e-mail us


America must confront its nuclear guilt


Each August the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are times of renewed wonderment for me. How have Americans avoided any real national guilt for these atrocities?

It has long been my assumption that the bombings were militarily unnecessary. Their prime purposes were to test the effects of these new weapons on dense populations and to scare the Russians. Once when I expressed these views, a colleague retorted angrily that the bombings “saved lives”; half a million Americans would have died or been injured invading Japan. That the lives of a comparable number of Japanese were expendable was taken for granted.

New studies, such as Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz’s Hiroshima’s Shadow, have thrown these well-worn justifications into question. Bird and Lifschultz’s exhaustive documentation of the controversy around the bombings, from 1945 to the present, has shown that the oft-cited “half a million” figure was deliberately inflated by President Harry Truman and others. American military planners had actually estimated 20,000 to 46,000 casualties.

More important, they had good reason to believe that Japan might surrender without an invasion. Military and political leaders knew that Japan would give up with only a few modifications of the demand for unconditional surrender, such as assurances of a continued role for the emperor. This was the advice of most of Truman’s senior advisers.

Fleet Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, said after the bombing: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war with Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower expressed a similar view, recalling his own questioning of the bombing to Secretary of War Henry Stimson: “I voiced to him my grave misgivings: First, on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory to save American lives.”

Other justifications of the bombing have included the claim that targeted cities were warned in advance and that they were key military targets. In fact, part of the strategy of the bombing was to use atomic weapons without warning. Leaflets were dropped, but only afterward. Neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki had large numbers of military personnel -- 94 percent of residents were civilians.

Moreover, American prisoners of war were among the casualties as well as a considerable number of conscripted Korean laborers.

The cover-up continues. The Smithsonian Institute planned an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the bombing that would include the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb over Hiroshima, with a multimedia display of the damage done to humans and environment. They also planned a script that included statements criticizing the use of the bomb along with others that justified it. News of the exhibit brought a storm of criticism from right-wing Republicans, the American Legion and the Air Force Association, echoed by the mainstream media.

The historians who did the research for the exhibit as well as its general planners were decried as anti-Americans who “hate their country.” The Smithsonian capitulated to this pressure. The Enola Gay was exhibited but without explanation or discussion. An opportunity for American soul-searching on our first use of atomic weapons 50 years ago, an act that inaugurated the proliferation of nuclear weapons, was suppressed.

The Bird and Lifschultz book includes the documentation of the Smithsonian episode and was created in part as a response to it. The authors wished to redress something of this lost opportunity, but the readers of such a tome (584 pages) will be far fewer than those who might have been instructed by the exhibit.

The 1980s saw a crescendo of organizing against nuclear weapons, fueled by fear that a major nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union would endanger the whole planet. With the fall of the Soviet Union, this movement faded from public consciousness. The assumption seems to be that without the Soviet Union the danger of nuclear war has disappeared.

The recent testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan should give the lie to this assumption. Nuclear weapons continue to proliferate. The refusal of the United States and others who count themselves the rightful possessors of such weapons is the major cause. As long as we have them, others want them and count their possession as evidence of status as world powers.

The only way to lessen this danger is renunciation of the weapons by the “old” powers themselves. This must start with the United States, the nation that created them in the first place and the only nation to have used them.

For more than 50 years, Germans have agonized over their culpability for the Nazi Holocaust (as they should), but Americans have successfully avoided grappling with our guilt for the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Without such soul-searching by Americans, questioning both the propriety of our use of these weapons and the immorality of the weapons themselves, it is doubtful that the nuclear threat will be successfully addressed.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998