Tag Archives: Hiroshima

Hindsight from the High Ground

or, Truman’s Cheek

[Dear Reader: The following essay departs from my usual areas of observation. It is the result of a quick collaboration with my friend Hans Moleman, who filled me in on some of the historical facts.(He has thoughtfully co-posted this at his site mistermoleman.com.) And my dissent here indicates no disrespect for the excellent work done every day by Relevant Radio, which I love.]

 

On August 6, the terrible anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I was listening to the indispensable Catholic media outlet Relevant Radio, and I heard a curious interview with Msgr. Stuart Swetland on the subject of the day.

It made me think of Calvin Coolidge who is credited with many laconic (and probably apocryphal) anecdotes; my favorite is his supposed comment on returning from church one Sunday. Asked what the preacher spoke on, he answered: “Sin.” Further asked: “What did he say about it?”, Cal responded: “He was against it.”

It would be unjust and uncharitable to summarize the monsignor’s take on Hiroshima in so many words. He acknowledged the difficult situation and the tough decisions that faced those engaged in what was unquestionably a just war. But his conclusion was as straightforward as Coolidge’s: It was a sin, and Truman should not have done it.

The monsignor argued from Catholic doctrine, which appears to have recently reached the same conclusion. And he offered some historical “facts” in support. But the facts are questionable, and the arguments seem confused.

I am certainly not qualified to argue theology with any monsignor (though I will try, later.) But facts are facts, and assumptions are not.

There are many points to consider. Monsignor Swetland stated, with varying degrees of certitude, the following “facts”. The Japanese government was about to surrender anyway. The Russians were about to tell Truman about a Japanese peace proposal. Invasion of the Japanese homeland would not have been necessary. The invasion’s half-million US casualties anticipated by US military planners would not have occurred.

These things are nice to know. I bet Truman would have liked to know them with the certainty that his posthumous critics know them.

Now, some of these facts fall into the category of 20/20 hindsight (the Japanese/Russian peace proposal.) Others are in the realm of counterfactuals, the history that never happened (the invasion was unnecessary, since the Japanese already knew they were beaten.)

But my main objection to such thinking is that it side-steps the one all-important question, the only question that matters, from a moral standpoint. What should Truman have done?

The moral high ground is the position which allows those far from the decision to boldly affirm what should NOT have been done. But the moral high ground does not allow consideration of the real question facing the real decision-maker. The only way the moral-high-grounder can address the real question is with hindsight and counterfactuals.

Well, here are some counter-counterfactuals.

1. The Japanese government probably knew they were beaten by 1943; they fought on. From their early offensive high-water, they were steadily pushed back on every front. After Midway, they never again struck in the eastern Pacific. After Guadalcanal, they were in constant retreat throughout the Pacific. And yet, as the tides of war rolled against them, the death tolls rapidly accelerated. The bloodiest battles, on land and sea, occurred in the last 6 months of the war – long after the Japanese government knew what the outcome would be. The death toll on Okinawa, the closest island to the Japanese homeland, was 12,520 US soldiers, 110,000 Japanese soldiers, and over 100,000 Japanese civilians, many by suicide. Continue reading

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