The Decision that Changed the World

The politics behind the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and its effect on the world today

By Zach White Photos by Catie Qi Print Design by James DeBano
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Roseanne McManus explaining fission bomb structure during lecture.

The decision of the United States government to drop atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima changed the course of history for the rest of the 20th century and up until today, but not for the reason that people think. Roseanne McManus, a Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison, has taught Nuclear Weapons and World Politics (PS377) seven times — five times as a Teaching Assistant under Andrew Kydd and twice as a lecturer. This course offers insight to the political effect of the nuclear bomb from its invention and role in World War II, to its current effect on the world today. It is not only a class for Political Science majors, but also offers an interesting option for Engineers to fulfill their depth requirement in something they are interested in.

One of the critical topics covered in the course is the history of nuclear weapons, namely in the political scene. The United States was the first country to develop nuclear weapons in World War II under the Manhattan Project and performed just one test before dropping the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. “Interestingly, out of the two types of bombs dropped on Japan, we only tested one,” says McManus. The United States tested the “fat man” bomb which is the more complex type of the two, but used the gun type bomb before it was tested.

The interesting part about these two bombs is how they are portrayed in history. Because of their destruction, they are commonly believed to have caused the Japanese surrender. “It is debatable whether they actually ended the war or not,” says McManus. “Certainly the end of the war was proximate to the dropping. Now that scholars have dug more into the archival evidence, some people have been raising questions about whether dropping the bomb did lead to the end of the War.” This is because it does not seem that the Japanese government was concerned at all in its meetings about the dropping of the bomb. Also, we had been doing fire-bombing on Japan already. “These fire-bombings were actually even slightly more destructive than the nuclear bombs,” says McManus. “It was not as efficient. We had to send hundreds of planes instead of just one plane to drop the bomb, but it was at least equally destructive and the Japanese leadership didn’t seem very moved by that.” This lack of response raises a question: can you really get a country to do what you want by bombing their people? Looking back on history, both countries seem to have an idea that the bombs ended the war. However, nowadays among some scholars the bombs are seen as more of an excuse then the actual cause. This excuse, though, had a lasting impact of the next decades and up until today.

So why was there such a large emphasis on the bomb? One idea is the perception the United States and Japanese governments wanted to create. “Some people in the United States government had a need to justify their actions, so they wanted to promote the bomb as a cause of surrender,” says McManus. “Some people say that the only reason the United States government did this was to let the Soviet Union know that we had this bomb.” This focus then drew countries to pursue nuclear weaponry through the Cold War and up to current nuclear politics today, which includes some countries having nuclear weapons 1000 times more powerful than the bombs originally dropped during World War II.

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The current political scene involving nuclear weapons has many more players than it used to, and this number seems to always be expanding. Two countries that have recently been making news in the area of nuclear weaponry are North Korea and Iran. The reason that these countries are making news is because they have made recent advancements in the nuclear fields. “North Korea actually does have nuclear weapons,” says McManus. “They are not very advanced yet, and their tests have been very small in size.” They also do not yet have a missile capable of hitting the United States. “They basically got their nuclear weapons by cheating on the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” says McManus. They secretly pursued nuclear weaponry even though they had agreed not to. This is concerning because North Korea has presented a threat to South Korea and Japan, both of which are American allies.

The case of Iran is a much more speculative scenario. They do not yet have nuclear weapons, but a case can be made that they are pursuing such technology. They have a civilian nuclear program, which they are allowed to have. However, some other suspicious activity has been happening. “They are enriching a lot of uranium to 20%,” says McManus. This level is not needed for most things. “With uranium enrichment, there are three [relevant] levels,” says McManus. “For a bomb, you need 93% enriched, for certain medical purposes you need 20% enriched, and for nuclear power you need 4% enriched. However, once you get to 20%, it is not hard to get to 93%.” This enrichment of uranium to the 20% level was halted by the November agreement between the United States and Iran.

Another suspicious behavior that Iran has been engaging in is not declaring nuclear facilities until the news or other agencies report that they have them. “What has happened with two enrichment plants recently is that they have not been declared until it is basically leaked to the press by some group or intelligence agency, and so it is not clear whether or not they ever did tend to declare them,” says McManus. This raises the question to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) of whether or not Iran has undeclared facilities. Because of that, Iran has been told by the IAEA to stop the enrichment of uranium, and now by a UN declaration has been required to stop enrichment. Also, when the IAEA has asked to see other suspicious facilities, they were denied, and in one instance, parts of the facility were actually destroyed. These ongoing events continue to progress and change each day, which makes it such an exciting and relevant topic.

The development of the nuclear weapon during World War II has had a significant role in every time period since its creation, and it seems that it will affect the world for many years to come. There have been on-edge times, times of security, and everything in between throughout the international politics of nuclear weapons, and it will be interesting to see how these events will play out in the decades to come.