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The Nuclear Bomb

LAURENCE REES: What's your view about the decision to drop the nuclear bomb?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: I don’t think any sensible person could say it was correct to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Nobody could applaud the dropping of the bomb, but I think the function of historians is not to impose the values of our own time upon decisions that were made, but all the time to try and think back and understand how things looked to people at the time. Now I’m very out of tune in being sympathetic to the decision to drop the bomb, compared with the current generation of American historians; most American historians today have convinced themselves that it was both unnecessary and wrong to drop the bomb. On the unnecessary point I think one can certainly say that it’s overwhelmingly likely that Japan was going to be defeated, it was just a question of when. One can also see that with the Russian Armies about to sweep into Manchuria and with Japanese industry on its knees because of the strength of the submarine blockade, and finally the terrific fire bombing attack, one can say that there’s no doubt at all that Japan’s doom was sealed. So nobody can possibly argue that it was necessary to the defeat of Japan to drop the bombs.

But you can come at it from a different angle. I think one of the foremost forces of history most visible in the Second World War is what I call, slightly pompously, technological determinism. When weapons existed and when fleets and air forces were created they get used, and there was a moment at which a Hungarian scientist went to the designated American Secretary of State, Byrnes, in 1945 and begged him to think before that atomic bomb was dropped. And Byrnes was furious with this scientist. He said, the US Congress are going to have a great deal to say if it emerges that we have spent 2 billion dollars on creating the most formidable weapon the world has ever seen and we didn’t use it.

Now at this stage in the game it sounds facetious to talk in those terms because we have an understanding today of the enormity of nuclear weapons. We have an understanding that atomic bombs are not like other weapons, but it did not seem so plain to these people at the time. First, I think one must see the decision to drop the bombs in the context of the fire bombing raids that had preceded them. That firebombing by B-29s armed with conventional incendiary weapons had already killed more Japanese than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any notion that there was a significant moral distinction between the fate of the Japanese who died at the hands of the fire bombs and nuclear weapons, seems to me pretty questionable. I don’t think that many of those Japanese who suffered under those raids would have seen much difference between the two.

Secondly, I don’t accept the argument that’s advanced by some historians that the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the first engagement of the Cold War, and that they were designed to impress the Russians more than to defeat the Japanese. I think one simply has to recognise that this extraordinary machine had been in motion, directed by this extraordinary American, General Groves, who was in the charge of the Manhattan project. When Truman became President which was only a couple of months before the bombs were dropped, nobody said to him, Mr President, you’re going to have to make a huge decision about whether or not to drop these atomic bombs, which are very soon going to be ready, on Japan. Instead, they simply said Mr President you should know that you are shortly likely to find yourself in control of the most effective and powerful weapons the world has ever seen and we will have these ready to drop in August.

One thing that is quite extraordinary about the nuclear decision is that at no time was Truman invited, Mr President, today is the day you must decide whether to drop these weapons. He was simply told at every stage of the progress of these weapons towards completion, and there was an absolute understanding and acceptance that when these weapons were ready they would be dropped. It would have required from Truman, who was still a very tentative president, who was still learning how to be president, 2 or 3 months into the job after taking over from Roosevelt.  It would have required a huge force of personality, on the part of Truman, which afterwards he displayed, to have reached for the brake and said no, we are not going to do this; that even though the Japanese are still resisting furiously, even though there’s talk that if we have to invade Japan that we’re going to suffer these enormous casualties and even though the Russians have not yet gone into Manchuria. But for Truman to have said, no, we will not do this terrible thing, this is too barbaric a thing to do to these people even if they are our enemies. This would have required a degree of restraint, determination – and these are inadequate words - it would have required a force of will, a force of moral authority from Truman which I think would have been quite unrealistic to have expected at that stage.

Yes, we can now say with hindsight that it was a terrible thing to drop the atomic bombs. You can say in the year 2009 it was a mistake, if you like, but in the summer of 1945… all I know is that what I’m always trying to do is to think myself into the minds of those decision-makers there, and I understand why they went that way; I understand why nobody said no. Everybody who takes part in a war is in some degree morally compromised and corrupted by the experience, and the bigger the war and the longer it goes on the more compromised and the more corrupted you are. But things that would have seemed morally terrible in 1939 didn’t seem that way in 1945. Go back and look at Churchill’s speech in a debate in the House of Commons on air raid precautions in 1937 when Churchill had opted for the high moral ground about bombing. He said, in a war, the nation which sticks to bombing military and industrial targets and does not target innocent civilians is almost certainly not only going to emerge morally purer but is also more likely to emerge victorious than the nation which simply slaughters civilians. He said this in 1937.

Yet in 1942 when he found that the Royal Air Force and its bombers were quite incapable of hitting designated military and industrial targets, in the different climate, fighting a ruthless enemy who was doing terribly well in the war while displaying no moral scruple whatsoever, Churchill changed tack. He signed up to the bombing of cities and at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 when he heard the news of the successful test of the atomic bomb he was exultant, he said to this is a great opportunity; he said to Alanbrooke, now the whole thing is going to be completely different. Now if we have any trouble with the Russians or whatever we can just say - anymore trouble and we’ll drop a bomb on Minsk and then we’ll drop a bomb on Moscow and then we’ll drop a bomb on Leningrad.

Alanbrooke was fairly appalled. First of all he didn’t believe the bomb was going to work, amazing though it may seem at that point, and secondly he was amazed by the, not quite frivolity, with which Churchill spoke, but he spoke with a certain promiscuity about all this, about things that we can now see are so grave and terrible. But people, after being at war for 6 years... it wasn’t so easy to see these great moral issues with the clarity that we can see them now. Then everybody was sick of the war and they wanted it to be over. But they were tired. A huge number of people had died and an awful lot of innocent people had suffered terrible things. If by one day this thing could be ended, by just dropping some more bombs on these Japanese, well, so be it.

Now I’m constantly struck in writing about wars in general, and the Second World War in particular, about the fact that very often decisions on great issues were taken with much less lofty consideration than we might think they deserve. Whole books have been written about the decision to drop the bomb and the decision to attack Dresden. And yet to the people who bombed Dresden it did not seem any different from what they’d done the night before to Essen, the night before that to Leipzig, it was just another operation and they didn’t think very seriously about what they were doing, they didn’t think about the baroque churches and so on. And of course it was unbelievably stupid as well as philistine to bomb Dresden at that stage in the war, but one can understand, when people have been fighting for 6 years and they’re physically and morally exhausted, how they sometimes come up with the wrong answer to these questions that seem to us so huge and terrible. And in 1945 the decision to drop the atomic bombs; it wasn’t necessary to drop the atomic bombs but it seems to me completely unsurprising that that was the way they went.