Peter Van Buren on Morality, Expediency, and Hiroshima

August 6 usually doesn’t make headlines in America. But mark the day by what absence demonstrates: on the 72nd anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and some 140,000 noncombatants, there is no call for reflection in the United States.

In an era where pundits routinely worry about America’s loss of moral standing because of an offish, ill-mannered president, the only nation in history to employ a weapon of mass destruction on an epic scale, against an undefended civilian population, otherwise shrugs off the significance of an act of immorality.

But it is August 6, and so let us talk about Hiroshima.

Beyond the destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the postwar creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen. This myth has become the underpinning of American war policy ever since, and carries forward the horrors of Hiroshima as generations of August 6’s pass.

The myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were dropped out of grudging military necessity, to hasten the end of the war, to avoid a land invasion of Japan, maybe to give the Soviets a good pre-Cold War scare. Nasty work, but such is war. As a result, the attacks need not provoke anything akin to introspection or national reflection. The possibility, however remote, that the bombs were tools of revenge or malice, immoral acts, was defined away. They were merely necessary.

That is the evolved myth, but it was not the way the atomic bombings were first presented to the American people.

Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new power to destroy at a button push – “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city,” said Mr. Truman. The plan put into play on August 6 – to force the Japanese government to surrender by making it watch mass casualties of innocents – speaks to a scale of cruelty previously unseen. It was fair; they’d started it after all, and they deserved the pain.

The need to replace the justification to one of grudging military necessity, a tool for saving lives, grew out of John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorker. Owing to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required a formal response. Americans’ imagined belief that they’re a decent people needed to be reconciled with what had been done. With the Cold War getting underway, and with American leadership fully expecting to obliterate a few Russian cities in the near future, some nuclear philosophical groundwork needed to be laid.

And so the idea that the bombing of Hiroshima was a “necessity” appeared in a 1947 article, signed by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam…

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