The following is a letter from me published by The New Bedford Standard Times 25 April 2011
On the use of the atomic bomb in WW2
The letter by Steven Bonney (April 21, 2011) is an example of how the spirit of the times becomes lost as time passes. He criticized the use of the atomic bomb in Japan in WW2. I think it is simply impossible for people who did not live through the terrible times of WW2 to fully understand the events that occurred then.
I was a high-school student during most of our participation in WW2, too young to be drafted but old enough to share in the psychological frame of mind we all shared. This was brought vividly home to me while my wife and I were on a bicycle trip in southern Germany and Austria a few years ago. Everything was lovely. The countryside was beautiful. The people were wonderful, extremely kind and friendly. I was in a state of bliss. Then we stopped at the Austrian town of Mauthausen and visited the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. It was all there, the ovens, the barracks where the prisoners slept in stacks on wooden shelves, pictures taken by the American soldiers who liberated the camp of the thousands of dead and dying prisioners.. I found myself suddenly cast back into the psychological state I was in during WW2. I experienced emotions I had long since forgotten. That experience made me wonder if it was possible for people born long after those terrible days to understand with any depth what had happened then.
WW2 was a terrible time. We faced a strange and formidable enemy in the Japanese. Japanese solders viewed themselves as warriors in a way that was foreign to us. Surrender to the enemy was considered by them to be a disgraceful act. They would rather fight to the death. Consider, for example, our taking of the tiny island of Peleliu in 1944. Ten thousand Japanese fought fought to their deaths in a viciously savage manner. The Japanese commander committed suicide rather than surrender. The Japanese continued to resist in this manner through 1945.
When the war was drawing to a close and President Truman was faced with the decision of whether or not to use the atomic bomb, the alternative was to invade the Japanese mainland with the expectation that the Japanese would resist as strongly as they had previously.. The estimated number of American casualties was one million. The issue was American lives, not Japanese lives. The US was prepared to do whatever was necessary to end that terrible war and the President decided to follow a path which would save American lives (perhaps even mine). We should give him credit for that.
I am not arguing in favor of the use of nuclear weapons. I'm glad they have not been used again and I fervently hope they will never be used again. I am just arguing that in assessing past actions it is necessary to understand deeply the psychological state of those past times, and that this may not be possible. Sympathy might be required.