Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
August 9th was the anniversary of the second and hopefully last nuclear weapon used in war, the bomb called the Fat Man which was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Three days before the city of Hiroshima had been destroyed by the first atomic bomb used in combat. It is a decision that forever changed the consequences of waging total war. It was a decision that still haunts humanity and which policy makers and military strategists wrestle with in an age where at nine nations have deployable nuclear weapons and a number of other nations are developing or trying to obtain.
It is also the subject that is wrestled with by students of major military staff colleges and universities. I know, I taught the ethics elective at the Joint Forces Staff College. In each of our classes at least one brave officer did a presentation detailing the ethical issues involved the decision and the implications today. For those not familiar with the military the truth is that most officers are quite circumspect and much more grown up about the subject than the average citizen, politician, or even the current President or National Security Advisor. But then there are probably some some who would be like Colonel Paul Tibbets who flew the B-29 bomber Enola Gay which dropped said these words in an interview in 1989:
“I made up my mind then that the morality of dropping that bomb was not my business. I was instructed to perform a military mission to drop the bomb. That was the thing that I was going to do the best of my ability. Morality, there is no such thing in warfare. I don’t care whether you are dropping atom bombs, or 100-pound bombs, or shooting a rifle. You have got to leave the moral issue out of it.”
Tibbets, like Truman justified his position based on his view of the bestiality of the crimes committed by the Japanese during the war. It was quite a common point of view. Both views are troubling considering the power of the weapons being used. They almost sound the like excuses of German military officers and political officials on trial at Nuremberg between 1945 and 1948.
It was a decision made by President Truman one reason was purely pragmatic. For Truman, the “The buck stops here” was more than a motto, it was a way of life. He took responsibility for his action, but there is a certain banality in the way he wrote about them in his memoirs.
The atomic bomb was a wonder weapon that promised to end the war with a minimum of American casualties. Truman noted in 1952:
“I gave careful thought to what my advisors had counseled. I wanted to weigh all the possibilities and implications… General Marshall said in Potsdam that if the bomb worked we would save a quarter of a million American lives and probably save millions of Japanese… I did not like the weapon… but I had no qualms if in the long run millions of lives could be saved.”
But Truman’s decision was also based on the factor of revenge and viewing the Japanese as animals. In response to a telegram from the Reverend Samuel McCrea Cavert, the General Secretary of the Federal Council of The Churches of Christ in America, the predecessor of the National Council of Churches. Reverend Cavert was a Presbyterian minister. Cavert’s telegram stated:
“Many Christians deeply disturbed over use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities because of their necessarily indiscriminate destructive efforts and because their use sets extremely dangerous precedent for future of mankind. Bishop Oxnam, President of the Council, and John Foster Dules, Chairman of its Commission on a just and durable peace are preparing statement for probable release tomorrow urging that atomic bombs be regarded as trust for humanity and that Japanese nation be given genuine opportunity and time to verify facts about new bomb and to accept surrender terms. Respectfully urge that ample opportunity be given Japan to reconsider ultimatum before any further devastation by atomic bomb is visited upon her people.”
Truman’s response to the telegram revealed the darker side of his decision to use the bomb.
My dear Mr. Cavert:
I appreciated very much your telegram of August ninth.
Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.
When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.
The President’s senior military advisors were certainly of a different point of view about the use of the weapons. Admiral William Leahy who served as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief and was the senior Naval Officer in service disagreed and told Stimson of his misgivings about using the atomic bomb at this particular point in the war. In his memoirs which were released in 1949 he wrote:
“It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons… 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 wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower disagreed with the use of the atomic bomb and recorded his interaction with Stimson:
“In 1945 Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”
Stimson did not agree with the Eisenhower, he would later recall words that echoed those of Truman in 1952, not his words to Revered Cavert immediately after the event.
“My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”
Admiral William Leahy who served as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief and was the senior Naval Officer in service disagreed and told Stimson of his misgivings about using the atomic bomb at this particular point in the war. In his memoirs which were released in 1949 he wrote:
“Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but he was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons… 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 wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
General Hap Arnold, the Commander of the Army Air Forces noted: “It always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.”
Those who questioned the decision would be vindicated by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey study published in 1946. That study laid out the facts in stark terms:
“Certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
Later, Dr. J. Samuel Walker, the Chief Historian of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrote:
“Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is the that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.”
Thus the moral question remains and perhaps is best answered by the words of Dr. Leó Szilárd who first proposed building atomic weapons. In 1960 he noted to U.S. News and World Reports:
Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?
But, again, don’t misunderstand me. The only conclusion we can draw is that governments acting in a crisis are guided by questions of expediency, and moral considerations are given very little weight, and that America is no different from any other nation in this respect.
I think now some 74 years later we need to ponder that question before it can happen again. India and Pakistan are moving closer to nuclear war, Russia, China, North Korea, and yes even the United States are modernizing weapons and delivery systems. Admiral Leahy, General Eisenhower, and Dr. Szilard turned out to be right. As did General Omar Bradley who said:
“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.”
Eisenhower, Leahy, Bradley, and Szilard were correct. The weapons have grown more deadly, the delivery systems, more accurate with greater range, speed, and maneuverability, and even their miniaturization, make their use more likely than not. If they are used it will be the beginning of the end.