Week of the Bomb: Friday

What to make of any of these voices? This week’s posts—the words not of those protesting the bomb after, but of those who made and decided to use it—are the sum of something I have wanted to put together, quite literally, for years, and talking with my wife about each of them has convinced me that I have to at least try to insert my own voice here.

So consider some of the many justifications for dropping the atomic bomb, and see if they make sense:

Specifically in regards to war with Japan:

  • It will end the war;
  • It is necessary to end the war in this way because conventional troop warfare against Japan is proving so brutal;
  • Such brutality is the unfortunate result of certain aspects of culture specific to Japan, which refuse surrender of any kind;
  • As a result, a land invasion of Japan by American troops will likely result in the deaths of more Japanese civilians (not to mention American soldiers) than the dropping of the atomic bomb, even two of them;
  • This is borne out by the fact that America’s firebombing destruction of 50-90% of two dozen Japanese cities did not suffice to bring about Japanese surrender (and dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima didn’t prompt immediate surrender, either, hence the second one on Nagasaki);
  • That for all of these and many other unfortunate historic, cultural, and technological coincidences, it cannot be forgotten that Japan initiated aggression with the United States, and that, whatever the sins of the United States then or since, it is unlikely that it would have ever firebombed Japan, or used atomic weapons against them, under any other circumstances; in short, that war is not only hell but an unpredictably escalating hell in which continually hellish things happen, and Japan should have expected this when they initiated it;
  • Japan and Germany both had atomic bomb programs of their own, and there is no reason to believe that either would have withheld its use had they had the chance; and if the Blitz against Britain is any example, there is no reason to believe that if the United States had been closer to either Japan or Germany, that either country would have kept itself from firebombing the United States; and so what are our options against such enemies?

Specifically in regards to demonstrating the bomb’s use to Japan without dropping it on civilians:

  • With the nature of the United States’ war with Japan as a guide, a demonstration of the atomic bomb for Japanese officials, to be exploded in an unpopulated area, seems unlikely to convince them;
  • Because of the limited number of atomic bombs in August, 1945 (quite literally: two), “wasting” a bomb in this way is unacceptable;
  • If a demonstration is agreed to, and the bomb is a dud, risking that outcome in front of an already stubborn enemy is also unacceptable;

Specifically regarding the bomb’s place in postwar politics and human life:

  • It will end not just this war, but will be so terrible that it will end war altogether;
  • No postwar peace, or organization like the United Nations, can honestly be entered into without the participating countries knowing of the atomic bomb;
  • The anxiety of knowing that nuclear weapons exist, but not knowing what their actual destructive capabilities are, is much worse than the anxiety derived from knowing full well what their destructive capabilities are; i.e., “knowledge,” even the worst knowledge, is always better.


Whether we agree with the use of nuclear weapons or not, to me anyway the reasons given in the third section are beyond ridiculous, and are (as was put by my wife) wilfully and even poetically naïve. They are the result of scientists and politicians who are immensely intelligent, but obviously immensely shortsighted, even desperate.

The reasons given in the second section, while based on the limited availability of bombs at the time, still arise mostly from the belief that Japan was and continued to be stubborn beyond measure and unwilling to surrender, which leaves the real reasons for dropping the atomic bomb—that is, the real reasons worth talking about that don’t just seem silly or naïve—to be the issues in the first section, namely: It will end the war; war against Japan has been particularly brutal, and surrender must be forced on them somehow.

And it did end the war. Was there another way to end the war? There is no way of knowing how much longer the war with Japan could have been continued, but both sides appear to have been ready to keep throwing their young men at each other for years to come.

And since America’s actions since World War Two might make it easy to say we dropped the bomb on Japan because it was a culture so obviously Other, so obviously alien to our own, we must remember that many of those who worked on the bomb did so in the hopes that it would be used, if at all, against Germany. The racial component, even though it obviously existed, was not a primary factor. Rather, and quite simply, those fallible human beings who decided to drop the bomb came to that conclusion using the best collection of knowledge, instinct, wishful thinking, and bias that they had at hand.

If we are critical of the United States and its use of knowledge, instinct, wishful thinking and bias, we have to be just as critical of the culture of Germany which began the war, and of Japan which joined in; indeed, we would think of the Holocaust much differently than we do today if it were even remotely possible that, without Germany doing it first, the Jews of Europe would have gladly constructed concentration camps to kill millions of them instead. We might even say that if Japanese culture had been slightly different, they would have surrendered sooner, or surrendered along with Germany before the bomb was even complete. I don’t say this to blame anyone; from the point of view of today, the issue is not blame, but understanding, and we must try to imagine what an experience of total war was like then. Given that there is no reason to believe that Japan or Germany would have hesitated in using incendiary or atomic bombs on the east or west coast of America, the question more generally is what else can a country do against such an enemy but try to do it to them first?

George Orwell, usually no fan of military force, and rarely a fan of Britain’s government, nevertheless realized the greater enemy when it arose in the form of Nazism, and had no hesitation saying that, to those who objected to the bombing of civilians in Germany, “there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more barbarous features. Pacifism,” he continues, “is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences.”[1] Orwell’s contemporary, the French diarist Jean Guéhenno, himself usually a pacifist, had to admit, “I will never believe that men are made for war. But I know they are not made for servitude, either.”[2] In other words, no one that I know who wishes the bombs hadn’t been dropped also wishes Japan and Germany had won, or wishes they were living under those governments rather than our own. To be frank—and again I say this more in shame of humanity than in praise of it—those who wonder if lesser use of force could have won the war against Germany and Japan, are asking the question basking in the luxury of a sad victory purchased with the very excesses they deplore. Indeed this is what sickens most people, that their lives today exist with the atomic bomb as a reluctant inheritance. It doesn’t seem right to sully our liberation of Europe, and of the concentration camps, with the atomic bomb, but every national virtue has its national vice existing almost always concurrently, and there is no unknotting them. All of our lives are muddied in this way.

The reason the bomb was dropped, then, seems to be the same reason it was developed in the first place: the United States was afraid of a world where another country had the bomb and they did not. This appears to be a truth without escape, that this is just the way humanity acts—that is, largely out of fear; and that until the world is rid of aggressors with any inkling of power, this will not change. Learning to understand and cope with the unavoidable ugliness of our species seems much more worthwhile than becoming a proponent of “world peace,” or trotting around signs which say End All Wars, since it is clear that alongside our tribalism, arrogance, and fear, such peace belongs to another world; and until that other world appears, our tribalism and arrogance and fear are, like the decision to drop the bomb, both a travesty and a necessity; both an atrocity and a terrifying attempt at something good; both something that can be mourned but cannot be apologized for; something to be regretted not as if it hadn’t been done, but regretted in the sense that human beings are the way they are; regretted in the sense that atomic weapons became an option at all; regretted in the sense that human beings, apparently so intelligent, can yet so easily back themselves into a corner where the development and use of such weapons becomes unavoidable.

The only response I can find to such a situation in which war will always be with us, is to find a way to wage it without pride. And one of the only scriptures or revered documents of any kind that seems to reflect this sad sense of how humanity actually operates, is the thirty-first stanza of the Tao Te Ching, which says that “Weapons are tools of fear; a decent man will avoid them except in the direst necessity,” and concludes with these words:

His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.[3]  

From our standpoint in 2016, the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not merely Japanese dead but human dead. Knowing what we do about politicians, scientists, and culture today—or just human history—the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used on civilians within my lifetime seems greater and greater every day. And so the voices of those politicians and scientists who first decided to build the bomb, and use it; and the voices of its first victims; and the voices of horror and regret ever since, are never past but are perpetually present and future. They are a prophecy of all of our potential fates.



[1] George Orwell, “As I Please #25,” May 19, 1944, collected in George Orwell: Essays, ed. John Carey, 602.

[2] Jean Guéhenno, Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, tr. David Ball, xv.

[3] From the translation of Stephen Mitchell.


15 replies »

  1. I agree with every word you write, so wonderfully expressed as well. What also saddens me is the fact that Japan’s Emperor was not really punished for his part in sending young men filled with idolatry to die in suicide bombing raids for that same Emperor, who remained in his Palace after it was all over.


  2. Tim, this is masterfully written. It weighs heavy in my heart and yet I know what you have said is said truthfully. Human life is both a blessing and a curse.

    His enemies are not demons
    but human beings like himself.

    Would that we come to understand it.


  3. the control with which you articulate your opinions is as the others above have highlighted, masterful. i think essay writing is definitely something you need to put a great deal of focus on. the clarity & confidence with which you write makes the reader feel they are in very capable hands. you also have that magnificent gift of telling us something we all know but never seemed to have thought about, as if we could of thought it out in this manner. we didn’t though, it took you to show us. i always think Stevens does this in poetry, it seems so simple, that i could have or could do likewise; the reality is i didn’t, won’t & probably can’t, but that persuasion is what draws us to the writer.


  4. Tim, I respectfully disagree with most of your reasoning and the ethics behind that reasoning. Too much to say here, but just some very few things. Like Orwell, you seem to make no distinction between waging war and barbaric war crimes (as if complete pacifism or total war/war crimes were the only options). Bombing civilians, conventional or nuclear, is a war crime, a crime against humanity (Hague Convention and other international law; perpetrators like General Curtis Le May and McNamara even agreed that this is so and that they only escaped war crimes trials because they were on the winning side). The victims and citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been forlornly demanding that recognition from the US government since 1945. Would you support them, or continue to justify the US government’s decision as your blog seems to do here in a kind of grim, ‘unfortunate-but-necessary’, ‘that’s- human-nature’ way.

    You personify the ‘United States’, ‘Japan’, ‘Germany’ as if these were persons making decisions, thus tacitly identifying the power elites and order-givers with the order-takers (I am not denying that majorities of the latter often concur with the former, but sizable ethical minorities may often not). Your subjectivist, quasi-anthropological approach ignores the whole complex of specific, historical, power/geopolitical issues that determine much of the war and foreign policy decisions of ruling elites everywhere (re Hiroshima e.g. the question of demonstrating superior power to competitors like Stalin who was approaching Japan from the north…). I could go on. For an alternative view, I’d point to both the writings on Hiroshima and nuclear bombs of Guenther Anders and, humbly, my own blog on Hiroshima’s 60th anniversary last year:


    Kind regards.


  5. It is a very thoughtful read Tim. And my previous reply may have sounded strange but with adhd and all the blogs it read it helps me to find posts again through my comment stats. Like you, I don’t think there is any philosophy that can justify the making and utilization of the atomic bomb and you are right, there is no way of going back. Worse, the atomic bomb may no longer be the greatest threat to mankind. War science will leave us in the dark of its capabilities without a significant war duress for 10 to 20 years if not more. I end it there, sadly on the premise that scientific privilege of study and destruction will have exposed a more horrific threat if world war three is to ever happen.


  6. Great, thoughtful post! I have long considered the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be one of the greatest shames of our nation. There is no way to know if the continuation of the war would have cost more lives, but I believe the bombing cost more innocent lives than any length of additional war could have. Thank you for your insight.


  7. Peter,

    Thanks for this response. I urge anyone at all with an interest in this subject to read your post: https://peterlachnewinsky.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/hiroshima-and-mass-terror-bombing-1942-45/

    (I should also say that if you paste your essay in from Word with footnotes, WordPress will take them. I would love to read the books you reference.)

    I too can’t respond to everything there. But I’ll bring up a few things: I don’t support any of it, I’m not proud of it, of any country doing this, but what little I’ve learned from history has told me that any collection of people, when pushed to an extreme, will end up doing just about anything; war escalates as anything else. I wish this weren’t the case, but nothing from history makes any of this–from the earliest evidence of group warfare to the atom bomb–a surprise of any kind. I don’t know where the line between “regular” war and “barbaric” war is; all war to me is barbaric, but for all that it still doesn’t seem to be avoidable. If you and I were the heads of our respective countries, it sounds like it would be unlikely that we would wage war on each other; but if even one leader threatened either of our countries, our ideals of peace would have to be modified. Unfortunately all it takes is one aggressor to make otherwise good people do barbaric things. LeMay and McNamara both admitting they were acting as war criminals is astonishingly refreshing to me in the most horrible way; patriotic pride in use of military force is repugnant to me, but so is the idea that war can be waged in a nice way. Life in the world seems less about avoiding horror than learning to live with it.

    With my view of history what it is, what interested me were just how intelligent people made the many decisions that they did. It is easy to second-guess them, but it’s more useful to me, for general wisdom and for the future, to understand them rather than pretend we would act differently in their position, or wish for a different kind of world. What interests me is the day-to-day reality of impossible decisions of this kind, the mixture of virtue and vice and limitation found in everything, and the realization that things like love, art, poetry, children, meaning in general, or just a good meal, mean that much more in such a fragile and ugly world. In this sense, I don’t think my approach ignores all the specific/historical/geopolitical issues, but (in all the posts from this week taken together) instead highlights the complicated nature of nearly everything.

    It means less to me that Truman or anybody acted “Machiavellian” than it does to realize most people in that position act Machiavellian. Any group larger than a few hundred people will always face impossible decisions regarding another group of a few hundred people. I’m not happy about this, I wish it weren’t this way, but I don’t see the point in denying it, or proceeding as if it weren’t so. We all have blood on our hands, and always will.

    I remember when Rome finally sacked and destroyed Carthage, how the attendant to the Roman general wept and read lines from Homer which to him meant, “As Carthage goes today, so Rome will someday.” Whether rightly or wrongly (whether justified or unjustified), nuclear weapons will be used again, perhaps against the United States. Perhaps human nature will change, but certainly not in our lifetimes. Until then, as I’ve written elsewhere, “The least we can do, then, is see that everything—our culture, our countries, our technology, our religions, even now—are only here because people who should have never suffered and died did in fact suffer and die, and always have, and always will. We are standing less on the backs of giants, than of corpses—and corpses of real people.” The only option for me, anyway, is empathy for everyone caught up in the same mess as me.


  8. Blimey, visiting your blog was like popping round for coffee and realising i should have brought my brain.
    The threat of Nuclear war was my introduction to absolute terror as a child. When I saw pictures drawn by children who had survived the bombings, I threw up. I realised at the age of 7 that dying wasn’t the worst thing that could happen you. Justification is defensive rhetoric and can’t be trusted. I’m not sure humanity can ever absolve the horror of these bombings. Maybe the bigger question here is, did it bring us closer together as a species, or drive us further apart?


  9. In mid July 1945 Japan had signaled to the Soviet Union that they wanted to surrender. Stalin refused to forward this message to the American authorities because he was preparing to enter the war against Japan by attacking Manchuria. The atomic bombs were not necessary. Japan was ready to surrender before they were dropped. Check this article from the Institute for Historical Review: Was Hiroshima Necessary?


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