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 2017, 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.