While reading an article about the new Robert Oppenheimer biography, American Prometheus, I was struck by an account of the many conversations Oppenheimer had with Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, about various ethical aspects surrounding the research and building of the atomic bomb. The impression is made that concerns about the future of a world crouching under the destructive power of atomic weaponry was as acute as the debate over the morality of its use in the current situation, as it was. But it wasn’t just the potential of smashing atoms that concerned the people making these decisions.
The firebombing of Japan’s major cities caused deaths estimated to exceed 100,000 in Tokyo alone. The experience of firebombing in the European theater had been effective in shock value, but not terribly effective as a strategy to cripple or eliminate German war production, or the will of the German military to fight. The addition of jellied gasoline, or napalm, to the high explosive bombing runs increased the effects in Japan, as did the Japanese style of architecture and urban design. These missions were not secret and details, in so far as war time censorship permitted, were available in newspapers.
According to Oppenheimer’s recollections, Henry Stimson said to him, "that he thought it was appalling that there should be no protest over the air raids which we were conducting against Japan, which in the case of Tokyo led to such extraordinarily heavy loss of life. He didn’t say that such air strikes shouldn’t be carried on, but he did think there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned that…"
Upon reading this, I was reminded of a few conversations I had had with my now deceased father-in-law, a WWII veteran. He served as a radio operator in Northern Africa and participated in the Anzio campaign. Towards the end of the war in Europe, he was assigned to central Germany to take part in the mopping up and occupation. He was aware of the Nazi atrocities and had seen photographic evidence, as well as heard the stories of soldiers who had liberated the camps. His contempt for that regime and the compliant German people was very sharp, although he did remember the sympathy he felt when watching German citizens sifting through the ruins of bombed out cities, looking for food and potable water.
However, even fifty years after the events at Pearl Harbor, his feelings towards the Japanese had not undergone any change. They were sneaky, treacherous yellow bastards. You could never trust one. They were still trying to undermine America through economic means. The use of the Atomic bombs had been a great thing. If they hadn’t been dropped, chances are he would have had to head over to Japan with the rest of his Army group and we would have lost an unconscionable number of soldiers invading and subduing the Japanese homeland.
I always loved and respected my father-in-law, even when I vehemently disagreed with his human calculus. His experience and worldview was very different from mine, but there were so many places we could stand together that it did not handicap our all too brief relationship. He was a conservative man in many ways, but he never voted for a Republican, because they never cared about the "little guys." I am thankful that he passed on before the events of September 11 and the subsequent disintegration of what our country always stood for, as far as he was concerned. I don’t know if he would have viewed the threat of terrorism through the same eyes with which he viewed the Japanese. Perhaps he would have. But, I do not believe for a moment that he would consider the ways and means, by which this administration is conducting this war on a concept acceptable or indicative of the ideals he held.
Agent outings and SCOTUS nominations are political. Torture is wrong. RMJ has often commented on "constitutional crisis," and the potential effects and results if the current administration continues to defy SCOTUS rulings on the issues of Gitmo. The continued stonewalling and defiance of orders to release the latest evidence of atrocities at Abu Grahib is another crisis waiting to happen. What, I wonder, will America do if it comes to the executive branch dismissing the authority of the court and the congress?
I suspect it would trouble Henry Stimson as well. There is something wrong with a country where no one questions this. Something very wrong indeed.
I found this quote from Cornel West, but I am unable to find attribution for it. If anyone knows, please share it with me.
The American democratic experiment is unique in human history, not because we are God's chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy. No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history. This sentimental flight from history-or adolescent escape from painful truths
about ourselves-means that even as we grow old, grow big, and grow powerful, we have yet to grow up.