Previously by Murray Polner: The Road to Hell
The 66th anniversary of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was approaching and a neighbor, a retired fireman and WWII veteran, asked if I thought the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. He said he did because many American soldiers and marines might have been killed in a land invasion of Japan's main islands. Okinawa, he said, was bad enough. Invading Japan would have been far worse. In no way was he dismissing the killing of so many civilians but like virtually all Americans at the time he unquestioningly believed the Government's assertions — obviously not stated in this precise way — that because of Pearl Harbor and the many American deaths occurred while hopskotching across the islands of the Pacific, it was perfectly alright to kill enemy civilians in a war. President Truman's announcement at the time avoided dealing with the issue when he emphasized that Hiroshima was a military base. Ergo, the city was a legitimate wartime target. He never sought to explain Nagasaki.
A memory: On an army transport on the way home from my military service I met a young, newly married couple. He was an airman with a new Japanese bride who had lived in Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945 the bomb dropped. Her mother, she explained, was so terrified that she sent her to grandma and grandpa in Nagasaki, just in time to live through the attack on Nagasaki three days later.
My wife and I rented a TV film Trinity made in 1980, featuring interviews by and about J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, General Leslie Groves and the team of physicists who developed the first atom bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. We viewed the film on August 6, 2011, completely forgetting that the sixth of August was the date a Japanese city was incinerated and the world changed forever.
But were the two bombings warranted?
Hiroshima was never a military base. Tokyo, another possible target, had already been devastated by firebomb raids. Still, either Truman had no real knowledge about Hiroshima or simply fabricated a tale that it was a military city. In future years he never expressed the slightest doubt about the green light he had given to his commanders. Obviously Truman, reputedly a prodigious reader, never bothered reading John Hersey's classic 1946 book Hiroshima (originally published in The New Yorker), once widely read and studied by American students from high school through college. Hersey's description of what the bombers did to Japanese civilians is unbearable as in a scene when he depicts the melting of human eyeballs from the intense heat. "In a city of two hundred and forty- five thousand, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow," wrote Hersey; "a hundred thousand more were hurt."
American cheered the bombing, the victory and the technological achievement but not everyone among Washington's elite circles agreed. Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, FDR and Truman's chief of staff, for example, was horrified, saying, "The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender," adding, "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 war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."
David Swanson's perceptive book War is a Lie quotes the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stating that Japan would have surrendered no later than November 1, 1945 or by the end of December 1945 "even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped." General Dwight Eisenhower, like Leahy, supported the SBS' conclusion but both were overwhelmed by those eager for retribution and possibly an eventual go at the Soviets.
Today, seven nations possess nuclear arsenals (U.S., Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, China and North Korea) and repeated if still unverified accusations are regularly aimed at Iran for either harboring or working on a Bomb. Some American politicians love to say that all options are "off the table" when referring to Iran and North Korea. I wonder under what circumstances the U.S. would repeat Hiroshima and Nagasaki and be willing to destroy, say, millions in Teheran or Pyongyang.
To my neighbor who asked if the two atomic attacks were justified, I told him that I thought it was not since the war was already won and a land invasion was unnecessary. But above all else, I added, the reasons for an attack that may or may not have been war crime (though future nuclear attacks should certainly be judged as crimes) were manufactured by policymakers and subsequently became the gospel, and thereafter echoed by millions of Americans.
Murray Polner [send him mail] is a book review editor for HNN.org and was editor of Present Tense, published by the American Jewish Committee from 1973-90. He wrote Rabbi: The American Experience; co-edited (with Stefan Merken) Peace, Justice, and Jews: Reclaiming Our Tradition, as well as No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and, with Jim O’Grady, Disarmed & Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. His most recent book is We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing From 1812 to Now, co-authored with Thomas Woods.