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Why It's Time for Us to Confront Hiroshima

August 6 marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic destruction of the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II. We Americans reflect on this event in sharply differing ways.

Some Americans recall the event with shame and express their fervent hope that nuclear weapons never be used again. Others firmly believe that the use of atomic bombs saved American lives by ending the war prior to a bloody American invasion of Japan. More challenging to consider is whether it was an unjustifiable act in a fully justified war.

Those who believe the bomb's use was justified often label their opponents "pacifists," "1960s radicals," "bleeding-heart liberals" or "revisionists." These epithets merely delay the day when Americans will consider the import of having used nuclear weapons.

Our failure to grapple fully with the ethical questions stemming from our use of mass violence against civilians has meant that we unwittingly endorse an act that some would consider state terror. We rightly expect Germany and Japan to confront painful episodes from their participation in World War II. Now it's our turn.

Conservatives today are the natural candidates to take the lead in confronting our most painful episode from the war, because they were once among the most vocal critics of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Consider the following:

On August 8, 1945, two days after the bombing, former Republican President Herbert Hoover wrote to a friend that "[t]he use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul."

Days later, David Lawrence, the conservative owner and editor of U.S. News (now U.S. News & World Report), argued that Japan's surrender had been inevitable without the atomic bomb. He added that justifications of "military necessity" will "never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations . . . did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children."

Just weeks after Japan's surrender, an article published in the conservative magazine Human Events contended that America's atomic destruction of Hiroshima might be morally "more shameful" and "more degrading" than Japan's "indefensible and infamous act of aggression" at Pearl Harbor.

Such scathing criticism on the part of leading American conservatives continued well after 1945. A 1947 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, at the time a leading conservative voice, claimed that President Truman and his advisers were guilty of "crimes against humanity" for "the utterly unnecessary killing of uncounted Japanese."

In 1948, Henry Luce, the conservative owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, stated that "[i]f, instead of our doctrine of 'unconditional surrender,' we had all along made our conditions clear, I have little doubt that the war with Japan would have ended soon without the bomb explosion which so jarred the Christian conscience."

A steady drumbeat of conservative criticism continued throughout the 1950s. A 1958 editorial in William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review took former President Truman to task for his then-current explanation of why he had decided to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The editors asked the question that "ought to haunt Harry Truman: 'Was it really necessary?'" Could a demonstration of the bomb and an ultimatum have ended the war? The editors challenged Truman to provide a satisfactory answer. Six weeks later the magazine published an article harshly critical of Truman's atomic bomb decision.

Two years later, David Lawrence informed his magazine's readers that it was "not too late to confess our guilt and to ask God and all the world to forgive our error" of having used atomic weapons against civilians. As a 1959 National Review article matter-of-factly stated: "The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed."

But times change. In recent decades most American conservatives have become uncritical of America's use of atomic weapons and dismissive of anyone who holds a contrary view. Conservative publications now routinely defend Truman's atomic bomb decision. Critics of his decision, to quote from a representative National Review editorial from 1987, are "wrong, and profoundly offensive to all Americans and Japanese who died in that war, and to those Americans who still possess the ability to think."

Sixty years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we have an opportunity to grapple anew with the questions surrounding that event. American conservatives should renew their earlier, deeply held ethical criticism of the Hiroshima bombing instead of promoting the inaccurate but politically convenient view that criticism of the atomic bombing can only come from the left. Their response will not only tell us much about contemporary American conservatism; it will also determine whether we finally can have an honest debate about Hiroshima's destruction.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.