Scott Johnson of Powerline (“Why We Dropped the Bomb,” 13 April) kindly links an old column of his quoting an old one of mine with reference to President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and the atom bombing of Japan.
Johnson links a lecture by Professor Williamson Murray, which is worth considering, along with Paul Fussell’s classic essay in The New Republic, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” which makes you think, though some consider it a rant. Fussell wrote:
John Kenneth Galbraith is persuaded that the Japanese would have surrendered surely by November without an invasion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway. The A-bombs meant, he says, “a difference, at most, of two or three weeks.” But at the time, with no indication that surrender was on the way, the kamikazes were sinking American vessels, the Indianapolis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casualties were running to over 7000 per week. “Two or three weeks,” says Galbraith.
Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the twelfth of August eight captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the seventieth to be sunk, and the destroyer escort Underhill was lost.
That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.
Bombing and Churchill
But back to Churchill. What did he think about the bombing? Need you ask. Churchill wrote in his war memoirs, Vol. 6, Triumph and Tragedy (1953, chapter 19):
British consent in principle to the use of the weapon had been given on July 4, before the test had taken place. The final decision now lay in the main with President Truman, who had the weapon; but I never doubted what it would be, nor have I ever doubted since that he was right. The historic fact remains, and must be judged in the after-time, that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never even an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table; nor did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise.
Some historians have cited a minor official in the Foreign Office who argued that Japan would surrender without the bombing, if the Allies promised she could keep her emperor; it was never proven that this ever reached the plenary level. Others quibble that the first bomb (Hiroshima) was perhaps necessary, but surely not the second (Nagasaki) only three days later, after the effects of the first were not even assessed. But the Japanese cabinet was divided still on the question of surrender after Nagasaki. Churchill continued:
I had in my mind the spectacle of Okinawa island, where many thousands of Japanese, rather than surrender, had drawn up in line and destroyed themselves by hand-grenades after their leaders had solemnly performed the rite of harakiri. To quell the Japanese resistance man by man and conquer the country yard by yard might well require the loss of a million American lives and half that of British—or more if we could get them there: for we were resolved to share the agony.
Now all this nightmare picture had vanished. In its place was the vision—fair and bright indeed it seemed—of the end of the whole war in one or two violent shocks. I thought immediately myself of how the Japanese people, whose courage I had always admired, might find in the apparition of this almost supernatural weapon an excuse which would save their honour and release them from being killed to the last fighting man.
Truman never shrank from decisions, and in this one he was right. Six years of war (ignorant Americans always forget and say four) was enough. In 1953, Acheson placed Churchill “on trial” for dropping those bombs, in a perhaps inappropriate banter, but with more serious implications.
Wars are declared on nations, not those who lead them, which is one reason why declarations of war have gone out of fashion. In our more “enlightened” age we are repelled by the suffering war inflicts on ordinary people. Unfortunately, you can’t declare war on an individual.
In introducing Alistair Cooke at the 1988 Churchill Conference, I quoted the words of that caring and generous man on the 25th anniversary of the bombing, which I had long since committed to memory:
Without raising more dust over the bleached bones of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I should like to contribute a couple of reminders: The first is that the men who had to make the decision were just as humane and tortured at the time as you and I were later. And, secondly, that they had to make the choice of alternatives that I for one would not have wanted to make for all the offers of redemption from all the religions of the world.