The latest ballyhooed movie Oppenheimer has generated quite a bit of angst among certain traditional media and social media denizens. It ranges from whether it was necessary to use nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities to was it a war crime. These questions also relate to the use of conventional weapons in “carpet bombing” enemy cities and other tactical methods that put noncombatant civilians at risk.
The protagonist of the film is the nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer who provided the technical expertise in designing the bombs. He is reported to have suffered similar angst. (Full disclosure, this writer has not seen the film yet, but has read several well-regarded accounts of the Manhattan Project that developed the weapons.)
On August 6, 1945, and again on August 9, United States Air Force dropped the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Three days later Japan surrendered, thus ending World War II.
In the 78 years since, not one nuclear weapon has been used in anger, despite many escalations of tensions over this time, and proliferation of those weapons, even to those that may legitimately be called “rogue states.” Nearly forty years of Cold War saw a number of wars between client states of the Soviet Union and the United States. Despite the ferocity in which they were fought at times, none resulted in an exchange of atomic weapons. Of course, that could change at any time. There has been some nuke-rattling by some Russian officials with respect to Vladimir Putin’s military adventure in Ukraine.
Perhaps one reason hostile nations have so far foregone the use of nuclear weapons is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the sheer horror of the use of those weapons.
During this annus horribilis of 2023, we have the usual suspects calling for a “conversation” (which really means recrimination) questioning whether Robert Oppenheimer and others involved in developing those weapons, President Harry Truman’s ordering the use of them, and military officers and men who deployed them, was necessary, or perhaps profoundly immoral. Some have even accused the President and those involved in dropping the bombs of being war criminals.
That is nonsense. British writer A. C. Grayling wrote Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan in 2006. I wrote a review of the book for a local blog. It bears an updating on this occasion of the release of the Oppenheimer film proximate to the anniversary of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings. It follows:
A friend once opined that if the United States and its British ally had pulled their punches in World War II as they have in every war since, including the present one, we’d all be speaking German and/or Japanese. Rhetorical hyperbole this might be, and it would in no sense justify a no-holds barred approach to current conflicts. It should be undeniable nevertheless that the total war Britain and America fought was necessary to beat the Axis. After all, Nazi Germany and Japan began the concept with a vengeance and fought ferociously until the bitter end. Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command is reported to have observed while watching the fires around St. Paul’s during the London Blitz “they’ve sown the wind and will reap the whirlwind.” Harris, of course, was the chief wind maker, the architect if one can use that appellation in such circumstances, of the utter devastation of German cities in the air war that ensued. His bombardiers sowed the seeds of the tornadic firestorms that engulfed Hamburg, Dresden, and other cities, incinerating tens of thousands of civilians and reducing houses, shops, museums, and public buildings to hideous skeletons. The U.S. Air Force in the Pacific, once islands in range of Japan had been captured, carried out similar raids on Japanese cities creating even greater destruction. The final two raids witnessed the only wartime use ever of nuclear weapons.
Among the Dead Cities is one of a number of histories of the strategic bombing in World War II. Its dramatic title (possibly an allusion to I Samuel 31:7) alone sets it apart from the prosaic works by more methodical historians. Grayling styles himself a philosopher rather than a historian and focuses on the morality of the area bombing – sometimes called “saturation” or “carpet” bombing – of German and Japanese cities. That such bombing was indiscriminate and served to terrorize the targeted populations, kill civilians in great numbers, and destroy their cities makes the whole concept morally repugnant to Grayling. He and others claim that, while the stated purpose was to break the enemy’s morale and spirit and disrupt the daily lives and economy of the German and Japanese people, it served only to increase the resolve of the Germans – much like the 1940-41 Blitz steeled the British to resist. All that the bombing accomplished was wanton and useless mass destruction of centuries’ old cultural treasures and wanton slaughter of civilians, and had little effect on the outcome of the war.
That thesis is nothing new. A postwar assessment of the effect of strategic bombing indicated that German industrial production continued to increase almost up the end in spite of nearly continuous attacks during the last year of the war. Grayling’s conclusion, however, is that the area bombing was unjustified by military necessity, and thus amounted to a moral outrage and a war crime. Harris, Churchill, and other commanders who carried out their orders (Grayling, perhaps protesting too much, includes a disclaimer that he does not intend to impugn the RAF and American pilots and crews’ bravery or morality) perhaps escaped prosecution because no international protocols like the Geneva Convention proscribed aerial bombing of civilian targets, and, most important, because the Allies won the war.
Similarly, Grayling believes the area bombing raids of Japanese cities were American war crimes, and, by implication, Roosevelt, LeMay, and Nimitz were war criminals. The firebombing of Tokyo and other cites, even more destructive, is of course overshadowed by the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, criticism of which from time to time is the subject of unctuous breast beating by certain elements – but that is another story.
Area bombing in Europe was destructive and deadly. Did it win or hasten the end of the war? Did it have any salutary effect at all? Was the loss of civilian life and the ruining of historic structures and artifices worth the cost? Was there any justification to continue the bombing after late 1944 in Germany or after April or May of 1945 in Japan when the war was all but won? While a majority of Germans never voted for Hitler (when it was still possible to vote for leaders prior to 1933), few protested Nazi policies, most acquiesced in the anti-Jewish laws, and probably a huge majority were thrilled by Hitler’s diplomatic and early military victories. So-called terror bombing was first used by the Nazi controlled Luftwaffe against Holland and Britain. When tit was given for tat, the bombing in Germany was not carried out wantonly against a defenseless people. The German military fought back ferociously. More than 50,000 British airmen (and a considerable number of Americans) were casualties of the campaign and thousands of aircraft were shot down. Until the United States geared up sufficiently to help in Europe (remember, the American military had its hands full with Japan in the first two years of the Pacific war, while the Russians were reeling from a withering German offensive) Britain was essentially alone. It had itself been subjected to a Nazi terror bombing campaign from May 1940 through June 1941 that was halted only when Hitler turned his attention to the Soviet Union. The British fought the only way they could. Given the technology of the time – a far cry from the kind that allowed U. S. forces to pinpoint and kill terrorists with drones and computer guided missile resulting in minuscule collateral damage – and the European weather conditions, nighttime area bombing was the only method that could be remotely effective. The main accomplishment the British wanted was to create sufficient disruption to discourage the Nazi bombers from coming back to their homeland. The diversion of resources to air defense, particularly after the Cologne raid of 1942 and Operation Gomorrah over Hamburg in 1943, surely kept the German air force from attacking Britain again, at least with manned aircraft. The bombing likewise surely hindered the effort on the Russian front. The Soviets begged the western Allies to open a western front for more than two years before the invasion of France on D-Day. Aerial bombing was the best that Britain and the U. S. could do until sufficient resources were marshaled for the Normandy invasion.
Grayling, and others, argue that after the establishment of a western front, and the liberation of most of France by September 1944, combined with contemporaneous Russian drives into Poland, every indication was that Germany was defeated, and all was over but the shouting. Continuing the relentless bombing of German was thus unnecessary.
This is hindsight; it was not all that apparent at the time. To illustrate this point, in September 1944, the Anglo-American forces were dealt a severe setback in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, and in December of that year, the German army launched a fierce offensive in the Battle of the Bulge. All the while, Great Britain again was subjected to air raids; this time by the unmanned V-1 and V-2 missiles, the latter being supersonic and striking without warning of any kind. The only defense against the V-2s was to prevent their being available to be launched in the first place. Area bombing, haphazard as it was, was the only possible way. Even after the Bulge, the Anglo-American-Canadian forces were fiercely opposed every step of the way. The Soviet Army in the East was even more ferociously opposed. The Russians suffered nearly a half million casualties in the final drive to Berlin and had to fight for the city block by block. It is incontrovertible that Britain and the U.S. had to use everything at their disposal to end — and win — the European War.
As for Japan, the resistance of the enemy was even stronger. Japan began its war with the United States with a sneak attack. Japanese forces contested every battle by fighting, almost literally to the last man. American and British prisoners of war were treated abominably. And when the war was clearly going against Japan, the Kamikaze suicide campaign began. After the liberation of the Philippines, the U.S. was faced with the necessity of invading the home islands of Japan to end the war. Given this situation, could any rational American commander in chief not conclude that serious softening up of the Japanese homeland was a necessary prelude to an invasion? When the atomic bombs became available, why should it have been preferable to spare Hiroshima and Nagasaki so the United States and its allies could suffer a million casualties (the estimate at the time, never seriously refuted) invading Japan?
The measureless human suffering caused by the bombing is evident. The loss of lives, particularly innocent children who could not have made the world they are born into, is an unfortunate reality of war. The resultant loss, particularly in Germany, of cultural treasures is one of the saddest legacies of the area bombing. Photographs of the pre-war German cities – Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, and others — reveal charm and beauty that had been utterly destroyed. Berlin suffered the most, not only from the bombing, but the devastation of the last battle, and division between two hostile powers for the next two generations. During my first visit to Berlin twenty-one years after the end of the war, the scars were still there, and where rebuilding had taken place, it was mostly soul-less modern. At the time of my visit a few years before the Wall fell, it had not changed much. Even in 1995, large tracts were still rubble-strewn vacant areas. But Berlin has come back, much of the city has been restored to its pre-war appearance, and the newer architecture has its own beauty. Dresden was more remarkable for the restoration of the old city area, including plans, much delayed by the former East German communist regime, for the restoration of the totally destroyed Frauenkirche (which now is complete and was rededicated in 2005 last year, Britain’s late Queen – during the war, Second Lieutenant Elizabeth Windsor – sending her best wishes). Nuremberg’s old city center, especially targeted because it was a Nazi hotbed, has been almost completely restored to its pre-war appearance. This demonstrates that artifacts can be rebuilt. Civilizations, however, might well not be. World War II was a struggle for civilization, Western Civilization as it had advanced in its highest and finest order. One of its finest exemplars had been hijacked by evil forces that harkened back to barbarism, superstition, and savagery. The reasons this happened are the subject of a surfeit of writings with many more doubtless to follow, so this phenomenon will not be examined here. But happen it did, and was an evil that had to be defeated, at whatever cost, for our civilization to survive.
Naziism was a profound evil, and Japanese militarism was no better, and both committed worse atrocities than could ever be laid at the feet of the British and Americans. He maintains, however, that two wrongs do not make a right, and there is no justification for sinking to the same moral level as the Nazis. True enough, but beside the point. Allied strategic bombing was not calculated genocide or wanton cruelty toward conquered people and prisoners of war. It had the legitimate goal of defending against and defeating the forces that practiced such atrocious conduct.
A final point ignored by many commentators is what would happen when the fighting was over. Winning the war was one thing; maintaining a peace afterward is quite another. After the World War I armistice, which occurred while the German army was intact and still on French and Belgian soil, and no part of Germany had been invaded, gave credibility to the Nazi explanation that the victorious German army was “stabbed in the back” by reformers, bankers, pacifists, and, especially, Jews. At the end of World War II, Germany and Japan knew they had been beaten – badly. While the comparison is apt, the victory did not quite impose a Carthaginian Peace as the Romans did after being troubled three times by the same foe in the Punic Wars. The defeated German and Japanese adversaries were devastated to the point that they had to be rebuilt from the ground up. But they were. And with the help of former foes, were reconstructed in the image of capitalist republican democracies. For nearly eighty years after World War II ended, the world, beset by conflict and bloodshed as it has been, was not to be troubled by military aggression emanating from Germany or Japan. Perhaps, then, at least in two corners of the earth, Arthur Harris’ and Robert Oppenheimer’s whirlwinds managed to uproot the grapes of wrath.