Thursday, January 10, 2008


Last night I was teaching the 4th night of a 5 week course in World Civilization and we ended up in 1945 and the use of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The decision to use it to end the war by instantly killing a hundred thousand civilians resulted in ongoing military ethics, nuclear arms race, the cold war and beyond. Did the killing of 100,000 Japanese civilians save the lives of 1 million Americans who may have died in an invasion of Japan until surrender? Having been born in 1972 I cannot even begin to understand the state of mind of these days in history and I won't pass judgment sitting in my hindsight chair. I think the only position I'm comfortable with is pro-peace and opposition to all forms of war.

I found this transcript in my research, interesting to read a physicist's first hand account of having lost his illusion that America would be different. It is this kind of realization that Modernism and the Enlightenment failed that is the birthpangs of postmodernism. Science did not create a utopia, it created the ability for more destruction amongst humanity.

Copyright, August 15, 1960, U.S. News & World Report.
President Truman Did Not Understand
Dr. Leo Szilard, 62, is a Hungarian-born physicist who helped persuade President Roosevelt to launch the A-bomb project and who had a major share in it. In 1945, however, he was a key figure among the scientists opposing use of the bomb.

Q Would most other nations, including Russia, have done the same thing we did, confronted with the same opportunity to use the bomb?

A Look, answering this question would be pure speculation. I can say this, however: By and large, governments are guided by considerations of expediency rather than by moral considerations. And this, I think, is a universal law of how governments act.

Prior to the war I had the illusion that up to a point the American Government was different. This illusion was gone after Hiroshima.

Perhaps you remember that in 1939 President Roosevelt warned the belligerents against using bombs against the inhabited cities, and this I thought was perfectly fitting and natural.

Then, during the war, without any explanation, we began to use incendiary bombs against the cities of Japan. This was disturbing to me and it was disturbing many of my friends.

Q Was that the end of the illusion?
A Yes, this was the end of the illusion. But, you see, there was still a difference between using incendiary bombs and using the new force of nature for purposes of destruction. There was still a further step taken here - atomic energy was something new.

I thought it would be very bad to set a precedent for using atomic energy for purposes of destruction. And I think that having done so we have greatly affected the postwar history.


modorney said...

The original plan for the bomb was to bomb military targets in Europe - primarily the German submarine base in France. The Germans had plans for a bomb, to use on New York City. Civilian targets weren't our idea. They never got far with the bomb, but did design a plane for that purpose - we got the plans, it's the 707. As the war in Europe progressed, and it was increasingly aware that Germany was on a losing path, Russia became the new enemy.

Nanjing, Bataan and a host of other atrocities made an invasion loss of a million Americans possible. Prolonging the war made it possible for Russia to invade Japan. And they had no qualms against another Stalingrad.

The bomb saved Japan from being another divided country like Germany.

Marsh said...

Interesting thoughts, a defense for the American use of the bomb. Again, I'm not going to pretend to understand the mentality and pressure on the US to end WWII, I can't project my world onto theirs. It was no doubt one of the most complicated decisions in history. I don't think that it can painted in only a postitive category cleanly because war is human atrocity by definition. I'm not sure the people of Japan would say the bomb "saved" them, but your point is well said.

modorney said...

> I don't think that it can painted in only a postitive category cleanly because war is human atrocity

That's the bottom line. About the best we can do in War is:
1. Can we create weapons and war systems that are useful in civilian life? - WWII brought us airplanes, radar and interstate highways. Vietnam brought us trauma care and medivac helicopters. As well as spreadsheets and decision trees.
2. Does our war training make better peacetime people - both soldiers and civilians? WWII brought us the GI bill - schooling and housing for a rising middle class. A huge percentage of our GI's were in logistics, training and management. Far more than most armies. One advantage of fighting on foreign soil is that the native civilian population gets treated better, and the fighters earn a deservedly better reputation.
3. What's left when we're done. A divided Germany - walls are better than WW III - left divided for decades. A divided Austria - hardly a threat - the divisions removed in 1955. Basically, a situation that minimizes another war?

Marsh said...

neccesity is the mother of invention isn't it? good points

As we look at history as a whole we see both views don't we? Human atrocity and suffering and human progress and greater civilization and as you pont out, they are often co-existing. Suffering and beauty are often partners in the human experience.

modorney said...

Suffering and beauty together - so true.

As guys, so much of our worklife centers around and builds on our military experiences. Yesterday, I was working with a young guy - I didn't know him well before, but have been working with him for a month. The kind of guy one would hire, "I don't know him well, but what little I see tells me he's made of good stuff."

We talked about how the military can be a good chance to get both a skill (mechanic, electrician) and an overall discipline of worklife. Even in the reserves or National Guard. But, there is a risk of being called up and having to be in combat.

Sounds like this would be an insightful conversation, if you ever get to San Francisco, I'll buy you a coffee, or other adult beverage, let's hash this over?