Yes, we should still feel bad about nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki

This past week we witnessed the collective remembrance of a terrible, fiery explosion before the world. No, I’m not referring to the 24 million who tuned into the first Republican presidential debate. What I’m talking about is a real crime perpetrated by the amoral monsters in our nation’s capital.

The previous week saw the 70th anniversary of the day the United States government did the unthinkable: dropped a nuclear bomb on a living city. The fallout ended World War II but demonstrated just how dangerous nuclear weaponry can be. The Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t stand a chance. It’s estimated that over 100,000 lives perished in the bombing.

There is still the popular understanding that the atomic bomb was instrumental in bringing Japan to its knees, and ultimately defeat. This sentiment was recently argued in a Wall Street Journal editorial by foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens. Normally, the inanity and moral corruptness of the media hardly stirs me. But I could hardly keep down my lunch upon reading the title of Stephens’ article:

“Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”

Excuse me? Those words might as well have lept off my computer screen and kicked me square in the gut. The pit of my stomach actually turned while considering the meaning. How, in all of God’s creation, can someone speak such moronic, blasphemous nonsense? How can a person, flesh and all, bestow our Lord’s sanction on the instant killing of a hundred thousand people so blithely? Granted, Stephens stole the line from a 1981 essay by Paul Fussell, who was an American lieutenant fighting in Pacific theater before the bomb saved him from the prospect of invading Japan’s home islands. But even so, the total immorality of the utterance is bewildering. He might as well have said God bless sodomy or incest.

To be sure, Stephens’ view (and Fussell’s) is not all that different from what’s taught in history class. Popular mythology holds that President Truman, tasked with winning World War II and freeing the world from tyranny, made the decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to save American lives. American G.I.s were busy fighting their way through southern Asia. They knew a ground invasion of Japan was imminent. Relief came when the first bomb fell on the unsuspecting military city of Hiroshima. “When we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled,” Fussell wrote of the time, “we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live.”

Yes, American soldiers were spared the horror of warring with a Japanese army unwilling to back down. That was undoubtedly a great thing. But costs must be tallied: hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens, both civilians and non-civilians, were slaughtered to achieve peace.

Regardless of the good achieved in nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it came with the price tag of evil. In a collection of eyewitness testimony gathered by the public broadcast company NHK, Japanese photographer Yoshito Matsushige gave a vivid description of the pain wrought by nuclear weaponry that is physically hard to read. When the bomb hit, school children rushed outside to avoid crumbling buildings. Matsushige witnessed a group of high school girls flee to the streets only to be hit with a burst of hot radiation. The result was grotesque. He described the girls as being “covered with blisters, the size of balls, on their backs, their faces, their shoulders and their arms. The blisters were starting to burst open and their skin hung down like rugs.”

Teenage girls melting on the sidewalk is what Stephens wants to thank God for. Girls with their lives ahead of them, skin melting off their body, never to be innocent or normal again. The utter depravity of such a sentiment is mind-boggling.

Stephens justifies the horror by claiming that nuking Japan saved the lives of American soldiers. This is where he errs the most: his assumption is pure determinism. He takes the invasion of Japan as a given. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it doesn’t reflect basic reality. Assuming a ground war in Japan was an inevitability is the equivalent of being a determinist – it denies choice to the actors involved. American military leaders were not animals acting by instinct; they were living, breathing people capable of making informed decisions. Chalking up history to a choose-your-own-ending storybook is infantile, especially for a columnist of a well-respected newspaper.

Now, I don’t fall into the camp that Stephens describes as hopelessly naïve about the nature of combat. I’m not a blind idealist when it comes to nuclear weapons. While I agree with the Catholic Church that weapons that kill indiscriminately are a “crime against God and man himself,” I don’t expect state leaders to lay down their arms and join hands, singing kumbaya and well-wishing one another. Ronald Reagan wanted as much, but realized it would be suicide to follow through on such a mission. Thus, we’re still plagued by countries possessing nukes that could wipe out humanity in an instant if someone in charge got careless. It’s a dangerous prospect. But then again, so is laying aside arms when an adversarial state wishes to overshadow you. You don’t toss your gun down when someone else is holding one to your head.

In any case, even if the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were worth the lives saved, Stephens gives no voices to were the alternatives. Japan’s surrender was not entirely predicated by demolishing two of its cities via complete annihilation. A survey commissioned President Truman after the strike found “in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped….” In his memoirs, General Dwight Eisenhower admitted the bomb was not necessary for victory. Approximately two decades later, he said in an interview that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

We don’t know for sure that Japan would have surrendered absent leveling two of its cities. But we do know that America committed a horribly despicable act in annihilating scores of innocent people. Stephens writes: “For too long Hiroshima has been associated with a certain brand of leftist politics, a kind of insipid pacifism salted with an implied anti-Americanism.” Sorry Bret, but that’s a bunch of crap. Allow me to rephrase: for too long criticism of Hiroshima has been associated with hippie beatnikism and anti-American bromides. That kind of characterization is intellectually shallow, even for the Wall Street Journal. You can be a critic of U.S. foreign policy and not be a wild-eyed Bernie Sanders supporter. You can recognize the immorality of indiscriminate killing without rooting for America to fail.

The dropping of nuclear payloads, the vanquishing tens of thousands of lives in an instant, the melting the faces off of small children, the complete erasing of the future of hapless civilians, is a stain on American history. It did not save lives. It destroyed them. Period. That Stephens can sit and pontificate on the pluses and minuses of wiping out lives as if they were nothing more than dust on the windowsill is a testament to the great sacrifice endured by both sides during the Second World War.

Yet Stephens doesn’t want any contrition on the anniversary of Little Boy and Fat Man raining death from above. He laments that the “U.S. public is consumed with guilt for sins they did not commit.” Wrong again, Bret. By virtue of being an American, the country’s history is my history. I own its triumphs and defeats. So does Harry Truman. So does Albert Einstein. So does Bret Stephens.

(Image source)

Advertisements

5 comments

  1. James,

    I must respectfully, but profoundly, disagree that “we should still feel bad” about the atomic bombings. This is logically equivalent to “we should still feel bad about slavery” and child labor and witch burning and, and…

    “We” didn’t do it. I don’t agree with the line of thinking that “the country’s history is my history. I own its triumphs and defeats.” Human history is also my history, and I could feel truly awful about every cruelty, every horrific killing and injustice ever perpetrated, Stalin and his torturers, Hitler and his extermination camps, Mayan’s cutting the beating hearts from children…

    But, I don’t.

    To get specific to Japan and WW II, the atomic bombs were functionally equivalent to the massive firebombing of Tokyo and other major Japanese (and German, for that matter) cities. Tens of thousands dead, “the melting the faces off of small children, the complete erasing of the future of hapless civilians,” and so on. One can plausibly argue that fallout was an additional horror, but in a strictly moral calculus the massive bombing and warfare inflicted on civilians by the Allies must be regarded as a whole, and weighed against the war, as a whole.

    Nuclear weapons have in the years since 1945 acquired a particular mystique and legend as a kind of special tool of the devil, through media repetition and scary stories. They are indeed, terrible and their use again should avoided at almost all costs. But that’s all post facto to August 1945. I’ve read the biographies of most of the U.S. leadership at that time, those of the main scientist participants in the development of the bomb, Gen. Groves book, and much other WW II historical material; and for you in 2015 to blithely speak of “amoral monsters in our nation’s capital” is easy, but really, a gross oversimplification.

    The finest resource I’ve found to understand the issues is Alex Wellerstein’s Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog at http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/. I’ve read most of it, and it’s a great and even-handed look by an historian at all the complexities, technical and moral, of the development and deployment of the atomic bomb.

    Like

  2. I’m not sure where to begin with this.

    Your article suggests that you’re at least familiar with Fussell’s famous case. Yet I can find no evidence that you’ve engaged his argument in your own reasoning. Even relative in action meant death; the war was not on some kind of hiatus while Truman, et. al, debated the merits of dropping the bomb. You profess to be interested in minimizing casualties; should the United States then have withdrawn from all theaters? Would that have hastened the war’s end? Assuming you would not have advocated complete withdrawal, is it somehow morally superior to advise the Allies to stay in theater as a sort of threatening presence, demanding surrender, while our soldiers and sailors died by the thousands?

    “Yes, American soldiers were spared the horror of warring with a Japanese army unwilling to back down. That was undoubtedly a great thing. But costs must be tallied: hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens, both civilians and non-civilians, were slaughtered to achieve peace.”

    As opposed to what alternative? What possible solution to the war didn’t involve hundreds of thousands of civilian dead? In your imagination, would Japanese civilians (millions of whom were officially recruited into a sort of homeland defense) simply welcome the American invaders?

    “That Stephens can sit and pontificate on the pluses and minuses of wiping out lives as if they were nothing more than dust on the windowsill is a testament to the great sacrifice endured by both sides during the Second World War.”

    You must hate the study of history generally.

    Like

  3. Harry Dexter White, a U.S. official, provoked the Japanese under orders from the Soviet NKVD. Read OPERATION SNOW or THE BATTLE OF BRETTON WOODS. Japan had already offered to surrender conditionally when the bombs were dropped. The whole thing was an atrocity on the level of the Holocaust or Stalin’s planned famine in the Ukraine,

    Like

Sound off

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s