The Corner

Remembering When We Were Strong: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Moral Necessity of a Nuclear Strike

In a time when America lacks the strength of will to force an active-duty Army officer (and admitted terrorist) to shave his jihadist beard before appearing at a court-martial, when we wring our hands in guilt over the use of the most precise weapons ever devised against an enemy of unquestioned cruelty and malice, and when we respond to threats with weakness that merely encourages greater violence, it’s worth remembering a time when this nation understood the necessity — the moral necessity — of decisive force.

By July 26, 1945, Imperial Japan was well on its way to defeat, yet it was still capable of great harm. Our navy (with the able and courageous British assistance) had swept the once-fearsome Japanese navy from the seas, and we were slowly destroying Japan’s capacity to wage war. Allied forces were on the move in Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union was poised to enter the conflict with overwhelming force (1.5 million men massed on the border of Japanese-held mainland territory), and the American army was barely a month removed from a decisive victory in the months-long battle for Okinawa. Japan was going to lose the war. It was inevitable.

That was the good news. But that good news was more than tempered by the bad news of the cost of that ultimate victory. It’s tough for us to understand now, as many Americans have spent time in the new Japan, buy Japanese products, and rightly regard Japan as an indispensable ally, but in World War II the Japanese military fought with a ferocity that made al-Qaeda look casual and uncommitted. In Okinawa, the Japanese hurled more than 1,000 kamikaze suicide bombers at the American fleet, and tens of thousands more kamikazes readied to defend the Japanese home islands. Japan still held huge swathes of Chinese territory, where unrelenting war and mass-scale atrocities had already cost more than 10 million Chinese lives.

Just as disturbing, recent American experience in Saipan and Okinawa had illustrated the extent to which the Japanese civilian population would suffer in any further close combat. By some counts, up to one-third of the total civilian population of Okinawa died during the American invasion, many by suicide as parents killed children, then themselves, rather than fall into allied hands. At Saipan, Japanese civilians committed suicide by the hundreds — sometimes cutting their own children’s throats — persuaded by Japanese propaganda that Americans would commit unspeakable atrocities against civilians. Assuming similar behavior during an invasion, estimates of additional Japanese casualties ran into the millions — with American casualty estimates wildly varying but certainly no less than hundreds of thousands.

Faced with the twin realities of inevitable Japanese defeat and staggering civilian and military casualties, the allies did the right thing: On July 26, they issued a surrender demand, the Potsdam Declaration.  

The Japanese rejected it, the atomic bombs followed roughly two weeks later, and the war ended.

It’s difficult to estimate the millions of lives those bombs saved, and the uncounted millions of descendants that live today as a result of America’s decisive application of force. But the benefits go beyond a mere calculus of lives saved, American total war didn’t just defeat Japanese militarism on the battlefield, it destroyed it as a credible world view, as a credible moral force in Japanese life. This rejection of aggressive militarism has yielded incalculable benefits not just for generations of Japanese but also for generations of Koreans and Chinese — nations that had suffered under Japanese oppression.

As we confront once again the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as America’s critics decry our alleged barbarism, it’s worth remembering that weakness has terrible costs, and moral critics of decisive force should wrestle with that cost rather than utter platitudes like the U.N. did this week:

True security is based on people’s welfare and not on military annihilation, senior United Nations officials said today, marking the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and later Nagasaki, and honouring the survivors of the bombings known as ‘hibakusha.’

“We are united in countering the erroneous view that security is achieved through the pursuit of military dominance and threats of mutual annihilation,”Secretary-GeneralBan Ki-moon said in his message to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony.

He added that security is based on a thriving economy, strong public health and education programmes, and on fundamental respect for our common humanity, and not on military prowess.

Japan and Germany were, of course, industrially advanced countries — among the richest in the world — when they launched their wars of aggression. Today’s terrorists, though not nearly as formidable as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, hardly conform to the stereotype of the disenfranchised poor lashing out in desperation. Food stamps and single-payer health care aren’t firewalls against evil, and we’re fools if we entertain that belief.

As the horror of World War II begins to fade into distant memory, it’s imperative that we not let the Left control the narrative. Already in pacifist Christian circles, I’ve seen historically illiterate professors and pundits condemn the Hiroshima bombing with greater ferocity than they condemn the rape of Nanking, much less Japan’s years-long reign of terror in China. Our nation dialogues with (and funds) Holocaust-denying jihadists and displays little more than worried impotence as a hostile and hateful Iranian regime races towards an atomic bomb.

As a result, this generation or a generation to come may once again confront a series of terrible choices (I pray not involving nuclear weapons), but as they consider those choices, they should remember not just the Enola Gay, but the entire strength of this nation — fully at war — in 1945. Remember the lives we saved, and remember the far better societies that rose from the ashes.

In the fight against evil, there are times when the strong response is the right response.


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