minds when the war ended. Twenty years later, his son, conceived and born after the war, became one of my excellent students.

The people whose lives were saved or made possible by the use of atomic weapons probably exceeded the very regrettable number of Japanese who were killed by those bombs. But the number of lives saved since then by the mere existence of atomic weapons has probably been much bigger.

In the Twentieth Century major wars tended to come along every quarter century. World War I broke out in 1914. World War II began in 1939, exactly 25 years after 1914. The Vietnamese War, which had world-wide repercussions, though not on the same grand scale as the first two wars, really got going with American involvement in 1964, exactly 25 years after 1939. Twenty five years after 1964, instead of another major war, the Berlin Wall came down peacefully.

The more limited scale of the Vietnam War, and the failure of the United States and the Soviet Union to get into direct military hostilities with each other, may have largely been due to the atomic weapons held by both sides. A major war between them would have presented strong temptations to use atomic weapons. Unlike the two world wars, therefore, atomic weapons meant that the leading echelons and top leaders of these countries could well have been killed, and they were all aware of this danger. Elaborate underground facilities and procedures for protecting top leaders might have helped, but they couldn't eliminate the danger, and it would have been impossible to protect all their loved ones.

Atomic weapons provided what economists call an internalizing of the externalities. In previous wars, powerful leaders made decisions that threatened the lives of many other people but they personally remained reasonably secure "behind the lines." The threatened lives were "externalized costs" of the leaders' decisions. Now the leaders themselves would be threatened, and this probably had a sobering influence on their decisions.

Conflicts since World War II have assumed a new profile in which major countries fight through proxies, by encouraging terrorists, and through cyberattacks. While these kinds of warfare cause major damage and horrible personal misery, the number of lives destroyed are a drop in the bucket compared with the millions of military and civilian casualties in World Wars I and II.

World War I was precipitated by the 1914 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Incidents of far greater importance occur frequently today, but haven't, so far at least, brought on another world war. Although we can't calculate exactly how many lives atomic weapons have saved, we can confidently assert that this number is a very large one indeed.

As a personal aside, existence of atomic weapons convinced me to abandon my early assumption that I would become a physicist or engineer. As I approached college in 1957 it seemed to me that technical "progress," including the bombs, had way outpaced our political ability to cope with it, and I did not want to contribute to increasing this imbalance. So instead I majored in political science, intending to become a diplomat and work for world peace, but then decided to work for world peace more indirectly, but hopefully more effectively, as a college teacher and writer. My specialization in thinking about politics systematically has been based on the assumption that when more people think more clearly wars are less likely to happen.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Memorial Day reminds us of the Americans who have died while serving in the military forces. In November, Veterans Day honors the millions who served and survived the wars in which they fought.
atomic weapons, hiroshima
901
2018-30-28
Monday, 28 May 2018 09:30 AM
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