An Open Letter to Nicholas Kristof on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

You are one of the few journalists I have seen note the anniversary of the atomic bombings. (Only marginally less attention than on the 50th anniversary.) But are you seriously suggesting in your column “Blood on Our Hands?” that there is a developing consensus in Japan that the atomic bombing was a good thing, or at least necessary, and that, because some Japanese see it as justified, it was justified?

That some Japanese see an after-the-fact justification for the bombings is not equivalent to saying the U.S. should have bombed Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, which merits only the briefest mention in your essay.) Nor does it say anything of actual American intelligence, motives, etc, at the time. There can be no doubt that the bombings occurred in a context of revoltingly racist sentiment towards Japanese (raising the question of whether the U.S. would have used the bomb against Germany if it had been ready.) If there is a prevailing view in Japan, it is that the U.S. still needs to admit that the bombings were morally reprehensible, even while Japan has yet to fully confront its own atrocities.

There is certainly no suggestion in Japan (and little in the U.S.) that either Hiroshima or Nagasaki were military targets. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population,” according to the official report of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. The United States deliberately bombed civilians, something now recognized internationally — even by the U.S. — as a war crime.

Today, people recognize a distinction between combatants and non-combatants They did then, too, but you don’t. After the fire-bombing of Dresden, members of Parliament condemned Air Marshall Harris (“Bomber Harris”). And after the war, Churchill conceded that the bombing of civilians had gone too far. (That despite the fact that the British had faced total loss to the Germans, something that cannot be said of the United States with respect to the Japanese.)

You seem to concede that even if Hiroshima was justified, Nagasaki was not. At the least, you equivocate on this: “The atomic bombings broke this political stalemate… [plural and ambiguous]” but “We could also have waited longer before dropping the second bomb….” Are you claiming the second bombing was necessary, just further down the road. You must claim this to maintain your case. But the evidence suggests that the second bombing was planned in advance, in which case it could not have been a response to a perceived failure of Hiroshima to have the “necessary” effect.

Your defense of the atomic bombing appears to amount to nothing more than a reassertion of the standard American defenses of the past fifty-eight years, with a smattering of Japanese testimony to make Americans feel better. If there is an emerging consensus among U.S. historians, there is none among Japanese. For that matter, what work is your Japanese testimony intended to do? It doesn’t balance, by quantity or quality, the American accounts.

There are two general features I find interesting in arguments like yours, whether about Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Iraq. First is the sudden turn to purely instrumental reasoning. Moral thought, such as it is in the U.S., routinely appeals to rights — the right to property, to life, etc. Rights are taken to trump the instrumental or utilitarian thinking (especially of “socialists” and the like). Suddenly, to justify war, rights fly out the window.

Second is an undercurrent of near-religious fervor in the defense of American actions. It is taken as axiomatic that the U.S. acts out of good intentions. Undesirable consequences are accidental, and ultimately outweighed by good consequences. Contrary views, especially from “the left” are obviously false and thus require no substantive response.

In service of this defense of the U.S., you do a kind of juggling act with those accounts you accept and those you challenge. You lump American historians together as revisionist (and outside the mainstream) while claiming a consensus has emerged here. So the consensus is revisionist? Then you take as accepted Japanese accounts which might just as legitimately be called revisionist. (But why do you say “revisionist” at all? It’s a term now widely and vaguely used to condemn through guilt by association with actual revisionists about the Holocaust, or Japanese revisionists about Japan’s wartime atrocities.)

I recommend an essay by the late philosopher John Rawls (“Fifty Years After Hiroshima”, Dissent, 1995) — not one of his great essays, but illuminating on the ethical issues and reasoning surrounding the bombing.

Finally, I have to ask whether your essay is intended as an extended metaphor for the war in Iraq? In a “complex and brutal world,” the alternatives to war were worse than the loss during and following? I took that to be Bill Keller’s line. Is it yours also?

HUGH SANSOM lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at: