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Hiroshima and the Burden of History

“Stimson, what was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the second coming in wrath!” Those words were spoken by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson. The two men were gathered at the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, and Churchill had just been informed that America had successfully exploded an atomic bomb.

In one sense, human history was transformed the moment that bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert. Nevertheless, it was the first use of an atomic bomb in warfare that is seared into the human memory. On August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets and his crew flew the Enola Gay, their specially modified B-29 bomber, and dropped “Little Boy” over the city of Hiroshima, Japan.

The power and destructive force of the bomb defied the human imagination, and it continues to do so today. Within seconds of its detonation, the bomb had destroyed most of central Hiroshima. A giant fireball unleashed annihilation and a consuming inferno throughout the city. Buildings, bridges, and human bodies were evaporated by the force of the blast as successive shockwaves spread throughout the region and a now-familiar mushroom cloud reached heights of over 48,000 feet over the city. Just three days later, an even more destructive bomb would be dropped over the city of Nagasaki.

News of the bomb and its power soon spread around the world. Joseph Stalin had been informed of the American development of the bomb during the Potsdam Conference. According to historians, he then went into an entire day of mourning and seclusion. The actual use of the bomb could not be hidden from the human consciousness. Indeed, the American use of the bomb was intended to break the Japanese military’s will to fight.

At first, the American people responded to news of the bomb with a sense of relief. This was especially true for millions of American soldiers, who knew that the alternative to a Japanese surrender was a ghastly invasion of the Japanese mainland. Just after dropping the bomb, navigator Theodore (Dutch) Van Kirk heard someone aboard the Enola Gay express, “This war is over.” As Van Kirk later reflected, he silently agreed with the assessment. “You didn’t see how anybody–even the most radical, militaristic, uncaring for their people–how anybody like that could stand up to something like this.”

Writer Paul Fussell, a 21-year-old soldier serving in France and waiting for likely deployment for the Japanese invasion, expressed his thoughts with simple relief: “We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.”

The actual destruction wrought by the bomb was classically described by novelist John Hersey in Hiroshima, first released as a book in 1946. Much of the book had already appeared in a series of articles Hersey wrote for The New Yorker. The human toll eventually numbered somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths. An estimated 120,000 were killed immediately in Hiroshima and Nagasaki but thousands of others died later from catastrophic injuries and the effects of radiation.

In the years since the Japanese surrender, the American use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become one of the most debated questions of history. The burden of history falls upon all of us, but Christians bear a particular responsibility to make sense of the past and to evaluate events, issues, and decisions from the framework of Christian moral teaching. For some, a quick condemnation of nuclear weapons is the only conceivable response. Those who hold to such a position of absolute condemnation assume that President Harry S Truman and his colleagues were war criminals. On the other hand, the majority of Americans living at the time saw the use of the weapon as beyond question, believing it to have been necessary in order to force a Japanese surrender and to save an even greater death toll in Japanese and American lives.

When the Smithsonian Institution decided to create a special exhibit focused on the Enola Gay and its mission on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing in 1995, a contentious controversy and battle among historians ensued. As Richard B. Frank explains, the “traditionalist” view held by historians understands that the United States had used the two atomic bombs in order to end the war in the Pacific. “They further believed that those bombs had actually ended the war and saved countless lives,” Frank explains.

In contrast, historical “revisionists” argue that the use of the atomic weapon was actually motivated by the American concern that the Soviet Union might gain advantage in the Pacific. According to the revisionists, the Japanese were already attempting to surrender, but Truman dropped the bomb in order to prevent the Soviets from claiming more territory in the Pacific.

Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the Japanese were really ready to surrender–certainly not on the unconditional terms of the Potsdam Declaration. In reality, the Japanese were engaged in a high-stakes gamble that the Soviets would force the Americans and the British to negotiate.

Frank offers a compelling argument that the revisionists are simply wrong. In an article published in the August 8, 2005 issue of The Weekly Standard, Frank argues that new evidence, mostly drawn from declassified intelligence reports, demonstrates that the Japanese high command was not even close to a decision to surrender and that the Allied demand for a Japanese unconditional surrender was still rejected by Japanese authorities. As a decoded message from Prime Minister Togo stated to his Russian ambassador: “Please bear particularly in mind, however, that we are not seeking the Russians’ mediation for anything like an unconditional surrender.”

Sixty years later, it is now clear that the developing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union did play a part in the background to the conclusion of the Pacific war. Nevertheless, we also now know that the Japanese war council was adamantly opposed to surrender, even as defeat was virtually certain. A decision to surrender–with the understanding that the Japanese monarchy would survive in revised form–came only after Emperor Hirohito personally intervened to force the issue.

In his brilliant and controversial new book Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues, “The Japanese leaders knew that Japan was losing the war. But defeat and surrender are not synonymous. Surrender is a political act. Without the twin shocks of the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese would never have accepted surrender in August.”

Thus, Hasegawa argues that it was the combination of the two atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war on August 8 that led to a collapse in the Japanese war party. Nevertheless, we should remember that an attempted coup against the emperor and the government was almost successful, even as Hirohito prepared to announce the surrender to his nation.

Sixty years after the event, we know much more about the sequence of events that shaped the context and about the deliberations that shaped the decisions on both the Japanese and American sides. Writing in the August 1, 2005 edition of TIME magazine, Michael Elliott summarizes: “Ever since, there has been a controversy over when the war would have ended had the bomb not been dropped on Hiroshima . . . and how many Japanese and Americans would have died before it did. But, plainly, the most terrible war ever known ended earlier than it would have because of the Enola Gay‘s mission. The bombs cost tens of thousands of lives . . . but they saved lives too.” Elliott adds, “Right from the start, the nuclear age was wrapped in a paradox. An awful weapon had saved lives; a terrible instrument of war had brought peace.”

Was the use of the atomic bomb categorically wrong? Some are certain that this is so. Nevertheless, catastrophic bombing of populations had already taken place in both the Pacific and European theaters of the war. As Jerram Barrs, resident scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute argues, nuclear weapons “are qualitatively different, capable of greater destruction than conventional weapons, but not of a quite different order.” As he explains: “Man has shown, again and again, that he can kill millions of people with quite simple weapons (Julius Caesar’s wars in Gall are one example). The ability to kill many with one bomb is not qualitatively different from killing many with swords or guns.”

The most challenging moral questions related to the actual use of the bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are whether the bomb was actually necessary to end the war and whether it was right to bomb cities, knowing that thousands of civilians would be among the casualties.

Here again, Barrs argues that “while the desire to keep civilians out of battle is obviously praiseworthy, we have to recognize that this is sometimes difficult.” When military assets are deeply embedded within civilian populations, the issue becomes even more troubling.

The Christian conscience must continue to struggle with the morality of the atomic age and with the specter of nuclear weapons. We must be thankful that 60 years has now passed without any further hostile use of nuclear weaponry. Whatever moral questions may be addressed to the Cold War doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” the fact is that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States used a nuclear weapon against the other.

The current picture is further complicated by the fact that the proliferation of nuclear weapons remains a paramount concern. Most contemporary observers believe that the greatest danger posed by a nuclear weapon is that one might be used by a terrorist group.

In the final analysis, there is good reason to believe that the deployment of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki may well have saved more Japanese lives in the end, as well as the lives of unnumbered American soldiers and sailors.

I cannot reflect on this question without thinking of my friend Joe Reynolds, who was then a young Marine officer who had seen the carnage of Iwo Jima firsthand. Had Japan not surrendered in August of 1945, Joe Reynolds and millions of other American servicemen would have invaded Japan, facing a nation then willing to fight the invaders to the bitter end–even if it meant elderly women and young children wielding sharpened bamboo spears. I am thankful that that tragic war did end in August 1945, and I am thankful that Joe Reynolds, along with millions of his fellow soldiers and sailors, lived to serve their country in other ways.

The 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing should serve as a catalyst for Christian reflection on the morality of warfare, the reality of human sinfulness, the frailty of human wisdom, and the burden of history. For all these things, we will give an answer. Until then, we must do the very best with what we have, what we know, and what we face.