Conservative Revisionists and Hiroshima


Leo Maley III has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Maryland, College Park, and Uday Mohan is the director of research for the Nuclear Studies Institute, American University.

When Paul Tibbets, pilot of the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima 62 years ago, died earlier this month, conservative commentators responded true to form.

They declared Tibbets to be a hero. They stridently defended the use of the atomic bomb. And they took the opportunity to denounce any and all critics of the atomic bombing of Japanese cities as “left-wingers,” “self-haters,” “wacko communists,” “ultraliberal Americans,” “idealistic fools,” and (one of our favorites) “peace-at-any-pricers and ban-the-bombers.”

Such free use of epithets by conservatives to characterize anyone who disagrees with them on this issue poisons public debate, delays the day when many Americans will grapple with the consequences of having used nuclear weapons, and distorts history.

Mainstream American conservatives—not leftists, as we are led to believe—have been among the most vocal critics of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Consider the following:

On August 8, 1945, two days after the bombing, former Republican President Herbert Hoover wrote to a friend that "[t]he use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul."

Days later, David Lawrence, the conservative owner and editor of U.S. News (now U.S. News & World Report), argued that Japan's surrender had been inevitable without the atomic bomb. He added that justifications of "military necessity" will "never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations . . . did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children."

Just weeks after Japan's surrender, an article published in the conservative magazine Human Events, contended that America's atomic destruction of Hiroshima might be morally "more shameful" and "more degrading" than Japan's "indefensible and infamous act of aggression" at Pearl Harbor.

Such scathing criticism on the part of leading American conservatives continued well after 1945. A 1947 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, at the time a leading conservative voice, claimed that President Truman and his advisers were guilty of "crimes against humanity" for "the utterly unnecessary killing of uncounted Japanese."

In 1948, Henry Luce, the conservative owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, stated that "[i]f, instead of our doctrine of 'unconditional surrender,' we had all along made our conditions clear, I have little doubt that the war with Japan would have ended soon without the bomb explosion which so jarred the Christian conscience."

A steady drumbeat of conservative criticism continued throughout the 1950s. A 1958 editorial in William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review took former President Truman to task for his then-current explanation of why he had decided to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The editors asked the question that "ought to haunt Harry Truman: 'Was it really necessary?' " Could a demonstration of the bomb and an ultimatum have ended the war? The editors challenged Truman to provide a satisfactory answer. Six weeks later the magazine published an article harshly critical of Truman's atomic bomb decision.

Two years later, David Lawrence informed his magazine's readers that it was "not too late to confess our guilt and to ask God and all the world to forgive our error" of having used atomic weapons against civilians. As a 1959 National Review article matter-of-factly stated: "The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed."

Times sure change. Conservatives now all but unanimously support the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and most are quick to marginalize anyone who disagrees with them.

Mark Krikorian, writing for National Review Online, claims that Tibbets’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima “saved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of lives (both American and Japanese), but the left-wingers couldn't stand the fact that he [Tibbets] wasn't a self-hater like them.”

Writing for WorldNetDaily, conservative columnist Doug Powers suggests that Congress “step in to make Enola Gay-bashing a hate crime and start a fund to give those seeking apologies for the war a free plane ticket to Tokyo . . . . ”

One could easily dismiss such rhetoric as the rantings of marginal blowhards, but on the subject of Hiroshima Krikorian and Powers merely echo the opinions of well-known conservative writers such as Cal Thomas, David Horowitz, Charles Krauthammer, and Thomas Sowell.

If leading conservatives’ uncritical acceptance of mass violence wasn't disturbing enough, their fondness for name-calling and half-baked historical theorizing threatens to prematurely close the debate on a deeply disturbing moment in American history.

The blast, fire, and radiation from Tibbets’s bomb killed 140,000 people. Many others were scarred and injured for life. Most of the bomb's victims were women, children, the elderly and other civilians not directly involved in the war. Those victims also included American and Allied POWs and thousands of Koreans forcibly conscripted by the Japanese as wartime labor. Such facts should disturb us. They ought to revolt our souls.

Sixty-two years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Americans should be able to grapple honestly with the historical and moral questions surrounding that terrible event.

We rightly expect Germany and Japan to confront painful episodes from their participation in World War II. Now it's our turn. Instead of promoting the inaccurate view that criticism of the atomic bombing can only come from self-hating, idealistic, fools on the left, American conservatives should renew their earlier, deeply held ethical criticism of the Hiroshima bombing.

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    More Comments:

    James Draper - 12/4/2007

    Let's toss emotions to the side and embrace rational thought for a moment. How would Americans (and their Allies) feel about Truman having at his disposal the means to end the costliest war of the twentieth century and then deciding not to employ it? The authors bring up the subject of morality. Would it have been a more moral decision to let the horrific war continue for another couple of months or a year, ending with a massive invasion of the Japanese mainland? How would one argue against dropping the bomb with over ten thousand dying daily in the Pacific Theatre by 1945?

    This isn't a partisan issue. Maybe it comes down to that pervasive question, "Would you kill one to save a million?" Many people surprisingly state, "NO!"

    Michael Finn - 12/3/2007

    Paul Tibbits was the last person to call himself a hero, nor would he want anyone else to apply that title for him. He had to be one of the most low profile and unassuming public figures.

    His veiw was that he, like many Americans in the war, did the job they were asked to do.

    Whether you agree or disagree with the decsion to drop the bomb, trying to tag it as conservative or liberal is a meaninless exercise in 2007.

    Let's leave Col. Tibbits out of the discussion.

    Vince Treacy - 12/3/2007

    Most of the so-called conservative reaction to Hiroshima was based on blindly visceral hatred by contemporary Republicans for everything Democratic, and for Truman especially, rather than on any deeply seated principles, so it is unsurprising that as the temporary hatreds faded, the Republican postition changed. By 1952, the GOP detested Truman, whose ratings had fallen into the 20s among the general population. But by 1972, the memories had faded and Republicans at their convention could visit Truman's library and revere him as a hero.
    The left was pretty quiet about Hiroshima at the time, maybe because the Soviets had just declared war on Japan, and the bomb aided its cause. Of course, that all changed at time went on.
    It is really best to separate left and right agendas from dispassionate historical research.
    All readers should probably take a look at Fussell's book, Thank God for the Atom Bomb.