An Impossible Decision

A reader writes:

In regards to your discussion of Truman's purported war crimes, you've stepped into a minefield.  Just look at what happened when TNR published Paul Fussell's classic: "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" in the early 1980s; the reaction still holds the record for most mail received at TNR. Then there's the Enola Gay controversy in the 1990s. I'm just curious - you call yourself a "conservative of doubt" - why do you believe there has to be an answer here? Perhaps the bomb was both one the world's greatest life-savings devices AND a war crime of unparalleled savagery.  Why are these two points mutually exclusive?  Clearly, they both contain elements of truth -  we might even say this model offers guidance for thinking about what might charitably called impossible choices.

In this regard, it differs enormously from torture.

We know far more about torture, its historical results and value, than HST knew about atomic warfare in 1945.  In order to get themselves near the context of impossible choices, torture advocates can only offer implausible, often ridiculous, hypothetical that critically alter the entire framework of the debate.  So: drop the analogy, or clarify it.

Another reader adds:

While you already have some thoughtful comments on the morality of the use of atomic weaponry at the end of World War II, the posted dissent mostly assumes that the invasion of Japan would have happened, more or less, in a vacuum between the United States and Japan. The reality of the situation was that prior to the German surrender, the Soviet Union had paid relatively little interest to Japan, and had begun to once their primary enemy had surrendered. Any invasion of Japan itself that the United States would be prepared for would have been in concert with the Soviets -- bringing forth the spectre of another Soviet occupation zone. Now, this shouldn't be taken as a moral argument for or against the nuclear attack on Japan, but the assertion that the situation already described with many complications is even more complicated.

One more:

As a student at Nanzan University, in Nagoya, Japan (more than ten years ago now), I learned a different way in which the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was bad for Japan.  My history teacher - a curmudgeonly old-school Japanese professor - skipped straight from the Russo-Japanese war and it's aftermath to the atomic bombings.  Dropping the bombs allowed the Japanese an out, a way for them to claim victim-hood, and not deal with the ghastly list of war crimes, or their own aggressiveness in the (more healthy, in my opinion) way that the Germans have done.

No one spends much time on what happened at Nanjing, especially in Japan, but I have a hard time imagining more horrific war crimes.

Warfare is a horrible thing, but only by looking at ourselves in the mirror afterwords can we hope to continue evolving and growing (morally, at least) as a species.