THREE YEARS AGO over on the New Criterion‘s blog, Armavirumque, my friend and then-colleague & boss Roger Kimball and I had an interesting exchange on the morality of the bombing of Hiroshima. The debate began when Roger wrote a blog entry citing an opinion piece from Oliver Kamm of the Guardian supporting President Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb. I then responded with a post of my own pointing out that the conservative reaction at the time was one of horror at the moral depravity to which we had descended, and that the it-would-have-been-worse-if-we-didn’t school of thought essentially can be reduced to an ends-justifies-the-means argument. Roger then responded with a post arguing that, well, sometimes the ends do justify the means.
Regardless of one’s thoughts on the Hiroshima bombing, arguing that the ends justifies the means is one of the cornerstones of relativism. Christians believe that we are not allowed to do evil, even if that evil may serve a good cause. It is not simply a matter of choosing something bad over something worse. Evacuating the British Army from Dunkirk, for example, was bad, but leaving it there was worse. Yet, both were morally licit options for Churchill to make, though the prudential evidence supported the former option rather than the latter.
Innocent people inevitably die in most wars, but that cannot excuse the deliberate and intentional targeting of an entire city for destruction by a military force. That so many American Christians still excuse the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is frightening evidence that America has convinced Christians to be Americanised rather than Christianity convincing America to be Christianised.
by Roger Kimball (August 6, 2007 – 10:18am)
It is not often that I agree with the politics espoused by The Guardian, England’s most left-wing serious newspaper. But an article by Oliver Kamm today in that newspaper wins my wholehearted endorsement. Today, August 6, is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. As Mr. Kamm points out, that action, together with its successor at Nagasaki on August 9, ended World War II. It saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese lives. Were those bombings terrible? You betcha. But as Mr. Kamm notes, if they caused suffering, they saved much greater suffering that would have ensued had the United States invaded Japan. This was understood at the time. But in recent years a revisionist view has grown up, especially on the Left, which faults President Truman for his decision to drop the bombs. “This alternative history,” Mr. Kamm argues. “is devoid of merit.”
New historical research in fact lends powerful support to the traditionalist interpretation of the decision to drop the bomb. This conclusion may surprise Guardian readers. The so-called revisionist interpretation of the bomb made headway from the 1960s to the 1990s. It argued that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less the concluding acts of the Pacific war than the opening acts of the cold war. Japan was already on the verge of surrender; the decision to drop the bomb was taken primarily to gain diplomatic advantage against the Soviet Union.
Yet there is no evidence that any American diplomat warned a Soviet counterpart in 1945-46 to watch out because America had the bomb. The decision to drop the bomb was founded on the conviction that a blockade and invasion of Japan would cause massive casualties. Estimates derived from intelligence about Japan’s military deployments projected hundreds of thousands of American casualties.
It will be interesting to see what sort of response Mr. Kamm’s article elicits. I predict howls of rage and vituperation. But he is right:
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time. Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire – and for Japan itself. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The destruction of two cities, and the suffering it caused for decades afterwards, cannot but temper our view of the Pacific war. Yet we can conclude with a high degree of probability that abjuring the bomb would have caused greater suffering still.
Read the whole thing here.
What is the essence, the core, of conservative wisdom? One part is that when it comes to the real world, the choices we face are often not between good and bad but between bad and worse. This is particularly true in times of war. A difficult lesson. But crucial for those who wish to do good as well emit good-sounding slogans.
by Andrew Cusack (August 7, 2007 – 11:47am)
By now it seems a ritual: the summer ‘silly season’ is annually punctured (albeit only temporarily) by the perennial debate over the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the previous post, our editor and publisher Roger Kimball agreeingly cites the “political wisdom” of Mr. Oliver Kamm of the Guardian, the house journal of Britain’s liberal establishment.
“New historical research,” writes Mr. Kamm, “in fact lends powerful support to the traditionalist interpretation of the decision to drop the bomb.” Mr. Kamm neglects to enlighten us that by “traditionalist” interpretation, he of course means the standard interpretation of the liberal status quo.
“The so-called revisionist interpretation,” Mr. Kamm informs us, “argued that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less the concluding acts of the Pacific war than the opening acts of the cold war. Japan was already on the verge of surrender; the decision to drop the bomb was taken primarily to gain diplomatic advantage against the Soviet Union.” Interesting enough? Well, here comes Mr. Kamm’s jaw-dropping insight to debunk the revisionists: “Yet there is no evidence that any American diplomat warned a Soviet counterpart in 1945-46 to watch out because America had the bomb.”
To borrow from the popular speech of our time: well, duh!! The concept that American diplomats would officially (or even informally) inform the Soviet Union, one of their formal allies, that a given act of war against the Empire of Japan was also partly a warning to the Communists of American power seems so ridiculous as to be rejected at first sight.
“Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Kamm continues, “are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time.” That is not how they were judged by whom, Mr. Kamm?
It was only two days after the bombing of Hiroshima that the Republican former President Herbert Hoover wrote to a friend that “the use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.” Leo Maley and Uday Mohan pick up on this over at the History News Network:
Days later, David Lawrence, the conservative owner and editor of U.S. News (now U.S. News & World Report), argued that Japan’s surrender had been inevitable without the atomic bomb. He added that justifications of “military necessity” will “never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations . . . did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children.”
Just weeks after Japan’s surrender, an article published in the conservative magazine Human Events contended that America’s atomic destruction of Hiroshima might be morally “more shameful” and “more degrading” than Japan’s “indefensible and infamous act of aggression” at Pearl Harbor.
Such scathing criticism on the part of leading American conservatives continued well after 1945. A 1947 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, at the time a leading conservative voice, claimed that President Truman and his advisers were guilty of “crimes against humanity” for “the utterly unnecessary killing of uncounted Japanese.”
In 1948, Henry Luce, the conservative owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, stated that “[i]f, instead of our doctrine of ‘unconditional surrender,’ we had all along made our conditions clear, I have little doubt that the war with Japan would have ended soon without the bomb explosion which so jarred the Christian conscience.” A steady drumbeat of conservative criticism continued throughout the 1950s. A 1958 editorial in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review took former President Truman to task for his then-current explanation of why he had decided to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The editors asked the question that “ought to haunt Harry Truman: ‘Was it really necessary?’” Could a demonstration of the bomb and an ultimatum have ended the war? The editors challenged Truman to provide a satisfactory answer. Six weeks later the magazine published an article harshly critical of Truman’s atomic bomb decision.
Two years later, David Lawrence informed his magazine’s readers that it was “not too late to confess our guilt and to ask God and all the world to forgive our error” of having used atomic weapons against civilians. As a 1959 National Review article matter-of-factly stated: “The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed.”
Meanwhile, George S. Schuyler, another prominent conservative (and later on a contributor to National Review) wrote in his Pittsburgh Courier column of August 14, 1945 that:
Not satisfied with being able to kill people by the thousand, we have now achieved the supreme triumph of being able to slaughter whole cities at a time. In this connection it is interesting to note that there is no longer any pretense that only military installations are targets. Skimming through in the skies over Hiroshima, one of our bombing planes dropped the fearsome atomic bomb to murder 200,000 or Japanese mothers, fathers and children indiscriminately. It seems that just yesterday we were bemoaning German barbarism in bombing Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and other industrial centers, and citing as evidence of the Japanese savagery the slaughter of a few thousand innocents in Shanghai.
Perhaps Mr. Kamm, in saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not judged as war crimes meant to say that that is now how the bombings were judged in Great Britain, but of course this is not the case either. The prominent conservative philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe protested voiciferously in 1956 when Oxford, her place of study and employ, awarded an honorary degree to Harry Truman.
Anscombe, of course, was a convert to Catholicism and it is naturally from Catholic conservatives that much ire is stoked in reaction to the destruction of the two cities. Bishop Fulton Sheen, the popular television personality, called it “our national sin” while Fr. James Gillis, a Paulist priest who was the editor of the Catholic World and a leading figure in the circles of the American right, called it “the most powerful blow ever delivered against Christian civilization and the moral law.”
Not all the conservative opposition came from Catholic circles, however. Military historian Maj. Gen. J.F.C. Fuller wrote:
Though to save life is laudable, it in no way justifies the employment of means which run counter to every precept of humanity and the customs of war. Should it do so, then, on the pretext of shortening a war and of saving lives, every imaginable atrocity can be justified.
Admiral William D. Leahey, meanwhile, asserted:
the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. . . . My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.
The splendid Richard Weaver, on whom our own Roger Kimball wrote a thoughtful essay, saw the bombings as “inimical to the foundations on which civilization is built” and attacked
the spectacle of young boys fresh out of Kansas and Texas turning nonmilitary Dresden into a holocaust . . . pulverizing ancient shrines like Monte Cassino and Nuremberg, and bringing atomic annihilation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Yet, as Anscombe wrote, “it was the insistence on unconditional surrender that was the root of all evil.” The allied insistence on avoiding any negotiations to bring a quicker end to the war undoubtedly cost many American lives, not to mention thousands upon thousands of non-combatants who were killed in the mean time. It was a perennial discouragement for those German officers attempting to overthrow Hitler, and it was a continual encouragement to the Japanese to fight on to the bloody end, lest they risk seeing their sacred emperor hanged outside his palace by American, British, and Soviet judges. (The continual attempts to justify the atomic bombing of these cities beg the question: would our current enemies — the “terror” against which we currently wage “war” — therefore be justified in employing a dirty bomb or even a regular nuclear device against New York or Los Angeles? I think not.)
The great (and much-neglected) conservative thinker Thomas Molnar once said that the Revolution would be complete when both the United States and the Catholic Church were won over to the revolutionary principle. Those who saw the Iron Curtain divide Europe and then the fall of the Berlin Wall forty years later have now lived to see the ideology of worldwide revolution preached from the White House. Those who wait to see it preached from the Vatican shouldn’t hold their breath.
by Roger Kimball (August 7, 2007 – 4:00pm)
I do not wish to belabor the issue of whether saving millions of lives is a good thing. But since my colleague Andrew Cusack has weighed in on the morality–or was it the theology?–of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I thought I would add a word or two to my post of yesterday from Paul Fussell, whose classic essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” really says all that needs to be said about the subject of whether using those fearsome engines of war was justified.
The future scholar-critic who writes The History of Canting the Twentieth Century will find much to study and interpret the utterances of those who dilate on the special wickedness of the A-bomb-droppers. He will realize that such utterance can perform for the speaker a valuable double function. First it can display the fineness of his moral weave. And second, by implication it can also inform the audience that during the war he was not socially so unfortunate as to find himself down there with the ground forces, where he might have had to compromise the purity and clarity of his moral system by the experience of weighing his own life against someone else’s. Down there, which is where the other people were, is the place where coarse self-interest is the rule. When the young soldier with the wild eyes comes at you, firing, do you shoot him in the foot, hoping he’ll be hurt badly enough to drop or misaim the gun with which he’s going to kill you, or do you shoot. him in the chest ( or, if you’re a prime shot, in the head) and make certain that you and not he will be the survivor of that mortal moment?
It would be not just stupid but would betray a lamentable want of human experience to expect soldiers to be very sensitive humanitarians. The Glenn Grays of this world need to have their attention directed to the testimony of those who know, like, say, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, who said, “Moderation in war is imbecility,” or Sir Arthur Harris, director of the admittedly wicked aerial-bombing campaign designed, as Churchill put it, to “de-house” the German civilian population}, who observed that “War is immoral,” or our own General W. T. Sherman: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” Lord Louis Mountbatten, trying to say something sensible about the dropping of the A-bomb, came up only with “War is crazy.” Or rather, it requires choices among craziness’s. “It would seem even more crazy,” he went on, “if we were to have more casualties on our side to save the Japanese. ” One of the unpleasant facts for anyone in the ground armies during the war was that you had to become pro tem a subordinate of the very uncivilian George S. Patton and respond somehow to his unremitting insistence that you embrace his view of things. But in one of his effusions he was right, and his observation tends to suggest the experiential dubiousness of the concept of “just wars. ” “War is not a contest with gloves,” he perceived. “It is resorted to only when laws, which are rules, have failed. ” Soldiers being like that, only the barest decencies should be expected of them. They did not start the war, except in the terrible sense hinted at in Frederic Manning’s observation based on his front-line experience in the Great War: “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.” Knowing that unflattering truth by experience, soldiers have every motive for wanting a war stopped, by any means.
Andrew seems deeply impressed by Elizabeth Anscombe’s contention that America’s insistence on unconditional surrender was “the root of all evil.” In fact, it was our failure to insist on this in 1918 that was the root not perhaps of all evil but that particularly toxic node that paved the way for World War II and the untold suffering it caused. Do the ends really justify the means? Alas, like so much about the real world, the melancholy–but also the moral–answer is, “Often, yes.”