-J. Robert Oppenheimer on the first controlled atomic explosion at Los Alamos, NM, July 16, 1945 and the dawn of the nuclear age.
I paid a visit to the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles airport this weekend. For those unfamiliar with this exhibit, it's a breathtaking collection of historical aircraft dating from a Wright Brothers flier into the World Wars and Cold War through the jet age to the space shuttle Discovery, various missiles, satellites, predator drones and beyond. It is, in fact, where 90% of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum collection can be found. I highly recommend a visit there if you’re ever in D.C. It’s a half-hour drive from the capital city but well worth the visit…especially if you’re an aviation buff.
Among the planes on display there is the B-29 Superfortress bomber, Enola Gay. It is the actual plane that, sixty-eight years ago today, dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 90,000 people. (A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later killing 60,000). In that sense, it is more than just a nostalgic old warbird on display. It is a powerful symbol of the unleashing of a new and ever more sinister and destructive form of warfare. The Enola Gay is also a sobering reminder that the human race has yet to refrain from deploying any weapons system we develop, no matter how deadly or inhumane.
To this day controversy surrounds the nuclear attacks on the two defenseless Japanese cities. I have no doubt that the majority of academics today may teach it as an act of flagrant genocide and war crime against an innocent population—yeah yeah, just call it a hunch. (One wonders if in this age of cultural relativism they also teach about Japan’s Rape Of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the torture of POWs or the sacking of Manila but I digress) But I am not so sure how to view it. Forensically speaking, Hiroshima was not on the receiving end of the most destructive air-raid in history. That unfortunate honor goes to Tokyo itself, when on March 9-10, 1945 some 300 B-29s dropping fire-bombs incinerated sixteen square miles of the city and killed well over 100,000.
But still, there is something surreal about one bomb doing in a nanosecond the work that once took entire medieval armies months of siege to accomplish. And so it deserves special reflection. True, the United States is the only nation to use nuclear weapons in anger—so far. But to understand it one must first consider the context and what forces were at work in August 1945.
A while ago I contemplated, if I was the President of The United States today (I’ll pause to let some of my more liberal friends stop coughing and clean up the coffee they no doubt just spit out onto their shirts). Okay…If I was POTUS, how would I address this anniversary to a group of, say, visiting Japanese eager to understand why we did what we did . Here is what I came up with.
President I have thought long and hard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all I work in
the very office in which the decision was made to drop the bombs.
“We have an expression in our country that says ‘hind-sight is 20/20.’ Meaning that it is much easier to assess events after time has passed and come to a conclusion as to what should and should not have been done. It is even more complicated and presumptuous to second-guess commanders’ decisions in the fog of war. And the fact is that the United States was in its fourth year of a long and ever more savage and bloody World War. Over 300,000 Americans had already died, and many times that were coming back from Europe and the Pacific maimed and hobbled. Nazi Germany had been defeated, but Imperial Japan seemed far from ready to capitulate. The battle for the island of Okinawa in April through May of 1945, the last major battle of the Pacific War, had been the bloodiest contest yet, costing the lives of over ten thousand Americans and over one hundred thousand Japanese, civilian as well as military. By August 1945, ninety percent of Japan’s cities were in ruins, and over million of its citizens dead, and yet the Japanese militarist leaders showed little compunction to surrender.
"It was estimated that the planned invasion of Japan, scheduled for late 1945 and into 1946, would have cost over a million Allied lives and possibly tens of millions of Japanese. Entire generations wiped out. You, me, perhaps many listening to this speech may not have been here had our grandparents been condemned to such a slaughter. Faced with this grim prospect, our then president, Harry Truman, was shown a way to possibly avoid all of this. In the diabolical mathematics of war, it is often necessary to sacrifice the lives of thousands to save millions. The Pacific War was by its very nature especially cruel and savage. But to prolong that war, to not end it as expeditiously as possible, would have been even more immoral.
“Today, comfortable in our living rooms and nearing seven decades removed from the ravages of a world at war, we can argue whether or not there was another path short of nuclear destruction of two of Japan’s finest cities. In 2013, free from the emotions, the gold stars on the windows, and the lack of information in records now available to historians and archivists that detail the excruciating deliberations within the Japanese circles of power, it is tempting to question those decisions made in the summer of 1945.
“We can also ask what would have happened had the nuclear genie not been let out of the bottle when it was, given the boiling tensions between East and West behind the façade of a brief alliance of convenience, that few under the age of forty today can even remember? Could not a conventional Third World War have erupted between the communist block and free world but for the nuclear deterrent that held our forces mutually at bay and ironically may have saved millions more? I cannot answer that. No one can. These are questions left to round tables and alternative historical narratives. But the leaders of 1945 could only view what was directly in front of them. And what they saw was a list of dead and wounded that was predicted to be longer than the casualties of Bataan, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, Buna, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Aitape, Attu, Kiska, Kwajalein, Manus, Los Negros, Peleliu, Leyte, Luzon, Manila, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and so on combined. Faced with this grim prognostication, I know what I would have done.
"So, as for this president, if I knew what President Truman knew, and saw what he saw, I would have done the same. As the only nation to use nuclear weapons in battle, The United States of America, my country, certainly has something to reflect upon…but nothing to apologize for.”
Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.