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Hiroshima: A War Crime?

John Simkin

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Sixty years ago, a B29 bomber dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima (on 6th August 1945). It has been estimated that over the years around 200,000 people have died as a result of this bomb being dropped. This was always a controversial decision. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, told President Harry S. Truman that he was opposed to the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan.

I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of "face".

Winston Churchill also agreed that it was not necessary to drop the atom bomb on Japan. He later asserted: "It would be a mistake to suppose that the fate of Japan was settled by the atomic bomb. Her defeat was certain before the bomb fell."

Mainly historians have argued that the US used the atom bomb as a warning against the Soviet Union. It was not an attempt to end the war but to determine what happened after the war. If that is the case, the dropping of the bomb was a terrible war crime.

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Of course the use of the atomic bomb was a war crime. I believe the Geneva Convention expressly forbids targeting the civilian population. However, targeting civilians didn't make us stand out in a crowd.

Was it necessary? Read Richard Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb". It's pretty clear from his research that the Japanese militarists were far from ready to surrender and it was only the direct intervention by the emperor that stopped them from continuing the war. There was even an attempt to bomb the ship on which the Japanese surrender was signed on Sept. 2, 1945. Clearly, the use of the atomic bomb was the deciding factor in prompting Hirohito to finally pull the plug on the militarists.

One can argue that the use of the A-bomb made it clear just how horrible a weapon it was, and by extension, prevented their use in other wars (Korea for example) later on. So far so good...

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  • 2 weeks later...

The 60th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb. The occasion will be marked by a torrent of prose from those who regard the destruction of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki three days later as "war crimes", forever attaching shame to those who ordered them.

By contrast, there will be a plethora of dismissive comment from pundits who believe the nuclear assault saved a million allied casualties in 1945, by causing Japan to surrender without an invasion of its mainland.

Plentiful evidence is available to both schools. In the spring of 1945, Americans fighting in the Pacific were awed by the suicidal resistance they encountered. Hundreds of Japanese pilots, thousands of soldiers and civilians, immolated themselves, inflicting heavy US losses, rather than accept the logic of surrender.

It was well-known that the Japanese forces were preparing a similar sacrificial defence of their homeland. Allied planning for an invasion in the autumn of 1945 assumed hundreds of thousands of casualties. Allied soldiers - and prisoners - in the far east were profoundly grateful when the atomic bombs, in their eyes, saved their lives.

On the other side of the argument is the fact that in the summer of 1945 Japan's economy was collapsing. The US submarine blockade had strangled oil and raw-materials supply lines. Air attack had destroyed many factories, and 60% of civilian housing. Some authoritative Washington analysts asserted that Japan's morale was cracking.

Intercepts of Japanese diplomatic cables revealed to Washington that Tokyo was soliciting Stalin's good offices to end the war. The Americans were also aware of the Soviets' imminent intention to invade Japanese-occupied China in overwhelming strength.

In short, the 2005 evidence demonstrates that Japan had no chance of sustaining effective resistance. If America's fleets had merely lingered offshore through autumn 1945, they could have watched the Japanese people, already desperately hungry, starve to death or perish beneath conventional bombing. Oddly enough, Soviet entry into the war on August 8 was more influential than the atomic explosions in convincing Japanese leaders that they must quit.

In some eyes, this adds up to a devastating indictment against President Harry Truman, who launched the most murderous weapon in history against a nation already doomed. How is it possible, in the light of such facts, for students like me to retain sympathy - enthusiasm is impossible - for Truman's decision?

The foremost answer is that much we now know was then uncertain. Amid their defeats in 1941-42, the allies had developed an exaggerated respect for their enemy's might. They did not comprehend in 1945 how close was Japan's industrial collapse.

Second, although Tokyo plainly wanted to escape from the war, its terms remained confused. There is little doubt that if Washington had explicitly promised that the emperor might retain his throne, Japan would have bowed. But so faltering and divided was Japan's leadership that the US still possessed grounds for real doubt about Tokyo's intentions. And why should Washington offer guarantees for Hirohito's future when he had been at least the figurehead for Japan's terrible deeds?

Many Japanese generals bitterly opposed surrender even after the Soviet invasion, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was not that they deluded themselves that they could win. Rather, they preferred death to humiliation.

All wars brutalise all participants, but both sides in the Pacific had become exceptionally desensitised. The great war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote shortly before his own death in combat: "In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive, the way people feel about cockroaches and mice."

Japan's occupation of China had cost 15 million Chinese lives. Civilians had been raped, tortured, enslaved and massacred, while British and US prisoners were subjected to hideous maltreatment. The Japanese had been waging biological warfare in China. Their notorious Unit 731 subjected hundreds of prisoners to vivisection. Many captured American airmen were beheaded. Some were eaten. A B-29 crew was dissected alive at a Japanese city hospital.

Americans, in their turn, showed themselves reluctant to take prisoners. They subjected Japan's cities to the vast fire-bombing raids which began in March 1945, killing half a million people. Lawrence Freedman and Saki Dockrill, in a powerful analysis, argue that the nuclear assault must be perceived in the context of the deadly incendiary raids that preceded it: "Nobody involved in the decision on the atomic bombs could have seen themselves as setting new precedents for mass destruction in scale - only in efficiency." More people - 100,000 - died in the March 9 Tokyo incendiary attack than at Hiroshima.

We may dismiss conspiracy theories that Hiroshima was a first shot in the cold war, designed to impress the Soviets. Rather, the use of a "total" weapon reflected the inexorable logic of total war.

Amid a conflict in which 50 million people had already died, those who dispatched the Enola Gay viewed the judgment with gravity, but without the sense of uniqueness that posterity perceives as appropriate. Uncertainty persisted in August 1945 about whether the bombs would work.

This was one reason for Washington's reluctance to stage an offshore demonstration, though more potent was a desire to administer to the enemy a devastating shock, such as only city attacks were thought able to achieve.

The decision-makers were men who had grown accustomed to the necessity for cruel judgments. There was overwhelming technological momentum: a titanic effort had been made to create a weapon for which the allies saw themselves as competing with their foes.

After Hiroshima, General Leslie Groves, chief of the Manhattan Project, was almost the only man to succumb to triumphalism. He said: "We have spent $2bn on the greatest scientific gamble in history - we won." Having devoted such resources to the bomb, an extraordinary initiative would have been needed from Truman to arrest its employment.

Those who today find it easy to condemn the architects of Hiroshima sometimes seem to lack humility in recognising the frailties of the decision-makers, mortal men grappling with dilemmas of a magnitude our own generation has been spared.

In August 1945, amid a world sick of death in the cause of defeating evil, allied lives seemed very precious, while the enemy appeared to value neither his own nor those of the innocent. Truman's Hiroshima judgment may seem wrong in the eyes of posterity, but it is easy to understand why it seemed right to most of his contemporaries.


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Letters on this issue in today's Guardian:

Max Hastings concludes that "Truman's Hiroshima judgment may seem wrong in the eyes of posterity". But his whitewash says nothing about the Nagasaki judgment. Having made his point by killing or wounding some 150,000 inhabitants of one Japanese city, what grounds could there be for demolishing another?

Gore Vidal is one of many who have exposed "the great myth" that Harry Truman dropped his two atom bombs because he feared that a million American lives would be lost. Admiral Nimitz, on the spot in the Pacific, and General Eisenhower, brooding elsewhere, disagreed. The Japanese had already lost the war, they said, and had been trying to surrender since the May 1945 devastation of Tokyo by the US B-29 bombers.

Truman's test-casing of his lethal arms development was grimly prescient of our contemporary death-hawking western leaders' inflexible determination to out-bully the likes of Bin Laden and Hussein, at such high-flown cost to so many innocent citizens.

(Michael Horowitz, London)

In discussing the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Max Hastings underestimates the callousness of the decision. The Americans had firebombed virtually every important city in Japan, with five or six exceptions. With strict orders not to be bombed, these were left so that the effects of the new weapons could be assessed. There were two types of new bombs - one using enriched uranium and the other plutonium, so two cities were needed. In early August, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen.

The authorities were well aware of the destructiveness of the bombs from the test they had already conducted.

(Robert Hinde, St John's College, Cambridge)

If the atomic bomb contributed at all to Japan's unconditional surrender in the second world war, it contributed little. The decisive factor was the Soviet drive against Japan's Kwangtung army back from the Manchurian borders.

The atomic bombs were a warning not only to the Soviet Union but also to the Communist-led forces in China whose resistance to Japan's occupation had been growing from strength to strength. The bombings unleashed US expansionism in the east, claiming not only Japan but also China under Chiang Kai-shek for their sphere of influence. In the latter case, with the eventual success of the Communist party of China, the "deterrent" effect of nuclear weapons proved less than successful.

(Jenny Clegg, CND National Council)

If we condemn the atomic bombings as war crimes, then we must equally condemn the firebombings and the whole area-bombing strategy. Of course, some observers do, but they have never convincingly proposed what alternative strategies the allies could have used. Of course, nuclear weapons are the worst weapons man has invented. But we should not conflate legitimate concerns about the potential use of such weapons (as they multiplied in individual power a thousand-fold with the development of the hydrogen bomb) with their actual usage in 1945.

(Roger Todd, London)

I was captive on the Siam-Burma railway for almost three-and-a-half terrible years. After it was finished, I came back to Singapore in a shocking physical state. I was dying when the atom bombs were dropped. At that time I weighed 4st 12lb and crawled out to the soapbox on which Louis Mountbatten was speaking. His eyes were full of tears for us, and the sounds of thousands of men weeping and singing Land of Hope and Glory was for me adequate justification for the use of such weapons to end years of slaughter and terror.

(H Howarth, Burnley, Lancs)

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Interesting article in Saturday's Guardian:

The idea that it was militarily necessary to drop the atomic bomb in 1945 is now discredited. The first exhaustive examination of Japanese, Soviet and US archives, by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, confirms the argument that Truman went ahead in order to get Japan to end the war quickly before the Soviet Union came into the Pacific war and demanded a say in Asia.

The use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not provide the US with the free hand it had wanted and has proved disastrous for the world.

It did not bring about surrender. With 62 Japanese cities destroyed by firebombs and napalm, Japan was not overwhelmed by the destruction of one more. The army minister, General Korechika Anami, told the supreme war council that he would fight on. What actually brought about surrender was the combination of the Soviet Union's entry into the war on August 8 and the US decision to let Japan retain the emperor.

The use of the bomb led to an atomic arms race. Truman had been warned that the Soviet Union would interpret the use of the bomb as a threat but went ahead. After Stalin heard about the bomb from Truman at Potsdam, he said the US would try to use its atomic monopoly to force the Soviet Union to accept its plans for Europe, adding: "Well, that's not going to happen." The USSR exploded the atomic bomb in 1949 and the hydrogen bomb in 1953, far more quickly than Truman had believed possible.

Truman also helped to start the cold war. With a working atomic bomb, he believed that the US no longer needed Soviet help in Europe to make sure there was no re-emergence of a German threat, and went ahead with rearming the former Nazi state. All of which took America and Russia a further step from wartime cooperation to the cold war.

Max Hastings, on these pages last week, gave the impression that most of Truman's contemporaries thought he did the right thing. Eisenhower urged Henry Stimson, the secretary of state, not to use the bomb on the basis of his belief "that Japan was already defeated and that the dropping of the atomic bomb was completely unnecessary". Other commanders made similar statements. The men in command and on the ground did not share Hastings's argument that the "inexorable logic of war" meant the US had to drop the bomb.

What can we learn from this history? It is not one of damning Truman. What this history shows is that George Bush's dream of dominating the world through massive investments in new nuclear weapons repeats a failed project. It is no alternative to the hard work of developing political solutions to problems such as Iran and North Korea, or to building up disarmament treaties.

The end of the cold war has given us a second chance. Preparations at Aldermaston to build a nuclear weapon to replace Trident should stop, and the government should support Jack Straw's initiative to save the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and restart nuclear disarmament.


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Of course it was a war crime; Harry Truman was the war criminal. Truman would not accept anything less than an unconditional surrender from the Japanese, despite the fact that Japan was frantically making attempts to end the war in any way possible, short of an unconditional surrender. The Japanese were only concerned in maintaining the status of the Emperor. Despite numerous peace proposals, Truman was convinced that only an unconditional surrender would be sufficient.

The man who basically thought up the entire idea for an atomic bomb, Leó Szilárd, begged Truman's point man on nuclear matters, James Byrnes, to demonstrate the bomb's power on an empty target before turning it on civilians. Byrnes in a nutshell replied that all the money spent on creating the bomb could not be justified if it was not unleashed on Japanese cities. Truman gave the order that nuclear weapons should be used against Japan. Truman's decision clearly stemmed from hatred and bigotry of the Japanese people. Take a look at an excerpt from Truman's diary, dated July 25:

"We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.

Anyway we "think" we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling - to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I'm sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler's crowd or Stalin's did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful..."

The "warning statement" was basically the routine "surrender or be utterly destroyed." Not surprisingly, the Japanese didn't surrender. The bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed at least 140,000 people and injured over 100,000 people, not to mention the fact that tens of thousands more would die from injuries and radiation poisoning within two years.

On August 9, Truman delivered a speech to the American people about the use of the atomic bomb:

"The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and, unfortunately, thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities immediately, and save themselves from destruction."

It is rather hard to believe that Truman actually thought that Hiroshima was a military base, considering that 90% of the people killed were civilians.

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It is rather hard to believe that Truman actually thought that Hiroshima was a military base, considering that 90% of the people killed were civilians

I tend to agree.

Certainly one would think we could have picked a different sight for the "demonstration".

The Kremlin, perhaps?

Now, wait, I was kidding!!

Query whether the demonstration of the bomb was for Moscow's benefit as much as Tokyo's?

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All war is a crime, the A-Bomb was no different from the fire storm raids. But the A-Bomb was not a war-crime. I listened to the survivors of that raid and I felt shock and horror, the same for every civillian that has undergone an attack despite being a civillian yet despite its horror (or perhaps because of it), it saved lives.The fact we have had 60 years of relative peace without a major conflict highlights the fear of nuclear war.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I have included some points on the decision to drop the bombs in 1945:

- The Soviet Union received word from high level Japanese sources that the Japanese would be willing to surrender on the condition that the Emperor’s position was safeguarded.

- Nobel Laureate James Franck urged the government to consider dropping the new bomb on a deserted island. Some American leaders believed that if this demonstration bomb did not detonate, the war would be lengthened, not shortened.

- According to Truman's own diary, Truman believed that Japan was almost ready to surrender.

- The first defeat for the Japanese army came in Mongolia at the hands of the Soviets three days after the first bomb was dropped.

- From June to the beginning of August 1945 the Japanese cabinet was split 3:3 over unconditional surrender to the allies.

- Considerably more damage was done to Tokyo, Dresden and Hamburg in firestorms caused by traditional bombing than from the A-bomb raid on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

- An invasion of the home islands would be incredibly costly in terms of the numbers killed and wounded. Estimates vary widely but the campaign to retake the Philippines island of Luzon cost 31,000 American lives along with 156,000 Japanese casualties.

- It was unclear just when or if the Japanese would surrender. The Germans had fought to the end with defeat only coming when their capital Berlin was taken and their leader Hitler was dead.

- The American public was overwhelmingly behind the atomic bombing of Japan: the bomb received an 85% approval rating.

- One reason in favour of dropping the bomb was to show the Soviets the extent of American power and that the Americans were willing to use it.

- Even though the American government insisted on unconditional surrender, and that included no safeguard of Emperor Hirohito's position after the Japanese surrender, this position was soon forgotten and the Emperor was allowed to stay.

- There was a great depth of feeling in the US against the Japanese. This was partly because of the undeclared attack on Pearl Harbour but also because of the well-known and brutal treatment of allied prisoners of war.

- During the war American leaders like Roosevelt had condemned the bombing of innocent civilians in towns and cities.

- The Japanese population was starving to death. The vast majority of Japan's merchant ships had been sunk and supplies were not entering the country.

- The Potsdam Declaration was unclear. It was vague about the future of the Emperor and did not clearly warn of an atomic attack.

- The Japanese surrendered soon after the bombs were dropped. The bombs may have made it easier for the politicians to make peace.

- The making of the atomic bombs was incredibly expensive. If the bombs were not used and Americans died, it would be politically damaging to Truman.

- The allies feared that the Soviets would move into the far east, just as they had moved into Eastern Europe.

- The atomic bombs were horrible weapons that caused inhumane suffering through radiation and heat.

- The dropping of the atomic bombs set off a nuclear arms race.

- Dwight Eisenhower, then the leader of the D-Day invasion was against the bombing for two reasons: "the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with [that] awful thing. Second [he] hated to see [America] to be the first to use such a weapon"

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We did this debate already in February 2004. The headline then was “Bombing of Dresden” and the debate can be found at:


When rereading today the postings from that time and comparing them with this thread I somehow feel that contributors tried to debate in more carefully manner at that time.

Is it because the devastative bombing was done by British RAF and not by Americans?

Is it because Dresden bombing and others aerial bombing during Second World War are not so well known as atom bomb droppings on two Japanese cities (but it did in facts killed more people then in Hiroshima and Nagasaki)?

I reprint two different postings from “Bombing of Dresden” to show how these are trying to understand and not simply to condemn.

Interesting discussion on "war crimes". My dad worked on the A-bomb in WWII. He always felt it was necessary to use it - not to "punish" the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but to convince the Japanese government that it must surrender.

It did, in fact, have that effect. Richard Rhodes makes that clear in his Making of the Atomic Bomb. Only the personal intervention of the Emperor forced the Army to concede defeat, and even at that there were those ready to attack the Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, rather than surrender.

Does that mean we had to drop it on populated areas? Hell, I don't know. All we know is that it had the "desired" effect.

In the case of Dresden, it is pretty clear that the fire-bombing had no noticeable effect on our war aims.

Strategic bombing in Vietnam did not have the effect people like McNamara thought it would. What about aerial bombing in the Gulf War? Did that make the subsequent land battle less costly? Probably....

The bottom line is that war IS a crime and when you get into it, you WILL use criminal methods to attain what you believe to be your aims. Like most other crimes, the fact that it is a crime doesn't mean we'll stop doing it.

By Mike Toliver

I have been in war. I have experienced hand to hand Infantry combat. I have wrestled with myself and my conscience for my deeds. War is inhumane and brutal and is the worst thing that humans can do to each other.

War is inflicted one upon another and when this happens, then if a country wants to be victorious then all the stops have to be pulled.

Is it more humane to kill 100,000 thousand people with fire raids, like the Tokyo burn raids or an atomic bomb?

Is it more humane to kill everyone in a village with napalm or shoot them all dead?

Is it more humane to try to force a surrender by destroying a city with all out bombing or let the war continue because the leaders will not quit?

As noted War is Hell. Sadly enough civilians have always been affected by war and sadly they end up dying along with the combatants.

As we progress technologically we have the means to destroy more cities and civilians when we have wars.

I don't buy into the idea that the bombing of Dresden was a war crime. I don't buy into the idea that the destruction of Hiroshima was an act of terrorism and a war crime. I do buy into the fact that they were acts of war, plain and simple. While tragic, they were deemed necessary at the time.

I was not there when RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. 8th AAF made the decisions to destroy Germany from the air so I can't make the judgments if they were right or wrong. To do so is revisionist history and we may be interjecting our own political prejudice into history and not necessarily teaching the truth.

By Jim Hudson

Even the initiator of the debate, John Simkin is showing in one of his threads inside “Bombing of Dresden” that the issue of "war crimes" could be dealt with in rather different ways:

In recent years there has been attempts to defend the terror bombing of Germany. This has culminated in a new book by Frederick Taylor. This is part of a review that appeared in Saturday’s Guardian by Michael Burleigh, one of a new generation of right-wing, nationalistic British historians.

Attempts to treat the bombing of Dresden as a war crime perpetrated against the innocent inhabitants of a historical cultural centre of no industrial or military significance began two days after the attack. This was the handiwork of the Nazi propaganda supremo Goebbels, whose "spin doctors" exaggerated the city's population by a factor of four to support the wild claim that two million refugees from the east had been caught by the raids, and who doctored the number of corpses publicly burned (with the help of the SS who had some experience of these tasks) by adding an extra nought to the actual figure of 6,856....

Frederick Taylor's well-researched and unpretentious book is a robust defence of the Dresden raids that counters recent attempts to recast the nation that gave the world Auschwitz as the second world war's principal victims, attempts that stretch back to the time of Goebbels. They continue in the form of criminalizing RAF Bomber Command's supremo Bert "Bomber" Harris for a high-level strategy that was largely designed to show Stalin that his western allies were actually fighting if not in, then at least above, Nazi Germany...

Taylor skilfully interweaves various personal accounts of the impact of the raids on the permanent or temporary population of Dresden, including its slave-labour force. But the main thrust of his book is to defend a mission that was merely successful rather than exceptional. It came at the conclusion of a long war that, while generally brutalizing and dulling moral sensitivities, also had clear enough justification in the fight between good and evil.

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda
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  • 2 years later...

In an interview before his death Paul Tibbets said that he never lost a night's sleep over the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. The decision might have been the right one but I am disturbed that the man who dropped the bomb that has been estimated killed 200,000 people was not concerned about the impact of this action.

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In an interview before his death Paul Tibbets said that he never lost a night's sleep over the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. The decision might have been the right one but I am disturbed that the man who dropped the bomb that has been estimated killed 200,000 people was not concerned about the impact of this action.

I share your discomfort, John. What does Tibbets's peace of mind tell us of the dominion of nationalism over humanism?

Historian Max Hastings posted this above:

"We may dismiss conspiracy theories that Hiroshima was a first shot in the cold war, designed to impress the Soviets. Rather, the use of a 'total' weapon reflected the inexorable logic of total war."

What do Hastings's undocumented denigration of "conspiracy theories" (not just the one referenced, but implicitly all such thinking) and his archaic, simplistic adoption of an either/or analysis tell us of his intellectual prejudices and other limitations?

Is it not more reasonable to understand that, far from being mutually exclusive, the explanations for the nuclear bombing of Japan that he presents as being in conflict with each other provide an elegant rationale for the attacks when appreciated in tandem?


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