August 2, 2005


America's 'terrible thing' (James Carroll, August 2, 2005, Boston Globe)

AT LEAST God told Moses the truth. Before laying on him the requirements of a monotheistic faith that would immediately cause violent conflict with idol-worshipers, God said, ''It is a terrible thing that I will do with you." And so it was.

The statement comes in the very verses of Exodus that define the covenant God makes with Moses and his harried people. ''I shall do marvels," God promises. But it is the certainty of ''the terrible thing" that defines this relationship going forward. The terrible thing, first, of permanent war against the Amorites, the Canaanites, and their eternal successors. The terrible thing, existentially, of living without idols. The terrible thing of the Law, which all inevitably violate. The terrible thing of being forced to face the truth, a mandate God gives by example with this stark declaration at the outset.

In the United States of America, a terrible thing shapes our relationship to the world, but we do not admit it, not even on its unhappy anniversary. Sixty years ago this week, American B-29s named Enola Gay and Bock's Car dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. The men responsible insisted, in the face of shocking devastation, that the bombs were not so terrible.

Of course nuclear weapons are terrible, but far more devastatig--in terms of life, wealth, and social capital--has been the refusal to use them to win wars since.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 2, 2005 8:23 AM

And an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have been...what? Yes, nuclear weapons are terrible and ground fighting in Japan would have been annihilating, for the Japanese. And the Soviets would have been in the northern portions of the home islands.

Yes, terrible. And the alternative was worse.
But I don't expect deep thinking from the Boston Globe. Deep feeling, yes. Thinking? No.

Posted by: Mikey at August 2, 2005 8:27 AM

I just read an intersting article about the "Ultra" intelligence intercepts that may alter (in some minds) the way in which the decision to use the atomic bombs was reached.

The premise of Operation Olympic was that the strength of the Japanese Army in eastern Kyushu
was relatively weak and all the planning in mid 1945 assumed a defending force of three divisions.

By August of 1945 the Japs had deployed the equivalent of at least nine divisions in the invasion area. In addition several thousand kamakazie planes had been stationed in the area.

The Navy had already become convinced that the proposed nine division invasion first wave could not capture the beachhead and apparently the only major American military figure who unquestionably believed the invasion would succeed was Macarthur.

Thus the consensus military opinion was that not that the cost of Olympic would very (unacceptably) high, but that it could not succeed at all.

Logically then, if unconditional surrender was to remain the policy goal of the Allies, bombing the Japs into submission was the only remaining option

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at August 2, 2005 9:37 AM

Ok, let's do a little thinking here. Aren't weapons supposed to kill? Isn't killing people terrible? What is it about this technology that strikes you as particularly terrible?

Just as a side note, the "daisy cutter bombs" used in Afghanistan had larger explosions than the bombs used in Japan.

Residual damage? Yeah. That's what most modern wars leave.

I'd suggest though, that it is one of the marks of America's justice that such weapons are used in a proportional manner -- a standard that few other countries would even think of, much less apply to themselves.

Posted by: Arnold Williams at August 2, 2005 9:37 AM


Why take the island at all?

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 9:47 AM


Because the Japanese would have kept attacking our forces if they were not conquered.

Posted by: Brandon at August 2, 2005 9:56 AM

Everyone knows that Truman only dropped the Big One to frighten the peace-loving workers and peasants of the Soviet Union. Howard Zinn says so, so it must be true.

Posted by: Governor Breck at August 2, 2005 10:07 AM

Well, we know it scares Howard Zinn.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 2, 2005 10:09 AM

It is true that the original Hebrew used ("no-rah") could mean terrible; however, it could also mean awesome (more in the sense of "full of awe" rather than "hey, that movie was awesome").

That's one awesome translation Carroll is using!

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 2, 2005 10:12 AM

Carroll looks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the way Hermione Granger looks at Unforgivable Curses: "But it's Dark Magic!"

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at August 2, 2005 10:19 AM


Say what?

Daisy cutter: 15,000 lbs explosive

Hiroshima bomb: about 150 pounds enriched uranium, equivalent to roughly 30,000,000 lbs explosive.

Posted by: Mike Earl at August 2, 2005 11:02 AM


It all goes back to the notion of unconditional surrender. Most of the evidence suggests that the Japs were willing to surrender on almost any terms that allowed the Emperor to retain his divine status and gave him a say (veto) in the affairs of post war Japan.

The Japs (apparently correctly) believed that the United States would not pay the price of an amphibious invasion of the Home Islands and were apparently willing to duke out with Curtis Lemay's bombers.

If this reasoning is true, and the Atomic Bomb has not existed, then the only way to end the war by unconditional surrender was to invade Kyushu successfully. (Any outcome other than unconditional surrender was probably politcally unacceptable.)

Based on the experience of Saipan and Okinawa the cost and destruction, mainly to the Japs, would have been on a scale with no precedent in Human history. The Japs were literally planning to fight to the last man, woman, and child (there were training sessions under way to use school children as suicide bombers).

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at August 2, 2005 11:30 AM

people like that will make a fine ally for us now.

Posted by: cjm at August 2, 2005 11:39 AM

Here's the article Earl mentioned (I assume) - its very enlightening -

Posted by: Shelton at August 2, 2005 12:28 PM

The continued non-use of nuclear weapons is risk management. We could certainly further our military goals and possibly reduce our casualties as well as maybe our enemies (Japan) by using nuclear, but the risk of increasing the chance of them being used on us is greater by the use of said weapons and judged not worth it. When guns come out, people tend to shoot first ask questions later. This is a very dangerous idea proposed by OJ.

Posted by: Perry at August 2, 2005 12:30 PM


They just didn't realize time was running out on them:

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 12:34 PM


You are correct. It is important to understand that the Japs did not regard their situation in the way the United States or any other western democracy would have if in a similar predicament. The Japanese army was largely intact (in China and the Home Islands). New aircraft were coming into production that were excellent bomber interceptors.

When you consider what the populations of Saipan and Okanawa were willing to endure, the prospect of continual conventional bombing of the Home Islands would probably not have shaken the political leaders will to resist.

It is instructive to note that AFTER the bomb was droped on Hiroshima, those that counseled surrender were regarded as traitors by the Japanese Army. It was only the intervention of the Emperor that averted a coup aimed at continuing resistance after Nagasaki was bombed.

Posted by: Earl Sutherland at August 2, 2005 1:49 PM


The notion that our enemies don't use them because we don't is just silly, else we'd stop using guns too.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 2:19 PM

Guns have rather milder side effects.

Posted by: Al Cornpone at August 2, 2005 2:41 PM

One of my first lessons as a young Marine was, “Never pick a fight; but if you find yourself in a fight, do what is necessary to win”. It seemed reasonable when I was twenty and after fifty- five years still seems to me like the right approach. To do otherwise is what I call ‘destructive compassion’.

Posted by: tgn at August 2, 2005 2:57 PM


Tens of millions of people died in WWII, less than two hundred thousand in nuclear explosions. Are the others less dead?

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 3:15 PM

Had we tried a containment strategy we would have had to maintain a constant blockade of the main islands, putting our ships and sailors at daily risk from Kamikaze attacks as well as submarines which were still prowling the Pacific. Japanese troops were still on the Asian mainland and would have fought on, killing more Allied soldiers as well as Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean civilians. The blockade would have led to thousands of Japanese deaths due to starvation, with no chance that the military government would ever surrender out of concern for their lives.

A face-saving conditional surrender would leave the warrior culture in charge of Japan for another generation, with the threat of additional outbreaks of war in Asia after our presence in the area were ever to be reduced. China and Russia would not be willing to unconditionally sign on to a perpetual peace with Japan while the Emperor and his cult of personality remained. Another war with China and the Soviet Union would have been inevitable.

A terrible thing indeed, but OJ is right, not nearly the most terrible.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 2, 2005 5:05 PM


I have no argument against their deployment in 1945. It was a perfectly rational choice, and a correct one. But I find your insistence that we ought to have used them in just about every subsequent bind a little bit, um -- Strangelovian. Cavalier even. As if you wish to soft peddle the unpleasant side of thermonuclear war.

Is it possible that instantaneous annihilation could have unintended long-term psychic consequences upon a nation and its people than a conventional bombing campaign killing the same number? Above and beyond the genetic maladies and long-term cancers it caused? Is it possible the nation which makes the choice is terribly scarred in a certain way as well?

Posted by: Al Cornpone at August 2, 2005 9:23 PM


No. The Japanese became a reasonably functional liberal democracy and a close ally. Nukes worked.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 9:26 PM

So there's really no downside to nuclear war?

Posted by: Al Cornpone at August 2, 2005 9:36 PM

That understates it. There's a massive upside. Consider oinly what America might have saved itself and Russia had they not been on permanent war footing for fifty years and the Stalin regime decimated in '45.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 9:46 PM

OJ: Only in your fantasy life.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 2, 2005 10:49 PM

Earl, what article was that.

Gen. Holland Smith in his autobiograph, 'Coral and Brass,' states explicitly and more than once, that he believed the invasionof the home islands would have been a success, though costly.

He might have been covering up, but his reputation was for speaking his mind.

Orrin, whatever the rationale for using the bomb, using it saved millions of Chinese and all the Koreans. Not a bad return.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 5, 2005 8:24 PM

Failure to use it wisely killed something like 60 million Chinese, millions of Koreans, and tens of thousands of Americans--hard to imagine a worse return.

Posted by: oj at August 5, 2005 9:01 PM