Global Independent Analytics

Would the U.S. Drop the Bomb Again?

Public opinion supported the strike on Hiroshima—and if provoked, many Americans might well back nuclear attacks on foes like Iran and al Qaeda

Scott D. Sagan and Benjamin A. Valentino for The Wall Street Journal report: The White House’s recent announcement that President Barack Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima has sparked an intense debate among politicians and pundits over what he should or should not say there. The president’s advisers insist that he “will not revisit the decision” to use nuclear weapons on that city in August 1945.

But the controversy has focused too narrowly on historical questions. We might instead ask whether the U.S., in similar circumstances today, would drop the bomb again. Our research has found that the American public is surprisingly open to that prospect.

Shortly before the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by Japan’s surrender, the American society seemed to support Truman’s decision firmly. In September 1945, 53% of respondents in a nationwide Roper poll agreed that the U.S. “should have used two bombs on two cities, just as we did.” Some 14% thought that “we should have dropped one on some unpopulated region, to show the Japanese its power” first. Just 4% of the public felt that “we should not have used any atomic bombs at all.” And 23% of respondents agreed that “we should have quickly used many more of them before Japan had a chance to surrender.”

Years later, the approval of Truman’s move steadily decreased. In July 2015, just before the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, we asked YouGov, a leading survey firm, to replicate the 1945 Roper poll, using a representative sample of 840 U.S. citizens.

This time, only 28% of respondents agreed that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been the right choice, while 32% indicated support for a nuclear demonstration strike. More than three times as many Americans—almost 15% in 2015 compared with 4% in 1945—now said that the U.S. shouldn’t have dropped any nuclear weapons on Japan. And just 3% regretted that the U.S. hadn’t dropped “many more” atomic bombs before Japan surrendered.

Analysts have connected such a decline to a durable postwar public aversion to using nuclear weapons. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote of a “nuclear taboo”: After World War II, he argued, “it began to sink in that [nuclear] weapons’ destructive capacity was a different order from anything in history.” Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that John Hersey’s harrowing 1946 book “Hiroshima” had single-handedly created “a powerful moral taboo” that “made the future use of nuclear weapons unthinkable.” This taboo has been reinvigorated, some claim, by ongoing international efforts to ban intentional attacks on civilians in wartime, a doctrine enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

However, all the polls do not demonstrate whether Americans have turned their minds away from nuclear bombing in general or have they simply changed their attitude towards bombing Japan a wartime adversary became peacetime ally, in particular. And moreover, the surveys do not reflect the depth of any present-day taboo against using nuclear weapons. Traditional polls do not force the public to contemplate the kind of trade-off that President Truman faced in 1945: between using nuclear weapons on enemy cities, with high civilian casualties, and launching an all-out invasion that could mean the deaths of thousands of U.S. troops.

To find out how the today U.S. society would react to such choices, YouGov has conducted a survey about a scenario evoking a 21st-century Pearl Harbor in Iran, and repeating all the previous and posterior details, including the choice whether mount a land invasion to reach Tehran and force the Iranian government to capitulate (at an estimated cost of 20,000 American fatalities), or shock Iran into unconditional surrender by dropping a single nuclear weapon on a major city near Tehran, killing an estimated 100,000 Iranian civilians.

The results were startling: Under this scenario, 59% of respondents backed using a nuclear bomb on an Iranian city. Republicans were much more likely to support such an attack, with more than 81% approving, but 47% of Democrats approved the nuclear strike as well. Even when we increased the number of expected Iranian civilian fatalities 20 fold to two million, 59% of respondents—the same percentage supporting the nuclear attack with the lower death toll—still approved of dropping the bomb.

Although the future presidents’ and their administrations’ intentions might not be predicted, the instincts of the American are quite distressing: the nuclear threat stops being a taboo when the nation is provoked, and even the international commitments do not seem to stop people’s minds. Today, as in 1945, the U.S. public is unlikely to hold back a president who might consider using nuclear weapons in the crucible of war.

 

By Stefan Paraber for GIA.

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