The Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings: ‘working it out’

Opinions - November 21st, 2003

A response to Henry Scott Stokes

by James N. Papatones

Henry Scott Stokes went out on a huge limb in his Aug. 1 column (Revisiting the question of morality in the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings) when he characterized the atomic bombings as “.. .crimes, on a scale of a million to one—in comparison with anything else, any other act of war in all history.” Almost in the same breath, he apologized for oversimplification, and later wondered if, “We want to avoid trying to work it out.”

This is obviously an understatement. I wondered at times if he designed his comments to stir controversy rather than to offer any meaningful, fact-based historical dialogue. In trying to “work it out” myself however, I believe that ultimately Scott Stokes largely had it right, despite that comment.

Today, some are fond of characterizing some nuclear weapons as “good” and some as “bad,” with the traditional view holding the atomic bombs were “good” because they ended a war. However, this emotional view is as wrong as it is strong. The international war of that time, as it does now, prohibited the intentional and wanton targeting of civilians by warring nations. After the admittedly dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor, Emperor Hirohito’s first question to his planners was, “How many civilians died?”

In the case of Pearl Harbor, the casualties were more than 90 percent military, and the total fatalities approximately 3,000. In the case of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the total fatalities were approximately 300,000 (in the immediate aftermath) and those casualties were approximately 90 percent civilian.

The intelligence services of the warring nations, while primitive by today’s standards, were equally as adept in measuring civilian and military populations—by and large they knew exactly what they were doing in their war planning and execution, with one notable exception on the Japanese side.

In the case of Pearl Harbor, the attack was a surprise because of inept execution by the Japanese military of a “min­imum warning plan.” The sec­ond question of Emperor Hirohito after Pearl Harbor was, “Why did our (planned) declaration not precede the attack?”

However, the historical record demonstrates the American forces had time to put up—and did in fact put up—one hell of a fight, causing many casualties among the attackers as well as thwarting the main purposes of the Japanese attack—the destruc­tion of oil facilities and the sink­ing of America’s aircraft carri­ers, with no means of effectively defending its skies against air attack.

Atomic weapons might have been used to destroy kamikaze airfields, defending Japanese armies, or Japan’s secret facilities in North Korea involved in atomic weapons research and production, laser weaponry and biological war­fare.

Douglas Macarthur and Dwight Eisenhower—the most famous military figures of that era, who both adamantly opposed the use of atomic weapons against Japanese cities—might then have been silenced.

Over time, combatants of WWII, individuals as well as nations, became friends. I witnessed in Germany veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, Germans and Americans, greet each other like long lost broth­ers at a train station en route to commemorations of that solemn event.

On the other hand, those who dropped the atomic bombs did not even dare give their true identities when they visited Hiroshima in the early 1990s. While it is understand­able why they sped out of range to avoid the effects at the time the bomb was dropped, they did not even dare disclose who they were decades later. There are several messages here.

One additional plane was dispatched about 10 minutes after the Hiroshima bombing to photograph effects at approximately 100 feet above the ground. Its pilot became insane as a result of what he saw.

Winston Churchill, himself a “partner” in the decision, commented in 1952 to Harry Truman they would both “roast in hell” for that decision. Truman stood silent.

If atomic weapons were “good” because they ended the conflict, then one must also ask why such weapons have not been used to end the numerous conflicts in which the Allied Nations have since participated. Perhaps the unspoken and uncomfortable truth is that those nations have learned something they do not yet feel comfortable admitting. Maybe they were pretty far from “good.”

So Scott Stokes did largely have it right; but for these unspoken reasons. Stokes’ suggestion is positive as well – “to create a foundation that encour­ages Japan to be international, open itself and let in some fresh air.” Because, after all, that was one of the just reasons why World War II was a just war fought by America, in spite of the way it ended in Japan.

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Henry Scott Stokes says: I would like to thank readers who took the trouble to comment on my column of Aug. 1. No doubt the subject of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will continue to stim­ulate comment in the future.

In the meantime, let me mention something I should perhaps have included in my original column. There has been no clear consensus among leading U.S. weapons scientists on the rights and wrongs of obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with their largely civilian populations.

For example, Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, was a strong proponent of the view that the nuclear bombs should never have been dropped on Japan in 1945. Let me quote from an obituary of Teller, car­ried in The Times of London on Sept. 11, 2003. (He died the day before at the age of 95.)

“(Teller) was later to say that…he was opposed to the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan and would have pre­ferred a demonstration of the new weapon’s power to Japanese scientists.” How might this have been done?

An obituary carried in The Financial Times (Sept. 11, 2003), written by Bronwen Maddox, stated, “Teller argued that (U.S.) scientists should have suggested to President Truman that he drop bombs over Tokyo Bay, not over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Teller was regarded, in his time, as the ultra-hawk among the U.S. scientists who developed the world’s first nuclear weapons—and then the H-Bomb. The Times refers to him in the five-column headline over his obituary as a “Proponent of the H-bomb whose zeal for weapons of mass destruction as the best guaran­tee of security knew no bounds.”

He helped to persuade Ronald Reagan to pledge research funds for the “Star Wars” missile defense sys­tem—a project that was not pursued in the end.

Even this highly aggressive and original nuclear weapons scientist, probably the most forceful of his generation any­where, thought the scientific establishment should have advised Harry Truman against his eventual decision. For oth­ers of us, with much less knowledge but the benefit of hind­sight, to hold to the same conclusion as Teller—obviously a supreme authority—seems reasonable to me.