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Second-Guessing Hiroshima?

by Uday Hohan and Leo Maley III on Jul 29, 1998

Second-guessing the necessity and morality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 53 years ago is nothing new. Contrary to widely held opinion, the first critics of America's use of atomic weapons were not disillusioned 1960s radicals but figures from the conservative establishment and the highest ranks of the military.

Criticism began within days of the obliteration of the two Japanese cities. On August 8, 1945, two days after the destruction of Hiroshima, former President Herbert Hoover wrote, "The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul."

Two days later, John Foster Dulles and Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam together urged President Truman to forgo additional use of the new weapon, saying they opposed the bomb's indiscriminate obliteration of human beings.

Within days of the Hiroshima bombing, David Lawrence, the editor of what is now "U.S. News & World Report," wrote that Japanese surrender had appeared inevitable weeks before the bomb's use. The claim of "military necessity," he argued, rang hollow. Official justifications would "never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations . . . did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children."

Such criticisms were not limited to civilians. The very day after the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, the personal pilot of General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, recorded in his diary that MacArthur was "appalled and depressed by this Frankenstein monster."

In 1963 President Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe during World War II, recalled, as he did on several other occasions, that in July 1945 he had opposed using the atomic bomb on Japan during a meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson: ". . . I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon."

No one should easily discount these views. These six men were all respected public figures. With the exception of Oxnam, all were conservatives. None was a pacifist. None of the five who survived into the 1960s publicly opposed the war in Vietnam.

Their dissenting opinions were not based on hindsight. They voiced their beliefs even before the war ended. These men considered the use of the atomic bomb to have been militarily unnecessary and morally repugnant based on the information available to them in the summer of 1945.

Keep this in mind when, on Hiroshima anniversaries, you hear claims that opposition to the bombing emerged only in the 1960s, or that critics must, necessarily, be liberals or pacifists.

The comments of men such as Hoover and Eisenhower, leading Republicans whose qualities of caution and prudence cannot be questioned, lend support to the view that America's use of atomic weapons to end World War II cannot easily be defended. The passage of time has done nothing to alter these considered judgments.


Uday Hohan, a writer for the History News Service, is a graduate student at American University who is researching and writing about Hiroshima and American culture. 

Leo Maley III, a writer for the History News Service, is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he is researching and writing about Hiroshima and American culture.