Why It's Time for Us to Confront Hiroshima

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6 marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic destruction of the Japanese
city of Hiroshima during World War II. We Americans reflect on this
event in sharply differing ways.

Americans recall the event with shame and express their fervent
hope that nuclear weapons never be used again. Others firmly believe
that the use of atomic bombs saved American lives by ending the
war prior to a bloody American invasion of Japan. More challenging
to consider is whether it was an unjustifiable act in a fully justified

who believe the bomb’s use was justified often label their opponents
"pacifists," "1960s radicals," "bleeding-heart
liberals" or "revisionists." These epithets merely
delay the day when Americans will consider the import of having
used nuclear weapons.

failure to grapple fully with the ethical questions stemming from
our use of mass violence against civilians has meant that we unwittingly
endorse an act that some would consider state terror. We rightly
expect Germany and Japan to confront painful episodes from their
participation in World War II. Now it’s our turn.

today are the natural candidates to take the lead in confronting
our most painful episode from the war, because they were once among
the most vocal critics of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Consider
the following:

August 8, 1945, two days after the bombing, former Republican President
Herbert Hoover wrote to a friend that "[t]he use of the atomic
bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts
my soul."

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."

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.

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."

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."

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.

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."

times change. In recent decades most American conservatives have
become uncritical of America’s use of atomic weapons and dismissive
of anyone who holds a contrary view. Conservative publications now
routinely defend Truman’s atomic bomb decision. Critics of his decision,
to quote from a representative National Review editorial
from 1987, are "wrong, and profoundly offensive to all Americans
and Japanese who died in that war, and to those Americans who still
possess the ability to think."

years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we have an opportunity
to grapple anew with the questions surrounding that event. American
conservatives should renew their earlier, deeply held ethical criticism
of the Hiroshima bombing instead of promoting the inaccurate but
politically convenient view that criticism of the atomic bombing
can only come from the left. Their response will not only tell us
much about contemporary American conservatism; it will also determine
whether we finally can have an honest debate about Hiroshima’s destruction.

16, 2005

Maley III has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst
and University of Maryland, College Park, and Uday Mohan is director
of research at the Nuclear Studies Institute, American University
in Washington, D.C. They are writers for the History
News Service

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