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Was America Evil to Drop Atomic Bombs on Japan?

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During a recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Tucker Carlson made a bold claim about the August 1945 decision by the United States to bomb the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a move that effectively put an end World War II. He said:

My ‘side’ has spent the last 80 years defending the dropping of nuclear bombs on civilians… like, are you joking? If you find yourself arguing that it’s a good thing to drop nuclear weapons on people, then you are evil.

I like Tucker Carlson and find myself in agreement with him on many topics. I am especially heartened by his recent rediscovery of faith and a robustly Christian worldview. But on the nuclear bombing of Japan, I believe he vastly overstates his case.

It’s not surprising that Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson spoke on this issue. Atomic warfare has recently been a subject of burgeoning cultural interest, first with last year’s award-winning biopic Oppenheimer and more recently with the release of Amazon Prime’s TV series adaptation of the post-apocalyptic video game Fallout.

In fact, Westerners have been bombarded with apocalyptic messaging more generally for years—whether on COVID-19, or the so-called “race reckoning,” or climate alarmism.

It would not be surprising if our existential fears for the future are blurring our vision of the past.

With that said, is it true—not only that America was evil to bomb Japan in 1945—but that those who defend that decision are evil themselves?

Reaching this conclusion requires a rewrite of the historical context surrounding World War II: a wishful-thinking reprise of events that assumes diplomacy with Japan was a viable path to end the war. It was not.

In the months leading up to Enola Gay’s fateful flight over Hiroshima, Japan was in retreat all across the Pacific and still had no appetite for surrender. The capital, Tokyo, was already in ruins thanks to a U.S. firebombing raid. Okinawa had been overrun by American troops, and a mainland invasion was now within reach. Astoundingly, even after Little Boy fell on Hiroshima on August 6th and flattened the city, the Japanese leadership refused to countenance surrender.

It was only after Fat Boy annihilated Nagasaki three days later that, resisting a palace coup by hardliners still hoping to fight on, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers.

It was Japan’s deeply embedded cultural ideology—its honor culture–that necessitated such dire action by the U.S. As Mike Coté has explained at Rational Policy:

This intense honor culture was a part of Japanese society going back centuries. It was prominently represented in the samurai way of the warrior—bushido—and was a key aspect of the Japanese desire to fight to the death. Capture was seen as a moral stain on the honor not only of the individual who was captured, but to his entire family tree: past, present, and future. Combine this with the insidious propaganda of the Imperial Japanese government—claims that American troops would massacre and defile civilians, celebrations of kamikaze pilots as heroic sacrifices, and exhortations of suicidal mass resistance to any invading force—and you had a potent brew militating against surrender.

The United States had other options, of course, but they would have been far deadlier. Yielding the entire Pacific region to a bloodthirsty and cruel Japanese regime could hardly pass as compassionate.

Likewise, Operation Downfall, a proposed mainland invasion of Japan, would have required 1.7 million American servicemen fighting up to 2.3 million Japanese troops—and possibly to the death, if Japanese resistance elsewhere was anything to go on.

As President Truman and his war cabinet weighed the decision of atomic warfare, also hanging in the balance were 100,000 prisoners of war whom the Japanese planned to execute the moment a ground invasion began. And with warfare continuing on multiple battlefronts across the Pacific theater, daily deaths on each side of the conflict were reaching into the tens of thousands.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused well over 200,000 casualties with over 100,000 more injured.

The U.S. bombing of Japan was horrific. I have visited ground zero at Hiroshima and pondered long on the horror of that day.

It is true that American imperialism has a mixed legacy. And as the United States slides into spreading moral chaos at home, the nation’s involvement in conflicts abroad appears increasingly dubious. No doubt this consideration was central in Tucker’s rigid remarks.

Still, it is wrong to read today’s headlines into last century’s dilemmas. The decision of the United States to drop atomic bombs on Japan was eminently defensible, and we would be foolish to forget this.

Image credit: Public domain