A Thought Experiment

At the Boston Globe, James Carroll has a very thoughtful column on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You might remember that the Hiroshima bombing occurred 64 years ago this week. Carroll does not defend the bombings — in his words, they were “a mistake and a crime” — but he acknowledges that people who were adults in 1945 saw the bombings very differently from those of us who know them from history books. However, he says that “To firmly regret atomic use in the past is to invite absolute renunciation of nuclear weapons in the present and future.” Firm regret is an imperative.

Within the spirit of firm regret I’d also like to see a little more — well, actually, a lot more — humility across the board regarding the bombings. Living memory of World War II is fading, and it’s unrealistic to expect people who have firmly held a point of view for many years to change it. But I think it would be very useful for those of us who came along later to be able to acknowledge that the decision to bomb Hiroshima was not as simple at the time as it seems to most of us today.

Please let me be clear that I am not defending the dropping of the bomb. However, I think if we could put ourselves in the places of the decision-makers of 1945 — knowing only what they knew, feeling what they felt — there are lessons to be learned that we have not learned from the way we remember Hiroshima.

Except on the extreme Right there is widespread consensus that the bomb should never be dropped again, and that’s good. But because we’ve enshrined the bombings of Hiroshima and Hagasaki as events apart from the course of ordinary history, we are not hearing everything the bombings are saying to us.

With the passage of time, events can take on symbolic meaning that obscures factual events and muddies the lessons we might have learned. We see this a lot on the Right, where historic figures become archetypes for virtues or faults that have little to do with reality. For example, Winston Churchill represents never-back-down resolve, when at times the real Churchill did advise backing down. The hapless Neville Chamberlain has been cast in the role of “liberal appeaser,” when in fact Chamberlain was a Conservative whose style of governing closely resembled that of George W. Bush.

My point is that people and events of history can, over time, take on symbolic meaning that can be considerably removed from the actual person or event, and these symbols are often made by our own projections more than by what the real historical person actually did or how the real historical event actually happened. And then the deeper lessons we might have learned are brushed aside in favor of our own biases.

It’s useful, I think, to acknowledge the atomic bomb today has taken on a symbolic meaning it didn’t have in 1945. Consider that possibly as many or more people had been killed in the March 1945 Tokyo firebombings, by conventional bombs dropped from B-52 29s, as would die in Hiroshima. Deaths in Japan from all conventional bombs dropped in the course of the war far exceeded the number of people killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the conventional bombings of Japan have passed from the collective consciousness of the American general public, and today “conventional bombing” lacks the metaphorical clout of “mushroom cloud.”

Indeed, some seem to have the attitude that conventional bombing isn’t that big a deal; it’s only nuclear bombing that is unthinkable. Is that the lesson we should be taking?

Let’s go back to 1945. It would be a few years, I believe, before the lingering danger of radioactive fallout would be fully appreciated. It would be a few years before it began to dawn on most people that full-scale thermonuclear war could wipe out our entire species. At the time, as far as most decision makers knew, what they had was a really big bomb with no more moral weight attached to it than any other bomb they had dropped already. Even many of the physicists didn’t seem to fully appreciate what it was they had made until after it was dropped.

And for those whose knowledge of the bloodbath in the Pacific was fresh, raw and oozing — not acted out heroically by John Wayne on the big screen — and who anticipated more months of hand-to-hand carnage, the bomb must have seemed the mother of all magic bullets.

Yes, there were military experts who believed the war could have been concluded as quickly without the bomb. But there were other experts, with titles just as impressive, with just as many stars on their shoulders and medals on their chests, who said otherwise. Would you have known which argument to believe in 1945? How would you have known?

I think it’s important to be able to acknowledge the decision was difficult, because otherwise we take no lessons from it that we can apply to other decisions. This applies to those who defend the decision to drop the bomb as much as to those who think the decision indefensible. It would be useful to suspend judgments and look at the decision, and the decision makers, dispassionately. What did they know? What did they not know? What were the reasons expressed at the time for dropping or not dropping the bomb? How might we know how and when the war would have ended had the bomb not been used? How much did bias and emotion effect the decision? What lessons can be taken from this (beyond “the bomb is bad”), and how can we apply those lessons to national security decisions being made today?

It may be that history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way. If the only lesson we take from Hiroshima is “don’t drop nuclear bombs,” what are we missing? The next magic bullet to come along and promise to end an intractable situation probably will not be a nuclear bomb, but something entirely different. When the decision is made whether to use that shiny new thing, will we have learned any lessons from Hiroshima?

39 thoughts on “A Thought Experiment

  1. My recollection is that the experts predicted 1 million American soldiers would be killed or wounded if we invaded the Japanese homeland. Given that plus the absolute lack of knowledge of radiation posioning, how could a responsible leader not use the bomb?

    Public opinion would eviserate a president once it was known that he (Truman, in this case) had a way to end the war and chose not to.

  2. A couple thoughts. In hindsight, it’s easier to see how the decision to drop the bomb could’ve been done differently, and that’s normal – we make a decision with imperfect knowledge, step into the unknown, and then later realize what we should’ve done differently, how it could’ve been better. From my own imperfect standpoint some 50 years after the fact. the bomb would better have been first dropped on unpopulated areas (islands?) near Japan, close enough to warn the Japanese of what could follow. I don’t have problems with the fact that the atomic bomb was eventually used – the alternative was firestorms via conventional bombing, and massive allied casualties during the eventual invasion.

    About mythmaking on the right. I’m forever amused whenever I drive down the 405 freeway in Orange County, California, past the John Wayne airport. Ronald Reagan was apparently unavailable back when the airport needed christening, and so they settled for another celluloid cowboy – an actor, who in real life hated riding horses, and hated saying “ain’t”. Never let reality get in the way of righties’ need for heroic fantasy. But then, this is just one part of the fabric of too much time in the sun Republicanism as found in Orange County.

  3. “When the decision is made whether to use that shiny new thing, will we have learned any lessons from Hiroshima?”
    The answer is probably not…
    Mankind has never NOT used the latest weapon. Artillary was supposed to end war if it was used. So was the Gatling Gun. Gas. The airplane. Etc., etc., etc… Because each new generation of war machine(s) was more effective at killing than the last. And yet, each got incorporated in the toolbox available to be used in the next war.
    Whatever the next generations of weapon are developed, it would be a break from human nature’s history to not use it.

  4. Actually, there is a fair amount of evidence that Japan was preparing to surrender when we became the only country to ever use WMD on a civilian population, unless you count Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds at Hallabja. Gore Vidal has written extensively about this. We nuked Japan to scare the Russians away, as Truman feared they had imperial designs on occupying Japan. In my mind, when we used nukes on Japan it became a certainty that someone will use them on us. You reap what you sow.

    • Sam, FYI, I have found historical factual errors in Gore Vidal’s books and articles, so while he is a strong writer he’s not a historian. That said, there is speculation that discouraging the Soviets was part of the reason Truman decided to go ahead with the bomb, but not the whole reason.

  5. In support of your contention that the danger of fallout wasn’t known then: I recently saw an interesting piece on this period on (I think) the History Channel. They said that US plans had been found that called for a “softening up” of Japan prior to invasion, using SEVEN nuclear bombs. The plans called for the American servicemen to go in right after the bombs were used. Of course, we know now what the result would have been: the Americans would have died from radiation poisoning right along with the Japanese. Obviously the planners didn’t know that then. Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered and the plan wasn’t used.

    • beckya57 — I don’t know how much the physicists might have suspected about fallout, but it seems to have taken the government and most everyone else several years to fully comprehend the danger of fallout. Our government exploded a few dozen nuclear bombs above ground in Nevada, the last in 1962. People could see the mushroom clouds from Las Vegas. By then people knew about fallout, but it still doesn’t seem to have registered that above-ground nuclear testing might be dangerous to anyone.

  6. I think I saw today where the Pentagon wants a bigger conventional bomb. The issue as I see it is waging war on civilian populations. Plainly the idea of eliminating a population when you are an invading culture–think Europeans genocide against Native Americans–has been around since the first hominid picked up a rock, but until WWII the US had not so deliberately targeted civilians apart from Native Americans. The post mentions the firebombing of Tokyo, but my first thought was Dresden. The key element in all the examples is that while they were military targets, the main damage was inflicted on civilians. Since then the US has refrained from delibertly targeting civilians–to the dismay of many on the lunatic right–but I do not doubt for a minute that if folks like Dick Cheney or Dumbya thought that we needed to target civilians we would. It is the same way with biological and chemical weapons. The only reason we do not use them, and nuclear weapons, is because we can win most any battle without them. That is why war is really an awful thing, not to be rushed into by people who have no appreciation of its horrors. That is a lesson the Japanese took from Hiroshama and Nagasaki, but plainly we did not.

  7. I will defend the bombings. As has already been pointed out millions of Americans would have died to take Japan. Add to that the FANATICAL resistance of the Japanese population (out of indoctrination and fear) that we know WORKED in Okinowa and millions more Japanese would have died. Add to that Russia invasion which would have been the disaster for Japan that it proved to be for N. Korea and Eastern Eruope and as stunning as it seems, the dropping of the bombs saved millions and millions of Japanese lives and made things better in the long run because we were able to see first hand how bad nukes could be.

  8. Terry, I can only hope you are right. We do not target civilians! When they are in the way however, I remain unconvinced. On another point, I fear you are wrong, we are not able to win any battle without nuclear weapons. It is only what remains of a conscience in the U.S. that has kept us from using them lately. Let’s just hope we keep at least that much conscience and grow enough not to start pre-emtive and unwinnable wars. General Wesley Clark has said, if you can’t stand atrocities during war, don’t have one. Atrocities come with war. That is at least one thing we should learn soon and then pray we never have to face a situation like WWII again.

  9. the hiroshima bomb and my birth occurred on the same day and my mother tells of a nurse crying at the news…not for the japanese but for her son on duty in the pacific..she knew he would be coming home soon…it is a bit silly to debate this issue from a 2009 perspective..had truman not used the bomb and 100,000 americans had died in the invasion he would have been shot for treason…we at this time cannot understand the deep hatred most americans had for japan

  10. “I will defend the bombings. As has already been pointed out millions of Americans would have died to take Japan.”

    “made things better in the long run because we were able to see first hand how bad nukes could be.”

    Wow that’s pretty rich. That’s like stabbing your friend and saying man it’s a good thing you got stabbed so we could see how bad the wound would be. If anyone really thinks our government didn’t know how horrible these weapons would prove then I think you have your head up your?

  11. The key element in all the examples is that while they were military targets, the main damage was inflicted on civilians.

    My understanding was that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted because they had never been bombed before and the US wanted a pristine target to gage the complete effects of the A bomb. Both cities, as I am told, didn’t have a significant enough role in the Japanese industrial war effort to qualify for American air strikes. It’s true that both cities could be considered military targets in the sense that they were both cities within a country that we were at war with, but in the traditional sense of air campaign bombings to stop war production they didn’t measure up.

  12. “But the conventional bombings of Japan have passed from the collective consciousness of the American general public”

    I live a few hundred meters from the most critical point of the Tokyo firebombings where tens of thousands were burnt, drowned or boiled alive in the Sumida river as they fled the firestorm. There isn’t one single marker or notice in a sweeping area replete with Emperor inaugurated bridge and public spaces. All Japanese are taught in high school books about the firebombings with graphic images but otherwise treat it in a vague manner leaving me finding it odd that I have to act as tour guide for Japanese visiting my house and explain it to them.

    The issue seems to be a power struggle or political football between 2 dislikable groups; the Rightists/Nationalists who want to apologise for the war to students with shock images of the issue and Conservatives/US Alliance appeasers who try to bury the issue by failing to have any reference to the issue recorded beyond the school reference. In Japan the Right Wing and the Conservatives are oddly distinct entities. Perhaps more like the difference between the rednecks and the corporate class you have in the USA. One should note that the education system is dominated by the Right here. For once (sorry!) I wouldn’t blame the Americans for their lack of historical perspective. The issue is hobbled before it even leaves Japan.

  13. By mid-1945, Japan was in desperate shape. Okinawa had fallen in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific. Her navy was rusting on the bottom. Her merchant fleet was sunk. Her cities had been firebombed to ashes. Starvation was around the corner. The best troops remaining to Tojo were trapped in China with no way home to defend the home islands. Logically, it was hopeless. Yet. They. Did. Not. Surrender. They did not even bring it up with the emperor. The firebombing of Tokyo. They did not surrender. Hiroshima. They did not surrender. Nagasaki. Finally the emperor spoke. It hadn’t exactly turned out joto for the empire. He insisted on surrender. The old men, women, and children who had been training with bamboo spears and learning to paddle suicide torpedoes and how to rush the gaijin with a grenade to die gloriously before they were 12…they could stand down. Some fanatics tried to kill Hirohito to prevent his rescript telling the country to bow to the conquerers from being broadcast. They failed. The surrender was announced. A few pilots flew off to die in a suicide mission. But only a few. Units of the 82nd airborne landed at Atsugi as did MacArthur. A Japanese division lined both sides of the road facing out towards a silent, defeated people. The small contingent drove to the Imperial Hotel in downtown Tokyo without incident. The Japanese obeyed the emperor when he told them to no longer die for him. They had been obeying the opposite command for a decade and would have continued to honor it to their death and the deaths of all around them. The bombs caused the surrender. They saved millions of Japanese lives and perhaps hundreds of thousands of GIs and Marines.
    Was it a war crime? In retrospect, maybe. At the time, no. Of course the victors get to define war crimes (as in executing Japanese for waterboarding American POWs). If you are not ambivalent about the bomb, you are not human. However, adding it all up–as Maha does very well–on balance, it had to be done and actually saved lives, Japanese live, as well the lives of their conquered subjects in Asia, as well as the lives of Americans who only wanted to get it over with and go home.

  14. “Wow that’s pretty rich. That’s like stabbing your friend and saying man it’s a good thing you got stabbed so we could see how bad the wound would be. If anyone really thinks our government didn’t know how horrible these weapons would prove then I think you have your head up your?”

    This response is full of fail. They didn’t know, not about the nuclear fall out, that is why their initial observations of the bomb were far too close and far less protection. That’s why they were debating using nukes tactically in an invasion of Kyushu. And it has been shown that the firebombing of German and Japanese (particularly Japanese since they used more wood) cities cost orders of magnitude more lives than the nuclear fallout. If you stab your friend in the back so his arms and legs don’t get shot off and his face kicked in by a boot, then yes, it’s damn good for him.

    The choice is was not between nuking and nothing, and it scared the world enough to prevent nuclear attacks since. In that sense it was worthwhile.

  15. “This response is full of fail. They didn’t know, not about the nuclear fall out, that is why their initial observations of the bomb were far too close and far less protection.”

    Your observations do not take into account the pentagons historic lack of regard for the well being of front line soldiers. They don’t give a shit about the well being of anyone, all they care about is proving the effectiveness of the latest weapon system, so to perpetuate the billions in profits funneled from the taxpayers wages to the pockets of the military industrial complex corporate cronies. I was in the Army in 1982, I was a 13B cannoneer, I was on a nuclear team that would if called upon fire a nuclear armed 155mm shell, our howitzer could not fire the shell far enough for us to be out of the potential contamination zone! That didn’t stop the Army brass; we had the 155mm nuclear program anyway. So to say the initial observations lack of protection was somehow out of not knowing falls on deaf ears with me. The only people that military leaders have less regard for then the frontline soldier is the enemy we are engaged with at the time.

  16. We can second guess Truman’s decision, and there will be a range of opinions, as the comments have shown.

    Looking forward instead of back, what I am horrified by now is not so much atomic bombs, but robot wars, of the kind we’re now waging in the Middle East. I’ve read of soldiers sitting in air conditioned bunkers in Palmdale California directing aerial drones and motorized machine guns thousands of miles away with joy sticks and video screens, indistinguishable (to them) as if it were another video game.

    This makes it so easy to engage in warfare, since fewer flesh and blood soldiers are risked. Those inflicting pain and anguish are even more separated now from the consequences. I was horrified by the karmic burden Bush and Cheney created by invading the Middle East on false pretenses, murdering many thousands in the process, and this latest iteration in warfare will make it even easier for the powers that be to spill yet more blood.

    Atomic bombs aren’t going away, and I fear that these will be used again, probably by terrorists.

    I don’t know what it will take to make America truly a force for peace in the world. I do know that our country has been a force for both good and evil, and that karma is a bitch. I do know that peace must begin in individual hearts, which is going to include a coming to terms with what our country has turned into, and taking responsibility for it.

  17. MNPundit: it’s hard to calculate what saves lives ‘in the long run’ until a long run has passed, and you run the experiment twice. So much can go wrong.

    Naturally Truman decided, even lacking vital information; that’s what decision-makers get to do. But by now time has passed, and we know better; so now we can re-think the matter. That’s what _we_ get to do.

    And in retrospect, the bombings had predictable bad consequences. Perhaps a demonstration shot would have done better; but of course we can’t know that. What we do know is that whatever good the bombings did was fleeting, but the harm was lasting.

  18. moonbat: You’re quite right about the killer drones. I call them coward’s weapons. But this is nothing new; in fact it’s the logical completion of the corruption of power.

  19. Invading Japan wasn’t the only option – we could have done a naval blockade. In any case, nuking civilians was immoral and was an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

  20. What impresses me with the robot wars is that every time we fire a missile from a drone it only kills terrorist. Even in Iraq when F-14’s flying at several hundred miles an hour bombed a building only terrorists were killed….How do the bombs know to detect only terrorist? Do they have psychic ability programmed into them?

  21. somebody knew the atomic bomb was not business-as-usual, even for that war:

    “Trinity was the first test of technology for an atomic weapon. It was conducted by the United States on July 16, 1945, at a location 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Socorro, New Mexico on the White Sands Proving Ground, headquartered near Alamogordo. Trinity was a test of an implosion-design plutonium bomb. Using the same conceptual design, the Fat Man device was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9. The Trinity detonation was equivalent to the explosion of around 20 kilotons of TNT and is usually considered the beginning of the Atomic Age.

    After the initial euphoria of witnessing the explosion passed, test director Kenneth Bainbridge commented to Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer,

    Now we are all sons of bitches.

    Oppenheimer later stated that while watching the test he was reminded of a line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita:

    I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    Of course, he didn’t say that at the time.

  22. Speaking of the drones — because one quickly tires of the endless repetitive debates on this issue that deserves better — am I the only person in America who is acutely uncomfortable to read of “17 [or whatever] killed in suspected US bomb attack”?

    Gee, this bomb went off and no group seems to taking responsitibility for it, but the experts are convinced that it was the work of a group known as “The United States of America”.

    I know my country behaves like a terrorist at times, and a war criminal, but might there not be some limits?

  23. I have read that one of the main reasons for bombing Heroshima and Nagasaki was to show Stalin what was in store for the Soviets should they advance into Japan.
    As for the argument about if it was necessary, I don’t know.
    Looking back over the soon to be 55th year since I drew my first breath, I have arrived at the sad conclusion that man is little more than a race of killer apes.
    Every wonderous invention, from the “horseless carriage” to the Wright brother’s flying machine, is fitted with bombs or guns in short order.We have invented potions and machines that can kill everything on the planet many times over, and still press on to find even more ways to kill.

    As the years pass, I’m dumbfound at the ease in which politicians and military brass can recruite civilians to commit acts of unspeakable horror in the name of some nebulous cause born of lies and deceit, how we have been duped into building an enormous war machine with global reach, and bases through out the
    world, while ignoring our own economic and health considerations.
    So much has been said about a “terrorist” with a nuke, while we have forgotten the terror brought to us by one man and a teenage boy several years ago in Virginia, who were armed with the most conventional of conventional weapons.

    We live in a world of illusion concocted on Madison Avenus, one built on myths and legends, ego, bread and circus, and the notion that we are “special”.
    To many, nothing exists beyond our shores but a vast wasteland of socialists and primitives.We are the champions………..

  24. Japan did offer to surrender before the bombs were dropped, but with many conditions including the emperor stayed in power. This was after firebombings that had killed many thousands and destroyed entire cities. The 2 nuclear weapons accounted for less than 5% of area destroyed, in spite of their power. As regrettable as it was to use such horrific weapons, to somehow think that those that died in fire storms were better off seems a bit odd. And as many have said, and actual land invasion of Japan, which was still being prepared for, would have cost many more lives.

    Then the question becomes, is it all right to kill one person to save a thousand? And if so, where do we draw the line. Can we kill 999 people to save a thousand, or is that one more life not sufficient to draw a distinction, even knowing that a thousand will die.

    War does not usually offer you a choice between what is right and what is wrong, if you are lucky enough to even have a choice, it is almost entirely between evils. And the longer you fight, the less you are able to recognize the evil, as survival, whether your own or your countries, is the only thing that matters any more.

  25. There are no arguments that justify incinerating 60,000 children on their way to school and then repeating the indefensable act on another city . End of argument, those involved go directly to hell and those of us who come later pay for the rest of time.

  26. I am reading “The Inheritance” by David E Sanger. In talking about Korea, I read this morning, that Truman refused to let MacArthur use nuclear weapons in Korea and that was one of the causes of MacArthur being fired.

    Maybe there was a “lesson learned.” However, U.S. negotiators did keep the nuclear option on the table.

  27. but historians conclude now, with varying degrees of consensus, that diplomacy could have done the job.

    This was the most questionable assertion of his piece, I think, although I may well have missed pieces – I know a few WWII buffs who follow this much more carefully and are more up to date on historical “consensus.” These discussions come up at least every year, some are very good, but others can become pretty simplistic and revisionist. I thought his piece and yours were both quite thoughtful.

    The atomic bomb is/was horrific. Trying to scare the Soviets was probably a factor, but not the only one. The second bombing is less defensible because the date was moved up due to weather. I hope the bomb’s never used again. Japan has plenty of fiction and non-fiction on the terrible effects of the bombing on a personal level (Kurosawa’s film Rhapsody in August, for example). The pacifist movement in Japan is strongly rooted in the memory of those bombings. But I do think it’s important to try to understand the frame of reference at the time for both the Americans and the Japanese, and not discount the decisions of the Japanese military.

    War is fought by governments and elites, and civilians are generally caught in the middle and suffer the greatest costs. As Robert McNamara related in The Fog of War, he and Curtis Lemay would probably have been tried for war crimes had America lost. There’s always been some hypocrisy along with the death and destruction of war. I believe war should only be fought as a last resort, and often the threshold has been far too low (WWI and the Iraq War, for example).

    The Wiki page on the strategic bombing of Japan is accurate to my knowledge – I’ve seen the book (or a similar one) which had the same basic stats on the percentage of Japanese cities destroyed by firebombing. We don’t hear about that as much over here, but the level of destruction was staggering. Firebombs were especially nasty on traditional Japanese homes built of wood and paper, and if the bombers succeed in creating a firestorm, they could quickly wipe out entire neighborhoods. If you see photos, parts of Tokyo and other cities were absolutely leveled, visually comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki – although those two cities had the added horrors of fallout. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t bombed conventionally so that they’d be relatively pristine to demonstrate the power of the atomic bomb. (On the fallout angle, if you watch the doc The Atomic Café, the army in one newsreel after WWII had soldiers marching over a nuclear test site right after a detonation, armed with little badges that were supposed to show whether they’d been lethally exposed to radiation – they really didn’t know the full effects.)

    The Japanese high command didn’t necessarily represent the views of average Japanese citizens. The leaders sought to expand the empire, and many of the military brass were ultra-nationalistic and extremely bigoted. The Chinese know that very well, as do any survivors of the Bataan death march. Non-Japanese were seen as lesser beings, and since surrender was seen as dishonorable, POWs were often treated very harshly, including torture. The Japanese did start the war with a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, and they rejected the Potsdam Declaration (although there are still debates about whether poor translation added to problems there). Late in the war, America could pretty much bomb Japan at will. I’ve read that eventually, a single U.S. naval task force had more firepower than the entire remaining Japanese navy, and the Japanese mainland’s anti-aircraft capacities were woeful. Japanese civilians were asked to gather old clothes to form makeshift balloons to which dynamite was attached – in the hopes that one would hit an attacking plane. It was desperate and tragic. Even at that stage, the Japanese high command refused to surrender, sometimes lied to their own generals about their remaining capacity, and really believed – insanely – they still could win the war if they forced the U.S. to invade by land. When the emperor decided at last to surrender, some of the more ultra-nationalistic military fanatics attempted an unsuccessful coup. None of that frees America entirely from culpability, but it’s not as if the Japanese leadership was rational or peace-loving, and whitewashing that gives a very distorted picture.

    In the end, the civilians paid the greatest price, as they do in every war. I hope we never use the atomic bomb again. I’d also like to see an end to unnecessary wars, and to torture and other human rights abuses. The dropping of the atomic bombs is a good reason for us to soul-search, but as you note, it’s also wise to distinguish between history and perspectives at the time and the more symbolic significance they have for us now. Anyway, thanks for the post, Maha.

  28. About a dozen years ago I was in Hiroshima (installing equipment for measuring radiation doserates–in areas of Russia used for nuclear testing,as it happens), and was rather spooked at the original Ground Zero. I was a year old when that bomb was dropped, read the Hershey book in middle school, and was vehemently against use of nuclear weapons. Then I went to the Peace Museum. I found it painfully honest, and to my surprise,and very much to my shock, came away with the feeling (judgment if you will, or opinion) that the bombing of Hiroshima actually was justified. I was and still am uncomfortable with this, but there were several points that made Hiroshima a proper military target. It was a center of munitions manufacture, the port of debarkation for the invasion of SE Asia. It had not been targeted much before. The use by the Japanese government of schoolchildren as human shields was dishonorable. I believe that those involved with the decision to use the atomic weapon did not know just how horrible the results would be. The firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden have rightly been condemned in retrospect, but have not been accorded the singular opprobrium of the altogether new horror of the nuclear. I still think that the bombing of Nagasaki a week later was unnecessary, and a war crime. I do not want to justify the bombing of Hiroshima at all, but would we be as shocked if conventional bombs had killed as many? I admit to carrying some old baggage. I still harbor distrust of the Japanese and German people as a whole, even though I have Japanese and German friends and know that the governments have changed immensely, and for the better. Hell, one of my daughters-in-law is Japanese. Things have moved very quickly in the past century, and we often tend to forget the perceived realities at the time that events occurred. But we did learn how horrifying and awful the use of atomic weapons was, and virtually all have resolved that it never happen again. However, it would be dishonest intellectually to use 20/20 hindsight to condemn all those who judged it necessary in 1945. I am not saying that it was RIGHT to drop that bomb, but that a good case could be made at the time. It should never happen again.

  29. The American military knew all about the effects radiation. To say otherwise is to promulgate ignorance.

    Madam Curie learned and wrote about the deleterious effects in the 1890s, the ladies that hand painted the glow-in-the-dark-radium onto watch dials all died of horrific cancers at the turn of the century because they were licking their Radium paint brushes.

    The US Government had known for 50 years about the radioactive ‘side-effects’ of nuclear materials. The Trinity test measured the radioactivity levels after the blast. Indeed, their initial estimates were that the radioactivity would last for years.

    The US military, for the next several decades, eagerly condemned thousands of soldiers and civilian support staff to suffer long-term effects of radiation without health care or compensation solely because they could get away with it. The Downwinders in Nevada and Utah were all denied reimbursement for their nuclear-test related radiation poisoning solely because the USA could get away with it.

    The US Government clearly committed a War Crime in 1945 by using a weapon with known radioactive long-term effects on cities of civilians that had negligible military value.

    All that being said, I’ve met numerous Hibakusha (Japanese for ‘those that received [the nuclear bombs]), and I’ve interviewed many of them. They have to enmity or hatred toward America for doing this. They are all sad because they are now dying from old age and their First Person narratives are being lost. They are all sad because nuclear weapons are still being developed, tested and deployed. They are sad because the Nuclear Weapons States are not fulfilling their legal obligations to Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They are sad because the US and Russia STILL have large nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert ready to launch within 90 seconds of command, with major cities still targeted in their guidance systems.

    The Cold War ended, but the US and Russia still have loaded ‘guns’ pointed at each other’s heads, with the hammers cocked and their fingers on the triggers.

    Next year is the Review Conference for the NPT at the UN in NYC. For the first time in 10 years, America has a President that may be cajoled into making progress in fulfilling it’s legal obligations to the treaty. When I was at the Review Conference in 2005, the standing orders of the Bush State department were to stall the whole process, to object to everything, just to be total 4$$holes.

    It is the height of double-speak for the US to criticize Iran for legally utilizing nuclear power under the provisions of the NPT while simultaneously refusing it’s own obligations to dismantle it’s own nuclear arsenal.

    • Of course they knew about radiation, genius. But for some reason the effects of fallout took them by surprise. This is historic fact, of which you must be really ignorant. And for the “promulgate ignorance” remark, I’m putting you in the moderation filter. I’m not in the mood.

  30. Once a year, in early August, I get to grade America’s journalists. My test is: do they even mention the nuclear assault on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And if so do they condemn the bombings or celebrate them? My grading scale is:

    F = mention and celebrate
    D = don’t mention
    B = mention and agonize
    A = mention and condemn
    Few get better than a C. Maha gets a B+. Many commentators on this thread get an F. Of them I ask; if an American city got bombed, and 64 years later someone from the bombing nation said it was justified, then would you agree?

    I agree that the ‘conventional’ bombing of Tokyo and Dresden were also war crimes. Right and wrong get lost in wartime, for War is Hell. But this just explains the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it does not justify them.

    Whatever benefits came from the bombings were transient; the downside was lasting. I understand that those fighting in the Pacific at the time saw the benefits; they in turn should understand that we who came after see the downside.

    Part of the downside is spiritual. Approving of that much violence has consequences. Some of those earning an F in my test illustrate this psychological fact despite themselves.

  31. To many, nothing exists beyond our shores but a vast wasteland of socialists and primitives.We are the champions………..
    So true.

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