American Conservatives Are the Forgotten Critics of the Atomic Bombing of Japan
Barton J. Bernstein / The Independent Institute & The San Jose Mercury News
(August 2, 2014) — “The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul,” he wrote. “The only difference between this and the use of gas (which President Franklin D. Roosevelt had barred as a first-use weapon in World War II) is the fear of retaliation.”
Those harsh words, written three days after the Hiroshima bombing in August, 1945, were not by a man of the American left, but rather by a very prominent conservative — former President Herbert Hoover, a foe of the New Deal and Fair Deal.
In 1959, Medford Evans, a conservative writing in William Buckley’s strongly nationalistic, energetically right-wing magazine, National Review, stated: “The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed.” Just the year before, the National Review had featured an angry, anti-atomic bomb article, “Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe.” Like Hoover, that 1958 essay had decried the atomic bombing as wanton murder. National Review’s editors, impressed by that article, had offered special reprints.
Those two sets of events — Hoover in 1945 and National Review in 1968-69 — were not anomalies in early post-Hiroshima US conservatism. In fact, many noted American conservatives — journalists, former diplomats and retired and occasionally on-duty military officers, and some right-wing historians and political scientists — criticized the atomic bombing. They frequently contended it was unnecessary, and often maintained it was immoral and that softer surrender terms could have ended the war without such mass killing. They sometimes charged Truman and the atomic bombing with “criminality” and “slaughter.”
Yet today, this history of early anti-A-bomb dissent by conservatives is largely unknown. In about the past 20 years, various American conservatives have even assailed A-bomb dissent as typically leftist and anti-American, and as having begun in the tumultuous 1960s. Such a view of postwar American history is remarkably incorrect.
In mid-August, 1945, in the conservative United States News (now US News & World Report), with a circulation somewhat under 200,000, that magazine’s founder and longtime editor, David Lawrence, condemned the atomic bombing in a spirited editorial, “What Hath Man Wrought!” America, he asserted, should be “ashamed” of the atomic bombing. During the next 27 years, on some A-bomb anniversaries, Lawrence, a well known conservative who died in 1973, proudly republished his 1945 editorial.
Felix Morley, the former editor of the Washington Post and ex-president of Haverford College, felt similarly about the atomic bombing. A recognized conservative, he published in 1945 a strong anti-A-bomb editorial — “The Return to Nothingness” — in his small circulation, conservative newsletter, Human Events. He called Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor atrocities. The atomic bombing, he charged, was “an infamous act of atrocious revenge.”
The right-wing journalist Walter Trohan of the conservative Chicago Tribuneperiodically contended that the atomic bombing had been unnecessary and that an early Japanese surrender could have been otherwise achieved. Charging a coverup, he implied there had been a Roosevelt-Truman conspiracy to prolong the war. Beginning in August 1945, Trohan’s anti-A-bomb articles received front-page attention, and the Tribune in 1947 termed the bombings “criminality.”
In 1948, the rightward-leaning Time-Life-Fortune publisher Henry Luce told an international Protestant meeting that “unconditional surrender” had violated St. Thomas’ just-war doctrine, and that softer surrender terms in 1945 could have ended the war without the atomic bombing, which “so jarred the Christian conscience.”
Truman’s former 1945 Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew, who retired shortly after Japan’s surrender, and two of his former State Department associates, Japan experts Eugene Dooman and Joseph Ballantine, later angrily castigated the atomic bombing. Recognized as conservatives, they sharply criticized the defense of the bombings by President Truman and the retired Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had presided over the wartime A-bomb project.
Grew, Dooman and Ballantine all believed that the atomic bombing had been unnecessary, that softer surrender terms (mostly allowing a constitutional monarchy) would have ended the war, and that Truman had gravely erred. Dooman often charged that the bombing had been immoral.
Similar harsh judgments came from William Castle, a close associate of Herbert Hoover who had served as Hoover’s Under Secretary of State when Stimson was secretary. Castle complained that Stimson’s postwar, widely publicized A-bomb defense “was consciously dishonest.” Japan, Castle believed, had been near surrender before the atomic bomb was used. He even suspected that Stimson and others had prolonged the war in order to use the A-bomb on Japan.
US Military Leaders
Perhaps surprisingly, after V-J day, the right-wing Gen. Curtis LeMay, whose Air Force had pummeled Japan in the last months of the Asian war, periodically criticized the atomic bombing. In mid-September 1945, for example, he publicly declared that it had been unnecessary and that Japan would have speedily surrendered without it. The bomb, he asserted, “had nothing to do with the end of the war.”
Public criticism of the atomic bombing also appeared in the postwar memoirs by two retired military leaders on the moderate right — in 1949 by Gen. Henry H. Arnold, the wartime head of the Army Air Forces, and in 1952 by Admiral Ernest J. King, wartime chief of naval operations.
Shortly after the end of the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a fervent anti-New Dealer, had publicly contended that the atomic bombing was unnecessary. In 1960, in discussing that bombing with ex-President Hoover, MacArthur condemned it as unnecessary “slaughter.”
MacArthur’s 1945 psychological-warfare chief, Gen. Bonner Fellers (later Colonel) after retiring from the Army, wrote a widely read article contending that Japan had been near surrender and that the nuclear bombing had been unnecessary. A proud conservative serving as public relations director for the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW), he published his article in the VFW’s monthly, Foreign Service, with a circulation of over a half-million. That month, the conservative-leaning Reader’s Digest, with a readership probably exceeding 10 million, reissued it in slightly compressed form.
The strongest postwar criticism of the atomic bombing by a prominent American ex-military leader probably came from Admiral William Leahy, a conservative who had also been a top military adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. In his 1950 memoir, the recently retired Leahy declared, “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of not material assistance in our war against Japan.” That nation, he contended, was defeated and ready to surrender before the atomic bombing.
He likened the use of the bomb to the morality of Genghis Khan. The crusty admiral wrote about the 1945 bombing, “I was not taught to make war in that fashion.” The United States, he asserted, “had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”
Spirited contentions that the atomic bombing was unwise, unnecessary and immoral are not new, nor did they start in the 1960s. These charges appeared in much of the earlier post-Hiroshima criticism, which came substantially from conservative American publications and people. Such conservative support does not necessarily make those criticisms right or wrong, or good or bad history, but certainly an important part of an earlier postwar dissenting culture.
That is an important but mostly forgotten part of the past, which Americans today — whether young or old, Republicans or Democrats — usually do not know. Mistakenly, many believe that the loose conservative-liberal/radical divide of recent years on attitudes toward the 1945 atomic bombings and that prominent American conservatives in contrast overwhelmingly endorsed those atomic bombings. That history is far more complex, and is important to understand to gain perspective on American attitudes and values on war-fighting, forms of killing, and uses of nuclear weapons on enemies.
Barton J. Bernstein is Professor of History at Stanford University and a Member of the Board of Advisors for the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute.
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