Horror & Shame
From Commonweal's editorial of August 24, 1945:
Two months ago (June 22, 1945) we were writing about poison gas. We said: “To the Orient we are bringing the latest inventions of our civilization. There is only one we have not brought. It is gas. If we use that we will have brought them all. Gas is no worse than flame. It is only that it is one more weapon. The last one we have to use. Until we invent a new one.” And then we said: “The time has come when nothing more can be added to the horror if we wish to keep our coming victory something we can use—or that humanity can use.”
Well, it seems that we were ridiculous writing that sort of thing. We will not have to write that sort of thing any more. Certainly, like everyone else, we will have to write a great deal about the future of humanity and the atomic bomb. But we will not have to worry any more about keeping our victory clean. It is defiled.
There were names of places in Europe which from the early days of the war were associated with a German idea that by disregarding the rights of civilians you could shorten a war. These names of places—Rotterdam, Coventry—were associated, and seemed likely to be associated in men’s minds for a great number of years, with a judgment of German guilt and German shame. There was a port in the Pacific which sheltered American naval power. It was attacked by air without warning and the name Pearl Harbor was associated, and seemed likely to be associated for many years, with a Japanese idea that you could win a war by attacking the enemy before declaring war on the enemy. The name Pearl Harbor was a name for Japanese guilt and shame.
The name Hiroshima, the name Nagasaki are names for American guilt and shame.
The war against Japan was nearly won. Our fleet and Britain’s fleet stood off Japan’s coast and shelled Japan’s cities. There was no opposition. Our planes, the greatest bombers in the world flew from hard won, gallantly won bases and bombed Japanese shipping, Japanese industry and, already, Japanese women and children. Each day they announced to the Japanese where the blows would fall, and the Japanese were unable to prevent anything they chose to do.
Then, without warning an American plane dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Russia entered the war. There was no doubt before or after Russia entered the war that the war against Japan was won. An American plane dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
We had to invent the bomb because the Germans were going to invent the bomb. It was a matter of avoiding our own possible destruction. We had to test the bomb and we tested it in a desert. If we were to threaten the use of it against the Japanese, we could have told them to pick a desert and then go look at the hole. Without warning we dropped it into the middle of a city and then without warning we dropped it into the middle of another city.
And then we said that this bomb could mean the end of civilization if we ever got into a war and everyone started to use it. So that we must keep it a secret. We must keep it as sole property of people who know how to use it. We must keep it the property of peace-loving nations. That is what we said about the atomic bomb—together with odds and ends about motors the size of pin points which would drive a ship three times round the world—that is what we said about it, after we had used it ourselves. To secure peace, of course. To save lives, of course. After we had brought indescribable death to a few hundred thousand men, women and children, we said that this bomb must remain always in the hands of peace-loving peoples.
For our war, for our purposes, to save American lives we have reached the point where we say that anything goes. That is what the Germans said at the beginning of the war. Once we have won our war we say that there must be international law. Undoubtedly.
When it is created, Germans, Japanese, and Americans will remember with horror the days of their shame.
Related: Read the rest of the editorials from the August 24, 1945, issue [PDF].