As you likely heard, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima, Japan last week, and laid a wreath at the atomic bombing memorial. Predictably, this brought on a wave of discussion of the subject, most of which was bad. Conservatives saw it as a continuation of Obama’s mythical apology tour, which never has and never will occur, no matter how justified it might be at this point. In reality, Obama’s speech employed the passive voice “death fell from the sky” with no apparent perpetrator, and no apology was to be found. Given by most other people–those that do not have vast amounts of blood on their hands from the wars and assassinations they are actively overseeing–it would have been a beautiful speech. As it happened, with Obama as the messenger, it comes off mostly as a kind of cruel sarcasm. Some examples:
Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. — [er, like the US drone assassination program?]
But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.
We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles… — [Yes, we can. Unfortunately, President Obama has committed $1 trillion to modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal instead of reducing it. ]
I suspect you get the idea.
My deep frustrations with President Obama aside, he should be commended for at least making the trip. And it’s returned the spotlight to a question that, frankly, should be rhetorical by now. Was the US justified in bombing Hiroshima?
And to answer this question, there are two dimensions to consider: moral and strategic.
On this count, the issue is rather straightforward. The prevailing justification is, as we all learned growing up, that the atomic bombing was necessary to shorten the war and prevent a bloody invasion that would have cost thousands of American soldiers’ lives in the process. There’s good reason to doubt that narrative, as we’ll see shortly. But for now, let’s grant the assumption.
Now, it’s important to note that Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, for that matter), were not militarized cities for the Japanese. The US was not bombing the equivalent of Pearl Harbor or West Point; it was bombing a city that had relatively little significance to the Japanese military effort. Indeed, that’s why the city hadn’t been bombed before then; it was far down on the priority list. As such, the overwhelming majority of victims in the strike were civilians, and this reality was known in advance.
Thus, the question is whether it is justified to intentionally kill civilians (nuking a population center) in pursuit of political ends (unconditional Japanese surrender)? And before we answer, it’s worth considering the definition of terrorism. According to the FBI, one essential characteristic of terrorist activities is that they:
Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
Or stated more simply, terrorism is intentionally harming, intimidating a civilian population for the purpose of achieving a political end. And we should note that saving American lives or revenge for Pearl Harbor can’t be a valid justification either. If it were, consistency would demand that we also endorse the rationale adopted by most of the terrorists that have attacked (or tried to attack) American and Western civilians in recent years–namely to try to stop military intervention in their home countries (save lives) or avenge fallen victims in the Middle East. The details and magnitudes of the attacks are different; the predominant justification underlying them is not. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to justify those other acts of terrorism.
It may be uncomfortable to think about the issue in those terms, but it should not be. Relatively few of us were even alive when the Hiroshima occurred; fewer still were old enough to vote for the Roosevelt-Truman ticket that carried it out; and virtually no one at all directly influenced Truman’s decision to use the bomb, or even knew of the possibility in advance. So why should any of us feel a reflexive need to justify that barbarous action our government undertook over 70 years ago? We should not. War crimes are still war crimes, no matter how sophisticated the justification or the colors of the flag that sponsored them. And if American Exceptionalism is to ever mean anything worth a damn, it should be more than pretending the US government has never done anything wrong.*
Above, we took for granted that the US had a choice between a brutal invasion of Japan or dropping atomic bombs to end the war effort. And it is in the context of this choice that many will defend the bombings as necessary. However, there’s actually good reason to doubt this conventional narrative. And for the details, we recommend this excellent piece at Harper’s, which addresses the most important historical questions on the subject with the person who wrote the book on them. And you can probably tell from the title which side of the issue they come out on. Here’s the link: