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By John Warnock, Warrior Maven Senior Fellow. These views are his own.

Are nuclear weapons useless? General Colin Powell said they were.

Powell’s actual words were “these [nuclear] weapons are useless, they cannot be used.” That’s clear enough, isn’t it? He said this in the Prologue to an important video documentary released in 2010 called Nuclear Tipping Point. (The Prologue is 4 1/2 minutes long, the documentary is 55 minutes long.)

Nuclear Weapons

General Powell was someone you’d think would know, if anyone did. In the 1980’s, he had been President Reagan’s National Security Advisor. During the administration of President George H. W. Bush, who followed Reagan, General Powell had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. This was when the nuclear stockpiles of both the United States and the Soviet Union were the biggest they would ever be--70,000 nuclear weapons, when you added them together. Even if you didn’t add them together, enough nuclear weapons to destroy life on earth many times over.

Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002. Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Getty Images

Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002. Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Getty Images

Nuclear weapons certainly could have been used for that—to destroy life on earth. Some of us who grew up during the Cold War believed they might well be used for that. During Powell’s years in George H.W. Bush’s administration, the Soviet Union came apart and we who had lived through the Cold War finally could begin to believe nuclear weapons would not be used for that.

Okay. But come on. How could nuclear weapons be useless? We’d used them, hadn’t we, against Japan? And they’d been useful, hadn’t they? They’d ended the war with Japan and with it World War II.

Actually, there was some serious doubt about that. We did, for sure, use two atomic bombs on Japan, and a week after we dropped the second one, the Japanese emperor had for sure surrendered. But was it our use of the atomic bombs that caused the surrender? The fact that the surrender happened after the atomic bombs were used doesn’t mean it happened because they were used. The sun didn’t come up today because you woke up and had your coffee before it did.

Among those who have questioned whether the two atomic bombs should be taken to have caused the surrender are two important World War II generals. Curtis LeMay was the army air force general who, starting in March 1945, had firebombed and destroyed all or part of over 60 cities in Japan. These firebombings destroyed many more structures and killed many times more people than the two atomic bombs did. If you take a look at the photographs now available to us of cities that were firebombed, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at the aftermath in Hiroshima.

In his memoir, LeMay wrote, “I think [the use of the atomic bombs] was anticlimactic…. [T]he verdict was already rendered.” LeMay reports that General Nathan F. Twining, who was in charge of the Twentieth Air Force at the time the bombs were dropped, said, “I am convinced that the surrender would have occurred within a short time period even if the atomic bomb had never been used.” 1

The devastated city of Hiroshima

The devastated city of Hiroshima

And what happened after the dropping of the atomic bombs? After Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, LeMay’s bombers had conducted more firebombing raids. He had “burned up,” he said, 21 percent of Yawata and 73.3 percent of Fukuyama. On August 14, five days after Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki but the day before the surrender, LeMay’s forces had burned up 45 percent of Kumugaya and 17 percent of Isezaki, cities 66 and 67 to be firebombed by his B-29s.

Maybe it was those final firebombing attacks that did the trick. How would we know?

Of course we were proud of having devised this amazing new weapon, the atomic bomb. And we had spent a lot of money doing it. You can see how we might have wanted to claim more for it than was warranted.

General Powell knew that nuclear weapons could be used. Of course he knew that. But he said they were useless. What did he mean by that?

Is there anyone else especially worth listening to who has said nuclear weapons are useless? Yes, someone else you’d think would know, if anyone would. Maybe what he said could help us understand what General Powell meant.

Next: Are Nuclear Weapons Useless? II-Who Else Has Said So?

Another person who asserted the uselessness of atomic bombs, years before General Powell did, was J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was also someone you’d think might know, if anyone would. He was the physicist who directed the Scientific Division of the Manhattan Project at the secret Site Y in northern New Mexico where the world’s first atomic bombs were designed. Even before the first one was tested, Oppenheimer had declared their uselessness.

Not until Harry Truman became president on April 12, 1945, did he learn about the Manhattan Project to build the new kind of bomb. In May, a committee of Manhattan Project leaders called the Interim Committee was put together to advise him on whether and how to use the bomb, if we should have it to use. That had never been certain. But by May 1945, it was looking likely that we would.

Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. The great fear—the fear that had motivated the urgent work in the Manhattan Project—had been that the Germans would be the first to develop an atomic bomb. We knew now that wasn’t going to happen.

Military personnel and Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project

Military personnel and Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project

No one had thought Japan would be able during the war to develop an atomic bomb.

At the end of May 1945, six weeks before the first atomic bomb was successfully tested at Trinity in southern New Mexico, Oppenheimer was visited by another Manhattan Project physicist, Leo Szilard. The day after Szilard called on Oppenheimer, a meeting of the Interim Committee was to take place in Washington D.C. Oppenheimer would be present as a member of the Interim Committee’s Scientific Advisory Group.

Szilard wanted Oppenheimer to oppose using the bomb on Japan. Szilard and a number of other Manhattan Project scientists believed that using the bomb would immediately start a nuclear arms race that would imperil humanity.

In response to Szilard’s urgings, Oppenheimer said, according to Szilard,

“The atomic bomb is shit.”

“What do you mean by that?” Szilard asked.

“Well, this is a weapon which has no military significance. It will make a big bang—a very big bang—but it is not a weapon which is useful in war.”1

When General Powell said nuclear weapons were “useless,” is that what he had meant—that they had “no military significance”?

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The Interim Committee did meet the next day, June 1, and Oppenheimer attended. There were, apparently, differences of opinion between the Advisory group and the Committee as to whether the bomb should be used on Japan and how. Still, after some discussion, the Interim Committee produced a recommendation that the bomb be used in Japan “on a military plant surrounded by worker’s homes without prior warning.” That is, the Committee recommended that it be used as a “strategic” weapon the way conventional bombs had been used in Germany to attack their war-making resources.

There was no question, now, as we’ve said, of using the atomic bomb on Germany.

President Truman’s representative on the Interim Committee, a businessman from South Carolina named Jimmy Byrne who would later be Truman’s Secretary of State, had strongly supported this recommendation. The same day, he carried the Committee’s recommendation to President Truman. We have no record of President Truman’s response to it.

The Interim Committee had recommended. then, a “strategic” use of the new bomb. That is, a military use.

Is this a use the new bomb did have or could have had?

Next: Are They Useless? III-Can They Have a Military Significance?

A weapon has “military significance” when it can be used for “military” purposes. That means, in battles with the military forces of an enemy. Programs like the Nazi program to exterminate Jews do not have a military purpose, even if undertaken and performed by military forces. The intentional killing of civilians cannot be said to have a military purpose.

The Interim Committee had recommended to President Truman that the atomic bomb be dropped on “a war plant surrounded by worker’s homes.” That is, they had recommended a military use of the “strategic” kind. “Strategic” attacks had become common for the first time in World War II in Germany.

In the end, however, the Hiroshima bomb was targeted on a T-shaped bridge, the Aioi bridge, chosen by the Pentagon’s Targeting Committee because it should be easy for the bombardier to see and because it was in the center of the city. Colonel Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was clear about the target: “The city was the target, period.”1

Paul Tibbets waving from the Enola Gay's cockpit before taking off for the bombing of Hiroshima

Paul Tibbets waving from the Enola Gay's cockpit before taking off for the bombing of Hiroshima

The “very big bang” the Hiroshima bomb made—it had the explosive force of about fifteen thousand tons of TNT—and the fires that followed destroyed not just any “war plant” and “worker’s homes” that might have been in the city but the city itself, a city of some 255,000 people. It killed instantly, by some estimates, 70,000 people. (In situations like this, it’s not easy to get an exact count, as you can imagine.) Some of the people killed were probably soldiers or might rightly have been considered war workers but most were not. Most were schoolchildren, old people, parents, patients in hospitals, health care workers, even some U.S. prisoners of war that we knew were being held in Hiroshima.

The bang the Nagasaki bomb made was a third larger than Hiroshima bomb’s. The aim point for the Nagasaki bomb was the Mitsubishi plant, an arms factory. The bomb missed the target but destroyed the factory anyway. It destroyed a distant torpedo plant. It destroyed most of Nagasaki.

This was not the first time we had attacked and destroyed cities in Japan rather than military targets. General Curtis LeMay’s air forces had been firebombing Japanese cities since March 1945. By the date of the surrender in August he had firebombed over sixty cities in Japan, destroying many more structures and killing many more of their inhabitants than the atomic bombs did. He and those in authority above him who continued to sanction his firebombing of Japan never stopped claiming a military purpose for it, but sometimes you can feel the strain. As when LeMay talked about seeing in pictures drill presses sticking up in the ashes of houses in the cities his forces had “burned up.”

If you take a look at a photograph of one of cities firebombed by General LeMay, you may forgiven for thinking you at looking at the aftermath in Hiroshima.

Firebombing, which we had started doing in Germany at the end of the war with them, crossed the line between military purposes and other kinds of purposes before the atomic bombs did. LeMay was not troubled by our having crossed the line, either in the firebombing or with the atomic bombs. What was most important, he said, was ending the war as quickly as possible. Whatever might end the war sooner was okay to do, even if hundreds of thousands of civilians were to be killed. Many Americans, then and now, inside and outside the military, have agreed with him.

That rationale would of course be available to any general in any country that possessed atomic bombs. Atomic bombs will end wars more quickly, no doubt about that.

Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002.

Secretary of State Colin Powell listens during a speech by President George W. Bush at the State Department in 2002.

What General Colin Powell and J. Robert Oppenheimer seem to have meant when they said atomic bombs were useless was that because their bang was so big they could not plausibly be used “strategically,” that is, on military targets only. Whatever significance the weapon had could not be a “military” significance.

It was, and because of its size could only be, what shortly after World War II came to be called “a weapon of mass destruction.”

If weapons of mass destruction are useless for military purposes, they are not useless for all purposes. They can still serve as weapons of terror. Terrorists do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Weapons that can’t make that distinction are terror weapons.

More specifically, what can weapons of mass destruction be used for? For genocide maybe? In 1948, “genocide” was defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as certain "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

The members of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission had recommended in 1949 against taking the initiative to develop the “Super” hydrogen bomb because, among other reasons “By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide.”

But nuclear weapons may be useless even for this purpose.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, it may not be possible to restrict the killing to a single “national, ethnic, racial or religious group” any more than it is possible to restrict the killing to military forces. The weapons may not be selective enough even for that.

Okay, then. We can say finally, can’t we?, that even if for military purposes nuclear weapons are “shit,” as Oppenheimer said they would be, they might be useful as weapons of “omnicide.” “Omni” comes from the Latin omnis meaning "all, every, the whole, of every kind.” “Cide” comes from Latin –cida, "cutter, killer, slayer."

Killing just everything. If done on a scale of which several countries are capable now, human extinction. Perhaps the extinction of life on earth. And quickly. In a couple of days.

No one today seems to think that the risk of nuclear weapons being used for purposes of omnicide is all that high. Weapons sufficient for this purpose exist, however, so the risk is not zero.

That they could be used for this purpose, no one should doubt.

By John Warnock, Warrior Maven Senior Fellow. These views are his own.