This past week marked the 65th anniversary of the use of atomic bombs in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (Aug.6) and Nagasaki (Aug.9). It is not unusual to read differing opinions as to whether that aggressive action was justified or not, when stories appear around that anniversary. Fortunately, it still remains the only use of atomic weapons in man’s history.

           I myself have probably straddled the line between both positions at various times. On the one hand we are told, repeatedly, that the nature of the Japanese war machine was such that, despite the cost of life inherent in dropping the bombs, the prospect of so much more death and destruction if an invasion were undertaken by normal means, ala D-Day in Normandy, justified this shortcut.

         Indeed, one letter writer to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette frames his praise of President Harry Truman’s decision to unleash this horrible, ungodly, contrivance utilizing that very rationale.   

Grateful to Harry
Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb saved millions — Americans and Japanese
Wednesday, August 04, 2010
By Paul Kengor

This week marks 65 years since the United States dropped the atomic bomb. On Aug. 6, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a “rain of ruin” upon Hiroshima, Japan, with Nagasaki hit three days later, killing 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Truman’s objective was to compel surrender from an intransigent enemy that refused to halt its naked aggression. The barbarous mentality of 1940s Japan was beyond belief. An entire nation had lost its mind, consumed by a ferocious militarism and hellbent on suicide. Facing such fanaticism, Truman felt no alternative but to use the bomb. As George C. Marshall put it, the Allies needed something extraordinary “to shock [the Japanese] into action.” Nothing else was working. Japan was committed to a downward death spiral, with no end in sight.

“We had to end the war,” said a desperate Marshall later. “We had to save American lives.”

Evidence shows the bomb achieved precisely that, saving millions of lives, not merely Americans but Japanese. The Japanese themselves acknowledged this, from the likes of Toshikazu Kase to Emperor Hirohito himself. Kase was among the high-level officials representing Japan at its formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri. “The capitulation of Japan,” Kase said definitively, “saved the lives of several million men.”

As we mark the anniversary of this period, we should first and foremost think about those boys — our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, uncles, brothers, some now in their 80s and 90s — who lived lives of faith and freedom and family because of Truman’s decision. I’ve met many of them. Any time I find myself in conversation with a World War II vet, I ask where he was when the first bomb hit.

“I’ll tell you where I was!” snapped George Oakes of Churchill. “I was a 22-year-old kid on a troop transport preparing to invade the Japanese mainland. … We were sitting there as targets for kamikazes when they dropped the first one. All they told us was that there was a new weapon brought into the war that landed on Japan proper, and everything we were planning was on hold. A couple of days later, they dropped the other one.”

George, who served with the Army combat engineers, didn’t want to die. “I was engaged to an absolutely beautiful girl named Virginia. All I knew was that I wanted to go home.”

He remembered the U.S. military’s frustration in striking Japan mercilessly in conventional bombing raids. In one case, Allied bombs killed 100,000 people in Tokyo in one night. As George Marshall noted, “It had seemingly no effect whatsoever … [Japanese] morale was affected, so far as we could tell, not at all.”

George Oakes saw that firsthand. “We were bombing the hell out of Japan with B-29s. Every Japanese soldier and person was ready to die for the Emperor. And they weren’t surrendering.”

No, they weren’t. In fact, even after both atomic bombs, the Japanese War Cabinet remained deadlocked on whether to give up. The emperor broke the stalemate.

“Boy, were we thrilled,” recalled George when they got the news on their boat. They were spared an apocalyptic invasion that would have made Normandy look like a picnic at the beach.

When I asked George if he felt gratitude toward President Truman, he responded with some colorful imagery: “Am I thankful? If Harry Truman walked down my street right now, I’d kiss his bare rear end.”

Instead of storming Japan with guns and grenades and flame throwers, dodging kamikazes, shooting and stabbing and slicing and dicing not only Japanese men but also screaming women-and-children-turned-combatants, George went home — to peace. He became a charter member of East Pittsburgh VFW Post 5008 and worked for Westinghouse for 44 years. He served as scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 98 and was a founding member, Eucharistic minister and greeter at St. John Fisher Church. He was a frequent caller to Pittsburgh radio talk shows and a contributor to “letters to the editor” sections, which is where he caught my attention when I tracked him down in August 1995.

Oh — and he married Virginia.

George Oakes of Churchill died on Dec. 12, 2001, at age 78, a half-century after Harry Truman dropped the bomb, and arguably because Harry Truman dropped the bomb. For George and Virginia, married 55 years, that meant the added gift of life to three sons. He was buried with honors amid loved ones — not ripped to bloody, smoldering chunks of flesh on the death-strewn soil of Imperial Japan.

George Oakes was far from alone. There were countless American boys-turned-men, husbands and dads and granddads, in the same boat.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

          A contrary view, highly critical of that letter’s author, is this:

              I was very disappointed with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s decision to print Paul Kengor’s article “Grateful to Harry” on August 4. That article read like a piece of war propaganda.

When, in the past 30 years, has it been professionally appropriate to generalize an entire population of people as “barbarous”?

Mr. Kengor’s article was very one-sided; he forgot to mention that the death toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was over twice that of the entire total of American soldiers lost in all of the war in the Pacific.

It is a real shame that over half a century after the fact, so many important details about this event are still misconstrued or overlooked altogether.


                    In my pure ideological personna I utterly concur with Ms Hirsh. Benjamin franklin was correct when he declared that there’s never been a good war nor a bad peace. Edwin Starr expressed it more succinctly in his declamation “War, what is it good for, absolutely nothin”.
                 But in the annals of history there is no absolute proof of  the truth of these axioms. World War II was that rare conflict which could truly be portrayed as good versus evil. Regardless of the political machinations of the governments on both the Allied and Axis sides that failed to forestall the war, and in some ways encouraged it, yielding to the intentions of both Germany and Italy without mounting an all-out counter-offensive would have been a concession to evil.
             That there was widespread opposition to America’s involvement, even rationalized by apologists for the Nazis, famously including Charles Lindbergh, may be partially dismissed as blind adherence to an ideal, which 20-20 vision toward the reality should have shaken.
            I am not a scholar on the topic of World War II. yet, my history studies in college, my interest in that devastating period, the availability of so many books and essays on the subject, and some fantastic documentaries, stark and non-glorifying, such as “The War” by Ken Burns on PBS, provide ample evidence that the conclusion of the writer praising Truman is accurate.
            One need not look past Iwo Jima for this evidence. The Japanese soldiers there, whatever their own humanity, had been trained and propagandized such that virtually all of them were killed, or even killed themselves, rather than surrender. That this scenario would have been repeated on a much larger scale in defense of their homeland, if invaded, is difficult to dispute. That this invasion would likely entail massive civilian deaths is fairly clear. And, of course, the number of dead and wounded American or Allied forces would have been considerable.
           While a precise comparison between the number of deaths prevented by foregoing an invasion and the number that occurred due to the Bomb, is impossible to determine, I don’t believe  the expectation that the deaths by invasion would exceed those delivered by the Bomb are unrealistic or merely speculative.
           The power of these terrible, ugly weapons demonstrated those two August days, should remain as a caution against ever using this power again. It was inevitable this power would be harnessed by man to be used peacefully. It was also inevitable that man would, as he always has, use any means available to continue his inexorable path toward self-destruction.
               This is that rare, perhaps even unique, occasion where the unthinkable alternative may have led man on a detour from that path.
              So sorry, Ms Hirsh, the details lying behind this action can be nitpicked to eternity. My pacifistic instincts are assuaged by the reality extant at that particular time and place, a reality that leads me to, not compromise my ideals, but to embrace them in the fervent hope that never again will I have to lend my support to an exception.
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