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75 Years After Hiroshima, Time to Give Dr. Strangelove His Walking Papers

Even if the bombing was not a criminal act, the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal qualifies as madness.

On September 1, 1939, the very day that German forces invaded Poland, President Franklin Roosevelt sent an urgent message to the leaders of the European nations embarking upon what would come to be called the Second World War. His message called attention to what he called “the ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population,” which “has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.” FDR was referring to the bombing of cities in China and Spain during the decade just then coming to an end.  

Should “this form of inhuman barbarism” persist, Roosevelt continued, “hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities which have now broken out, will lose their lives.” The president asked each belligerent nation for assurances “that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.”

The president’s forecast proved accurate, but his appeal fell on deaf ears, of course. Indeed, once B17 Flying Fortresses of VIII Bomber Command began operations from airfields in England during the summer of 1942, the United States itself disregarded FDR’s admonition.  The “bombardment from the air of civilian populations” became a central component of U.S. wartime strategy in both Europe and the Pacific. In August 1945, U.S. Army Air Forces strategic bombing reached an apotheosis of sorts with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, each obliterated by a single atomic bomb.

We have yet to grasp the moral and political implications of that episode. Nor will I pretend to do so in this very brief reflection.  Yet even in our present summer of torment, the 75th Anniversary of Hiroshima should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. There are some things even worse than Covid-19.

As a boy growing up in Indiana during the 1950s, the firstborn son of two World War II veterans, I reflexively adhered to the school of historical interpretation holding that “the Japs had it coming.” We dropped the bombs and the enemy surrendered: end of discussion. No need for second thoughts or breast-beating.

Now that I have reached an advanced age, I no longer find such crisp judgments persuasive. In matters of historical importance, crisp judgments might be politically expedient but they are almost invariably found wanting with the passage of time.

I have no quarrel with President Harry Truman’s decision to employ the bomb that the United States had developed as a matter of supreme urgency and at enormous cost. Truman gave the greenlight at a moment when moral reasoning was in short supply just about everywhere on the planet. Policymakers at the time were not given to asking, “What would Jesus do?” And apart from the present-day occupant of the White House, Truman himself was probably the least prepared person to become president in the past century. FDR’s death had thrown Truman into the deep end of a very deep pool.

I’m willing to second guess other Truman decisions, sending U.S. troops north of the 38th Parallel in the autumn of 1950, for example. That was a boneheaded move for which American soldiers and Marines paid dearly. But dropping the atomic bomb on a Japanese city in the summer of 1945 was an overdetermined event. Barring Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton taking Truman’s place in the Oval Office, it was going to happen.

So the questions that have preoccupied scholars since strike me as literally academic. How many G.I.s would have died if the U.S. had had to invade the Japanese home islands? Rather than dropping the bomb on an undefended city, wouldn’t an offshore demonstration of its awesome power have sufficed to make the point? Wasn’t the Japanese government about to throw in the towel anyway? And wasn’t scaring the Soviets an underlying motive?

The passage of seventy-five years since that dreadful event should bring other questions to the fore. Among the most important, in my view, is this one: How long will the government of the United States cling to the belief that possession of a nuclear striking force, held in instant readiness, is essential to our nation’s safety and wellbeing? When will we learn the true lessons of Hiroshima?

Inside Washington, the bogus theology of nuclear strategy devised as an ostensibly necessary response to the Soviet threat remains firmly in place. The Cold War ended more than thirty years ago.  Less destructive approaches to deterrence have since become available. A renewed nuclear arms race serves the interests of no one. Yet the United States has embarked upon a $1.5 trillion program to field new long-range bombers, new land-based ICBMs, new missile-launching submarines, and a whole new family of ostensibly more flexible warheads.

Even if the bombing of Hiroshima was not a criminal act, the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal qualifies as out-and-out madness.

It’s past time to give Dr. Strangelove his walking papers.

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.