September 10, 2007
Review of Empire and the Bomb

John R. Guthrie

A major question implicit in Joseph Gerson’s Empire and the Bomb is why, in a world where the great and dreaded bête noire, Communism, is drifting like dust to yesterday, is the threat of nuclear war greater than ever? The historic roots of what Daniel Ellsberg termed the “radioactive vein in our secret foreign policy” are seen in Gerson’s work to historical roots which long antedate nuclear weaponry. Examples include:

The concept of total war as developed and exercised against a great swath of the American southland by General William T. Sherman.

The United States’ World War II policy of warring against massive civilian populations as exemplified by the fire bombing of Dresden, Tokyo, and other Axis cities.
Then there was what many consider to be the penultimate act of state terrorism, the used of atomic bombs against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities that Roosevelt misrepresented to the  U.S. public as centers of military might.

On this latter, Gerson, carefully documenting from previously classified and other sources as he goes, states that:

“Although it is not widely known beyond academia, the consensus today among
informed scholars is that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were
unnecessary...the decoded intercepts of Japanese diplomatic correspondence
informed Truman and his senior advisors (that) Emperor Hirohito was seeking to
end the war on terms they would eventually accept [12].”

The terms were, in short, the retention of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito as a symbolic head of state. Secretary of State James Byrnes and others pressed for the bombings for their “salutary effect on relations with the Soviet Union [13].”  The bombings were also seen as enhancing Truman’s political viability at home.  This was followed by a concerted propaganda effort from the administration to assure the public that the bombings were needful to prevent a bloody invasion of the Japanese homeland with the loss of perhaps a million invading allied troops. This proved to be an understandably compelling argument, despite the fact that Japan was quite willing to surrender and sought to do so prior to any invasion. This has been, for the general public, lost in the man-made storm of official rhetoric.

Since those two days in August of 1945 when two Japanese cities were immolated with the death and mutilation of civilians by the hundreds of thousands, the United States has threatened nuclear attacks in dozens of instances against nations great and small: China, Russian, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea constitute but a partial list. One result of this policy is the inevitable increase of states that wish to become nuclear powers and the spread of nuclear weapons; Russian, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

A telling summary of the operative policy that the Imperium maintains is found in a now declassified TOP SECRET policy statement by George Kennan, the American advisor, diplomat, political scientist and historian, famous as “the father of containment” and a pivotal figure in the emergence of the Cold War:

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population….
In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task
in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to
maintain this position of disparity….We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford
today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction….We should cease to talk about
vague and ….unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living
standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal
in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the
better [19].

Our leaders of whatever party continued to explain U.S. policy to the citizenry in terms of advancing civilization, market access, and human rights. It is perhaps a tribute to the innate goodness of the people of the United States that true motives, economic dominance at all cost, must be hidden.

Fighting two world wars and the development of policies involving the recurrent threat of nuclear weaponry produced changes in U.S. society such that it so that I came to have “more in common with the Kaisers’ Germany and Fascist Italy than has generally been recognized [33].”

Some actions by nuclear powers including the U.S. are startling, “These included mentally disabled children who were fed plutonium with their breakfast cereal  and soldiers ordered to march into the fallout of simulated battlefields to better prepare the pentagon for war fighting in ‘nuclear environments [36]’….In 1993 when Clinton’s newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Energy Hazel O’Leary revealed what she had learned about these abuses, she confessed that ‘The only thing I could think of was Nazi Germany. [36-37]’”

The missile crisis provides a telling example of such a nuclear stand-off, and one of particular interest to this reviewer because I was present, first as a U.S. Marine on a gun boat then in the air over the Guantanamo Naval base in an old Sikorsky UH-34D helicopter as well as on the ground in Cuba in October of 1962.

During this period of intense crisis, the Joints /Chiefs of Staff “consistently pressed the president to approve a military attack against Soviet and Cuban forces in Cuba [113].”

This is simply a reminder of the maxim that generals,  no matter t heir protestations to the contrary, like war-fighting as ballet dancers like to dance.

On October 24 of 1that fateful year, Admiral George Anderson, the Chief of Naval Operations, instituted of his own volition a strategy of “mercilessly [125]” harrying six Soviet submarines on the open sea, forcing them to surface.

On the 27th, off the Cuban coast, a Soviet nuclear armed sub was “trapped and…bombarded by a U.S. warship patrolling off Cuba… (The U.S.)…depth charge explosions created pandemonium aboard the Soviet submarine, and resulted in panic as its oxygen supply was exhausted and crew members began to faint.

“Two of the submarines three commanders ordered preparations with nuclear torpedoes, with one saying, ‘We’re going to blast them now. We will die, but we we’ll sink them all. We e will not disgrace our Navy.’ As Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive wrote, ‘A guy named Arkhipov saved the world.’”

Agreement by all three soviet commanders was required. Arkhipov alone insisted on waiting for orders from Moscow.’”

This account, now common knowledge among those who have researched this era, may be seen in several ways: as indicative of the fact that the president is not completely in control at any given moment of our potentially omnicidal military forces.

Such events may be seen as a reminder of the immense capability, even enthusiasm, for acts of gross stupidity among the highest ranking of our military and other leaders.

And speaking as one who was present nearby as the world tottered on the brink of nuclear holocaust, I am deeply appreciative of the occasion presence of the wisdom of the occasional Captain Arkhipovs of this troubled world, no matter the uniform they wear.

Gerson’s prose is business like meticulously sourced, and credible.

In his summation, Gerson makes an informed plea for the abolition of nuclear weapons and suggest several well-considered roads to that happy possibility.

Those who are thoughtful and historically literate are likely to appreciate this writing. While one realizes the difficulty of steering the ship of state of a country of  so much good and so much good intent, there has to be a better way that a rabid emphasis on the threat of bombing “them” back onto the stone age with nuclear weapons.

The above review refers to the soft cover edition.

Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S.Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World
ISBN 978-0-7453-2494-4
Pluto Press, 2007
348 pages

Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.


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