When I teach students about World War II, I reserve two topics for the end of the discussion: the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Both events grew out of the war, but neither essentially affected it. Both were also unprecedented in human history. Genocides had taken place before, but never until the Holocaust had the physical extermination of an entire people been the object of a painstaking and systematic policy conceived at the highest levels of government and carried out in a breathtakingly short period of time. Carpet bombing had inflicted casualty levels comparable to those of Hiroshima on Japanese and German cities throughout the last two years of the war, but never had a single weapon dropped from a single plane caused the instantaneous destruction of an entire city. The world recognized, immediately in the case of Hiroshima and more slowly in that of the Holocaust, that history itself had been changed, and that human civilization itself would never again be the same.
After seventy years, the Holocaust is widely regarded, at least in the West, as an epitome of human evil. Memorials to it abound, museums and libraries are dedicated to it in both the old World and the New; and German public leaders have acknowledged it as a moral burden their country will continue to bear. It is true that fringe groups of Holocaust minimizers or deniers exist, and that in non-Western countries the Holocaust is a more remote phenomenon. But its status as a singular atrocity in world history is still widely acknowledged.
Not so with Hiroshima. No American president, indeed no ranking American official, has ever expressed regret or apology for the destruction of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the other city obliterated three days later by a second bomb. To the contrary, the atomic bomb became the symbol of America’s proud new might in the world, and the next decade saw the highly public testing of successively larger and deadlier nuclear weapons as the United States made the Pacific into a kind of atomic playground. The bomb entered popular culture and American women showed themselves off in a new style of swimwear named after Bikini, the Pacific atoll destroyed by postwar atomic testing in 1946. To be sure, America offered to treat disfigured female victims of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the so-called Hiroshima Maidens, but this was represented as an expression of generosity toward a defeated foe. No suggestion of apology, let alone atonement, ever attached to the program. Rather, it was presented as an occasion for national self-congratulation.
For many others, however, the bomb represented a shocking use of militarily irrelevant force against a civilian population with no means of defense. The decision to drop it, moreover, was a political one, since none of the major American theater commanders — General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral William Halsey in the Pacific, and Dwight Eisenhower in Europe —believed its use to be militarily necessary or justified, and even Curtis LeMay, whose bombers had destroyed Tokyo and other Japanese cities by firestorm, refused to defend dropping it. Beyond this, the bomb ushered in an age of apocalypticism in which the threat of human self-extinction through atomic war was considered a real and even likely possibility. By the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union had its own bomb, and in the mid-1950s, both sides were armed with nuclear weapons a thousandfold more powerful than the ones that had annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Strategists planned for wars in which tens if not hundreds of millions would die even in an initial exchange, and the planet might be rendered incapable of sustaining human life.
These dire scenarios were not played out, although the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought America and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war while a helpless world looked on. Whether the Soviet-American postwar rivalry would have taken such a turn had it not been for the example of Hiroshima cannot be said, but it was certainly a spur to it. The Holocaust, for all its horror, might be considered a one-off event unlikely to be repeated, whereas Hiroshima looked increasingly like a dress rehearsal for the end of civilization if not of humanity. Had the bomb been developed but not used, it might have been quarantined as a device actually incompatible with warfare (its de facto status today). With Hiroshima, however, a moral threshold was crossed. Cities might be destroyed at the flick of a switch by operatives thousands of miles away and immune from reprisal. Drone warfare is in fact conducted this way, without (as yet) a nuclear payload but based on the premise that war need no longer involve physical proximity or personal risk.
Many people are intuitively disturbed at this kind of war-making, without knowing why. The answer, I would suggest, is that whereas war, as classically conceived, involved direct tests of courage, endurance, and loyalty, the drone warrior is just a man going about his job, not unlike you and me going about ours. I teach; you may build, buy, or sell; the drone operator kills. But when killing becomes mere routinized labor, war disappears and another activity takes its place for which we have, as yet, no name. War appeals to all that is most atavistic in us: bloodlust; the love of danger and adventure; the license to behave as one would never dare to under other circumstances. But the drone warrior — or the nuclear technician in his hardened silo — doesn’t indulge his instincts; he negates them. He becomes, in short, a robot. War may be a hateful activity, but at least it is a comprehensible one.
Those who kill with impunity from a distance at the command of others are doing a thing never done before by humans. Rapid-fire weapons, long-range artillery and aerial bombardment all prepared the way for this, but Hiroshima showed for the first time what killing at a distance without risk or valor was like. It had been a fundamental principle of human combat that one did not kill the unarmed and helpless, even when one sought the advantage of surprise. The principle was the same whether one killed one or many. Naturally, it was often flouted — war is not a game of nice observances — but Hiroshima simply abolished it. That a single plane could destroy an entire city was so disproportionate and hitherto unthinkable an event, that any notion of “combat” simply disappeared in it. World War II was not in fact ended by an act of war, but by something that transcended it. The act that inaugurated the Atomic Age changed many things, but the first of them was the moral relation of human violence itself.
The Japanese commemorated the twin anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki solemnly, as they always do. The United States marked instead the seventieth anniversary of V-J Day, the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Empire that followed the dropping of the bombs. Of the bombs themselves, as usual, no mention was made. The official position of the Truman administration was that they had saved lives by shortening the war, although its senior military commanders would all give the lie to this afterward. The unspoken position was that the Japanese had started the war by their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and deserved all the hell they could get. A similar mindset would lead to a destructive rampage through the Middle East in the wake of the 9/11 attacks more than fifty years later that has left the region in chaos. American exceptionalism means American impunity; and impunity means that there is never a need for apology.
But there is such a need, and since none of my political representatives has ever seen fit to make such an apology, I’ll do it myself. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were needless. They took humanity to a terrible new place from which there will never be return. We will have to live in this place from now on. An apology does not go far under such circumstances, but at least it is somewhere to start. Individual Americans have joined with the Japanese in lighting candles in remembrance and in hope of peace, but words must be spoken too. Not for Japan’s sake, although I am sure they would be welcome, but above all for our own. Hiroshima should not have been destroyed. Nagasaki should not have been destroyed. And whatever historical circumstance can explain the fact that they were, nothing will ever justify it.