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An Inexcusable Brutality

Among all the events in American history, other than chattel slavery, that I regard as being the chief candidate for the most barbarous, the most unforgivable, and the most heinous action committed by people who called themselves ‘American’ is Harry Truman’s and the U.S. government’s atomic-bombing, 69 years ago this month, of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  There was, there is, no excuse for such barbarism.

To express such a sentiment today makes one sound like a “Progressive” leftist.  Regular readers of this blog know, however, that I’m no such thing.  I’m quite the opposite.  But I’m also no conservative.

This fine essay by retired Stanford history professor Barton Bernstein gives important perspective – now ignored – on the debate over the August 6th and 9th genocide at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  (HT Walter Grinder)  Even many American conservatives, for many years after the commission of this crime, rightly saw these bombings for what they were: atrocious brutality – atrocious brutality not rendered less atrocious or brutal, or more excusable, because its perpetrators worked, marched, sailed, and flew under the stars and stripes.  Here are the opening and the closing:

“The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul,” he wrote. “The only difference between this and the use of gas (which President Franklin D. Roosevelt had barred as a first-use weapon in World War II) is the fear of retaliation.”

Those harsh words, written three days after the Hiroshima bombing in August, 1945, were not by a man of the American left, but rather by a very prominent conservative — former President Herbert Hoover.


Spirited contentions that the atomic bombing was unwise, unnecessary and immoral are not new, nor did they start in the 1960s. These charges appeared in much of the earlier post-Hiroshima criticism, which came substantially from conservative American publications and people. Such conservative support does not necessarily make those criticisms right or wrong, or good or bad history, but certainly an important part of an earlier postwar dissenting culture.

That is an important but mostly forgotten part of the past, which Americans today — whether young or old, Republicans or Democrats — usually do not know. Mistakenly, many believe that the loose conservative-liberal/radical divide of recent years on attitudes toward the 1945 atomic bombings and that prominent American conservatives in contrast overwhelmingly endorsed those atomic bombings. That history is far more complex, and is important to understand to gain perspective on American attitudes and values on war-fighting, forms of killing, and uses of nuclear weapons on enemies.