Thoughts on an awful anniversary

I mean “awful” in the old sense of “full of awe.”

It is not often that I agree with the politics espoused by The Guardian, England’s most left-wing serious newspaper (or perhaps I mean its most serious left-wing paper). But several years ago on this date — August 6 —The Guardian published a sober and clear-sighted article about the terrifying event whose anniversary today commemorates: I mean, of course, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The article by the journalist Oliver Kamm won my wholehearted endorsement and I wrote about it at the time.

The idea that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima — and, since the Japanese failed to surrender, of Nagasaki on August 9 — was a “war crime” has slowly acquired currency not only among the anti-American intelligentsia but also among other sentimentalists of limited worldly experience. In fact, as Mr. Kamm points out, the two bombings, terrible though they were, “should be remembered for the suffering which was brought to an end.”  For here is the  . . .  I was going to say “inarguable,” but that is clearly not right, since there have been plenty of arguments against it: no, a better word is “irrefutable." The irrefutable fact about the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 is that they ended World War II. They saved hundreds of thousands of American lives — including, possibly, that of my father, who was a Marine stationed somewhere out East — and, nota bene, millions, yes millions, of Japanese lives.

Were those bombings terrible? You betcha. I, like most people reading this, have read John Hersey’s manipulative book on the subject and have seen plenty of pictures of the devastation those two explosions caused.  But again, if they caused suffering, they saved the much greater suffering that would have ensued had the United States invaded Japan. This was understood at the time. But in recent years a revisionist view has grown up, especially on the Left, which faults President Truman for his decision to drop the bombs. "This alternative history," Mr. Kamm argues, "is devoid of merit."

New historical research in fact lends powerful support to the traditionalist interpretation of the decision to drop the bomb. This conclusion may surprise Guardian readers. The so-called revisionist interpretation of the bomb made headway from the 1960s to the 1990s. It argued that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less the concluding acts of the Pacific war than the opening acts of the cold war. Japan was already on the verge of surrender; the decision to drop the bomb was taken primarily to gain diplomatic advantage against the Soviet Union.

Yet there is no evidence that any American diplomat warned a Soviet counterpart in 1945-46 to watch out because America had the bomb. The decision to drop the bomb was founded on the conviction that a blockade and invasion of Japan would cause massive casualties. Estimates derived from intelligence about Japan’s military deployments projected hundreds of thousands of American casualties.

Mr. Kamm’s article elicited the usual howls of rage and vituperation. But he was right:

 Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time. Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire - and for Japan itself. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The destruction of two cities, and the suffering it caused for decades afterwards, cannot but temper our view of the Pacific war. Yet we can conclude with a high degree of probability that abjuring the bomb would have caused greater suffering still.

What is the essence, the core, of conservative wisdom? One part is that when it comes to the real world, the choices we face are often not between good and bad but between bad and worse. This is particularly true in times of war. A difficult lesson. But crucial for those who wish to do good as well as emit good-sounding slogans.