David R. Henderson  

Unbroken--and the Bomb

What I've Been Reading... Mainstream Views of School Vou...

Like co-blogger Arnold, I'm a big fan of Lauren Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken. I highly recommend it. I was shocked and disappointed, though, by the following statement from Arnold:

When the inevitable movie arrives, it will be interesting to see whether the screenwriters seek to tone down the Japanese abuses of prisoners or to dilute them by reaching for some sort of moral equivalence. If not, then by the time the atomic bomb makes its appearance, your only second thought will be to wish that the U.S. had dropped more of them.

Yes, it will be interesting to see if they tone it down or reach for some sort of moral equivalence. That's not where I take issue. It's with Arnold's second sentence above. I did not find myself at all wishing that the U.S. government had dropped more bombs on Japanese people. I think it's very important to hold people accountable for their actions and not the actions of others. I would have loved to see a certain Japanese prison guard in the movie executed: you'll know which one when you read the book. But killing hundreds of thousands of other Japanese people? No way.

I've written on this elsewhere, an article titled "Remembering Hiroshima." Since then, I've learned from my friend Jeff Hummel that there's a whole literature that I hadn't known about when I wrote and that I leaned too heavily on Gar Alperowitz. Still, I stand by much of which is in this article.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Sridhar Loke writes:

You should neither be shocked nor disappointed at Arnold's statement. He is not advocating that stand (at least I don't think he is). All i read into that statement was the absent some justification, that would be a natural, knee jerk reaction for an average American. I don't think the average American wishes more atomic bombs being dropped either (at least I would like to believe that).

When I was reading the book, I was thinking that the same bomb, a would have done a lot more "good" in 1943 (by ending the war earlier, and thus saving more lives on both sides)

Dave MacLeod writes:

Please give us some links to the "whole literature" you mention. It is a complex issue and I'd like to explore it further.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Dave MacLeod,
I’m not at my office today. And my office is a mess. But when I find the key review article in the right stack, I’ll try to remember to contact you. It’s a review article of about 6 more-recent books. They don’t say, IIRC, that the bomb should have been dropped. Again, IIRC, it’s about what Truman could realistically know before making his decision.

Lee Waaks writes:

I don't think Alperovitz is a reliable source. He has been shown by historian Robert Maddox to play fast and loose with primary source material. See this interview with Maddox about Hiroshima here: http://hnn.us/articles/55076.html

Various writes:

I think commenter Sridhar is on target. I think you're reading too much into Arnold's comment. I'm assuming that Arnold did not intend for his second sentence to be interpreted literally.

bryan willman writes:

those emotions, either angry vengence or pained respect for the innocent, have surprizingly little to do with the reality of modern war.

but in any case, why worry about what somebody wishes had happened in the past?

Ted Levy writes:


I think books Professor Hummel may have mentioned might have included:

Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan by J Samuel Walker, U of NC Press, 2004

The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki: August 1945 by Dennis Wainstock, Enigma Books, 2011

Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb by Ronald Takaki, Back Bay Books, 1996

The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan (Cambridge Essential Histories) by Wilson D. Miscamble (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

These all came out contemporaneous with (1996) or subsequent to the Alperovitz book
On the other matter, I think you are right to criticize Arnold. There are some things civilized people do not even joke about. Killing hundreds of thousands of innocents because we find some people of the same race were more vicious than we had previously believed seems to qualify...

Jim Rose writes:

the japanese peace feelers were part of a strategy to negotiate a peace without an occupation of Japan. the initial Japanese plan in 1941 was also for a negotiated peace albeit on terms far more in Japan's favour.

Even after the two atomic bombings, the Japanese war cabinet still split 3:3 on peace terms.

There was then a coup attempt by junior officers, with the senior commanders sitting on the fence to make sure they ended up on the winning side.

Trumen used the bomb as soon as it was available because the japanese planned a war of attrition against an invasion to gain better peace terms.

If Truman had not used the bomb, he would have to have answered the question that his secretary of state put to him in 1945: what will you say at your 1946 impeachment hearings when congress and the public ask why was this weapon was not used?

do you think Truman would have not been impeached? how many votes would he have got?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Although using the bombs was horrible, I believe it produced the best outcome for the Japanese. They gave - and the US received - their complete prostration, which allowed or indeed required a massive and beneficial US intervention and rebuilding. At the climax of a death struggle with an intensely resilient (and dare I say brutal, at that time) people, I am inclined to be generous to leaders who are given difficult choices.

Ken B writes:

I'm with Jim Rose: the bomb did not end the war. The SECOND bomb did, and then just barely. Japan would not have surrendered early had there been a long series of costly invasions. To put it crassly, this is a like boiling the frog.

That said I think Arnold's gut reaction is pretty natural and not so bad. (The nexus is not so strained: the Japanese record suggests widespread approval of beastly behavior towards those seen as shamed or inferior.) What would have been bad, as ever, would be acting on that kind of emotional frisson rather than on careful deliberation.

I think you had it right when you were still a Canadian David, but of course I'm prejudiced! :)

Jim Rose writes:

thanks ken B,
after the second bomb, one japanese general did speculated that the america may not have any more bombs. production was one a month, I think?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top