Green Room

Thank God for the Atom Bomb

posted at 4:14 pm on May 24, 2012 by

The title of this short piece is actually the title of an essay by Paul Fussell, the writer, literary and cultural critic who just passed away at the age of 88. His New York Times obituary notes his “withering scorn for the romanticization of war,” which was due, in part, to his own experience of battle in World War II as an infantryman wounded in southeastern France. His most well-known book is probably The Great War and Modern Memory (about World War I), of  which Steven Hayward at Power Line says:

 Fussell managed the extraordinary feat of weaving together a spare account of the salient military and political facts with a sweeping survey of the literary impact of the Great War, in neither case overdoing it.

Hayward calls Fussell a “typical postwar liberal,” a description that I wasn’t aware of when I encountered his essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” In it, he fiercely defends the decision to drop the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

“I want to consider something suggested by the long debate about the ethics, if any, of that ghastly affair,” he wrote on the 42nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Namely, the importance of experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb… I’m talking about… having to come to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death….Arthur T. Hadley said recently that those for whom the use of the A-bomb was ‘wrong’ seem to be implying ‘that it would have been better to allow thousands on thousands of American and Japanese infantrymen to die in honest hand-to-hand combat on the beaches than to drop those two bombs.’ People holding such views, he notes, ‘do not come from the ranks of society that produce infantrymen or pilots.'”

Fussell went on to argue that those who did have firsthand experience of World War II combat were “not elaborately educated,” and thus were unlikely to articulate the benefits of dropping the bombs when critics, who had been nowhere near the war’s devastation, heaped scorn on the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan.

“In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror, the easier the talk,” wrote Fussell of those who wrung their hands over the bomb decision after the fact.

In his essay, Fussell spoke for those “not elaborately educated” fighting men. He took on the bomb’s critics with a muscular ferocity, and I found myself cheering him on with every paragraph I read. The argument that people of conscience — even soldiers — recoiled from the bombs’ punishing blows, Fussell dismissed as “canting nonsense.” “The purpose of the bombs was not to ‘punish’ people, but to stop the war.”

At the very end of the essay, Fussell reveals his liberal stripes with some criticism of Ronald Reagan and nuclear policy, but up until that moment, I was marching with him, saying a dozen or more silent “hear, hear’s.”  I urge readers to get hold of this excellent essay before the bomb anniversaries this summer.

I have my own personal reasons for saying “Thank God for the atom bomb.” My father was on a ship in the Pacific when the bombs were dropped. He, along with his other Army comrades, would probably have been involved in the invasion of Japan had the war not been ended those first weeks of August 1945.

RIP, Paul Fussell, and thank you for speaking for the “not elegantly educated” man who was my father.


Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Yeah, My brother in law’s dad was scheduled to be part of the invasion. Most likely he wouldn’t have come back, meaning my BiL wouldn’t have been born, and my niece & nephew — both very smart — wouldn’t be. So thank God for the Atomic Bomb.

rbj on May 24, 2012 at 4:47 PM

Not only did the bombs prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths from a conventional invasion, against both Japanese soldiers and armed civilians, it also stopped conventional carpet bombing. Just as many people died in the conventional bombing of Dresden as died in either of the nuke bombings. Yes, the Dresden bombing didn’t leave radiation behind, but how long would Japan have stayed entrenched against us with just carpet bombing?

By flexing our new “we only need one per city” might, Japan realized we could beat them without having to go against millions of armed soldiers and citizens.

They knew they could take out lots of planes during conventional bombing. They knew unexploded bombs would be the only lingering danger from that. They could just rebuild. But to see that we could do with ONE bomber to a city, and the lasting after effects, it became not worth continuing to fight.

PastorJon on May 24, 2012 at 5:08 PM

I like this line (especially the second part) from the Rush song “The Big Bang” about the atomic bomb:
Big shots try to hold it back, fools try to wish it away

dentarthurdent on May 24, 2012 at 5:51 PM

The socialist attack on nuclear weapons was always about limiting the advantage it gave the US over the USSR. Socialists didn’t like that it prevented the communists from taking over the world.

Count to 10 on May 24, 2012 at 7:31 PM

PastorJon on May 24, 2012 at 5:08 PM

It also prevented Stalin from ordering his army to attack the allies after Germany fell.

Count to 10 on May 24, 2012 at 7:33 PM

it also stopped conventional carpet bombing.

PastorJon on May 24, 2012 at 5:08 PM

Umm… WHAT? They carpet bombed Japan to the dark ages and still, Japan would not surrender. Half the population of all their cities were dead. Most cities were burnt to the ground. The US found that fire bombing worked best, but they had to fly really low and the number of times they were shot down increased.

The real issue is the ground game. The US took over several islands and they incurred extreme death tolls on both sides. There would always be some Japanese troops that would never give up, even well after the war was over.

The US desperately needed a game changer. They needed to end the war. And they did.

MrX on May 24, 2012 at 7:44 PM

Fun fact: nukes prevented the US from deploying an insidious incendiary bio-weapon, the bat bomb.

Count to 10 on May 24, 2012 at 8:14 PM

I don’t think the Emperor gave one whit about the Japanese people, and would have sacrificed all of them. Our atomics were also an attack on the Japanese Land, which held more value to him.

trl on May 24, 2012 at 9:06 PM

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