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Dropping the atomic bomb

The atom bomb

[Excerpt from this book.] A celebrated bureaucrat.— In the library today I happened to pass Harry Truman’s memoirs. Picked the book up and flipped to the pages on the atomic bomb. “…General Bloodlust [or whatever his name was] wanted to drop the bomb on Kyoto, but Secretary Stimson argued that Kyoto was an important cultural and religious shrine.” Stimson had spent his honeymoon there and had fond memories of it; hence, it was saved. Because of a honeymoon. A treasure-trove of history and culture saved because one guy said “No” because of his honeymoon. And then you tell me there’s a God! [In other words: history and human existence itself are absurd.]

Upon receiving the telegram reporting that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Truman “was deeply moved. I turned to the sailors I was having lunch with [on some battleship somewhere] and said, ‘This is the greatest thing in history. We’re going home.’” Yes, he said it was the greatest thing in history. And....the next page is on a different subject. No reflections on the meaning of Hiroshima or the decision to use the bomb; just…it was the greatest thing ever, and then on to his negotiations with Stalin. The man was amoral. An arch-bureaucrat, an amoral machine, like Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and most heads of state in history.

How that level of unreflectiveness is possible, I don’t know. Years afterwards, as he’s writing his memoirs, he doesn’t stop to reflect on his decision to kill more than 200,000 (with the after-effects) civilians. He takes it for granted that American lives are more valuable than Japanese lives, and that it’s better to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians (women, children) than to let fewer American soldiers die. Had the Japanese not surrendered, he and his generals would have gone on dropping as many bombs as necessary. They would have been happy to obliterate every city. Two million deaths, three million deaths, priceless cultural artifacts destroyed…it would have been (and was) perfectly okay, not morally disturbing in the slightest.

Being a “man of action” is not a positive thing. It means that you’re not a man of reflection. It signifies only the absence of reflection.


Institutional evil.— Reading Gar Alperovitz’s book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and the Architecture of an American Myth (1996). Truman calling the bomb “merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness.” Absolutely jubilant upon hearing news of Hiroshima. As for Nagasaki, even Alperovitz’s scholarly excavations unearth no rational reason for its bombing so soon after Hiroshima, before giving the Japanese significant time to respond. It seems to have been only a result of the determination to end the war before the Russians, who had just declared war on Japan, had a chance to march their armies far into East Asia. The decision to use the bomb at all was militarily unnecessary, as high-level generals and advisers stated years later and argued in private at the time. In fact, the war could, perhaps, have ended weeks earlier if the Americans had simply assured the Japanese, many of whose leaders were eager for peace, that the emperor could remain on the throne (a request that was later granted, after the bombs). But Truman and Byrnes, the secretary of state, wouldn’t make this concession. Why? Maybe because their knowledge of the bomb gave them an “ace in the hole” at the 1945 Potsdam conference, and they wanted a chance to demonstrate the bomb to the Russians. So, from this perspective, far from shortening the war, the bomb may have lengthened it by a few weeks, by motivating Truman to reject Japan’s overtures for peace. (Yes, apparently he rejected them, in July!) But of course once the Russians declared war on Japan, the Americans wanted peace immediately. At any rate, the evidence is conclusive that the bomb didn’t save American lives, since alternatives to invasion of Japan existed.[1] It was, arguably, a maneuver undertaken for the sake of the Great Game with Russia that America had inherited from England. And Truman, along with Byrnes, Groves, LeMay and the rest, is among the great villains of history. (Actually, much like G. W. Bush, he lacks the grandeur to be a “villain.” But objectively he is.)

By the way, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki was a major military target, despite Truman’s self-justifying lies to the contrary.

A journalist close to military thinking expressed it well:

We were twice guilty. We dropped the bomb at a time when Japan already was negotiating for an end of the war but before those negotiations could come to fruition. We demanded unconditional surrender, then dropped the bomb and accepted conditional surrender [by allowing the emperor to remain on the throne], a sequence which indicates pretty clearly that the Japanese would have surrendered, even if the bomb had not been dropped, had the Potsdam Declaration [in July] included our promise to permit the Emperor to remain on his imperial throne.

What if Stalin had been the one to drop the bomb and had justified it by saying it probably saved Russian lives? Would we be defending the decision? No. We’d be saying, rightly, that the use of the bomb was horrifying, that in itself it enshrined Stalin as one of the arch-villains of history.

[1] For instance, given that Japan was on the verge of collapse anyway, a weeks-long wait, combined with the shattering blow of Russia’s declaration of war, likely would have resulted in victory.


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