Seventy years ago this month, the US committed two of the worst terrorist attacks in human history. The incineration of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs represented the bloody climax of World War II. The nation that committed this heinous crime soon itself came to be the only remaining capitalist superpower.
The magnitude of the horrors unleashed by the dawn of the Nuclear Age cannot be measured in bodies alone. As the mushroom clouds rose over two cities, the immediate death toll was about 200,000, but countless more deaths followed as radiation began to poison the survivors and then the land, air and water of the entire region.
Similar horrors had already been unleashed on Japan. In March 1945, the US firebombed Tokyo in World War II’s deadliest day. In terms of death toll alone, more people died that night from napalm bombs than in the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bombings were two more in a long line of mass killings brought on by world capitalism at its most barbaric.
The true horror of the bombs, which made them the most terroristic of actions, was the long shadow they cast to this day. The spectre of nuclear annihilation still hangs over the world like a sickness. In the years following the terror attacks on Japan, the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons expanded, with new and more powerful weapons being developed to rain horrors upon humanity.
The atomic bomb was followed by the hydrogen bomb, which was more powerful by orders of magnitude than those unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following that came inter-continental ballistic missiles, which were capable of devastating populations on the other side of the planet. Then there was the neutron bomb, a weapon that could massacre entire populations but leave property unharmed.
Though so far we have not seen even limited use of nuclear weaponry in combat, the growth of the nuclear age has not been victimless. Apart from the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are the countless dead and injured from nuclear weapons tests, often conducted without warning or protection for indigenous, working class and people of colour. Then there are those poisoned and harmed by uranium mining and the construction of military bases and silos from Australia to Greenland.
For many young people, these facts may not seem particularly relevant. The question of nuclear war is something that has been relegated to the past, to a period of American-Soviet rivalry and the “Red Menace”. It seems that now there are many more pressing issues than nuclear disarmament.
This could not be further from the truth. The world’s powers, particularly the US, still possess huge arsenals of nuclear weapons, easily enough to exterminate the human race multiple times over. Even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons would have enormous consequences. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility have estimated that a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan — two of the less well-armed nuclear powers — would trigger a famine that would spell death for at least two billion people and cause the collapse of the entire world food system. India and Pakistan “only” have about 100 weapons each, enough to cause a crisis unlike any the world has ever experienced.
These weapons remain dangerous, and will only grow more so over time. Capitalism is entering a long period of ecological, geopolitical and economic crises. In this period, conflict between capitalist nations is inevitable, as the changing composition of world capitalism drives the ruling classes to compete and challenge each other in different ways. Deep-seated social crisis, especially in the advanced capitalist nations and their spheres of influence, are what drive international conflict.
One example of how the ongoing crisis of capitalism will drive these conflicts is in the area of climate change. As climate change uproots millions of people in the Global South and limits access to resources, oil, water and gas will become the sources of increasing international tension between competing imperial interests. Already, we are seeing a massive, systematic global land grab by multinational corporations aiming to establish massive agribusiness interests at the expense of indigenous people.
This crisis is driven by contradictions that lie at the heart of capitalism. The drive for ever-increasing profits, and competition between companies and between national blocs, drives conflict as all the agents involved are engaged in a race to grab as many resources as possible.
Ultimately, there is only one path that can secure a stable and safe future for young people. We need to fight for total disarmament of all nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry. We need to fight to disarm and dismantle the imperialist war machines that drive conflict. We need to uproot the system that drives war to fill the pockets of the corporations.
It is only by directly challenging the established authorities and their policies of war and exploitation that young people can establish for themselves a future in which the human race is able to live at peace with the natural world of which it is a part. Now more than ever, it is imperative for young people to seize on a historical moment to challenge capitalism and all its assorted social catastrophes.
Ultimately, for the future of all people, it is time that we end the nuclear age.
[Angus McAllen is an activist in the Brisbane branch of Resistance—Young Socialist Alliance.]