How To Justify Hiroshima

Anyone who thinks the bombings were even slightly questionable must be “historically illiterate.”


As Barack Obama prepares to become the first sitting President to visit the Hiroshima bombing site in Japan, pundits are already forecasting a new wave of justifications for the attacks and criticisms of Obama’s “apology tours.” Already, Michael Auslin of Forbes has put out an article claiming the attacks were inevitable and necessary, and that “no American president president need ever apologize” for it. The “Patriot Post” mocked Obama for feeling sorry about “winning World War II.”

Vigorous defenses of America’s conduct in the war, and its use of the atomic bombs, have been made since virtually the moment of their being dropped. The arguments made when Obama visits Hiroshima will be well-worn and familiar. Commentary surrounding the President’s Japan visit is likely to follow predictable patterns that have now repeated themselves for over seventy years.

All kinds of hideous acts are justified every day for one reason or another, and, there is nothing truly remarkable about the fact that people continue to defend the annihilation of 125,000 human beings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there is something curious about these inevitable outpourings of excuses for America’s conduct. It’s not the argument itself, but the intensity of the sheer certitude with which the acts are justified. Seventy years on, not only do media experts rush to excuse the bombings, but they rush to excuse them with a certitude that one usually sees reserve for the most elementary scientific truths. To these writers, that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified is as obvious as the law of gravity. Argue with a defender of the bombings, attempt to inject the smallest portion of doubt into the consensus, and one will be accused of pacifism and the revisionist conception of history.

Commentary defending the attacks consistently exudes this hyper-confidence in their correctness. A 2013 National Review article on the subject was entitled “Remembering When We Were Strong: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Moral Necessity of a Nuclear Strike.” The author, David French, took the “historically illiterate” and “Christian pacifist[s]” to task for failing to appreciate the costs of “weakness” and the virtues of “decisive force.” In a Forbes article last year, Henry I. Miller wrote that slowly:

the “was it necessary?” Monday-morning quarterbacks emerged and began to question the military necessity and morality of the use of nuclear weapons on Japanese cities.  Since then, there have been periodic eruptions of revisionism, uninformed speculation and political correctness on this subject…

Last year, with the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima attacks, the same kind of confident defenses emerged again. New Criterion editor Roger Kimball described opposition to the bombings as the product of  “the anti-American intelligentsia [and] other sentimentalists of limited worldly experience.” Toby Young, in the British Spectator, complained that because of the anniversary, he was hearing the “predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth about the horrors of nuclear weapons,” even though the Japanese “brought their misfortune on themselves.”

That view is widely shared. Young and the others are all conservatives, but their opinion remains the majority one. A Pew poll taken last year found that 56% of Americans believe the bombings were justified, with only 34% believing they were unjustified. That number does reflect a change; immediately after the war, 85% of Americans believed the bombings were justified. But a belief in the rightness of the bombings continues to persist.

The basic argument in support of this view is a familiar one. The bombings, defenders say, precipitated the Japanese surrender and ended the war. In doing so, they saved millions of lives, both American and Japanese, that would have been lost over the course of an impending American land invasion of Japan. Those who are horrified by the casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are therefore putting unreasoning sentiment above practical necessity. The only moral choice was to drop the bombs, since they ultimately saved lives.

This argument is the one put forward in 1945, and the historical debate has not reached a clear resolution. Opponents of the bombings insist that the decision had little to do with the surrender; the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering anyway, and the bomb was intended to intimidate the Soviets rather than the Japanese.

If discussions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occur on these terms, however, they are destined to be forever irresolvable and polarizing. First, running a historical counterfactual and determining what “would” have happened if the bombs had not been dropped is an impossibility. Second, people’s underlying position on the question of whether nuclear weapons are acceptable is destined to influence their interpretation of the historical evidence. The more horrified one is by nuclear weapons, the more one is likely to want to believe that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender. The more one believes that American foreign policy is a force for good, the more one is likely to believe that the bombings were a well-intentioned effort to help people by a president concerned with minimizing casualties. Pre-existing political tendencies will inevitably color the interpretation of murky historical evidence.

But if the evidence is debatable, then the extreme confidence of the bombings’ defenders is both unwarranted and disturbing. Even if we just have an open question as to whether the slaughter of over one hundred thousand civilians was a necessity or totally pointless, the stakes of the issue seem high enough that conservatives ought to be hesitant before issuing bluster in defense of mass death. With an impossible counterfactual to contend with, a hot dispute among scholars, and a brutal event under discussion, pejoratively writing off disagreement as “illiterate” and “wailing” somewhat undermines one’s confidence in the writers’ capacity for fair assessment.

Indeed, it is the sheer glibness of so much of the disdain that is worrying, that makes one question whether they are even concerned about the moral questions at all. Oliver Kamm, a liberal writer for The Guardian who prominently defends the bombings, felt so chuffed when Noam Chomsky once accused him of “tacit acquiescence to horrendous crimes” that he uses the phrase as a blurb for himself.

Anyone who defends the attacks will inevitably begin by conceding that they were horrible, but for some reason they tend to be remarkably casual. In Kimball’s writing, this toss-off line is phrased in the jaunty phraseology of a Sarah Palinism: “Were those bombings terrible? You betcha.”

In fact, though everyone who supports the attacks’ necessity insists that they care very deeply about the moral question, and that they simply believe the bombings were a tragic necessity, they always emphasize the “necessity” far more than the “tragedy.” Kimball dismisses John Hersey’s eye-opening work of journalism, 1946’s Hiroshima, in one word: “manipulative.” Kamm just refers to the bombings as “terrible,” before immediately launching into his explanation of how all opposition is confused and meritless.

Perhaps, then, it is worth injecting a small piece of Hersey’s reportage, in order to convey some sense of what is written off or undiscussed in the arguments of atomic bomb defenders. Here, Hersey discusses Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath:

Mr Tanimoto… ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands…. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns – of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent and showed no expression whatever. After crossing Koi Bridge and Kannon Bridge, having run the whole way, Mr Tanimoto saw, as he approached the centre, that all the houses had been crushed and many were on fire. Here the trees were bare and their trunks were charred. He tried at several points to penetrate the ruins, but the flames always stopped him. Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general, survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbours, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery. The wounded limped past the screams, and Mr Tanimoto ran past them. As a Christian he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese man he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt, and he prayed as he ran: “God help them and take them out of the fire.”

The passage only gives the narrowest glimpse at the scale of the destruction. But it is hard to imagine how one could sensibly discuss the issue without attempting to envisage some of the suffering involved. Even someone who considers himself a steely-hearted utilitarian, who has no trouble causing 100,000 people to perish if it will save 100,001, must use his capacity for empathetic imagination in order to make an informed assessment of the costs. After all, some deaths involve truly hideous suffering, and without understanding what the situation looks like for its victims, is impossible to even know the stakes of what we are dealing with.

And yet defenders of the bombings never permit the survivors’ stories to intrude upon their arguments. The neoconservative writer Max Boot says that “I don’t think the atomic bombing of Japan was a uniquely reprehensible event.” He would insist that what he means is that the bloody bombing of cities had become commonplace on both sides by 1945, that the bombs were different in type and intensity but otherwise a continuation of existing policy. But in order to make this case persuasively, Boot would need to deal with the fact that survivors beg to differ. Akihiro Takahashi, who was 14 years old when Hiroshima was bombed, and lost his ears and became deformed, was asked directly how the bomb differed from conventional weapons:

A conventional bomb does not have a heat wave. But with the atomic bomb, at the moment of the explosion, a fireball is created with a temperature of millions of degrees Celsius, and the area on the ground below the bomb reached 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius. Steel starts to melt at 1,530 degrees, so that was much hotter than molten steel. Then the wind from the atomic bomb affected an area with a radius of 16 kilometers. At the moment of the explosion, the shock wave spread and was followed by a wind that reached 440 meters per second. Even the most powerful typhoon to hit Japan had a speed of only 82 meters per second. I myself was blown 10 meters by the blast, and the wind caused skin to peel off, eyes to pop out, and intestines to be blown out of the stomach. I myself lost the skin on my arm, and it dangled down from my fingers.

Boot doesn’t mention these unique horrors. In fact, absent from every single defense of the bombings is a vivid description of their consequences. Why is that? After all, if the argument is a practical one, that the bombings were necessary in order to avoid a worse outcome, it should not be necessary to downplay the suffering, or wave it aside in a sentence. But each of them knows that the moment they quote Akihiro Takahashi, the pro-bombing case will begin to sound absurd.

That really is the factor that should make every single Hiroshima defense suspicious. The writers’ level of revulsion just isn’t sufficient to indicate that they really know what they are talking about. The New York Times “human rights” journalist Nicholas Kristof, perhaps known best for his enthusiastic defense of sweatshops, conceded in his own pro-bombing column that “[i]t feels unseemly to defend the vaporizing of two cities.” But anyone who finds this merely “unseemly” can have no appreciation for what the “vaporizing” of cities actually entails. To actually reckon with the reality, one would not have to feel a simple “unseemliness” in defending the bombings, but a deep and tormenting perversity. Again, that isn’t to exclude the possibility of making the “better than the alternative” argument. It is merely to say that in order to make an argument justifying the obliteration of 100,000 civilians, slight discomfort will not do. If the utilitarian case is ever to be made, it must be made through tears. Anything else means the discussion isn’t being treated with the moral seriousness it requires.

Like Boot, Kristof knows that if he goes beyond the abstract, if he talks about the realities of two obliterated cities instead of the debates between Japan’s military and its emperor, he case will be instantly sapped of its force. So matters are kept vague and hypothetical.  Kristof considers the argument that the U.S. ought to have bombed a remote area instead of a highly-populated city, or waited before dropping a second bomb on Nagasaki. “Yes, perhaps” we should have, he says. But there are 100,000 lives at stake in that perhaps.

The other massive omission Kristof makes is one shared by nearly every published defense of the bombing, namely the mentioning of Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and Herbert Hoover. All three believed the bombings to have been horrendous and a mistake. But bizarrely, even as the historical consensus has been somewhat unsettled, and the wisdom of the bombings has been questioned by a greater percentage of Americans, the words of these three figures are still seldom quoted.

Hoover did not mince his words: “The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.” General MacArthur said he saw “no military justification for the dropping of the bomb.” Eisenhower recounted in his memoirs that in the lead-up to the bombing, he was “conscious of a feeling of depression.” He says that he told the Secretary of State that dropping the bomb was “completely unnecessary,” and “our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” Eisenhower affirmed his stance in an interview with Newsweek, saying that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

Nor were these three eminent figures the only high-ranking officials to regret the decision. Truman’s Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, said that in his opinion, “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” The Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz, said in 1945 that “The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” Admiral William Halsey, Commander of the Third Fleet, said in 1946 that “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. . . . It was a mistake to ever drop it.” Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the Air Force, said in 1949 that “it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.”

The quotes go on and on. One can cite dozens of senior military officers and cabinet officials, from the commander of the Strategic Air Force to the Undersecretary of the Navy, all of whom thought the bombing was unnecessary and abhorrent, and many of whom strongly believed it should have been dropped in an uninhabited area instead of in the middle of a hundred thousand civilians. When one reads all of the quotes together, one gets the very strong feeling that, even on the highly questionable assumption that there was a military necessity to the bombings, the decision was not taken with the casualty-minimizing humanitarian carefulness that supporters insist was at play.

Justifiers of the bombings are thus constantly evading the actual difficult questions and evidence. If they were serious, and meant what they said about the bombings being a tragic necessity, they would happily cite the words of Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz, and Leahy to explain why they were all in error. They would tell us why the attacks could revolt the coarsened soul of Herbert Hoover, but do nothing to their own. Instead, they sweep all of their words away as if they were never spoken.

The final tactic used is the accusation of revisionism. Oliver Kamm says that revulsion at the bombings occurred long after, that it “is not how they were judged at the time.” Michael Auslin says critics are “second guessing” at “decades remove.” David French believes that the Left began to “control the narrative.” Kristof cites the new “emerging consensus” driven by revisionism (of course, the poll results cited earlier prove him mistaken on the emergence of any actual “consensus.”)

But it’s false to say that this is mere hindsight, that all criticism is the work of the “Monday morning quarterbacks” in the contemporary left. Arnold and Eisenhower say they knew it was in error at the time of the decision. Nimitz spoke mere months after the bombing, and further criticism erupted within a year. Albert Einstein was quoted in 1946 “deploring” the use of the bomb, and many dissenting writers and thinkers saw the bomb as the harbinger of something deeply and truly terrible. One haunting example comes from a New Yorker writer, Clifton Fadiman, who wrote the following in a 1946 introduction to a book of Ambrose Bierce stories:

On August 6, 1945, the planet, with the United States in the lead, passed half-consciously into an era of despair. With a noiseless flash over Hiroshima, homo sapiens issued the first dramatic announcement of his inability to make a biological success of himself. The next few years or decades seem almost certain to provide planetary wars that will rend and crack and shiver the earth’s thin skin, years of wholesale suicide, years that will paralyze the moral and religious sense of mankind. Civilized man–unless he decides to use his reason–will fall forward into a new and almost unimaginable barbarism.

Fadiman’s words, as well as those of Takahashi, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Einstein, should trouble all of those who speak confidently and casually in defense of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Something so wretched should never be justified with such glib self-assurance.