On July 25, 1945, acting U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas T. Handy wrote orders to Gen. Carl Spaatz then commanding U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific. The orders numbered one page and were remarkably succinct: upon receipt of the “special bomb” by the 509th Composite Group on Tinian Island, Spaatz would order its delivery after Aug. 3 on “one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Hiigata and Nagasaki.”
“Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by project staff,” the orders continued. “Further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above.”
In other words, the order to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan was operational, not political—a decision to be made not by the President but by the theater commander. At that moment, two bombs were ready for use in warfare. A third could be delivered to Tinian by Aug. 15, 1945. With two demonstrated designs, the Manhattan Project had reached industrial production of the atomic bomb. On Aug. 13, four days after the destruction of Nagasaki and only two days before the Japanese surrender, Col. Lyle Seeman, an aide to Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, told Gen. John Hull that they could expect new bombs to be available at the rate of nearly three a month. Hull himself counted the weapons in total: seven available through September and October 1945.
Hull recognized the effect the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japanese morale. That was their intention. But if this and further bombings did not force the Japanese to capitulate, Hull was already thinking ahead to Operation Downfall, the planned Allied amphibious landings on the Japanese home islands. He grasped the new weapon’s use on the battlefield to destroy division-strength formations of Japanese troops or to tear up lines of communication deep in the enemy’s rear. If the atomic bomb failed as a strategic weapon, perhaps it could succeed as a tactical weapon.
The atomic bombs did not preclude conventional air attack. Two days after Hiroshima, American aircraft firebombed Yawata and Fukuyama. On Aug. 14, 1,000 American aircraft attacked Iwakuni, Osaka, Tokoyama, Kumagaya, and Isesaki. The U.S. and its Allies had already firebombed Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Kessel, Darmstadt, and Pforzheim in Germany, Kobe and Tokyo, and Japanese-occupied Wuhan, China. The Tokyo incendiary attack killed at least as many people as Hiroshima. By the end of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay had attacked 68 of 70 industrial targets across Japan. “If you kill enough of them,” he once said, “they stop fighting.”
Today’s historical narrative summarizes the end of World War II as immediately following the two atomic bombings that saved a million Americans from having to invade Japan. This is true but not complete. At the time, the United States was prepared to fight a prolonged nuclear war to hasten surrender or completely destroy Japan’s warfighting capability. The atomic bomb was a political weapon but very nearly became a common one.
Vladimir Putin reads history as only a cynic can. He views Western rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, international law, and human rights, as simple cover for what is, to him, base national interest. If the price for what he wants requires a little window-dressing, he can perform the necessary public gestures. So Putin’s naked aggression in Georgia, Syria, Chechnya, West Africa, and Ukraine is legitimated by political referendum or legal argument. There is no difference in his mind between shelling Grozny flat and the Second Battle of Fallujah. There is no difference between poisoning dissidents in London and American drone strikes in Kabul. There is no difference between his intervention in Syria and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no difference between Russian protection of the self-declared independent Donbas republics and NATO-protected Kosovo, no difference between Ukraine and Yugoslavia.
Putin’s rhetoric extends well beyond cynicism into real danger. His window-dressing is cover for his personal and national ambition: great power status, the new Russian empire, and an anti-modern political ideology. He believes in the exigencies of state. There is no Russia without a strong Russia.
If Putin has studied American war projections in mid-1945, he would see something very familiar from recent years: the United States using overwhelming force against a rapidly dwindling threat. American leadership was already prepared to destroy Japanese cities one by one or annihilate whole armies in a stroke to end the war and avert mass American casualties. The United States has never modified its nuclear first-use policy. There is no doubt in Putin’s mind that if Warsaw Pact armored columns had poured through the Fulda Gap in 1983 that the U.S. and NATO would have started firing tactical nuclear weapons, the size of the first atomic bombs, into eastern Europe.
So what would keep Putin from doing the same?
This war of choice, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, is now existential—to him. It is true he has been buoyed politically by the “special military operation” and he is genuinely supported by most Russians, propaganda victory or no. The only real opposition comes from his right. He is in a much stronger position than he was a year ago. He has compromised all of his lieutenants so that, like Cortés scuttling his ships at Veracruz, their own survival is at stake. So, in a sense, he has already won if what he risked was his own position and power.
But things could go badly for him very quickly. He has managed to hide battlefield failures and the incompetent and hollowed-out Russian military so far. It will be difficult to hide his defeat if Ukraine mounts a successful counter-offensive or if Russian forces capitulate, desert, or mutiny. More importantly, the destruction of his armies will mean he has one less security backstop protecting him from a putsch.
This brings us to Putin’s scenario of the unthinkable:
With his armies fighting a rear-guard while trying to withdraw across the Donets River, Putin activates Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems prepositioned in Crimea. Russia has already deployed to the Black Sea land-attack submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped Kalibr cruise missiles. As he did earlier in the invasion, Putin issues a vague threat to Ukraine and the international community—but the ultimatum would be clear.
Unheeded, he orders a strike on Odessa, population one million. A missile launched from Crimea flying barely 400 kilometers reaches its target in seconds. The 500-kiloton (estimated—yields on modern Russian nuclear weapons are not known) nuclear warhead explodes, destroying half the city instantly and setting fire to the rest. A toxic plume of radionuclides pours out of the city. Depending on the direction of the wind, fallout either settles into the Black Sea or spreads north over Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia, largely missing Russia. Ukraine’s only major seaport is now a razed, radioactive no-man’s-land.
The international community is shocked and horrified. But Putin has attacked his neighbor, not an ally. He has drawn the nuclear saber and his ultimatum stands. As a port, Odessa was a legitimate strategic target. Putin orders Kyiv to capitulate. There is no difference in his mind between the Western exigencies demanded to end World War II and his own survival.
After a day without a response from Kyiv or the international community Putin orders another strike. The Russian Kilo-class submarine B-237 Rostov-on-Don, which transited the Dardenelles to enter the Black Sea in February, receives its order and fires a Kalibr cruise missile, aiming its thermonuclear warhead at Mykolaiv, a city of nearly 400,000 on the Buh River with access to the Black Sea. Mykolaiv is closer to Crimea, but it is also another strategic target with its shipbuilders and refit yards. In a moment, the city is devastated and the Buh boils.
Two cities are destroyed, tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed, thousands of square kilometers laid waste and irradiated. This is no loss to Putin, who still claims innocently that he wants only the Donbas. The cost of clean-up and reconstruction will fall on Ukraine and its Western supporters. NATO will never extend its security guarantees to a defeated neighbor. The European Union will slow-track Ukrainian membership while it pours billions of euros into rebuilding and decontaminating the second-largest country in Europe. The mess, in other words, is in others’ hands, while the Donbas is in Putin’s. Mission accomplished.
Deterring or responding to a nuclear attack on a third country do not figure in current U.S. or NATO nuclear weapons planning. We extend the protection of our nuclear umbrella to countries with whom we have written security agreements. That does not include Ukraine. For what we know at this point, deterrence has worked as intended: Russia has not resorted to chemical or nuclear weapons, it has not attacked countries outside Ukraine, and it has not explicitly threatened NATO member nations.
But with his back to the wall, his political survival suddenly at stake, Putin is all in and ready to call a bluff. He bets the West will not respond in kind. He bets NATO will not risk global thermonuclear war over two peripheral eastern European cities. He bets European capitals will pressure Kyiv to cough up Donbas for everyone’s sake. In which case, Putin will win. Maybe not the full pot he expected when he tried to seize Kyiv, but enough that he can claim victory at home and further consolidate his power. He could claim to have killed tens of thousands of fascists threatening Russia while he was at it and burdening the West with Ukraine’s clean-up and recovery. Putin wins again.
If we can’t deter Putin, what options are available to prevent or respond to a nuclear strike? Modern anti-aircraft weapons with anti-ballistic missile capabilities such as the U.S. Patriot, Israeli Iron Dome, or similar C-RAM systems can provide point defense against missile attacks and strike aircraft. These should be sent to Ukraine with training immediately. U.S. Aegis seaborne systems in the Black Sea and NATO AWACS surveillance aircraft deployed from Romania could warn of launch. Western nations should also prepare equipment and training for Ukrainians to respond to a nuclear incident.
Putin’s willingness to play with this kind of risk is found not just in his cynical rhetoric but also in current practice. Garrisoning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station is only the latest example—Russian forces effectively bulldozed parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in their initial push to sack Kyiv. With the stakes so much higher now, not just for military success and Russian glory but his own individual survival, Putin could very easily justify a rapid climb up the escalation ladder.
After all, he would say, it’s what the Americans did first.