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Friday, May 27, 2016

How the US Meant Well

From Hiroshima, America built a self-serving myth

Peter Van Buren, who worked for the US state department in Iraq, says America’s justification for destructive attacks abroad literally began with its dropping of the first atomic bomb

TODAY Barack Obama becomes the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing. Though highly photogenic, the visit will otherwise be one that avoids acknowledging the true historical meaning of the place.

Like his official predecessors (secretary of state John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial in early April, as did two American ambassadors before him), Obama will not address the key issues surrounding the attack.

“He [Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, stated well ahead of time.

With rare exception, the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end the Second World War is debated only deep within the safety of American academic circles:
  • Could a land invasion have been otherwise avoided?
  • Would more diplomacy have achieved the same ends without the destruction of two cities?
  • Could an atomic test on a deserted island have convinced the Japanese?
  • Was the surrender instead driven primarily by the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific War, which, by historical accident, took place two days after Hiroshima — and the day before Nagasaki was immolated?
But it is not only the history of the decision itself that is sidestepped. Beyond the acts of destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen.

The short version of the atomic myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were not dropped out of revenge or malice, but of grudging military necessity. As a result, the attacks have not generated deep introspection and national reflection over their morality.

The use of the term “myth” is appropriate. Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new, extraordinary power the United States alone possessed. The military necessity argument was largely created later, in a 1947 article defending the use of the atomic bomb, written by former secretary of war Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Conan described the article’s purpose at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”

The Stimson article was a response to journalist John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in The New Yorker and later as a book. Due to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required that formal White House response. Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name. The Stimson article was the moment the Hiroshima myth was created.

The national belief that no moral wrong was committed with the atomic bombs, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection (the blithe way Nagasaki is treated as a historical afterthought — “and Nagasaki, too” –— only drives home the point), echoes forward through today. It was 9/11, the new Pearl Harbor, that started a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition, and indefinite detention are seen by most as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization [in America] that if we do it, it is right.

And with that, the steps away from the violence of Hiroshima and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are merely a matter of degree. The myth allows the world’s most powerful nation to go to war as a victim after the tragic beheadings of even a small number of civilians. Meanwhile, the drone deaths of children at a wedding party are seen as unfortunate but only collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism itself. It is a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified, simply based on who held the knife.

We Americans may, in fact, think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands to otherwise end the war. There is little debate in the “war on terror” because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says an illusion of expediency wipes away any concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to strike next.

Japan, too, is guilty of failing to look deep into itself over its own wartime acts. Yet compared to the stunning array of atrocities during and since the Second World War, the world’s only use of nuclear weapons still holds a significant place in infamy. To try and force the Japanese government to surrender (and nobody in 1945 knew if the plan would even work) by making it watch mass casualties of innocents, and then to hold the nation hostage to future serial attacks on defenseless cities with the promise of more bombs to come, speaks to a cruelty previously unseen.

For President Obama to visit Hiroshima without reflecting on the why of that unfortunate loss of lives, as if they occurred via some natural disaster, is tragically consistent with the fact that for 71 years no American president felt it particularly important to visit the victimised city. America’s lack of introspection over one of the 20th century’s most significant events continues, with 21st-century consequences.

Peter Van Buren, who served in the US state department for 24 years, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved


  1. The article is mostly b. s.

    The Japanese have created a myth now that they were aggressed against, rather than being the uber racist aggressors themselves, attacking everyone about them.

    I agree with my extended family - we used to talk about it a lot - it ended the war, and was a good thing.

    1. Both the Japanese and the Germans had the idea of nuclear weapons, I have read.


      Both would have used them.

      It's just the way it was.

      Now both Germany and Japan are reasonable countries, part of the world 'community'.

    2. The Jap wasn't adverse to a little beheading once in a while, like our muzzie friends, occasionally dropping a head or two in a bucket with the samarai sword.

    3. The Jap also liked 'sex workers', and thought the Emperor a god.

      This was a good deal for the Emperor, but not for the sex workers.

  2. 71 years after the first atomic strike, Obama calls for the end of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima

  3. The apology tour continues. pathetic.

  4. So, here's the response from any reasonable country that has nukes, as our weak President calls for an end to nukes. "You go first." I suggest he spend the rest of his days as President playing golf or something, staying out from under foot.

  5. Obama is apologizing for The US nuclear attack on Japan ( I have very conflicted feelings about that ) at the same time he’s asking for a trillion dollars to upgrade our nuclear arsenal. The US is silent on the Israeli nuclear arsenal but belligerent about Iranian ambitions, if any, on nuclear weapons.

    Saudi Arabia is still spending billions on madrassas in nuclear Pakistan.

    US is belligerent with two nuclear powers, China and Russia by positioning US forces on their borders and outside their waters.

    The US almost went nuclear over Russian forces in Cuba.

    They are all lying scum.

  6. Our nuclear system runs on 5" floppy discs.

    It's probably time for an upgrade.

    1. I would have guessed it was the older 8" discs

    2. Yep, a quick Google said 8" floppies.

    3. Hell, you might be right. I wasn't paying much attention when the program on tv did a segment on it, and I sure as hell ain't a "techie." :)

    4. :) While I was typing my "you might be right," you were confirming it. Okay, we control the effects of 12,000 Hiroshimas on a system run by 8" floppies. sheesh.

    5. If it ain't broke don't fix it.

    6. Wellllll, I guess it would be handy to be able to launch the buggers from one's cell phone :)

    7. I guess my bottom line is going to have to be: if they can sell Obama on it, I'll have to go along.

    8. Wellllll, I guess it would be handy to be able to launch the buggers from one's cell phone :)

  7. Toronto’s Trump Tower up for sale after owner defaults on debt.


  8. Obama’s shameful apology tour lands in Hiroshima


    Fasdf Fasdf •
    Didn't these guys start the war?

    Richard_Iowa Fasdf Fasdf •
    December 7, 1941.

    Dustoff Richard_Iowa •
    China, Bataan Death March, H-ll ships, the list goes on & on.

    CarlJomini Dustoff •
    Yep, and no mention at all about these atrocities from the man-child in the White House.


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