In “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants”, Scott D. Sagan and Benjamin A. Valentino discuss a survey they did to determine if the attitudes of Americans toward the use of nuclear weapons has really changed as much since 1945 as other researchers suggest. The authors find that, whereas others have noted a decrease in support for nuclear weapons and the mass killing of noncombatants in the years since the second world war, Sagan and Valentino find that the only reason for this perceived decrease is that others have not been asking the right question. Sagan and Valentino theorize that when Americans are told that they face a threat from another country and must choose between the loss of American soldiers and the loss of foreign noncombatant lives, people will still choose to drop a bomb on a city and risk the deaths of hundreds of thousands, or millions of civilian lives, even when they have the chance to choose a more peaceful diplomatic alternative.
The first step that Sagan and Valentino make in their argument is to explore the theories that others have proposed to explain the perceived decrease in support for dropping a nuclear bomb. The first theory they describe is that since people saw the destruction that the bomb can create a taboo around nuclear weaponry has formed. Sagan and Valentino explain that those who promote this theory believe that presidents have been constrained by this taboo, and have been less tempted to use nuclear weaponry because of the public taboo against it. The nuclear taboo theory explains the decrease in support for the nuclear bomb because people are too aware of its potential for destruction and fear it somewhat. Another theory that Sagan and Valentino explain for the reader is that people now belive more in the concept of just war. This principle says that the killing of noncombatants is wrong, and therefore nuclear war is wrong because of it kills so many. This theory states that foreign lives have just as much value as domestic lives, so saving American soldiers is not worth killing foreign civilians. Both of these theories have been put forward to explain why fewer and fewer people seem to be supportive of the idea of the use of nuclear weaponry.

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The third school of thought that Sagan and Valentino describe is the one which says that the wish to win a war and the need to minimize the loss of soldiers’ lives are what dictate the level of support for the use of the nuclear bomb. This principle says that people would be more willing to support the use of a bomb if they thought that soldiers would be saved, and it would end a war quickly. If this were true, it would mean that support for the use of a nuclear weapon would go up if people thought it would achieve these goals. The reason that support has fallen for the use of the bomb since the end of the second world war is that people have not yet faced similar conditions, and therefore do not feel the need to use a weapon.

To find out if this third theory is the correct one, Sagan and Valentino developed a survey which would present a situation to participants with a number of variables aimed at finding out how much support there would be for nuclear weapons versus nonnuclear ones, and whether this level of support would change given different numbers of projected noncombatant casualties. The authors presented participants with a scenario that told them Iran had begun a war with the US, and performed a surprise attack on a ship killing as many soldiers as were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Participants were then given a number of choices. They could show their preference for the use of a nuclear bomb, the use of a nonnuclear weapon or the use of ground raids which would endanger 20000 American soldiers. Participants were told either that 100000 noncombatants would be killed, or that 2000000 would be killed.

The authors found that 55% of people supported the use of nuclear weaponry, and that the differences between the numbers who would use it when 100000 and when 2000000 would die were not statistically significant. This means, the authors say, that under the right circumstances people would support a nuclear bomb no matter the number of lives it cost. According to Sagan and Valentino, this means that there is no taboo against the use of nuclear weaponry, as others thought, because people would prefer it as an action to end a war quickly. It also shows that people are not overly worried about the loss of noncombatant lives in such a situation, because they value the lives of American soldiers more. Though fewer people supported the nonnuclear weapon over the nuclear weapon, the fewest of all supported the ground raids which would kill fewer civilians but put 20000 soldier’s lives’ in danger.

Sagan and Valentino also point out that the number of people who would support a President who dropped a bomb were even higher than those who would prefer the bomb, showing that people could be convinced to accept its use even if they did not really prefer it. This shows, according to the authors, that a president who wished to use a bomb could gain public support for it easily if the public was told about the American lives at stake.

Though by this time Sagan and Valentino have made their point about people changing their ideas about the use of nuclear weaponry based on circumstances, they highlight this fact when they tell the reader that a third option was offered to some where the Ayatollah was stripped of his secular, if not his spiritual power. In this case, the number of people who preferred to use the nuclear weapon dropped to 40%, but Sagan and Valentino note that this still means that 40% of people would still prefer to use a nuclear weapon even when there is an option which would not otherwise risk American lives. This, like the fact that those who supported the death penalty also supported the nuclear bomb, the fact that people are willing to demonize and vilify enemies enough so that they feel the enemy deserves death. The authors present some of the comments given by people to explain their choices, which show this hatred and dehumanizing of the enemy they have shown their willingness to kill.

People today seem to feel that society is more tolerant than that at the end of the second world war. They point to the fact that the numbers of people who say they would approve of the use of a bomb is dropping to show that people are more concerned with life, both foreign and domestic. The picture presented by Sagan and Valentino provides a chilling counterpoint to this. It shows that the only reason these numbers appear to be dropping is that people are not asking questions in the right way. It shows that, under the right circumstances, the American people are willing and able to support the dropping of a bomb that could kill millions.

  • Sagan, Scott D., and Benjamin A. Valentino. “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think About Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants,” International Security, Vol. 42, No. 1, Summer 2017, pp. 41-79. Doi: 10.1162/ISEC_a_00284.