Today is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. The New Yorker is republishing John Hersey’s essay Hiroshima, which originally appeared in the August 31, 1946 issue. The essay centers on six Hiroshima residents who survived the blast, giving us as intimate a view of the devastation as language can provide. Recommended.
Salon is running an essay arguing that America has never owned up to Hiroshima. The author, Christian Appy, argues that the bomb was unnecessary and was dropped purely as an act of cruelty. Appy is a historian, although the body of his published work is on Vietnam, not World War II. I’m not a historian, but I have some familiarity with the sources he cites as well as some he didn’t cite. The phrase “cherry-picked” comes to mind; I’ll come back to this in a bit.
In Rethinking Religion I have a section on “moral clarity,” defined as “a state of mind achieved by staking a fixed position on a presumed moral high ground and then ignoring the details of human life that fog the view.” My primary example of “moral clarifying” are the anti-abortion activists who argue incessantly for the sacredness and rights of the fetus while barely mentioning the woman carrying the fetus in her body.
Appy, and many other liberals, try to pull something like that with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They stake the moral high ground that dropping the bomb was absolutely evil, and then revise history six ways from Sunday to “prove” that the men who chose to drop it were just evil and callous and had some nefarious end other than the stated one, which was to end the war quickly and avoid a ground invasion of Japan.
I do not know if the bomb was militarily “necessary” or a better or worse option than the ground invasion. I don’t think anyone can know such a thing for certain. You can find all kinds of arguments made later, by both generals and historians, for both options. What I do sincerely believe is that the men who were faced with making the decision did not have the “benefit” of moral clarity. Based on the information at hand and recent events in the war, there was no “good” option in front of those men that would clearly have avoided a massive loss of life, including Japanese civilian lives. Many liberals today fervently want to believe otherwise, but I think that’s revisionism.
Yesterday I read arguments that Japan was just about to surrender, anyway (not according to any history I’ve read). I read arguments that the Japanese people could just have been starved until they surrendered. I fail to see why that would be a more moral option, especially considering the loss of life probably would have been even higher. One genius commenting on Appy’s article was absolutely certain the bomb was dropped to intimidate the U.S.S.R., whom the commenter imagined was about to come to the aid of Japan. Why the U.S.S.R. might have done that I can’t imagine; the U.S.S.R. still needed the Allies, and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), in which Japan pretty much handed Russia its ass, had not yet passed from memory. Another theory was that the bomb was about the Cold War, and was dropped as a warning to the U.S.S.R. But the Cold War hadn’t really begun yet and wasn’t really on anyone’s radar in 1945, I don’t think.
If we’re discussing the morality of something, there’s an understandable human tendency to want to find oneself on the side of the angels, whatever that might be. The knee-jerk tendency of some is to cite Japanese atrocities committed in World War II to argue that Japan “deserved” Hiroshima, but I reject that as a moral argument. It’s not up to us to judge what other people, especially civilians, “deserve.”
The knee-jerk tendency of others is to seize the moral high ground by deriding the decision itself, to portray the dropping of the Bomb as utterly evil, unnecessary, and proof of the moral depravity of the U.S. government and military. This position allows one no end of indulgent self-righteousness while appearing to be “smart” about what that sneaky government really is up to. But that’s a post-Vietnam view of things.
So why was the bomb dropped? By June 1945 the U.S. had made elaborate plans for a ground invasion of Japan, fortified by blockades and bombardments. Several invasion scenarios were on the table. The Joint War Plans Committee prepared casualty estimates for each. The Committee emphasized that any number they might give could be wildly off. Appy cited one of these estimates, 40,000 killed. That was a lowball; the Committee also said that the deaths could total as many as 220,000 if the Allied troops were forced to seize all of the island of Kyushu and the Tokyo plain. The staffs of generals MacArthur and Nimitz also prepared death estimates in the quarter million range. Appy doesn’t mention that.
Soon after these estimates were provided military intelligence learned it had drastically underestimated the number of Japanese troops on Kyushu, the island chosen for the initial invasion. The invasion plans had assumed there were 300,000 Japanese troops on Kyushu that June; on August 2, an MIS report stated there were at least 534,000 troops on Kyushu, and possibly more. [source]
Put another way — by the first week in August, the estimated total of Japanese army and naval combat troops on Kyushu alone was more than six times what it had been on Okinawa. Note that the combined death toll of Allied and Japanese troops and civilians on Okinawa is still disputed, but could have been as high as 240,000. Nearly a quarter of a million. Most of those casualties were civilians, many of whom committed suicide.
By the first week in August, the old casualty estimates had been pretty much tossed out the window. Appy doesn’t mention that.
President Truman said after the war that Gen. George Marshall had told him an invasion would cost “at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties and might cost as much as a million.” Truman may have been making excuses for himself, but the quarter million number was consistent with other estimates.
Meanwhile, the bomb itself was an unknown factor. From what I’ve read, for example, pretty much everyone underestimated the danger from fallout. We’ve had 70 years of living with nuclear weapons as a fact, and of watching movies and reading novels in which humankind destroyed itself with thermonuclear weapons. The Bomb has had 70 years to take its place in our collective subconscious as the mythical One Forbidden Thing; the thing that must never be done. But in 1945, nuclear weapons weren’t unthinkable yet.
So, knowing only what Harry Truman knew in August 1945, looking only at the options he had in front of him, what do you do?
I’m not sure there was a “right” decision. There was no clear, easy out. Any decision made would have resulted in unbearable loss of life. I think it’s entirely possible that if the bombs had never been dropped, today we’d be complaining that America has never apologized for the bloodbaths on Kyushu and Honshu, and if Truman had just dropped the bomb much of that could have been avoided. We’ll never know, of course. It’s also foolish to assume that if the U.S. had never developed the Bomb there’d be no nuclear stockpiles today.
My larger point, though, is that if we’re going to own up to something, we need to own up to how difficult a decision that was to make. Real-time, real-world moral decisions often are very, very difficult. Often, “moral clarity” is achievable only if we close our eyes to most of the facts. Often there’s no “good” solution. This is how it is. It’s childish to assume everything sorts itself into good and evil, and we can just choose good and remain pure.
It’s also estimated that the incendiary bombs dropped on Japan by B-29s could have resulted in as many as 200,000 civilian deaths, and many people were burned alive. Yet, somehow, we’re never asked to don sackcloth and ashes about those deaths, even though they seem just as terrible to me. This speaks to the unique place the atomic bomb occupies in our collective subconscious, I think.
For the record, the official estimates of killed and wounded in Hiroshima (150,000) and Nagasaki (75,000) are no doubt conservative and may have exceeded the loss of life from firebombing. But we don’t know for certain.
But to my mind, arguing about the morality of the bomb is the wrong argument. We should be thinking about the morality of killing, by any means, as an instrument of policy, period. That would be the better way to remember Hiroshima.