Anybody want to talk about Hiroshima?


Atomic cloud over Nagasaki, by Hiromichi Matsuda

There’s been a lot out there about the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of it seems to be of either the “look at the horrible thing we did” or “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” varieties.

In other words, they tend to be couched in the binary, either-or, good-or-bad, black-or-white terms that curse our public discourse these days.


And I can’t subscribe to either approach.

I certainly can’t go along with the “America is horrible and should apologize” approach, as exemplified by the piece I linked to above. If the topic weren’t so horrible it would be comical. Like so much that Salon publishes, it condemns our leaders of 1945 in terms fashionable in 2015 — those old white guys were a bunch of hateful, insensitive racists, so no wonder they did what they did.

But I can’t say “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” either. Not because I think the bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki was particularly egregious. After all, the previous firebombing of Tokyo was worse. But that very context — the fact that the bombing of population centers was taken for granted by both sides as an acceptable strategy — is the thing that bothers me, a lot.

In saying that, don’t think I’m judging our WWII leaders by modern standards — or by the standards of, say, the 19th century, when such widespread killing of civilians was unthinkable, in large part because it was impossible. Our leaders in those pre-smart bomb days assumed that the bombings were necessary to winning the war, an imperative that might be a bit hard for a lot of people to understand today, when we speak of “exit strategies” with hardly any reference made to the concept of “victory.”

And I applaud their determination to win the war. I see victory in that conflict as every bit as important as did FDR and Churchill. I just don’t know that bombing cities was necessary to victory. How can I know? The variables are too many to game out an alternative history in which we don’t bomb cities, yet still win.

I just cannot say with an undivided mind that bombing civilians was necessary or defensible. That practice will always temper the triumph of “the Good War” in my mind, even as I long for the kind of moral clarity and unity of purpose that our nation experienced then.

All of that said, though, given that the decision to drop the Big One, twice, on Japanese cities was made against a backdrop in which it made consistent strategic sense, and was even seen as a humane alternative to an exponentially worse version of the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which is what it was assumed (with good reason) the invasion of the Japanese home islands would be… I can’t go along with the “Truman was wrong” camp. I suspect I’d have made the same decision, although I thank God I never had to.

But maybe the issue is much, much clearer to y’all. So I’ll hand it over to you…

66 thoughts on “Anybody want to talk about Hiroshima?

      1. bud

        Actually there is. There is a fairly solid argument to be made that it was the Russian intervention into the war that really brought the Japanese to their senses, not the A-bombs.

        1. Mark Stewart

          There is? It was the Soviets that had the Imperial Empire quaking?

          Not so sure of that factual accuracy, Bud.

  1. Karen Pearson

    As far as not bombing civilians, let’s be serious. Calling civilian deaths “collateral damage” doesn’t make the civilians any less dead. In addition, we haven’t yet fought an all-out war; we’ve been trying to deal with guerrilla terrorists, or else running over countries that didn’t have a prayer of stopping us. I suspect if/when we get into a major war, where it’s a case of either fighting it in our country or there’s, I suspect we’ll drop bombs wherever we need to. Finally, not bombing civilians, but bombing their transit lines, their electrical plants etc. is the equivalent of what Sherman did to the south. That cost a fair number of human lives to hunger, exposure and such.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I know a lot of people get offended at the term “collateral damage,” but they shouldn’t. It’s really an honestly descriptive term. At least the “collateral” part is. Maybe we’d all be happier if we said “collateral casualties” instead of “damage,” which I agree is absurdly bloodless-sounding. (The thing is, though, it’s used to refer to unintentional property damage as well as casualties, and that’s where that part of the term comes from.)

      It would not have been the right term to use in WWII because we were bombing civilians ON PURPOSE. There was nothing “collateral” about it. Now, since the civilians are not the targets, and we have a sorta kinda realistic expectation of targeting combatants only, any civilians who are killed or wounded are indeed collateral. And regretted.

      As for your suggestion that in a total war, “I suspect we’ll drop bombs wherever we need to,” I don’t know about that. Technology has changed our perception of what is morally defensible. Because we CAN target combatants more specifically, I think Western powers at least will make the attempt to do so. But you could be right. It’s hard enough to imagine the scenario in which we are in a total war with an enemy with a realistic chance of wiping us out, but if that happened…

      I worry sometimes that we could find ourselves in a war like that with China, as it’s the only country with the combination of resources and global ambitions that could lead to that kind of confrontation, say in a generation or so. At least, when I think, “Will we ever again be in an existential fight for national survival,” the first word that comes to mind is “China….” Not a happy thought…

      1. Karen Pearson

        Morally defensible? We recently violated the Geneva Conventions regarding torture for less reason than an all out war.

  2. Norm Ivey

    It ended the war, but I think it’s greater impact was that it may have prevented a more costly nuclear war. Suppose we had not used it until after the Soviets or Chinese also had it–what would the consequences have been if we or they first used such a weapon in Korea or Viet Nam? Would retaliation have reached beyond those countries?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, Norm. I wonder whether the inhibitions we had that kept us from using them again would have been there if we had not seen the terrible effects from Japan. As long as it was still theoretical, we might have been more tempted to use them.

      As the other side of that coin… That piece I cited above, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” notes that one positive of dropping the bombs is that a fanatically militaristic nation became a nation of committed peace activists, which was really a remarkable transformation. A generation of young Japanese had been brought up to believe in a twisted version of the Bushido code, even to the point of not valuing their own lives. After the war, people who might have piloted kamikazes previously instead devoted themselves to building a thriving, creative and peaceful nation.

      Mind you, I’m not saying we should go out and drop the bomb on people in the hope that the survivors will become nicer. I’m not for dropping the bomb on ANY people for ANY reason. I’m just saying that this happened, and subsequently Japan was a very different country. Which is interesting…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        There is SO much about the end of the war that I don’t understand. Maybe Burl, who has such compendious knowledge of the war in the Pacific, and Japanese culture, could help me…

        But I remain deeply puzzled that ANYTHING, including the Bomb, could have persuaded Japan to capitulate so suddenly. One day, you have people fighting to the last man. You have kamikazes. You have wounded Japanese setting off grenades to kill themselves and the Americans who approach them to take them prisoner. You have entire civilian families jumping off cliffs in Okinawa because they don’t want to live in a conquered land.

        And then — they surrender? I have trouble understanding. Maybe all the fanatics were all on the front lines, and the folks on the home front had a greater (and from our perspective, healthy) interest in staying alive. I don’t know.

        I’m reminded of the film “The Railway Man,” based on a true story. During the war, you have soldiers completely buying into the notion that it’s OK to mistreat and even kill POWs, because anyone who surrenders is no longer a man. Then, you have some of those soldiers living the rest of their lives trying to atone for what they did.

        What accounts for such a turnaround?

        1. Norm Ivey

          Hirohito made the call, did he not? I can see two possibilities. One, as his nation’s god, he capitulated in order to preserve the lives of countless more innocents. Two, we think of Japan’s surrender as unconditional, but wasn’t the one condition that Hirohito could remain as emperor? In which case it could be self-preservation.

          So it may have been entirely selfish or entirely selfless. Or something else.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            MacArthur made the decision to allow the emperor to remain in place after the surrender. Here’s a portion of Hirohito’s surrender broadcast:

            The enemy, moreover, has begun to employ a new most cruel bomb, the power which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation . . . but would lead also to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save millions of our subjects, or ourselves, to atone before the hallowed spirits of our Imperial ancestors? This is the reason we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the Powers.

        2. Phillip

          Brad, I don’t think the decision to surrender was as sudden or as quick a turnaround as you think. From what I’ve read, once the early stages of the war failed to deliver the knockout blow to the US Navy that had been hoped, the Japanese government and its military leaders were always pursuing a strategy of inflicting maximum damage on the US in the hopes of some kind of negotiated settlement that would keep intact a certain amount of their territorial conquests. Later, as their position grew worse and worse, there were increasing internal divisions within the very core of the military leadership, splits between those who wanted to try to quickly cut a deal (particularly a negotiated agreement with the Soviet Union) and those who wanted to keep fighting to the last man. But there was consistently increasing awareness that they could not really “win” the war, and the main question remaining for them was what was the best possible outcome they could salvage.

          The desire to cut a deal with the Russians intensified greatly immediately just after Germany’s surrender, and (Bud’s right) it was the final double blow of not just the A-bombs, but Russia’s declaration of war on Japan that sealed the deal. The Japanese knew it might be months before the Americans would land on the shores of Kyushu but probably days before Russians would be pouring into Hokkaido. They decided (rightly, as it turned out) it was better to surrender to the Americans than the Russians.

          I agree that the example we have now in human memory of actual use of atomic bombs, has probably done as much as anything to prevent their use since that week 70 years ago. Let’s be real, too…the bombs were meant to send a message to Russia as much as they were meant to send a message to Japan.

          If any of you ever have the opportunity to go to Hiroshima and visit the Peace Memorial Museum, I strongly recommend it. As you might imagine, it’s a very powerful experience.

        1. Doug Ross

          Let’s say Japan had the bomb and dropped one on Los Angeles and then later on San Francisco?

          Think you could rationalize them doing that to save further casualties?

          If you’re on the receiving end of a nuclear bomb, you probably have less “internal conflict”.

          It would have been interesting if you had come to the conclusion that the bombs were not a good idea. Otherwise, it was a story where we already knew the ending.

          1. Brad Warthen

            Of course, that’s an impossible scenario. If Japan were n the position to end the war by doing that, it wouldn’t be Japan. It would be a very different country, with different values and strengths and resources. And the U.S. wouldn’t be the U.S. So I’m incapable of imagining that scenario.

            1. Doug Ross

              By “good idea”, I meant a good strategy for Japan. If they used that tactic and it ended the war quickly in their favor, you would have to say that it was a good idea to do that.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                Oh, do you mean at the outset of the war? Like, in addition to (or in lieu) of bombing Pearl Harbor, they just dropped some nukes on the mainland US?

              2. Doug Ross

                No, I mean at the same point in time. If they were able to force the U.S. to surrender in 1945 by detonating two nukes in the U.S., would it still be perceived by Americans as the “right” thing to do as it would save further casualties? I just don’t buy the argument that intentionally killing innocents is ever a morally acceptable choice.

                1. Bryan Caskey


                  1. Japan had won the battle of Midway;
                  2. Destroyed the bulk of our Navy;
                  3. Island hopped eastward across the Pacific, occupying all territory eastward to, and including the Hawaiian islands;
                  4. A standing order was in place for all Japanese POW’s to be executed upon invasion of the mainland US;
                  5. The industrial capacity of the US had been damaged so severely as to render us incapable of further substantial military production; and,
                  6. In addition to all this, the United States had taken the position that millions of civilians were prepared to fight to the death for god-king Truman as the only honorable course;

                  Then, sure. Japan’s gotta win the war.

          2. Brad Warthen

            But to make you happy, Doug, there IS no moral equivalence here. The United States is and always has been a better country than the rapacious kleptocracy that was imperial Japan.

            It was extremely important to Japan’s neighbors and to the world that Japan lose that war.

            It would not, under any rational process of consideration, have been just as good an outcome for Japan to win. Under certain circumstances, some nations DO have the moral weight on their side. And this was clearly one of those cases.

            In case that was what you were driving at…

            1. Brad Warthen

              And so the question here is, as I raised it, whether it was morally defensible for us, as the good guys, to employ such morally questionable tactics as dropping the atomic bomb on human beings. THAT is something that, given the circumstances, reasonable people might disagree about.

              But there was no moral equivalence between the two sides. The question is whether it was right to ensure the victory of the better side through such horrific means. You’re asking a totally different question when you ask whether it should have been right for Japan to use the same methods. The variables are quite different.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                To judge the history you have to put yourself there without knowledge of the future and how things ultimately turn out. You have to eliminate what you know happened afterwards.

            2. Karen Pearson

              Yes, we believe that we’re better. I agree with you. You and I are Americans. I doubt very seriously though, that Hirohito or many of his countrymen would have agreed at the time. When you take this line, Brad, you arguing by changing the subject from how it would have been perceived by us, or them, to whether we’re better or more moral. It’s a a different argument altogether.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                No, I wasn’t changing the subject, Karen. I thought Doug was trying to change it with the very common “well, wouldn’t you feel different if THEY did it to YOU” argument.

                I initially ignored that implication, but then came back and said essentially, if you really want to imply moral equivalence, I’ll go ahead and bite…

                As for “we believe we’re better,” I don’t agree. I believe ours was the side with moral weight in that particular conflict, for MANY reasons. It really doesn’t matter what the average Japanese thought at the time; that country was in the wrong in this instance.

                Finally, though, Doug’s comments are based in a misconception — that I’m justifying the bombing of civilian populations. When I’m not.

                I DO make the argument that within the historical context, drop the A-bomb was no different from bombing cities with conventional bombs, particularly incendiary bombs.

                But I go on to say that THAT is what I can’t justify — bombing population centers, period.

                Which is why I’m not clearly in either camp, pro or anti.

  3. Bill

    Dropping the bomb was a truly evil deed,and we didn’t have God on our side.As far as wars go,as my German friends say,’Americans are poodles.’

    1. Bart

      So saith the good people who are your friends and are either the children or grandchildren of the generation who brought the world the atrocities of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Jasenovac, just 4 out of 72 prison and extermination camps set up by Nazi Germany. The good people whose history includes the beginnings of 2 world wars that enveloped the entire planet in armed conflict. The same people who turned a blind eye to the evils of Hitler and supported the extermination of Jews, the infirmed, gypsies, and anyone else who did not meet their idea of perfection. The same people who mated males and females in order to produce a perfect race. The same people whose arrogance is still present and with us today.

      Calling Americans “poodles” after being defeated twice and then built up again to become prosperous? I think your German friends need to rethink their country’s role in the chaos, destruction, and death they are directly responsible for during the 20th century. Do they call us “poodles” because after defeating them in WWII, America has not been engaged in another world war caused by Germany but engaged in smaller regional wars? What, must we go full scale and involve the entire planet in an armed conflict the way they did on two occassions before we are no longer considered “poodles”?

      And, which was more evil – marching innocent Jews and “misfits” into gas chambers to the count of over 6 million for the sake of exterminating the Jews or America ending a bloody war by dropping 2 bombs? Or maybe it was less evil to conduct experiments on innocents humans and create immeasurable suffering for the human guinea pigs that were looked upon as something less than human? If you want to take sides, that is your choice but be careful of the finger you point at America and side with a nation with more blood on their hands than we have when it comes to wars. And, at the time, was dropping the bomb considered “evil” or is it now evil looking through the prisim of the present, not 70 years ago when the world was still at war and the cost in human life by invading the islands of Japan would have been in the hundreds of thousands, maybe in the millions?

      I really grow weary of the incessant comparisons of America to Germany and how much better they are at everything than we are. I guess my simplistic American attitude compels me to say, “if life is so much better there, then by all means, move to Germany”.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      “As far as wars go,as my German friends say,’Americans are poodles.’”

      What does that even mean?

      1. Barry

        It means nothing- and coming from Germans who would say such nonsense- it means even less.

        Glad they are Bill’s friends.

  4. Doug Ross

    From Yahoo:

    “With the average age of survivors now exceeding 80 for the first time this year, passing on their stories is considered an urgent task. There were 5,359 hibakusha who died over the past year, bringing the total death toll from the Hiroshima bombing to 297,684.”

    How many pregnant women and fetuses were killed in the initial bombing? I just can’t wrap my head around how someone can rationalize killing women and children with a bomb but be so opposed to abortion. You either oppose killing innocents or you don’t.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      “I just can’t wrap my head around how someone can rationalize killing women and children with a bomb but be so opposed to abortion. You either oppose killing innocents or you don’t.”

      It’s ’cause we ain’t involved in a world war, dude.

      Here’s some food for thought: In 2000, the US government ordered a new supply of Purple Hearts. The old supply, manufactured in anticipation of the invasion of the home islands of Japan during World War II, had begun to run low.

      1. Doug Ross

        Sorry, but war doesn’t justify killing innocent people. Collateral damage is bad enough (and our military covers up those cases as long as possible even today). But to make a conscious decision to kill women and children can NEVER be justified, rationalized, or ascribed to “But We’re AMERICA!” patriotism.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          I understand your position. I’m not wrapping it in patriotism, I’m saying it was a calculated decision. It’s easy to take absolute positions like yours in the sterile environment of theory. It’s something else entirely to be forced to choose in real life, when you don’t have the ability to foresee the future. I think dropping the atomic bomb was the better of the two decisions.

          1. Doug Ross

            “It’s something else entirely to be forced to choose in real life, when you don’t have the ability to foresee the future.”

            So says the woman who gets an abortion. All I’m saying is you can’t be pro-life and pro-dropping-big-bombs-on-large-masses-of-people. Pick a side. There was a choice in WWII to continue fighting a conventional war.

            1. Otter (from Animal House)

              Bluto’s right. Psychotic… but absolutely right. We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!

            2. Bryan Caskey

              How about this Doug:

              Would it blow your mind if I said that dropping the atomic bombs were actually morally superior to the firebombing of Tokyo? Sure, firebombing Tokyo killed thousands of people, but it was something that was conventional, so the Japanese soldiered on, undeterred. The sheer fact that the atomic bomb was un-conventional is what made it so terrifying as to induce surrender.

              It’s not unreasonable to argue that using the atomic bomb was actually a net benefit, if measured in the amount of lives saved all around. If the conventional war had been waged and thousands lives were lost (including hundreds of thousands of civilians) conventionally, would that be a preferable outcome for you?

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          Fortunately, Doug, as I pointed out to you earlier, no one is making that argument here. At least I haven’t. I started from the premise that I can’t embrace the idea of killing civilians. That’s our starting point here. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough.

        3. Barry

          Sure it can- in war.

          If someone has to die – and Japan made sure that a lot of people were going to die- I had rather it be them than us.

          That’s fine if you had prefer it be us. Everyone has a right to be wrong.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Doug, I’m reading this on the dashboard of the blog, and not in context, so I have to ask, to whom are you addressing that last point? Certainly not to me, since nothing I have said rationalizes killing women and children with a bomb.

      1. Doug Ross

        ” I suspect I’d have made the same decision, although I thank God I never had to.”

        If you suspect you’d make the same decision then you are saying it was right (or best option). Why not say “I would not make the same decision”? That wouldn’t require anything but consistency in supporting life.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I suspect I would in the same sense that I would opt for abortion in the case of a clear threat to the mother’s life.

          I would do it with extreme reluctance, and never, ever feel right about it. But I THINK that’s what I’d do.

          I’m being perfectly consistent here. As much as I oppose a thing, it is almost always possible to get into a situation in which NOT doing that thing is even worse…

          1. bud

            Brad, do support the drone strikes to go after the so-called terrorists? If you do then you are most assuredly NOT consistent. The drone strikes, unlike the A-bombs, in no way bring about an end to any war. But they do kill many civilians. How can you justify such indiscriminate killing of non-combatants while at the same time denying women their right to their own bodies? It’s a completely contradictory combination.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    An odd thing I just noticed about that Nagasaki photo that I used… there are a couple of people standing in the middle distance (lower right) facing each other, apparently having an ordinary conversation about something such as the weather. They seem to have their hands in their pockets, or their thumbs hooked in their belts — in any case, they seem to project nonchalance.

    How can that be? This has to be at least several seconds after the detonation. It seems impossible that these people would be unaware of it. Why are they not, I don’t know, running screaming and waving their arms? Or something?

    Photography is weird. It captures reality, which often defies our expectations…

  6. Bryan Caskey

    It seems like we’re circling around the question of: What is the correct and proportionate use of force necessary to obtain the unconditional surrender of an enemy?

    It seems like the answer has to vary based on the nature of your enemy. For example, the CSA didn’t require the same amount of force for its surrender as did Imperial Japan. There are a multitude of reasons why the level of force was different, but it’s undeniable that the level of force was, in fact, different.

    With the atomic bomb and Japan, the two opposing principles seem to be military necessity (i.e. forcing Japan to surrender), versus proportionality (i.e. not causing unnecessary civilian deaths). Trying to find just the right amount of force a/k/a violence to use is a difficult thing. And that’s hard to balance for us, even though we have the benefit of hindsight.

    However, it’s probably more important now than before for a few reasons. The USA is so superior to almost every other nation on earth in terms of pure military might, we don’t need to use 100% of our capacity for force to obtain a surrender. During WWII, I think we were doing everything we possibly could to win. In every conflict since WWII, we have held back from full and total war.

    That fact that we are going through this exercise is a good thing. What is important is that we keep trying to get things right going forward. For instance, what degree of force is going to be necessary to obtain the unconditional surrender of ISIS? Is there value in applying force earlier, before ISIS grows, and more force is necessary to subdue them?

    Lots of lessons to learn from the past.

  7. Burl Burlingame

    Nobody understood the psychological power of atomic weapons at the time. They were focussed on the physical power. Our folks actually wanted to use them to “soften up beachheads” during the planned invasion.

    Also, Japan was working on their own version at the time. Also, the Russian military blew through Japan’s Kwantung Army in FOUR DAYS, reaching the ocean and preparing to invade Hokkaido. That was more shocking to the High Command than the bombs.

    More to the point, however, is that no one in 1945 was in a mood to negotiate. Looking back with 2015 perspective is just plain dumb. Consider that in 1945, more civilians were killed in V-1 and V-2 attacks than in the Blitz, that details of the Nazi death camps and the Bataan Death March were just becoming known to the public, and the horror of the final Berlin campaign and Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fresh in everybody’s mind — 1945 was NOT a war winding down, but a horrible, grinding and savagely bloody campaign that looked like it would never end.

    1. Doug Ross

      I don’t look back with 2015 perspective. I look back with pre-0 A.D. perspective. Thou shalt not kill.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Again with the absolutes. How would President Ross have conducted the war in the Pacific in 1945?

        1. Doug Ross

          I can’t discuss military strategy because I don’t have any background or interest in it. I’m a pacifist. But I can say that I would not approve of any tactics that knowingly would kill innocent people. If that’s too absolute, sorry. It’s 100% wrong. It’s 100% against the teachings of pretty much all religions. To approve of it and claim to be a Christian is hypocritical.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            You say “I’m a pacifist.” but you’re okay with killing combatants, right? I mean, you’re not saying “The use of force is never justifiable”, right? You seem to be okay with war when it’s confined to combatants and military targets, or am I misunderstanding you?

            I’m not trying to trick you or “lawyer” you with these questions – I’m genuinely interested in understanding your position.

            1. Doug Ross

              I oppose war. I believe most wars are fought for the wrong reasons… especially all the “wars” that the U.S. has participated in during my lifetime. We bring the wars to other countries that are not directly attacking us. We have a military-industrial complex that is driven by profit, not self-defense and if there wasn’t an enemy, we’d create one. We should not be the world’s policeman. We have enough problems within our own country that could be addressed with the trillions we spend on our military forces. I don’t live in fear of radical Islam, communism, or any other -ism.

              1. Doug Ross

                As to whether the use of force is justifiable ever, sure. When there is a direct attack, the response should be specific and targeted at the attackers. Or better yet, the heads of the countries and military that create the threat. Never against innocent people.

                On a personal level, if someone attempted to harm me or any member of my family, I would respond accordingly.

              2. Doug Ross

                A defining moment for me was seeing the photo of the Vietnamese girl running naked and screaming down the street back in the 60’s. I think it changed my view of America forever.

              3. Brad Warthen Post author

                Really? That one image? My God — the suffering of innocents is ALWAYS horrible, and it happens in EVERY war! You know a billion other things about this country, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and you base your opinion of the whole country on one bad thing that happened?

                I thought I was extreme with the intuitive impulse, but this is REALLY leaping to conclusions from insufficient evidence…

              4. Brad Warthen Post author

                It never occurred to you, for instance, to go, “Wow! What an awesome country I live in! Somebody can take a picture like this of the suffering of one poor girl living on the other side of the planet, suffering that happened as a result of the actions of the powers that be, and it will be PUBLISHED for all the world to see and think whatever it likes, because this country is just THAT devoted to freedom. And not only that, but the photographer will win the Pulitzer Prize for taking the picture…”

                Because that’s how I react to pictures like that…

              5. Doug Ross

                Was that photo only shown in the United States? Nowhere else? You have pride in the fact that the photo was shown but no revulsion at the military policies that caused it? Weird. Did you have the same pride when you saw the Abu Ghrain torture photos? or black lynching photos? or photos of Japanese interment camps? or Indian massacres?

                I know your father served in Vietnam so you have a biased view. But it was one of the worst periods in this country’s history and we haven’t learned from that experience.

              6. Brad Warthen Post author

                Oh, and Nick Ut, the photographer who took the picture, MORE than deserved that Pulitzer. Not for taking the shot — for stopping in the next moment and helping the girl, personally taking her to a hospital. He wasn’t just an observer that day; he was a human being…

              7. Brad Warthen Post author

                Doug, what makes you think I have no revulsion? Of course I do; that’s the first impulse. Not “at the military policies that caused it,” just revulsion at an image of human pain. (I’m not aware of any “military policies” that caused that girl to be so badly hurt by the South Vietnamese military forces. Do you think there was a standing order, or a rule of engagement, that stated “Go out and hurt little girls?” Or induce our allies to do so? That’s a policy that wouldn’t last very long — something I can say because I have a broader, fuller and more accurate view of the country that you seem to have derived from this one piece of evidence.)

                One has many, many thoughts look at something like that. You had the experience of judging, and condemning, an entire country — your own country, about which you should have a more holistic view. Which struck me as odd. I was suggesting to you another way to look at it that is at least as valid, based on the available evidence. And in the option that I suggest, one of the good things, one of the best things, about the country is displayed.

                It would be perfectly valid to have both thoughts — and many, many others — in reaction to the photo. But it’s not the kind of thing you make up your mind about a whole country over.

          2. Barry

            We can all thank God the United States wasn’t headed by a President Ross during WW2.

            and I mean really, really thank God – a bunch.

  8. James Cross

    For those who wish to explore this further, I would suggest visiting the “The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II: A Collection of Primary Sources” site hosted by the National Security Archives at George Washington University ( which was recently updated. The intent is to let the “documents … help readers to make up their own minds about long-standing controversies such as whether the first use of atomic weapons was justified, whether President Harry S. Truman had alternatives to atomic attacks for ending the war, and what the impact of the Soviet declaration of war on Japan was.”

    There is a South Carolina connections. The site includes excerpts and transcripts of the journals of Walter Brown, who was a special assistant to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes (Brown later became owner of Spartan Communications and WSPA). The Special Collections Library at Clemson received the journals from the Brown family a few years back and I assisted the editor of the site in obtaining images of some of that material for the website. Prior to our acquisition of the journals historians had to make do with excerpts from the journals in the Byrnes Papers. Needless to say, there are significant differences between the excerpts and the actual journals!

    A final interesting note; while the journal does have an entry on the Hiroshima bombing, Brown does not mention the bombing of Nagasaki at all.

    By the way, the photograph at the top was taken from an island 3 miles away from the city about 20 minutes after the bomb was dropped.

  9. Burl Burlingame

    BTW, the two people just standing there in the above photo? One is a journalist asking the other guy, “What’s the mood on the street?”

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