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October 01, 2010

Cognition, Hirohito, Suicide, & Nuclear Winter

There can be little doubt the physical and psychological injuries humans inflicted on each other in the course of two World Wars between August 1914 and August 1945 shaped the Twentieth Century to a critical degree. However, contrary to what one might logically assume, the millions of deaths caused by those conflicts did not curb growth of the human population. Quite the contrary; as we now know, the number of humans living on Earth increased spectacularly: from approximately 1.5 billion in 1900 to about four times that many by 2000. Thus far In the new millennium (which, contrary to popular belief began in 2001) we have probably added another 600 million or so and are still believed to be on track to reach nine billion by mid-century.

There are several reasons why the World Wars that blighted the early Twentieth Century didn’t curb human population growth as one might have intuitively assumed. One is that the Industrial Revolution, enabled by the discovery of empirical Science, remained in full swing- especially in the nations that did most of the fighting- while much of the population growth took place in relatively undeveloped nations where enhanced sanitation, transportation, and food production- often developed as part of support for the war effort- were increasing both human numbers and life expectancy.

However, the most important reason population growth continued unchecked may be what didn’t happen in the aftermath of world War Two: the Cold War that began almost immediately between the victors persisted for almost fifty years and ended without becoming a nuclear war, thus contradicting two well established historical patterns. One was that the dominant rivals in particular areas (Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, France and England, for example) usually become directly engaged in a series of wars until a clear victor emerges. The US and its allies, as opposed by the Soviet bloc, clearly qualified as dominant rivals after World War Two.

Another tendency was for new weapons technology produced in one war to be used at the first opportunity. While the Cold War did spawn several proxy wars starting with Korea in 1950, the United States and the Soviet Union each managed to avoid any hostile use of nuclear weapons for its duration; even as both actively pursued nuclear programs that produced enough warheads to destroy the world several times over.

Finally, it's generally agreed that the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, which took place long before Nuclear Winter had even been hypothesized, was the closest the world came to a hostile nuclear exchange. Thus neither Kennedy nor Kruschev, the principals solely responsible for the compromise that avoided nuclear war, could not have known what they were avoiding, a circumstance that begs the question of what did deter them. The most logical answer would seem to be that it was their memories of Hiroshima.

To explore that premise in some detail it's necessary to remember that World War Two ended abruptly in 1945 only after the United States' unannounced use of nuclear weapons that destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th, respectively. Although (as with most such unique historical events) there is still not universal agreement on all details, there is good reason to believe that the unprecedented use of atomic weapons shortened the war significantly; which was also the stated intent of President Harry Truman. There is also little doubt that another unprecedented event, the surrender broadcast by Emperor Hirohito on August 15 announcing acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration obviated what had been anticipated as die-hard resistance by the Japanese people to any invasion of their home islands. In fact, the ritual Banzai Charges by Japanese garrisons on Pacific Islands overrun as Americans were tightening the noose around Japan after the Battle of Midway gave credence to that belief, as did the formal use of Kamikazes by the military in the latter stages of the war.

NEXT: Suicide, cognition, and political beliefs.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at October 1, 2010 06:17 PM