Can the slide toward a new arms race be halted?

The atomic cloud over Hiroshima

The atomic cloud over Hiroshima   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Berkay Kartav, South west London Socialist Party

75 years ago, as World War Two was drawing to a close, United States forces dropped two atomic bombs above the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is still one of the most deadly and vicious military attacks in human history.

The first atomic bomb on 6 August immediately killed more than 100,000 people in Hiroshima; the second bombing on Nagasaki on 9 August killed a further 70,000 people, and wounded as many, or even more. Both cities were instantaneously destroyed. It demonstrated the immense destructive capabilities of US capitalism at the time.

Although conventional bombs in a single attack had also killed tens of thousands of civilians – in Dresden and Tokyo for example – the use of the atomic bomb was far more destructive and deadly than any other weapon used in the war. It ushered in the era of nuclear proliferation.

At the time, when the atomic bomb was dropped over Japan, Nazi Germany had already been defeated. Stalin’s Soviet Union – at enormous cost to its oppressed population, and despite the treacherous mistakes of its bureaucratic leadership – had played a crucial role in the defeat of Hitler’s regime. The Soviet Union had recently declared war on Japan and invaded its northern islands.

That the Soviet Union was expanding beyond its agreed ‘spheres of influence’ worried the capitalist regimes in the West.

An important reason why the political representatives of the US ruling class were so keen to use the atomic bomb was that they wanted to show their military and technological superiority to the Soviet Union.

A protracted war in the Pacific region, which had already killed many US soldiers and became materially costly for the US, was also cited as one of the factors behind the decision to drop the atomic bomb. But a report produced by the US Strategic Bombing Survey suggested that Japan was already suing for peace.

To develop the nuclear bomb, massive funds had been secretly invested by the US government in the Manhattan Project, which included scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi.

Even though the overwhelming majority of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were against the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, the decision to use a destructive weapon lay in the hands of a tiny minority of society.

In the aftermath of World War Two, with the escalation of the conflict between the capitalist regimes on the one hand, and the Stalinist regimes, based on a bureaucratically planned, nationalised economy on the other, the number of nuclear warheads stockpiled massively increased. Given the destructiveness of these weapons, however, both the Western powers and the Soviet Union wanted to avoid a nuclear war and their ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD).

Nuclear arms today

It has been 75 years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the US remains the only country to have ever used the atomic bomb. Today, not only has technology developed to an unimaginable scale compared to 1945, but eight more countries are in possession of nuclear weapons – including China, Israel, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and the UK, while Iran has resumed its attempt to build a weapon. Currently, Russia and the US possess over 90% of the world’s total nuclear warheads.

Several treaties have been signed in the past to limit the number and the range of these nuclear weapons. But US president Donald Trump withdrew from both the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) last year – which he accused Russia of reneging on – and also the Obama-era nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

The Trump administration views the ‘Russian bear’s’ invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine as a threat, notwithstanding the expansion of the US-dominated western military alliance of Nato into eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The US also wants to build up its military forces against China, which didn’t sign the INF. This treaty withdrawal, therefore, is a reflection of the growing competition between major capitalist powers as the global economic crisis intensifies.

Capitalist competition is leading to increased international tensions between states. The US drone attack which assassinated Iran’s top general, Qassem Suleimani, earlier this year, has underlined the volatile and dangerous situation which exists in the Middle East. Iran retaliated to the assassination by carrying out a ballistic missile attack on US bases in Iraq.

It is possible that future military skirmishes could escalate and threaten regional wars between states with nuclear arsenals, for example between India and Pakistan. The US or Israel could also pre-emptively attack Iran if the latter comes near to achieving nuclear weapons capability.

Meanwhile, Stalinist North Korea remains wedded to its nuclear arms testing programme. The ratcheting-up of tensions between the US administration and North Korean regime – which reached its highest point in 2018 when the latter tested a nuclear bomb – once again underlined the fact that none of the attempts to demilitarise the Korean peninsula since the 1950-53 war have worked.

The US maintains its massive military presence in South Korea. But the Korean working class also has a proud record of struggle against militarisation.

Capitalist rivalry or socialism?

The intensifying competition between China and the US in world markets, and these super-powers’ attempts to further their geopolitical aims, have already led to a trade war and an expanding militarisation of the Pacific Rim region. On top of that, the present world economic crisis has triggered a new wave of international tensions.

The current situation poses the question of whether there will be a military conflict between these two powers.

Although the ‘MAD’ consequence means that their use of nuclear weapons can be ruled out, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are an indication that conflicts over strategic trade routes can lead to some sort of military clash.

As long as the capitalist system remains, geopolitical rivalry and capitalist competition to enhance profit means that the threat of conventional wars, and even a regional nuclear exchange, remains a real possibility, albeit not in the short term.

The working class is the only force in society that can overthrow this war-inducing, rotten system of capitalism and replace it with a socialist society.

Introducing a socialist plan of production, on a world scale, will lay the basis for international cooperation to bring an end to the horrors of nuclear and conventional wars and secure a permanent peace.