Hiroshima’s Shadow: crossing a moral line

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Source: Professor Olsen@large

Seventy years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we live under the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used again—possibly but not necessarily by us Americans or on us Americans.

I’m trying to understand the reasons for Hiroshima and Nagasaki by reading Hiroshima’s Shadow:Writing on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, which was recommended by my e-mail pen pal Tanweer Akram of the Bertrand Russell Society.

The book was published after the Smithsonian Institution in 1995 canceled an exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, after the American Legion and the Air Force Association objected to inclusion of material questioning the necessity of the bombing.

It is plain to me as I read this book that  the decision to use the atomic bomb mainly reflected the momentum of two earlier decisions:

  • The decision to wage war against civilians by bombing enemy cities from the air.
  • The decision to develop atomic weapons for that purpose.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_After these choices were made, I think the decision to bomb was, if not inevitable, the path of least resistance.   Once the original bright moral line was crossed, the only issue was whether to do the same thing by means of a new and more horrible method.

I think the consequences of these decisions would still be with us even if the tragedy of Hiroshima could have been avoided.

Americans and Britons once were shocked by the German Zeppelin raids on London during World War Two, the destruction of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese and of the bombing of Rotterdam and Warsaw by the Germans.

But we soon came to accept the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, first as regrettable necessities and then as the new normal.

That new normal is still with us.  Bombing is still the basic American military tactic, even when it doesn’t work.  When your only tool is air power, everything looks like a target.

I was eight years old when the bomb was dropped, and everybody I knew was overjoyed that the war had ended.

Our American hatred of the Japanese was much greater than our hatred of the Germans,  but we and our British allies firebombed the German cities and probably would have dropped atomic bombs on Germany if they had been available.

We hated the Japanese partly because they attacked us, partly because they committed atrocities, but largely because of racism.  A public opinion poll quoted in Hiroshima’s Shadow said 5 percent of Americans regretted dropping the bomb, but 24 percent regretted that we didn’t have more bombs to drop.

The bombing of Hiroshima was a war crime under international law.  It was a crime which was a small part of one of the greatest mass slaughters of human beings in history.

An estimated 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki.  That doesn’t include those who died later from the after-effects of radiation.  The number who died in these two cities exceeded the total number of American deaths in the whole Asia-Pacific War Theater.

But 3 million Japanese and 20 million Chinese were killed from the first Japanese incursions into China in 1931 to the ending of the war in 1945.   Possibly 50 million people were killed in World War Two overall.

At the outset of the war, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and other Allied leaders determined that they were in a fight to the death with a merciless, totalitarian enemy who cared nothing either for international law or ordinary human decency.   In the emergency, they waged war mercilessly and without regard for international law themselves, and this was how war was being waged when Harry Truman became President.

Churchill and Roosevelt probably expected that once the war emergency was over, they could return to pre-war standards of behavior.  This didn’t happen.  The ethics of World War Two became the new normal.  Or maybe, given the history of American slavery and the Indian wars, an old normal was restored.

Given the consequences that flowed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I wish the bombs had never been dropped.

I admire Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist to resign from the Manhattan Project in protest when he learned that the atomic bombs were not needed to defend against Germany.  He devoted the rest of his life to the researching nuclear medicine and to campaigning for nuclear disarmament.  He wrote the introduction to Hiroshima’s Shadow and a chapter about his decision.

I admire Leo Szilard, an atomic scientist whose desperate attempts to reach President Roosevelt and then President Truman and dissuade them from dropping the bomb are described in another chapter.

But I have to say that if I had been in President Truman’s position, knowing only what he knew then, I would have done what he did.


Hat tip to Tanweer Akram of the Bertrand Russell Society for suggesting I read Hiroshima’s Shadow.


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