Nash: As with A-bomb drop, presidential decisions full of moral gray areas

Philip Nash, associate professor of history at Penn State University, delivers Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Lauren Rock.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

“The wooden structures were closely packed, quite numerous, you may be aware of housing in Japan, the interior walls made of paper so they burn very, very well. Temperatures in the city reached upwards of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Vehicle frames were melted; canals and ponds were brought to the boiling point. The air contained drops of liquid glass drifting in the wind. Citizens running for their lives spontaneously combusted; many were found charred beyond recognition or dead from heat or suffocation. Over a quarter of a million buildings were destroyed, 16 square miles, almost one-quarter of the city, were laid to complete waste — up to 100,000 people died in that raid,” said Philip Nash, an associate professor of history at Penn State University at the start of his Tuesday Interfaith Lecture.

Nash is the author of The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters, 1957–1963.

“What I just described is the conventional bombing raid — B-29 bombers on the night March 9 to 10, 1945 — that was not a description of Hiroshima or Nagasaki,” he said.

During the second lecture on the Week Nine interfaith theme, “The Ethics of Presidential Power,” Nash discussed the historical context and ethical judgment surrounding the use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II in a lecture titled “Truman and the Ethics of the Bomb.” In his lecture, Nash touched on the already brutal conditions of the war to that point, the position of the newly appointed president, the moral conflict with which Truman was ultimately challenged, and how lessons from that challenge can be used to guide governments and leaders today.

Nash opened his lecture with the description of a fire raid from earlier in 1945 to highlight the already immense destruction that was taking place on account of the conventional bombing methods used in the war up until August 1945.

To add further context to Truman’s situation, Nash discussed the conditions of his presidency. Truman was a new president — Franklin D. Roosevelt had only died a few months earlier in April. According to historians, Truman was an insecure man, and up until his ascendance into the presidency, he had been kept poorly informed by Roosevelt. Truman entered the presidency with the public expectation that he would end the war and gracefully transition the world into a post-war period. Relics of Roosevelt’s inner circle, including George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, surrounded Truman. Under those circumstances, it is easy to assume that in many policy and war-related areas, Truman would follow the directives of his more informed cabinet.

“No president in that situation is going to come into the office and say, ‘Yes, I realize I don’t belong here, but let’s do things differently,’ “ Nash said.

Truman had experienced the barbarism of war first-hand in World War I as an artillery captain. Later, he was both a senator and a vice president during World War II. Truman became president during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the deadliest battles in the Pacific. It continued for three months and resulted in the loss of 12,000 U.S. troops and killed a quarter-million Japanese military members and civilians, Nash said. Truman was very concerned that defeating the rest of the Japanese islands would be similar to Okinawa.

“All this context I’ve tried to lay out for you helps explain something that surprises, I think, more than a few people when they learn about the atomic bombing. It’s really not accurate to talk about a ‘decision to drop the bomb,’” Nash said.

The widely held opinion of historians is more of an “assumption thesis,” which means it was assumed and accepted by Truman and his top advisers that the bomb would be dropped whenever it was completed, Nash said.

“There was no meeting held where they discussed the question ‘Should we drop the bomb or not,’” he said.

Truman did form a committee, but the group only discussed how to use the bomb — not “Should we or shouldn’t we,” Nash said.

“The use of the bomb by Truman was un-extraordinary even if the weapon itself was extraordinary,” he said.

Nash cited the J. Samuel Walker’s Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan when he listed the five main reasons why the bomb is presumed to have been dropped. The first and primary reason was to end the war as quickly as possible by shocking the Japanese into surrender, Nash said. The second reason had to do with the $2 billion price tag on the Manhattan Project and the political implications of non-use.

“If Truman withheld using the bomb after it was ready and later on the American public found out the war had gone on a little bit longer but Truman had not used this weapon, I think there would have been political hell to pay,” Nash said.

The third reason — a less important consequence — was to impress the Soviet Union. Though the United States and Soviet Union had allied in World War II, their relationship was worsening since the fall of the Western front, Nash said. The fourth reason for using the bomb was because there was no reason not to; in light of the already systematic bombing of Japan, there seemed to be no moral qualms about complete destruction and the killing of civilians. The last reason stemmed from a national hatred of the Japanese.

“It’s really hard to exaggerate how ferocious this fight was on both sides and some of the atrocities committed on both sides,” Nash said.

Given the complex nature of the time, the state of the war, and the conditions established by leaders in power before Truman, the morality of the decision is a very complex question. When researchers dig to find answers, they are often met with the same impatient responses, Nash said.

The first is that “war is hell,” Nash said; however, some wars can be worse than others and that depends on certain standards kept or sacrificed by the sides in conflict. Another response often met when discussing the atomic bomb is that if the U.S. had not used it, Germany or Japan would have used it on the U.S., Nash said.

“But we need to resist the temptation to use the enemy as our standard of behavior. That, to me, is not moral thinking or moral action,” Nash said.

Some people claim that Truman had no other choice but to use the bomb on a Japanese city.

“This is simply untrue. Truman had at the time other options, other options which were discussed in the highest circles of government,” Nash said.

The U.S. could have changed the demand for unconditional surrender; it could have made it clear that the Japanese emperor, who was revered as semi-divine, would remain safe. It could have continued on with naval and air attacks which were successful; it could have waited to see how the Soviet Union’s entrance into the war could have affected the outcome. Or, the U.S. could have demonstrated the might, power and destruction of the bomb to Japanese officials at a remote site, Nash said.

The U.S. could have attempted a combination of those options, Truman said. All of that information makes the issue of the ethics of dropping the bomb even more complex, Nash said.

“At some level, you have to be OK with ambiguity. Part of history is not getting answers, but searching for them,” he said.

Another aspect to examine when discussing the issue is how Truman felt about the bomb. After August 1945, many different statements were released regarding Truman’s true feelings. In 1959, he is quoted as saying “I never lost any sleep over my decision,” Nash said. He argued that the bomb saved lives by ending the war. When Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, went to Truman and said he felt he had blood on his hands, Truman responded: “Blood on his hands, damn it, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have. You just don’t go around bellyaching about it,” Nash said.

Nash
Photo by Lauren Rock.

Though Truman provided a public front that exhibited few hesitations about the bomb, he wrote in his journal that he felt even if the Japanese were “savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic,” the U.S. should not drop the bomb on Kyoto, the former capital; or Tokyo, the new capital of the country. Truman told Stimson to eliminate Tokyo and Kyoto from the target list.

“In his taking Kyoto and Tokyo off the target list, you see moral qualms,” Nash said.

On Aug. 10, after receiving initial reports of the destruction caused by the bomb, Truman commanded that the bomb would not be used again without his authorization.

“Why would he do that unless he were suddenly having some moral second thoughts,” Nash said.

Given the circumstances, and historical precedent set by systematic firebombing, the moral ambiguity of the atomic bomb’s use is even greater, Nash said. When Truman became president, he entered a moral atmosphere with a war ethic precedent already established.

“It’s possible that more people died in Tokyo in March 1945 than died in Hiroshima in August 1945,” Nash said.

Though there were new, long-lasting effects of the brutally efficient atomic bomb, including radiation, it is difficult to blame or judge Truman too harshly given the circumstances, Nash said.

Instead, he said it is more important to look at Truman’s predecessors, the generation of leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

“These are people who, years earlier, had crossed the moral divide and engaged in indiscriminate warfare against entire cities,” Nash said.

“If you’re concerned about morality, efficacy can not be the ‘be all and end all.’ Right, the fact that Practice X helps end a war is not the only thing you need to know about Practice X,” Nash said.

The bomb was a revolutionary development in weaponry with broad sweeping repercussions for humanity. Truman understood that.

In a diary entry written in July 1945, Truman wrote, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous ark,” Nash said.

In his book Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II, Michael Bess said, it is “not unreasonable to expect Truman to have carefully considered all options including not using the bomb before approving the atomic raids,” Nash said.

Though options outside of using the bomb may have failed, the U.S. risked little by endeavoring to try ulterior routes, Nash said.

“If these had failed, I would argue still the moral position of the United States would have been strengthened,” Nash said.

In order to realize the idea of “American exceptionalism,” in the world today, the U.S. should learn from choices made by Truman, Nash said. Americans must require that their presidents and leaders consider ethics and morals in all of their decisions, he said.

Though the president’s work is generally rife with issues that fall in moral gray areas, often considering moral values and ethics could further complicate decision making or lead to mistakes.

“Nevertheless, it seems to me that moral considerations must be at the top of the priority list,” Nash said. “In a moral country, morality is a national interest.”

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