I have been away for a few days. There have been many comments in the meantime about my Guardian column on Hiroshima Day. I'll endeavour to recount what has been said, and by whom, and how I reply. As my survey ranges from the American palaeo-libertarian Justin Raimondo to Norman Geras, you might reasonably assume that I have ranked my critics according to ascending order of intellectual weight. In fact this is true only indirectly, in the sense that I deal respectively with arguments about the history of President Truman's decision to use the A-bomb, and then arguments about the moral justification of that decision. The arguments of the first type are, on the available evidence, demonstrably false. Those of the second type are serious and are advanced by heavyweight political philosophers from whose work I have learned much.
In the next day or two I shall post three comments on this subject. This one deals with responses to my column that have appeared in The Guardian. The second will address responses made elsewhere. The third will discuss specifically the ethical arguments of my friend Norman Geras, and of one or two others. You can read Norman's criticisms of my article here. Norman's thinking on war has been much influenced by Michael Walzer, whom he cites; I take strong issue with Walzer's argument about Hiroshima, and by extension also with Norman's criticisms.
First, here are the objections that have appeared in The Guardian. On Tuesday, the newspaper ran an article by two authors from something called the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, Abbas Edalat and Mehrnaz Shahabi, entitled "Prospects of Armageddon". The authors state:
It is appalling, if unsurprising, to read the neoconservative cheerleader Oliver Kamm arguing in these pages that the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki 62 years ago saved lives and ended suffering. The subtext is plain. The same camp whose vocal endorsement led to the present catastrophe in Iraq are now hawkishly gazing at Iran. The same absurd and dangerous logic that defends the nuclear atrocities of 1945 can now be used to support the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against Iran - the threat of which in turn makes the idea of a conventional attack appear more palatable.
In calling me a neoconservative cheerleader, these writers have clearly adopted the school of criticism pioneered by Johann Hari, viz. not troubling to read an argument - in this case, my book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy - before affecting to know what's in it. But a still more serious abuse of the conventions of intellectual exchange is their discerning a "subtext" for which there is no evidence at all. As my column neither referred nor alluded to Iran, these authors are engaged in nothing more substantial than speculation about my mental states. Argument about what I might have been thinking, as opposed to what I wrote, is an obviously illegitimate way of conducting debate, not least because a proposition about the contents of my mind is unfalsifiable.
Yesterday, The Guardian ran this crop of letters in response to my column. The lead letter is from Canon Paul Oestreicher, who writes:
Given the prevailing mood in 1945, the launching of the nuclear age on human targets was no huge departure. Had it really ended the war, as Oliver Kamm claims, there was a case for Hiroshima. Not for Nagasaki. The threat should then have sufficed. Kamm dismisses the substantial diplomatic evidence that Japan was already suing for peace. President Truman wanted to get in quickly to show the world that the two bombs - there were only two - really worked. It still seemed within accepted strategic policy and need not be seen as a shot across Soviet bows.
I have commented on Canon Oestreicher's eccentric political interventions before, but in this instance he is making a definite historical claim: the bombing of Nagasaki, at least, was unnecessary, because a mere threat would have been sufficient after the bombing of Hiroshima. Oestreicher is doing here what revisionist historians typically do, and what anti-nuclear non-historians almost invariably do: he advances a hypothesis about Japan's wartime leadership without reference to a single Japanese source on the subject. The answer to his claim is cited in my article, and may be found in the paper "The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender - a Reconsideration", by Sadao Asada, Pacific Historical Review, November 1998 (reprinted in Hiroshima in History, ed. Robert James Maddox, 2007). Contemporary records and ministerial memoirs indicate that both bombs were crucial to Japan's decision to surrender, by enabling the "peace party" within the Cabinet to convince the Emperor that the war had been lost through the Americans' superior science. As Asada puts it:
Japan's peace party made the maximum political use of the atomic bomb to end the war. To them, the bomb was "a gift from Heaven", "a golden opportunity", and a "psychological moment" to end the war; they saw the bomb as "assisting" their peace efforts and as a means for the military to save face.
When Oestreicher refers to the "substantial diplomatic evidence that Japan was already suing for peace", he slightly overstates. The exact amount of evidence that Japan was already suing for peace is nil. The most that can be said is that messages were sent from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador in Moscow asking that the Emperor be allowed to send an envoy to negotiate with the Soviet leadership. The terms envisaged were not surrender, or anything like it. They were a proposed bargain under which Japan would retain its polity and its Empire. As the historian Richard Frank has written, Japanese diplomatic cables that had been intercepted and decoded by the US yielded an unambiguous conclusion:
The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood--as one analytical piece in the "Magic" [a code word for US diplomatic briefings] Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts--that "until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies." This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.
Oestreicher goes on to give disembodied quotations from retired military commanders condemning the Hiroshima decision. I shall have more to say in the next post about this common rhetorical practice of anti-nuclear campaigners; I'll say here merely that some of these quotations are genuine, though none is contemporary or, in my view, relevant, and almost all are shorn of important political context.
The second letter is from Phillip Knightley. It reads:
By the summer of 1945 General Leslie Groves, who had been in charge of the American atomic bomb programme, headed what was in effect a new branch of the American armed services: a nuclear strike command with 15 aircraft and two atomic bombs. Groves saw it as his duty to have them dropped on two Japanese cities so that their future effectiveness as weapons could be judged. If that is not a war crime, then what is?
I've quoted this letter in full because I have no idea what it means. I sought the opinion of my adviser on all matters to do with the US military, the historian D.M. Giangreco, who served for 20 years as an editor of the US Army journal Military Review, and I was relieved to find that he too was unable to explain it. Knightley has clearly got his facts wrong. The new organisation to which he alludes was the so-called 509th Composite Group. Groves was a one-star general (roughly equivalent in rank to a British Brigadier) who, so far from being the head of the 509th, wasn't even in the chain of command. His role was in effect to be in charge of a large construction programme, comparable to his previous task, which was to build a large office block (i.e. the Pentagon).
The third letter reads in full:
Oliver Kamm conveniently forgets the 1944 Yalta Conference, which agreed that Stalin would bring his troops into the Pacific war theatre three months after the end of the war in Europe. May 8 1945 was VE Day. August 6, Russian troops were massing in Vladivostock ready to invade northern Japan on August 8. August 6, America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, effectively stopping any Soviet involvement in the post war carve-up of Japan. QED.
This may be the worst attempt at a formal proof I've ever seen. Its author kindly sent me a copy of the letter before publication, and I replied - with equal courtesy, I hope - that he needed to take account of the clear evidence that the US sought the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific War (which did indeed happen between the bombings of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki). Here is just one piece of evidence, in the words of Michael Kort, author of the newly published Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb, in response to a particularly tendentious attempt to refurbish the revisionist case:
[U]pon hearing about the Soviet entry into the war, General Marshall on August 8 sent a personal message to Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, which reads as follows: “My congratulations and thanks to you for your great part in bringing about the events of the day.” It is inconceivable that General Marshall would have sent this message had the “events of the day” not been in accord with the president’s wishes.
The fourth letter argues: "One great challenge in eliminating terrorism is to convince those who have what they consider to be legitimate grievances that deliberately targeting civilians is never justified." It's by no means a foolish argument that the bombings had serious diplomatic costs in addition to the obviously immense human suffering, nor have I ever disputed that Western foreign policy in some respects provides impetus for terrorism directed against us. My argument, however, is that it's impossible to conceive of a foreign policy stance we might adopt that would not generates such grievances by our totalitarian enemies. I argue this case in greater detail in the book whose title Johann Hari, Abbas Edalat and Mehrnaz Shahabi have read.
The fifth and final letter maintains: "What we should be asking is what can we learn from 1945." I do not dissent, but I fear that the inferences the letter's author draws do not follow from the historical episode in question. I particularly do not agree with the claim that "use of the atom bomb led to a costly arms race because the Soviet Union saw it as a threat". In reality, the US in 1945-6 went to some lengths to give away its nuclear monopoly by establishing international control of atomic energy (these were the Acheson-Lilienthal and Baruch plans). The Cold War and misnamed "arms race" arose from Stalin's foreign policy, not from Truman's.