When Paul Tibbets, pilot of the plane that dropped
an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima 62 years ago, died earlier
this month, conservative commentators responded true to form. They declared
Tibbets to be a hero. They stridently defended the use of the atomic bomb. And
they took the opportunity to denounce any and all critics of the atomic bombing
of Japanese cities as "left-wingers," "self-haters," "wacko
communists," "ultraliberal Americans," "idealistic fools,"
and (one of our favorites) "peace-at-any-pricers and ban-the-bombers."
Such free use of epithets by conservatives to characterize anyone who disagrees
with them on this issue poisons public debate, delays the day when many Americans
will grapple with the consequences of having used nuclear weapons, and distorts
Mainstream American conservatives not leftists, as we are led to believe have
been among the most vocal critics of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Consider the following: On Aug. 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
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
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 publisher 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
Times sure change. Conservatives now all but unanimously support the atomic
bombing of Hiroshima, and most are quick to marginalize anyone who disagrees
Mark Krikorian, writing for National Review online, claims that Tibbets'
atomic bombing of Hiroshima "saved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions,
of lives (both American and Japanese), but the left-wingers couldn't stand the
fact that he [Tibbets] wasn't a self-hater like them."
Writing for WorldNetDaily, conservative columnist Doug Powers suggests that
Congress "step in to make Enola Gay-bashing a hate crime and start
a fund to give those seeking apologies for the war a free plane ticket to Tokyo."
One could easily dismiss such rhetoric as the rantings of marginal blowhards,
but on the subject of Hiroshima, Krikorian and Powers merely echo the opinions
of well-known conservative writers such as Cal Thomas, David Horowitz, Charles
Krauthammer, and Thomas Sowell.
If leading conservatives' uncritical acceptance of mass violence weren't disturbing
enough, their fondness for name-calling and half-baked historical theorizing
threatens to prematurely close the debate on a deeply disturbing moment in American
history. The blast, fire, and radiation from Tibbets' bomb killed 140,000 people.
Many others were scarred and injured for life. Most of the bomb's victims were
women, children, the elderly, and other civilians not directly involved in the
war. Those victims also included American and Allied POWs and thousands of Koreans
forcibly conscripted by the Japanese as wartime labor. Such facts should disturb
us. They ought to revolt our souls.
Sixty-two years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Americans should be
able to grapple honestly with the historical and moral questions surrounding
that terrible event. We rightly expect Germany and Japan to confront painful
episodes from their participation in World War II. Now it's our turn. Instead
of promoting the inaccurate view that criticism of the atomic bombing can only
come from self-hating, idealistic fools on the Left, American conservatives
should renew their earlier, deeply held ethical criticism of the Hiroshima bombing.