Obama's speech at Hiroshima

President Obama was right to go to Hiroshima last week. And, he was right not to apologize for the decision made by his predecessor, Harry Truman, to drop the atomic bomb. Obama's speech can be found here.

I dug out my copy of Truman's war memoirs and it is stunning to realize how little time and discussion there was about the question of whether or not to use the bomb. Secretary of War Henry Stimson led a committee which considered doing a demonstration explosion, but worried that if the bomb did not go off, the demonstration would be a bust. Truman himself seemed unlikely to worry the issue too much: At the same Potsdam conference where he learned the bomb test in New Mexico had been a success, Churchill floated the idea that the allies might demand something less than unconditional surrender from the Japanese, something that would allow them to maintain some vestige of their military honor. Truman replied that after Pearl Harbor, he doubted the Japanese had any military honor.   

Obama correctly placed the attack on Hiroshima within its proper historical context, at the end of a barbaric struggle in which all the laws of war had been broken:

The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.

In the span of a few years, some 60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death. There are many sites around the world that chronicle this war, memorials that tell stories of courage and heroism, graves and empty camps that echo of unspeakable depravity.

The attack on Hiroshima was part of a wider phenomenon in World War II, the advent of "strategic bombing." During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Luftwaffe stupidly stopped attacking the airfield of the Royal Air Force and began bombing the cities. This led to the Blitz when nighttime raids on civilian population centers killed tens of thousands of Britons. The stupidity was that the RAF was at the breaking point with their airfields in tatters, and the shift from the airfields to the cities gave them the chance to recoup their strength.

The shift was morally stupid as well. The distinction between combatant and non-combatant had long been a cornerstone of just war theory and, consequently, the laws of war. And, this adoption of strategic bombing invited the only kind of retaliation possible: More of the same. The British, and later the Americans, began bombing the cities of Germany. Both sides claimed they could destroy the "will to fight" of the enemy, which was obviously untrue even by the end of 1940 when Londoners were already famous for the line "we can take it." After Hitler invaded Russia the following year, the British were conscious of the fact that they could not mount the kind of war effort the Soviets were doing, with hundreds of divisions engaged along the Eastern front. "But we will continue our strategic bombing campaign" the British reassured their new Soviet allies. As we know, the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden killed as many people as the atomic bombs that landed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

President Obama tried to draw the appropriate moral lesson. E. J. Dionne, in a commentary in the Washington Post yesterday, noted that the president’s speech at Hiroshima, like his Nobel address, was steeped in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, a kind of aspirational realism. I differ with Dionne a bit: I think that Reinhold Niebuhr assumed an interest in orthodox Christian belief, it was in the air he breathed, and that the same cannot be said for the president.

This difference is consequential and leaves Obama open to the charge that his morals are never permitted to interfere overmuch with his politics. The president stated:

Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.

President Obama cannot name the "core contradiction" which is sin, and sin includes not only the way social innovation can blind us to a certain truth, but so can the desire for social innovation which seems to afflict Obama. Nor, obviously, would he be willing to acknowledge the violence to the unborn that he justifies in the name of women’s rights. More on point, the president also does not seem overly concerned that the same calculus which led Harry Truman to drop the atomic bomb as a way of averting an invasion of Japan leads Obama himself to employ drones: They save the lives of American soldiers even if they result in more civilian deaths. I am sure the pressures of the office drive away any peripatetic sensibilities in a president, still it is hard not to conclude that Obama does a better job pretending to be morally serious than he does actually being morally serious.

I understand that as we look at the prospect of a successor who does not even pretend to be serious, Obama is looking better all the time. Still, the way he closed his speech was chilling. He said: "The world was forever changed here. But today, the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose: a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening." Forgetfulness is such an American characteristic, and especially for the generation of Americans in which both the President and myself find ourselves. It is not, alas, a part of moral awakening. And, if Obama were as much of a student of Reinhold Niebuhr as he thinks he is, he would not have employed the verb "choose" the way he did, would he?

Dionne notes that Reinhold Niebuhr eventually dialed back his initial condemnation of the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or at least to avoid being overly harsh on those who made the decision, "statesmen ... driven by historic forces more powerful than any human decision." I think that is very true and very fair but, in this case, it also tells against Obama. Days before making his historic visit to Hiroshima, President Obama went to Vietnam and there signed a deal to sell them more armaments. Helping to spread armaments around the world is one of the historic forces that could be resisted, no? The president said at Hiroshima "Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering, but we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again." One of the things we can do differently is stop being the arms manufacturer to the world.

I am glad Obama went to Hiroshima. It was a poignant moment and he conducted himself well. My quibbles with his claims to moral seriousness are the quibbles of one who sets a high bar: Can you imagine if Trump were to undertake this kind of symbolic act? As for the morality of dropping the atomic bomb itself, to borrow a phrase, who am I to judge? I suspect that in the same situation, I would have made the same choice but, and this is a very important but, I know I would have to go to confession afterwards. Sin can be redeemed. It cannot be justified. In this Year of Mercy, it is a good thing to remember that.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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