We have been slow to see our use of the atomic bomb as a moral failure.

Harry Truman, Clement Attlee and Mackenzie King boarding the USCG Sequoia to discuss the atomic bomb, November 1945. (Harris & Ewing. Library and Archives Canada, C-023269)

I remember it well. It was August 7 and the whole family—my journalist father, teacher mother, athlete younger brother Dave and I—were enjoying our summer vacation on a farm near Reading, Pa. As we cantered along on horseback along a country road and I, a 12 year old, was enjoying a strange moment of political reverie. We had just heard on the radio about this wonderful new weapon, and I had looked up “atomic” in the dictionary. That didn’t help much, but I presumed it was something we were supposed to feel good about. So I looked at the sky and the trees and the hills and felt good.

As far as I recall, it took a while for reality to replace reverie. It dawned when I finally read John Hersey’s New Yorker article in book form, Hiroshima, about the Japanese woman who looked at the fireball and her eyeballs melted.

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My friend Bill Lanouette, graduate of Fordham, a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Politics and author of Leo Szilard: The Man Behind the Bomb (1994)—about a man who both helped conceive the atom bomb and didn’t want it used—has shared with me his recent lecture, “Why We Dropped the Bomb, and Who May Be Next.” A round table discussion of historians on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima had agreed on five major reasons why: 1. End the war quickly. 2. End the war before Stalin had a chance to get in. 3. We had been building the bomb since 1939, and spent $20 billion dollars on more than 600,000 workers, so we had to use it. 4. Political influence said use it before Japan surrenders to justify the money spent. As President Truman said, “We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest gamble in history—we won.” Historian William Manchester wrote he was wrong: “To speak of such slaughter as a winning bet was tasteless.” 5. After four bloody years of war, “Public feeling ran so high against the Japanese that many American leaders were in no mood to take any additional casualties.

Opposition

Meanwhile Leo Szilard was determined to prevent the bombing. When he tried to meet Truman he was handed off to Secretary of State James Byrnes who scoffed at Szilard’s proposal to detonate the bomb offshore as a warning before destroying Japanese cities. In July 1945, 155 Manhattan Project scientists signed a petition to Truman urging consideration of the moral implications of what they were about to do. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, made sure the petition never reached the president.

 When we dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, President Truman said “the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare” had been dropped “on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.” He added, “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold.” Thus, says Lanouette, “Truman defined bombing Hiroshima as a military event, justifying one surprise with another. Score settled.”

Moral law?

The second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9. A standard explanation for the need to drop the first bomb was that our land invasion on Japan would have cost a million lives. (For a compelling response to this argument, read this recently posted article by Father Robert Deiters.) 

But Stalin had promised to enter the war and did so on August 8 and was anxious to invade Japan. Meanwhile, as we bombed Nagasaki, a third bomb was ready to be dropped until Truman held it back. Truman did not know the full extent of the damage until his briefing on Hiroshima on August 10. For the first time, it seems, the morality of our actions got notice. Truman said he did not like killing hundreds of thousands of people, especially as he put it, “all those kids.”

Nevertheless, even if a case could be made for the first bombing, once we had made our point, I have never read a credible justification for wiping out Nagasaki.

William Lawrence of The New York Times accompanied the bomber over Nagasaki. “In one tenth or a millionth of a second, a fraction of time immeasurable by any clock, a whirlwind from the skies will pulverize thousands of its buildings and tens of thousands of its in habitants…. Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and the Death March on Bataan.”

Lanouette concludes “And yet many Americans are still eager to believe that killing more than 200,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was somehow a moral event. In Hemingway’s phrase in The Sun Also Rises: ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so.’”

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