We Shouldn't Have Bombed Hiroshima

Writing the Spectacle each month is an exercise in thinking things through. Sometimes, I am reaffirming opinions I have held all my life; sometimes I hardly know what I think until I sit down to write. This is one of those times.

I have always known that I do not have a mathematical or chess intelligence; I have instead what I would hope to call an intelligence of the heart, and I learn what I think by listening to what my heart tells me. I believe that the voyages of the brain can lead to increasing abstraction, redundant, endlessly reductive or self-referential pathways, and eventually loneliness, madness and death; the phenomenon which in a prior essay I referred to as "bomb thinking" is evidence of a human mind wandering in a void, divorced from the heart. I have written elsewhere that no morality based on anything other than compassion is worth anything; compassion may lead you to your death, but it can never lead you wrong. Saint-Exupery was right when he said, "it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; the essential is invisible to the eye."

For most of my adult life, I have believed that a reasonable man would have done what Truman did, and decided to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. But this is a dialog taking place on a different level: the answer the heart gives is that saying that a particular decision would have been made by every man since the beginning of time is not the same statement as saying it is right. What you would have done if you were Truman, and what you would have done if fully human, are two different things.

We are back on the terrain of Teilhard de Chardin here, who said that man is in the process of becoming human (which he called "hominisation") but is not there yet. Since we acknowledge that we can be more than we are (a proposition almost no-one would disagree with) we can ask the question what we would have liked to have done, rather than what we would have done, if the bomb was ours to hurl or withhold.

Here is John Hersey's Mr. Tanimoto, shortly after the Hiroshima explosion:

He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns--of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.

Here is the Chairman of the wartime Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William D. Leahy:

It is my opinion that the use of the barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender....

Bomb is the wrong word to use for this new weapon. It is not a bomb. It is not an explosive. It is a poisonous thing that kills people by its deadly radioactive reaction, more than by the explosive force it develops.

My own feeling is that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

On certain issues, we are taught not to think, either with the brain or with the heart. It is possible for an Admiral Leahy, who was fully formed before the bomb, to react before it like a human being; but for many in our generation, the bombing of Hiroshima is a pre-existing fact as unassailable as the stone lions on the steps of the New York Public Library; it is harder to re-examine something that has always been, than something that has just happened. I have always admired, and still admire, Harry Truman, who did the best he could, and who said, after a hand-wringing session by Oppenheimer: "Don't you bring that fellow around again. After all, all he did was make the bomb. I'm the guy who fired it off."

Sitting at Harry Truman's desk, behind the sign which said, "The buck stops here," one would be hard put not to use a major, curious new weapon, against people who had murdered civilians and prisoners of war. Having made the decision, he is shrouded in, and protected by, history; it was done, the war ended, and almost no-one cried out; it was done, so it was rightly done. But, if you take a step back, and examine the events of 1945, you learn a few things:

Another way of placing the bomb in perspective is to think like this:

If you have a terrible weapon in your hand, the morality of tool use should demand that you not consider using it until you are in extremis. Were we in extremis? The evidence listed above indicates we were not. We had won the European war, were ahead of the game in men and material and our Russian ally was ready to enter the war against Japan.

If we were not in extremis, the only remaining rationales for use of the bomb were murderous vengeance, detached sadistic curiousity, or amoral realpolitik, none of which are foundations upon which we want to build our humanity.

Even if we were in extremis, there would still be a moment to ask the question: what do I become if I use this weapon? Because if the behavior in self-defense makes us no better than the enemy, what is left to defend? At that point, we are no longer defending democracy, or liberty; we are defending me against you, and saying that it is better to be the torturer than to fall to the torturer. At that moment, justice tears out its own lights; if I allow myself to die, it is not fair; if I murder to live, it is not fair. While some would rather be a living murderer, there are others who would prefer to be a dead human. Sometimes survival is nothing to be proud of, as many discovered in Auschwitz.

If you look with the heart, no other conclusion is possible: it would be better for us, for our humanity, if we had not done it. And we still would have won the war.