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Bombs Away 

Some things should not be done again.

World War II, after the explosion of the atom bomb.
World War II, after the explosion of the atom bomb in August 1945, Hiroshima, Japan. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I look forward to calls for peace talks in Ukraine from National Review and worry what it will mean for global plate tectonics if Japan migrates into the North Atlantic. The Oppenheimer movie seems to have Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the brain of two of the country’s most prominent hawks; Monday saw John Bolton in the Wall Street Journal suggesting NATO go island hopping in Asia and Rich Lowry at NRO rearticulating the case for dropping the atom bombs. Like Christopher Nolan’s films, their arguments explore inconsistency, ambiguity, and a questionable relationship to reality in eye-catching ways. 

To be clear, I’m no fan of consistency for its own sake, and apparent inconsistency is sometimes the sign of a deeper principle or impulse at play. I’m all for changing one’s mind; man is not machine, and no two situations are exactly the same. Nevertheless, it is striking to read in Lowry’s defense of bombing civilians that “we were fighting a merciless foe in a savage war where every day brought more suffering and devastation, to combatants and civilians alike and across Asia. The best thing that could happen was ending the war as soon as possible.” Quite. 


This is not a column about how WWII should have been resolved, and will not present a historical counterfactual. What is done is done, but it remains a question whether it was well done. Indeed, I raise the ethical concern on Lowry’s terms. The justification for using Oppenheimer’s gadget was the same as for earlier indiscriminate targeting of civilians. He writes, “There’s really no moral case against the atom bombs that doesn’t also apply to the firebombing.” Just so, and I am as grateful as any other American that Japan’s surrender spared many, many G.I.’s lives.

Yet that only shunts the morality of the thing to the side or back a step in a glib and modern way: It worked, so it must be right. However performed or sincere J. Robert Oppenheimer’s personal guilt about the bomb was, it was good to have some, and to voice it. And President Harry Truman was right, too, to take responsibility for the terrible thing’s use. 

No, we will not settle the ethics of total war here in this column any more than Lowry did in his. We agree on much and yet arrive at distant destinations. But the utilitarian calculus he presents suggests the conservative establishment could consider changing tune about endless support for a dragged-on hell in Ukraine. There too each day brings more suffering and devastation to combatants and civilians alike. There too a swift end to the conflict appears the surest guarantee that as few American lives will be risked as possible. The conflict cannot continue at this scale without our support; the more we support it, the longer it goes on, and the greater the chances that we climb the escalatory ladder to a place from which we cannot descend without all of Europe, and perhaps all the world, falling into an abyss. It has happened before. 

Meanwhile, John Bolton has called for tying together more and more climbers on this dark mountain. He concludes his opinion piece in WSJ with this remarkable ode to a shrinking planet: “Washington should give careful, strategic thought to expanding NATO’s Asian role. It need not admit Asian members tomorrow, but it can certainly work toward that goal.” Never mind that South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand remain, as of this writing, in the West Pacific; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is having a moment back in the sun and Bolton is not about to let that go to waste. I suppose we can say, to give him another argument for next time, that Canada and the U.S. are Pacific powers, and they are founding NATO members, so why not more? 

What is NATO for? Traditionally, as the organization’s first secretary general, Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, famously said, it was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It has, of course, evolved. But as it has expanded eastward, if it has any purpose its members can agree to, it remains to keep Russia out of Europe, the Americans in, and Germany and France playing nice (a role now supplemented by the European Union).


What it means to “keep the Americans in” has changed a bit in 74 years. The concern that the U.S. would go home and forswear continental interventions, as we had after World War I, quickly disappeared with fusionism’s defeat of the Old Right. That America First-ers of today question NATO’s post-Cold War utility does not signal total withdrawal from Europe, but rather represents a worry that, in metastisizing after victory over the Soviets, the organization has ceased to be a guarantor of American interest and become only an instrument of American empire—the “American-led liberal order,” I mean. But in making clients and keeping them in line, we undermine our republican character and accrue new costs and risks.

Bolton likes that empire part, and as the Russian bear has made NATO newly glamorous, proposes to keep a good thing going. China—dragon, perhaps of paper, although only time can tell—is clearly the United States’ chief strategic rival. But on the China issue, faced with an economically disastrous choice, Europe is unreliable. Bolton writes, “after victory in the Cold War, NATO seemed marginal to many Europeans (and Americans), the EU strengthened institutionally, and Franco-German economic objectives increasingly centered on China.” As Bolton acknowledges in his piece, France’s Emmanuel Macron not unreasonably believes “a Sino-American confrontation over Taiwan is ‘a trap for Europe.’” Meanwhile, China remains Germany’s primary trading partner. What to do? By increasing NATO cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners, and eventually adding Asian countries to the organization, Europe will be committed to siding with us if we become involved in a confrontation over Taiwan. 

The proposal is a little desperate, making the best of a weak hand, an attempt to shore up an imperium that appears already to be passing. Any real crisis in the Pacific will force the cooperation of our partners there in the region without making the North Atlantic compass that ocean, too. But of course that is not the point for Bolton. Yet to stretch NATO that far is to stretch it past meaning and to breaking. Such a crisis, if it comes, will throw everyone’s calculations out the window, and new choices will be made in a new moment whatever commitments are held now.

But there is a certain movie magic to that new Cold War arrangement, just as there is a certain movie magic to the flash of an atom bomb, that makes it still appealing to those who resist the reality we face today: The United States is no longer a hegemon alone, and the bipolar or multipolar world of today does not fit into the easy categories of the recent past. To face the future, we must be able to admit that some things no longer work, and some things should not be done again.