The Myth of Hiroshima from Truman to Obama

On Friday, May 27, Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, seventy-one years after Harry Truman ordered that city of 350,000 people destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Obama is the first American president to visit Hiroshima, and that alone was enough to upset many Americans. And though he pointedly avoided issuing an apology for the bombing, dozens of commentators took his vapid remarks as just that, and have excoraited Obama for once again, in their minds, selling out American national security and disrespecting the “Greatest Generation.”

One writer at Newsmax said “President Obama’s apology for the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, that ended World War II” was the “latest slap in the face to patriotic Americans”  before going on to fantasize about imaginary scenarios in which nuclear weapons would protect the United States against “future Hiroshimas and Nagasakis.”

Of course, such scenarios are about as likely as a Viking god and his army of alien shapeshifters slipping through a wormhole to attack Manhattan with a glowing cube of unlimited energy, but concocting them them is a key tactic for the war party, who rely on fear to help discourage rational, moral discourse on these issues. The “ticking time bomb” and the call to “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” are meant to trigger the base instinct of us as animals—kill or be killed.

That’s basically the rationale behind what many see as a noble ending to what some foolishly call “the Good War.” In the words of our Newsmax writer, it was “the moral and strategic necessity of ending World War II and saving hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives on both sides” that makes Truman’s decision to kill a quarter of a million people in two bombings not just necessary, but noble.

But how can such a crude equation be acceptable at all, especially to Christians?

First, let’s dispel the notion that Truman’s only options were to A) proceed with an invasion of Japan in which many thousands of American troops would die at the hands of the maniacal Japanese who were bent on fighting till the last man for their savage sense of honor, or B) drop the bombs to terrify the Japanese to surrender.

We now know that Truman knew that the Japanese military leadership had been seeking peace since the US victory in Okinawa in May of 1945. In June, the Japanese foreign minister approached the Soviet Union—which at the time was a US ally, but who had never declared war on Japan—to help broker peace with the United States.

If Japan wanted peace talks several weeks months before the bombing in August, why didn’t a deal get done? Because the United States insisted on unconditional surrender. Though 70 years of tough-talking presidents and Hollywood movies have conditioned us to think otherwise, the practice of demanding unconditional surrender as a matter of course is a rather new and radical practice in the history of war. Not surprisingly, it was used, most notably by the drunken butcher US Grant, in the War Between the States, a war of choice by the Lincoln government in which many other civilizing conventions of war were disregarded.

It’s a pragmatic and humane idea to negotiate the end of a war with the vanquished, rather than to merely impose it, because people who know they will lose everything tend to fight harder long past the point of reason. Also, treaties that seek to punish and humiliate usually have some pretty dire consequences. Versailles begat Auschwitz.

The only condition the Japanese wanted was to ensure that they could keep their emperor—which we ended up giving them anyway. So why did the United States insist on unconditional surrender? The two main reasons seem to be Cold War posturing and good old-fashioned domestic politics.

Though allies with the USSR during World War II, the United States was already gearing up a the real-life game of Risk. What better way to demonstrate the national resolve to contain communism and establish dominance in a bipolar world order than to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people with two nuclear bombs before the Soviets had succeeded in developing their own nuclear arsenal?

On the domestic front, Truman was looking ahead to a tough election in 1948 from the unfortunate position as an unelected successor to a popular president. The formerly obscure Missouri senator couldn’t afford to show the slightest bit of weakness—what a more civilized culture would call compassion—to an electorate whose justifiable anger over thousands of war dead had been stoked further by years of racist propaganda.

I understand why most Americans—especially those who were alive at the time and had been devastated by the pain and confusion of war—aren’t really interested in pushing past the simplistic myth of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that has been preserved and propagated in textbooks, speeches, and movies through the years in order to look honestly at the facts.

But I’m disturbed and ashamed that most American Christians—including my former self—also refuse to question this myth. Brian Zahnd—author of the beautiful book A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace—writes in his essay Hiroshima: An Anti-Transfiguration of the horror he felt as a 13-year-old reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1972:

I read of hell on earth — for there is no other way to describe it. Dante could not have dreamt greater horrors.  At thirteen I knew there was no justification for inflicting this kind of suffering and death upon anyone…much less upon hundreds of thousands of civilian men, women, and children. Yes, I knew this.

By the time he was a 30-year-old pastor, Zahnd writes, he had come to see the bomb as a “pragmatic” way to deal with “the enemy.” Zahnd has renounced this mindset, but he is an extreme outlier among modern evangelicals.

How did the Church go from being the most radical, countercultural movement in the history of the world whose members were persecuted as a threat to civil order because they demonstrated their rejection of immoral laws and rulers by, among other things, refusing to serve in the military to—here in the United States at least—a faithful servant of an imperial government? It’s hard to think of something more carelessly contemptuous of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus than the endless parade of pastors praying for the success of avenging armies and church signs proclaiming the blasphemy that “freedom isn’t free” because soldiers died to give us our freedom.

Millions of American Christians who listen to those preachers and attend those churches are the same people who are angry over Obama’s non-apologetic apology. But they’ve got no reason to worry—notwithstanding Obama’s hollow sanctimony, his actions are right in line with every other American president in the nuclear age. He still claims and exercises the prerogative to kill anyone anywhere on the globe for any reason that he and his phalanx of advisors deem sufficient, with not even a pretense at due process. Thanks to illegal data collection and drone technology he tends to prefer murdering people in small batches, but he has at his fingertips the means to let loose death on a scale Truman could never have dreamed.

Shouldn’t the Church have a problem with that?