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Thank God for the Atomic Bomb?

May 18, 2009 by Reader's Connection

RetributionHave you seen this week’s Staff Recommends?

Glendale Library’s Sailan Liang has written a review of the 2008 book, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945 by Max Hastings.

The book chronicles that last agonizing period of World War II in the Pacific, and tries to put America’s use of the atomic bomb in perspective. Or as Sailan writes, “Hastings challenges readers to judge for themselves whether the fate that befell Japan in 1945 merits the description of retributive justice.”

“Retribution” is a disturbing word in this context, and it reminds me of a similar disturbance in the past. Twenty-some years ago I jumped in my skin when I read this passage from William Manchester’s 1980 book,  Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War:

After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s home islands–a staggering number of Americans but millions more of Japanese–and you thank God for the atomic bomb.


Wow, I thought. What a wild thing to say. I had previously read that many more people, including many more Japanese, would have died if the war had been allowed to continue–if the A-bombs hadn’t been used. But Manchester’s phrase still startled me, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Writer Paul Fussell used Manchester’s words as the title of an essay that was printed in The New Republic in August of 1981, and also gave that name to his collection Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays. That title zapped me from across the room at B. Dalton Booksellers, which is no doubt what Fussell had in mind.

It’s a brilliant, feisty essay. Fussell fought in the Pacific, himself, and his point is not only that the atomic bombs ended the war and saved more lives than they cost. “Writing on the forty-second anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he gets started, “I want to consider something suggested by the long debate about the ethics, if any, of that ghastly affair. Namely, the importance of experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb.”

In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror, the easier the talk. One young combat naval officer close to the action wrote home in the fall of 1943, just before the marines underwent the agony of Tarawa: “When I read that we will fight the Japs for years if necessary and will sacrifice hundreds of thousands if we must, I always like to check from where he’s talking: it’s seldom out here.” That was Lieuteneant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy. And Winston Churchill, with an irony perhaps too broad and easy, noted in Parliament that the people who preferred invasion to A-bombing seemed to have “no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves.”

. . . One remembers the captured American airmen–the lucky ones who escaped decapitation–locked for years in packing crates. One remembers the gleeful use of bayonets on civilians, on nurses and the wounded, in Hong Kong and Singapore. Anyone who actually fought in the Pacific recalls the Japanese routinely firing on medics . . . The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the Pacific War.


The library has a range of books about the first A-bombs, dealing with the science behind the bombs and the decision to use them. Fussell’s essay is strong enough to have beat me into submission, but don’t let this happen to you. Read around on the subject.

If you’re just getting started, you can’t do better than the multiple-prizewinner by Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

 The Making of the Atomic Bomb is an epic worthy of Milton. Nowhere else have I seen the whole story put down with such elegance and gusto and in such revealing detail and simple language which carries the reader through wonderful and profound scientific discoveries and their application. The great figures of the age, scientific, military, and political, come to life when confronted with the fateful and awesome decisions which faced them in this agonizing century. This great book dealing with the most profound problems of the 20th century can help us to apprehend the opportunities and pitfalls that face the world in the 21st — I. I. Rabi, Nobel Laureate for Physics, 1944




Harry S. Truman and the Bomb: a Documentary History, edited by Robert H. Ferrell

Harry S. Truman and the BombEditor Ferrell has gathered the basic documents that help us to understand the terrible calculus that went into President Truman’s decision to order the dropping of nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities on August 6 and 9, 1945. The collection was compiled from Truman’s files at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The documents reveal that by mid-June 1945, American military leaders were becoming fearful of what their military services might be up against in an invasion of Japan. There were estimates as high as 46,000 casualties. On Iwo Jima, 6200 U.S. marines were killed; and on Okinawa a total of 13,000 died–35 percent of the attacking force. Truman remarked with horror at the possibility that an invasion of Japan would amount to another Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other. American officials were willing to take almost any measure to end what had become a fight to the finish against Japan. This is a strong history lesson. — Library Journal


The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians , edited by Cynthia C. Kelly

The Manhattan ProjectMore than 60 years since WWII was ended by two atomic detonations, the Manhattan Project that made them possible still carries iconic weight, both as an incredible achievement of science and engineering and as the opening salvo in the nuclear arms race. This collection of essays, including excerpts from 45 books and almost twice as many articles, is more than worthy of its subject. The basic science behind the project is detailed in a number of lively accounts by scientists who worked on it; they also recount the lighter side of the experience, including the characters they worked alongside and the camaraderie among them. In-depth analysis of policy and ethical issues take on the justification for Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki (with fine examples from both sides of the argument) — Publishers Weekly


Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb against Japan by Sean L. Malloy
Atomic TragedyMalloy has written an excellent account of Henry L. Stimson’s role in the decision to use atomic bombs in 1945. Stimson, a distinguished diplomat who held a number of posts, was Secretary of War from 1940 to September 1945. In that position, he was a key player in the development of the atomic bomb. Malloy uses multiarchival sources as well as the writings of Barton J. Bernstein and other scholars to document the personal turmoil that Stimson faced regarding use of the bomb. He initially believed that atomic secrets should be shared with Russia as well as England, but continually vacillated on that issue. He also believed that civilians should never be targeted by military weapons, and Malloy clearly shows that Stimson’s acquiescence to the use of atomic bombs caused a moral dilemma for him. He gave in to the pressure of the times and allowed himself to support the use of new weapons technology, therefore ushering in the atomic age with all of its moral considerations. Was Stimson solely responsible? Obviously not, but he just as obviously shared a role in the bomb’s use. — Choice


American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
American PrometheusRobert Oppenheimer’s work as director of the Manhattan Project–bringing hundreds of iconoclastic nuclear physicists together in the New Mexico desert to design and build the first atomic bomb–remains one of the most remarkable feats, both triumphant and tragic, of the twentieth century, but as this definitive biography makes clear, it was only one chapter in a profoundly fascinating, richly complex, and ineffably sad American life. Bird and Sherwin set the stage beautifully, detailing Oppenheimer’s young life as a multidisciplinary child prodigy at the progressive Ethical Culture School in Manhattan. The young Oppenheimer was a tangled mix of precocity and insecurity–a far cry from the charismatic leader who would emerge at Los Alamos. Funneling more than 25 years of research into a captivating narrative, the authors bring needed perspective to Oppenheimer’s radical activities in the 1930s, and they reprise the familiar story of the Manhattan Project thoroughly . . . capturing the humanity of the man behind the porkpie hat, both at Los Alamos and in the tragic aftermath, when Oppenheimer’s tireless efforts to promote arms control made him the target of politicians and bureaucrats, leading to the revoking of his security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, during a hearing that the authors portray convincingly as a kangaroo court. That Oppenheimer both helped father the bomb and was crucified for lobbying against the arms race remains the fundamental irony in a supremely ironic story. That irony as well as the ambiguity and tortured emotions behind it are captured in all their intensity in this compelling life story. — Booklist

Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Bomb by Ronald T. Takaki
Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the BombA widely accepted theory is that President Harry Truman ordered the atomic bomb dropped on Japan to end the war quickly and to avoid the massive casualties that would have occurred during an Allied invasion. That view, according to Takaki, is simplistic. He argues that Truman’s overriding concern-American policy toward the Soviet Union-led him to hope that a combat demonstration of the bomb in Japan would lead to Soviet postwar cooperation and discourage that country’s imperialist expansion. Takaki also contends that the President’s readiness to use the bomb was linked to America’s racial rage against the Japanese and to Truman’s own racist attitudes. Takaki’s Harry Truman will be unfamiliar to most readers: insecure, unable to say no to strong-willed officials such as Secretary of State James Byrnes, struggling to overcome his childhood identity as a sissy by means of macho behavior, suffering remorse over his historic decision. Right or wrong, the study is a provocative addition to the unresolved debate over the dropping of the atomic bombs. — Publishers Weekly


War’s End: An Eyewitness Account of America’s Last Atomic Mission by Charles W. Sweeney

War's End

General (then Major) Sweeney was the pilot of Bock’s Car, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Like its target, the second atomic mission has never received a fraction of the attention given its predecessor, targeted at Hiroshima. This book begins to answer that situation. Sweeney, a Boston Irishman learning to fly at the time of Pearl Harbor, became acquainted with Paul Tibbetts, pilot of the Hiroshima mission, during test-pilot work on the B-29. Picked for the 509th Bombardment Wing, Sweeney eventually executed his mission, despite human error, mechanical failures, bad weather, fuel shortages, and a bomb that had to be armed before takeoff. Much of this account adopts a tone of moral outrage over the current historical revisionism concerning the A-bomb. It reflects the consciousness in 1945 of ever-lengthening American casualty lists because of stubborn Japanese resistance that was expected to continue indefinitely. The revisionists may have a case, but Sweeney has one, too. — Booklist


  1. Steve Bridge says:

    Very well done essay and collection of books. No complex problem can have one simple answer, except from people who refuse to think about the problem.

  2. Heydon Buchanan says:

    As horrible as the A-bomb was, and is, I don’t see how we could have avoided using it on Japan at the end of WWII. The estimated number of U.S. casualties which I’ve seen referenced elsewhere were far higher than the number mentioned above. The Japanese had homeland defenses in place which would have kept the war going for a number of years, and their commitment was to fight to the last person. The Japanese military was brutal, had no mercy, and were completely dedicated to U.S. destruction. In the horrors of war, using the A-bomb was the lesser of two evils.

    What I don’t understand is why the second A-bomb had to be used. That is, was enough time allowed for the Japanese government to comprehend the power of the first bomb dropped, and subsequently surrender before the dropping of the second bomb?

    What is truly disappointing–to say the least–is that the U.N. and the world didn’t envision, and subsequently deal with, the ensuing nuclear arms race which has depleted the wealth of so many nations and cast a fearsome cloud of destruction over our daily lives.

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