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Military could keep Trump from nukes

Academics use 75th anniversary of bombing of Hiroshima to remind military of duty to reject presidential atomic atrocities.

People in front of a bomb mounted on a wall.
Visitors to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima examine a model of an atomic bomb like the one dropped on the city on Aug. 6, 1945.
Neil Steinberg

A reader forwarded an article, “The messed up truth about the Louisiana Purchase,” recasting doubling the size of the United States, not as a bargain securing our nation’s future growth, but as a disastrous prelude to more slavery and persecution of Native Americans. Which it certainly was.

Once again I felt like a kid caught between two battling parents.

On one hand, you’ve got the Make America Great crew, to whom everything America does now or ever did is already pretty great, because we did it. U.S. history is a series of triumphs leading up to today’s apex of glory, the Donald Trump administration.

On the other is history as a stroll through a slaughterhouse, where the creation of our country is a blot upon nature, like a bag of wet trash split open into a field of flowers. The United States is half crime, half blunder.

Thursday is Aug. 6, a key stop in the latter view’s stations of the cross, the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. At the time, 85% of Americans felt it was the right thing to do, to win the war quickly.

By 2015, approval had shrunk to 56%, though that might be deceptive.

“If people were put in a situation like 1945, public opinion changes,” said Scott D. Sagan, a political science professor at Stanford. “In a survey experiment in 2017, people were asked: If we were at war with Iran, and the president is given the options of attacking the second largest city in Iran with nuclear weapons, to shock the Iranian government, or continue a ground war where 20,000 American troops die, versus 100,000 people die in the air attack, 60% of Americans support the air attack. Increase the number to 2 million dying from the nuclear bomb and that number stays the same, 60%.”

Not surprising. I would expect 40% of Americans to support dropping an atomic bomb just to see the pretty flash.

A tattered uniform on a bamboo manikin.
School uniform tattered by the blast of the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, on display at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, Japan.
Photo by Neil Steinberg

I was talking with Sagan because he is co-author of an article in the current Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Why the atomic bombing of Hiroshima would be illegal today.”

It’s a distressing document. Not just for the facts: Hiroshima, despite what Harry Truman said, wasn’t just a military base but a vibrant city that we had left untouched to better show off our new toy.

The purpose of the article is even more worrisome.

“In future wars, public pressures and the all too human instinct for retribution and revenge could encourage a president to target foreign civilians or embrace disproportionate attacks,” it concludes. “In dire scenarios, law must stay the hand of vengeance.”

Counting on the law to stay the hand of vengeance or much of anything else is increasingly wishful in a world where nationalism is rampant and the United States flirting with its own bumbling dictator. That’s like waving Robert’s Rules of Order in the middle of a riot.

I asked Sagan: Who’s the audience for this? Isn’t it a legal brief trying to encourage the military to restrain Trump from nuking somebody? Sagan wasn’t comfortable with that characterization.

“For both the public and for the military,” Sagan said. “So that they fully understand the importance of the laws of armed conflict, in case this president or any president should issue an illegal order regarding nuclear weapons.”

Might Trump start a nuclear war?

“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a side of Donald Trump that does not want to go to war and pulls back. There is a side of him that is deeply vengeful and haphazard in his decision-making. It is totally plausible the president could order an attack that would be illegal, and the military is bound by the law and trained not to follow a patently illegal order.”

Ideally. Nationalism and its sense of grievance started World War II and haven’t gone away. Just the opposite. It’s spreading, getting worse. I was in Japan four years ago, passed through Hiroshima and of course visited the Peace Memorial Museum. It emphasizes their own suffering — lots of shredded middle school uniforms. If there is also a Hall of What We Did To Prompt This, I missed it. Nationalism, xenophobia, bigotry — all on the march. I know your plate of worry is full. But there’s always room for one more troubling morsel.