Truman on Trial: Guilty

tags: Hiroshima

Mr. Dresner is Assistant Professor of History (East Asia), Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The arguments presented by Nobile and Radosh, stripped of their scholarly references, can be summed up as follows:

Prosecution:"That wasn't a nice thing to do."

Defense:"But it worked, didn't it?"

Prosecution:"It wasn't necessary."

Defense:"Yes it was." [Insert iterations of"no it wasn't","yes it was" ad naseum]

Prosecution:"There are rules against this sort of thing."

Defense:"They did nasty stuff first."

Prosecution:"That's no excuse."

Defense:"We didn't think we had any choice."

Prosecution:"You always have other choices." [Insert iterations of"no we didn't","yes we did"]

Defense:"Well, they would have died anyway, no matter what choice we made."

Prosecution:"Barbarian. Racist neo-fascist."

Defense:"Wimp. Commie intellectual."

The problem with this dialogue is that the two sides are not really arguing about the same things. The defense does not accept the prosecution's premise that there are absolute limits on weapons and methods; the prosecution does not accept the defense premise that apparently abhorrent acts must be contextualized. Ironically, scholars on the prosecution side are more likely in other contexts to accept culturally relativistic arguments, and scholars on the defense side tend to view cultural/historical relativism as politically and intellectually suspect. This is perhaps a function of the ahistoricity of the question. Whether or not the bombs were necessary or determinative are historically indeterminate, in spite of excellent scholarship on both sides. History is not a controlled experiment, and the situation in August 1945 was too complex for simple answers.

Whether the bomb was"necessary" or"better than the alternatives" is the wrong question. The question of war crimes, particularly when applied to such an effective and dramatic act against a clearly aggressive and brutal enemy, can be distilled down to the question" can there be meaningful restrictions on the conduct of war?"

That civilians can be killed in military operations is now enshrined in our language:" collateral damage" rather than"innocent bystanders." The deliberate attempt to destroy morale by targeting civilian populations or economic targets without significant military strategic value is called"terrorism."

Ironically, the new wing of the Hiroshima Peace Museum, which documents the history of Hiroshima, makes it very clear that the city was a significant command-and-control center for Japanese forces in Asia, a role it had played in every Japanese war since 1895. It also documents the wartime industrial production in the city. But even the defense acknowledges that the atomic bomb was a blunt instrument used to force the Japanese to give up hope, to demonstrate and threaten more unpredictable destruction, death and terror, than the conventional weapons that had already devastated Japanese industry and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

What are the limits on warfare? A society that values efficiency over humanity is properly defined as inhumane; these are the values of corporations, not communities. I am not in favor of losing wars against unprincipled aggressive enemies. But I am also not in favor of becoming an unprincipled aggressor. That the atomic bombings were effective is unquestioned; the question is, are we prepared to sacrifice civilized legal behavior to accomplish our aims? I am not.

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Michael Strikmiller - 8/6/2003

The real question is-Was the two bombs dropped on targets that were primarily civilian? We were to invade Kyushu later in the year, so why wasn't this site chosen for the first bombing?

Rules of war are an oxymoran. War is armed conflict. The order of the day is to kill the enemy to hasten his defeat.

We could have probably just pulled all of our troops and ships back to the US without invasion or the dropping of the two bombs. The Japs were beaten, we knew it they knew it. This would have saved all lives except POW's which we could have worked on. With the Soviets entering the fray the Japs would have begged for help.

If we are to be better than the rest we would not have gotten involved in the war in the first place. We could have just let the Japs have the oil and steel, and give them there share of China, which is all they wanted. Instead we cut them off hence the Pearl Harbor attack. But once this chain of events happened we had to win.

Is Truman guilty of war crimes? Yes! Mainly because there were more appropriate military targets then the two chosen. According to the "Rules of War" he broke them. But as the victor we rewrite the rules. The victor will always make the rules, when he doesn't what is the purpose of war?

Walter Dunn Tucker - 11/12/2002

Opponents of its use appear perfectly willing to have allowed Americans and Allies to die while we waited for Japan to surrender. Those Allies, some in prison, were dying every day. The Japs didn't surrender after the first bomb. There were hard liners who tried to overthrow the emperor and continue to fight after the second bomb.

What would have happened to Truman, Marshall, and Stimson after the war if we hadn't used the bomb and the war had continued. Truman would probably have been impeached, justifiably.

The bomb saved many lives. If it saved one American or Allied life, it was worth it.

This was brought home to me when I learned many years later that two men at my church had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and would undoubtedly have landed on the first day of the invasion of Japan. Both were fine men whow with their wives reared wonderful children after the war. America would have been diminished had they died during the war.

John Wong - 8/5/2002

Rules of engagement, as the now-popular term, apply to the side that declares them. If that happens to be the victorious side, then the losing side will have to submit to their scrutiny as well, usually unwillingly.

The fact that there is a genuine debate in the US about the appropriateness of the methods in warfare speaks volume over the steadfastness of the Japanese government and society to refuse to own up their conduct in the war. If the A-bomb is meant to intimidate, what about the Nanking massacre and other countless atrocities committed by the Japanese military throughout Asia? It never ceases to amaze me how the Japanese can turn the consequences of their aggression into a guilt trip for the rest of the world.

Tristan Traviolia - 8/5/2002

A clear example of the failure of moral equivalence and a complete and utter misrepresentation of the historical facts to justify contemporary ideology. Shame on you Mr. Dresner.

Patrick E. Cochran - 8/6/2001

There have been attempts to limit the terrible effects of warfare on humanity, mostly to no effect. The limits that do exist do so because of mutual consent between waring parties. Mainly because the returns for particular actions do not warrent the costs of particular actions in the view of the combatants. Hitler did not like poison gas because he had a bad experience with it and did not consider its use because of it. His nation's opponents did likewise for similar and other reasons. Therefore, that "limit" held. Unfortunately, not too many others held.

The purpose of war for a moral people is to end it as effectively and noblely as possible. The A-bomb, for all intents and purposes, did that. And it did it sooner and involved much less bloodshed.

If the weapons had come on line sooner, Berlin would have got it first. Therefore, it wasn't a racist act.

The bottom line is that international law is a myth. It only holds if both parties abide by it. WWII was a total war where "non-combatants" were targets almost as much as the actual. A leader is responsible to his own nation's welfare first. All other considerations are secondary. Truman did the right thing. And in doing so, he saved many lives, both american and japanese.

PM - 8/3/2001

The unsurmountable problem with this as history and adjudication lies within the penultimate word in your article.