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TGIF: Truman, A-Bombs, and the Killing of Innocents

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Sixty-eight years ago today a president of the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a city full of innocent Japanese. It was the second time in three days that Harry Truman had done such a thing: He had bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The fatalities in the two cities totaled 150,000–246,000. The victims – mostly children, women, and old men – suffered horrible deaths in the blasts and firestorms. Only shadows remained of those who were vaporized. Many more were injured; others later died from radiation sickness.

Appallingly, history has been kind to Truman, and people who profess a variety of political views claim to admire the “plucky” plain-speaking guy from Independence, Mo. As I see it, however, no condemnation could be harsh enough, for if Truman wasn’t a mass murderer, no one was. (Truman said no to a bombing demonstration on an uninhabited island.) He was a liar too. In announcing the first bombing, he called Hiroshima an “Army base.” But author Greg Mitchell writes, “Hiroshima did contain an important military base, used as a staging area for Southeast Asia, where perhaps 25,000 troops might be quartered. But the bomb had been aimed not at the ‘Army base’ but at the very center of a city of 350,000, with the vast majority women and children and elderly males.”

Nevertheless, in his Aug. 9 radio address to the American people, Truman said, “We wished in the first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians.”

And Nagasaki? It, Mitchell writes, “had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan’s increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents…. Some 35,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 or more fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb’s blast in Hiroshima.”

Nothing can justify what Truman did – neither revenge for the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor nor avoidance of a U.S. invasion of Japan. (Truman first justified the bombings in terms of vengeance.) Top American military leaders – Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Leahy among others – opposed the bombings. The estimate of American casualties in an invasion have been grossly exaggerated, even invented out of whole cloth. While guesses ranging from half a million to millions are bandied about, Truman’s Secretary of State James Byrnes said the death rate would be in the thousands. But even if we accept the high guesses, why was the slaughter of Japanese noncombatants preferable to the deaths of military personnel, even if many on both sides were conscripts? (See Ralph Raico’s “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Anthony Gregory’s “Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the US Terror State,” David Henderson’s “Remembering Hiroshima,” and Charles W. Johnson’s 11:02 A.M.)

Why do people today assume an invasion would have been necessary without the bombings? American military leaders did not believe it. Japan had already been defeated; its leaders were suing for peace, though they resisted Truman’s unreasonable demand for unconditional surrender, which appeared to require removal of the emperor. (In the end, the emperor remained.)

In fact, America could have – and should have – simply gone home, neither bombing nor invading. Moving back a step, we should also reject the article of faith that the attack on Pearl Harbor justified the American war against Japan. Even had the attack not been deliberately provoked or in some manner foreseen by the Roosevelt administration, it could not have justified the American state’s taxation, conscription, suppression of dissent, and the foreseeable mass killing of noncombatants . (All wars are double wars: States wage war against the populations they rule as well as against the foreign populations of the opposing countries.) The war against Japan was not inevitable — even after Pearl Harbor (which was a military base). It was a choice. What should the U.S. have done? Sue for peace. (David Henderson’s article here is insightful.)

As Bryan Caplan writes in his pragmatic case for pacifism,

1. In the modern world, there are no wars of “self-defense.” War today inevitably means deliberately or at least recklessly killing many innocent civilians. This creates a strong moral presumption against war.

2. To overcome this presumption, you’d have to show that long-run benefits of a war are so wonderful than they clearly overshadow its grisly short-run costs. And you’d have to show that there isn’t any cheaper, more humane way to obtain these benefits.

3. In practice, predicting the consequences of war is extremely difficult.  Expert predictions are barely better than chance. “It’s complicated” is not a good enough reason to deliberately or recklessly kill many innocent people.

The moral distinction between killing noncombatants deliberately and killing them in “collateral damage” is overstated. As Caplan says, “But we greatly exaggerate the moral difference when foreigners are the ones who suffer the ‘unavoidable side effects.’ If the police firebombed a domestic apartment complex to pursue the legitimate goal of killing Charles Manson, few people would consider the doctrine of Double Effect a strong defense. Would you?”

People with a connection to the bombings knew they were war crimes. According to Robert McNamara, a World War II strategic bombing analyst who would later engineer the war in Vietnam, Major Gen. Curtis LeMay acknowledged that if America had lost the war, he and his colleagues would have been “prosecuted as war criminals.”

Leo Szilard, one of the physicists who prompted the Manhattan Project, wrote in 1960: “If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.”

The Truman administration revealed that it knew the atomic bombing was immoral by attempting to keep the full truth from the American people. (See Greg Mitchell’s “White House Cover-Up: When Truman Censored the First Hollywood Movie on the Atomic Bomb” and “Atomic Film Coverup – Key Footage from Hiroshima Buried for Decades.”) Truman decided not to drop a third bomb, saying, “The thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible … all those kids.”

Summing up, historian Ralph Raico wrote: “The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime worse than any that Japanese generals were executed for in Tokyo and Manila.”

Wanton disregard for noncombatants continued in Korea, Vietnam, and beyond to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and more. Today, America also inflicts misery on the Iranian people through the terrorism of economic sanctions, ostensibly aimed at stopping Iran’s (nonexistent) nuclear-weapons program. Anthony Gregory writes:

The U.S. has committed mass terrorism since [1945], although not on quite the scale as in past generations. Back in the day the U.S. would drop tons of explosives, knowing that thousands would die in an instant. In today’s wars, it drops explosives and then pretends it didn’t mean to kill the many civilians who predictably die in such acts of violence. Only fifteen hundred bombs were used to attack Baghdad in March 2003. That’s what passes as progress. The naked murderousness of U.S. foreign policy, however, is still apparent. The bombings of water treatment facilities and sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s deliberately targeted the vulnerable Iraqi people. Once the type of atrocities the U.S. committed in World War II have been accepted as at the worst debatable tactics in diplomacy, anything goes.

The bombings – and other atrocities committed by the U.S. government during World War II, including the “conventional” firebombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 noncombatants; the destruction of Dresden, a German city of no strategic value; and the continued bombing of Tokyo after the A-bombings and an agreement to surrender – should have been enough to destroy forever any perception of moral authority in the U.S. government – particularly on the subjects like terrorism.  But, oddly, things have not worked out that way. America proclaims itself the “indispensable nation.” The rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to American “leaders.” Because of alleged “American exceptionalism,” presidents of the United States gets to write their own rules, even redefining torture if they wish. If much of the rest of the world objects, it’s too bad; no one is in a position to do anything about it. (This immunity from common rules of decency extends to America’s “closest ally,” Israel.)

Until Americans come to see the mass murder in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the war crimes they are, it’s hard to be optimistic that they will ever see U.S. imperial foreign policy for the aggression it is.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.