Why It's Time for Us to Confront Hiroshima





Leo Maley III has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and University of Maryland, College Park, and Uday Mohan is director of research at the Nuclear Studies Institute, American University in Washington, D.C. They are writers for the History News Service.

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August 6 marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic destruction of the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II. We Americans reflect on this event in sharply differing ways.

Some Americans recall the event with shame and express their fervent hope that nuclear weapons never be used again. Others firmly believe that the use of atomic bombs saved American lives by ending the war prior to a bloody American invasion of Japan. More challenging to consider is whether it was an unjustifiable act in a fully justified war.

Those who believe the bomb's use was justified often label their opponents "pacifists," "1960s radicals," "bleeding-heart liberals" or "revisionists." These epithets merely delay the day when Americans will consider the import of having used nuclear weapons.

Our failure to grapple fully with the ethical questions stemming from our use of mass violence against civilians has meant that we unwittingly endorse an act that some would consider state terror. We rightly expect Germany and Japan to confront painful episodes from their participation in World War II. Now it's our turn.

Conservatives today are the natural candidates to take the lead in confronting our most painful episode from the war, because they were once among the most vocal critics of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Consider the following:

On August 8, 1945, two days after the bombing, former Republican President Herbert Hoover wrote to a friend that "[t]he use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul."

Days later, David Lawrence, the conservative owner and editor of U.S. News (now U.S. News & World Report), argued that Japan's surrender had been inevitable without the atomic bomb. He added that justifications of "military necessity" will "never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations . . . did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children."

Just weeks after Japan's surrender, an article published in the conservative magazine Human Events contended that America's atomic destruction of Hiroshima might be morally "more shameful" and "more degrading" than Japan's "indefensible and infamous act of aggression" at Pearl Harbor.

Such scathing criticism on the part of leading American conservatives continued well after 1945. A 1947 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, at the time a leading conservative voice, claimed that President Truman and his advisers were guilty of "crimes against humanity" for "the utterly unnecessary killing of uncounted Japanese."

In 1948, Henry Luce, the conservative owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, stated that "[i]f, instead of our doctrine of 'unconditional surrender,' we had all along made our conditions clear, I have little doubt that the war with Japan would have ended soon without the bomb explosion which so jarred the Christian conscience."

A steady drumbeat of conservative criticism continued throughout the 1950s. A 1958 editorial in William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review took former President Truman to task for his then-current explanation of why he had decided to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The editors asked the question that "ought to haunt Harry Truman: 'Was it really necessary?'" Could a demonstration of the bomb and an ultimatum have ended the war? The editors challenged Truman to provide a satisfactory answer. Six weeks later the magazine published an article harshly critical of Truman's atomic bomb decision.

Two years later, David Lawrence informed his magazine's readers that it was "not too late to confess our guilt and to ask God and all the world to forgive our error" of having used atomic weapons against civilians. As a 1959 National Review article matter-of-factly stated: "The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed."

But times change. In recent decades most American conservatives have become uncritical of America's use of atomic weapons and dismissive of anyone who holds a contrary view. Conservative publications now routinely defend Truman's atomic bomb decision. Critics of his decision, to quote from a representative National Review editorial from 1987, are "wrong, and profoundly offensive to all Americans and Japanese who died in that war, and to those Americans who still possess the ability to think."

Sixty years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we have an opportunity to grapple anew with the questions surrounding that event. American conservatives should renew their earlier, deeply held ethical criticism of the Hiroshima bombing instead of promoting the inaccurate but politically convenient view that criticism of the atomic bombing can only come from the left. Their response will not only tell us much about contemporary American conservatism; it will also determine whether we finally can have an honest debate about Hiroshima's destruction.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.



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Mark Davis - 8/17/2005

What makes this act "morally ... deficient" is not just the number of lives (the scale), it is the act of purposely targeting innocent civilians (including mostly old men, women and children) for military purposes. Genghis Khan would have been proud. This act was pure "terrorism".


Owen Roberts - 8/6/2005

Maybe I should have been clearer. When I said this may be a situation in which we should listen to the soldiers who were going to face death "as well as" today's Ph.Ds, I really did mean "as well as," not "rather than."

Maybe I also should have tried to make my point by saying we should "consider what was best for the soldiers" (which I tried to do in my last sentence), rather than saying we should "listen" to the soldiers. In any event, considering what was best for the soldiers-listening to the soldiers, if you will-seems appropriate. If we still need to "grapple" with any ethical question faced by President Truman and other leaders, as Maley and Mohan insist we do, then surely the grappling should include consideration of what was best for the G.I.s who were going to be ordered to their deaths on the Japanese mainland. For me, in light of what evidence I have seen presented and in the context of the particular War that was being fought, that consideration outweighs the loss of life that occurred when the bombs were dropped. As I indicated, it seems condescending to suggest that I and others like me have not properly grappled with the morality issue. But even if you disagree, how can my saying that we should consider the interests of the American servicemen be pitting the guys in the foxholes against the Ph.Ds and "just pandering to emotions," as you say?

In the past, some professional historians have claimed, or at least implied, that pressure by abolitionists to continue the American Civil War, even after the abolitionists realized that the War would cause the deaths of huge numbers of people, was immoral. After all, those historians have said, slavery would have eventually died out as industrialism made it obsolete. Surely you would agree that any grappling with the morality of the abolitionists' actions should include a consideration of the slaves' interests as well as the opinions of those professional historians.


Kenneth T. Tellis - 8/5/2005

The main theory for Harry S. Truman was that the ends justify the means and damned be the rest.

Just think even now the U.S. has not gotten out of its role in the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because it is freely using Depleted Uranium shells in Iraq. That is the clincher.


Shawn McHale - 8/5/2005

Ah, pit the guys in the foxholes against the PhDs. . . That is just pandering to emotions. What soldier or sailor in August 1945, if asked if he or she would want to continue the war or not, would say yes? Few of them.

My father was one of the persons who, presumably, would have taken part in the attack on Japan if it had happened. ( He was stationed in the Philippines by 1945.) But I suspect that his views from August 1945 and ten years later would have been starkly different.

He turned out to be one of those persons who served in the naval air corps during the war in the Pacific AND who then got a PhD. Such individuals exist. Not all of them, looking back in hindsight on their experience, would unreservedly support the use of the bomb.


Shawn McHale - 8/5/2005

Ah, pit the guys in the foxholes against the PhDs. . . That is just pandering to emotions. What soldier or sailor in August 1945, if asked if he or she would want to continue the war or not, would say yes? Few of them.

My father was one of the persons who, presumably, would have taken part in the attack on Japan if it had happened. ( He was stationed in the Philippines by 1945.) But I suspect that his views from August 1945 and ten years later would have been starkly different.

He turned out to be one of those persons who served in the naval air corps during the war in the Pacific AND who then got a PhD. Such individuals exist. Not all of them, looking back in hindsight on their experience, would unreservedly support the use of the bomb.


Shawn McHale - 8/4/2005

You have provided an assertion, not an argument. The fact that Japan had not surrendered *up to that point* is, in and of itself, not a persuasive argument. The firebombing of Tokyo was, as we all know, a tremendously devastating event.
This event was repeated elsewhere.

Arguments over the necessity of using the atomic bomb on a city have long struck me as theological. It wouldn't be enough to demonstrate the power of the bomb in some inhabited place; it would not be enough to carry out saturation bombing; it would not be enough to kill 100,000 plus in Tokyo using conventional weapons, etc etc. *If* the United States has used atomic bombs on Germany, perhaps this line of argument would be more persuasive. But as is, the advocates of using the bomb insist on making a *choice* - the use of the atomic bomb -- into a *necessity*. No, it was a choice.


Owen Roberts - 8/4/2005

I suspect many Americans have grappled fully with the ethical questions, as you put it. Many of us have just come to a different conclusion than the one reached by you. It seems a little condescending to suggest that those of us who disagree with your conclusion have not grappled fully with the ethical question. In addition, this may be another of those situations in which we would do well to listen to the guys in the foxholes, as well as the comfortable Ph.Ds with their 20-20 hindsight. If you care to read a few thoughts from one of America's defenders, you can do so here: http://www.startribune.com/stories/191/5542115.html

I was a couple of months old when the bombs were dropped, so I would likely be here either way. However, the odds are great that I would never have had a brother or sisters if President Truman had made what you appear to think was the "ethical" decision. Although my Dad was wounded on Okinawa, he almost certainly would have been near the front of any land invasion, and the odds are he would not have lived to see me for the first time, much less see his future children. What was best for him and others like him needs to count for a lot when folks with much less at stake "grapple with the ethical questions" sixty years after the fact.


Mark A Newgent - 8/3/2005

The atomic bombs were necessary to compel a Japanese surrender, which conventional bombings, incendiary bombings, blockade could not accomplish.


Don Adams - 8/3/2005

I may well read the book you mention, but what I will not do is decide in advance that anyone who concludes our use of the bomb was justified has failed to sufficiently grapple with the issue. The taking of 250,000 lives is an unspeakable tragedy, except when measured against the loss of 250,001 or more lives. You are welcome to your opinion, but for you to suggest that those who have examined the evidence and concluded otherwise are morally or intellectually deficient is outrageous. People of conscience can be saddened by the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki even while recognizing the justification, indeed the necessity, of such acts. Your comically simplistic interpretation of the events of August 1945 ignores not only the reality of what led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but what has happened since. Never mind the overwhelming -- and growing -- body of evidence regarding Japan's strength and intentions prior to the the dropping of the bomb; your casting of Harry Truman specifically and the US more generally as villains hardly squares with the emergence of modern Japan under the auspices of US military rule following the war.

You have urged me to read a book. I will urge you to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the lesser of two evils. If you have any doubts, read any book at all about the fight for Okinawa, or any book at all about Japan today.


Shawn McHale - 8/3/2005

Ironically, I think that we focus too much upon the horror of nuclear weapons and not enough on broader context in which the atomic weapons were used. this point is well articulated in an article for Time by David M. Kennedy:

http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,1086166,00.html

Kennedy states that up to 900,000 Japanese civilians were killed in bombings of cities. I, no expert, was under the impression that 900,000 was the upper limit of the estimates. But no matter -- even if only 450,000 Japanese civilians were killed, that is an astonishing number. Since when should we blithely accept as natural the indiscriminate firebombing of cities?

The defense of the use of the atomic bomb always rests on a calculus that it was "necessary" to save lives. Why was the atomic bomb in particular necessary? The argument that is was *necessary*has always struck me as bizarre. The United States could always, after all, destroyed other cities with conventional weapons the way that it destroyed Tokyo. Right?


Shawn McHale - 8/3/2005

Ironically, I think that we focus too much upon the horror of nuclear weapons and not enough on broader context in which the atomic weapons were used. this point is well articulated in an article for Time by David M. Kennedy:

http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,1086166,00.html

Kennedy states that up to 900,000 Japanese civilians were killed in bombings of cities. I, no expert, was under the impression that 900,000 was the upper limit of the estimates. But no matter -- even if only 450,000 Japanese civilians were killed, that is an astonishing number. Since when should we blithely accept as natural the indiscriminate firebombing of cities?

The defense of the use of the atomic bomb always rests on a calculus that it was "necessary" to save lives. Why was the atomic bomb in particular necessary? The argument that is was *necessary*has always struck me as bizarre. The United States could always, after all, destroyed other cities with conventional weapons the way that it destroyed Tokyo. Right?


uday mohan - 8/2/2005

You may wish to grapple with the most recent book on the subject: Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University Press, 2005), which is based on an examination of American, Japanese, and Russian archives, and which concludes that Soviet entry was decisive in forcing Japanese surrender (not the atomic bombs), that Truman and his advisers had reasonable alternatives and they chose not to use them, and that the US issued the Potsdam ultimatum as an excuse to justify use of the bomb rather than as a warning to the Japanese.


David T. Beito - 8/1/2005

http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/13528.html


Don Adams - 8/1/2005

It is ironic, to say no more, that the authors of this article call for Americans to "grapple anew" with the legacy of Hiroshima while they themselves seem not to have grappled at all with the most recent scholarship on this topic. Anyone interested in a lucid and compelling overview of what has been learned in just the last 10 years should read Richard Frank's recent piece in the Weekly Standard (it can be seen at weeklystandard.com, under the 7/29/05 posts). As Frank explains, recently released transcripts of radio intercepts from the war have made clear that Truman, Marshall, Nimitz, and essentially everyone else was convinced that far from surrendering or collapsing, the Japanese had both the will and the means to defend themselves extravagantly. Indeed, it seems that there was such concern about Japan's continued strength and resolve that America's planned land invasion was unlikely to have gone forward with or without the bomb. The human costs would simply have been too appalling to support.

Frank also reminds us of the fact, always forgotten by commentators such as Maley and Mohan, that 250,000 or more people, most of them civilians, were dying each month of the war. Speculation about "what would have happened" is an uncertain business, but one need not come up with projected figures in the event of an American invasion in order to find compelling justification for the use of the bomb. Could things have been done differently? Was the second bomb really necessary? Reasonable people can debate such matters, but to ignore the growing body of evidence about Japan's strength and intentions is just a notch or two down the kook-scale from holocaust denial.

What is clear is that Maley and Mohan aren't interested in any kind of "grappling" that does not lead to their pre-determined state of guilt and shame. They have decided not only what happened, but how we should all feel about it, and apparently they have little need to grapple for themselves with new or contradictory evidence.


lola balut basyang - 8/1/2005

The hiroshima incidence must be left in the dustbin for the meantime . As it will polarize the allies needlessly. Those who are pushing for this recollection as well as the koisumi's nakasune visits are just balloney. It places Japan in the wrong direction. Japan must not alienate his allies now ,she could use them as a factor to recover the south kuriles/ northern territories from russia . Now is the time .

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