Democracy and the nuclear state

Perhaps the most striking sentence I came across in my readings on the atomic bomb had nothing (directly) to do the morality of the atomic bombs.

As the Manhattan Project neared completion, General Leslie Groves, the project’s head, commissioned a physicist named Henry De Wolf Smyth to write an in-depth report on the development of the atomic bomb. The report—titled Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb Under the Auspices of the United States Government—was released to the public on August 12, 1945, just 6 days after the Hiroshima bombing, and 3 days before the Japanese surrendered on August 15.

The report did not provide any direct information about how to build an atomic bomb. However, it provided an in-depth account of the Manhattan project and the implications of atomic energy in war.

The most striking sentence is the very first sentence of the Report’s preface:

The ultimate responsibility for our nation’s policy rests on its citizens and they can discharge such responsibilities wisely only if they are informed.

This is a philosophical premise with enormous political implications.

The first thing that strikes me about this sentence is the degree to which it clashes with the emphasis on secrecy that has come to characterize the War on Terror. Numerous vitally important policy questions—like what interrogation techniques are consistent with morality and with international law, or under what circumstances (if any) extra-judicial killing can be legitimate—are treated as state secrets, unavailable for public debate.

Of course, given the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project itself, and the fact that the decision to use the bomb was taken without any public debate, we may question whether the Manhattan Project itself conformed to the principle stated on the first page of this report.

Nevertheless, the fact that such an in-depth report was released immediately after the first atomic bombings, explicitly inviting public debate on the future of nuclear weapons, seems to me significant, and a rather different attitude from that which has taken hold as a result of the Cold War and the War on Terror.

In any case, regardless of how we answer those questions, I think it is important to recognize that democratic government is only possible where citizens know enough about government policy to be able to make an informed decision in the voting booth. This requires not only that the government provide adequate information about its policies, but also that candidates engage in thoughtful and informed discussion of these issues during the campaign.

I realize that this is, perhaps, a hope which is almost certain to be disappointed in the current political climate. Nevertheless, I think the principle is worth remembering, even if only in the breach.

And it is in the hope of making some small contribution to that discussion that I have collected these ongoing reflections.


About Ron Belgau

I am the founder of Spiritual Friendship; I studied philosophy and literature at University of Washington, and philosophy at Saint Louis University and Notre Dame; I have also taught medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion at Saint Louis University.
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