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J. Robert Oppenheimer, a "productive dilettante"
April 13, 2005 8:45 AM   Subscribe

He was fond of reading Proust and Dostoevsky. He studied the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, painted landscapes in oil, and flirted with Marxism. His mannerisms -- such as saying "Gee!" when pondering some scientific marvel -- were contagious. And when the US government decided to incinerate hundreds of thousands of fishermen, housewives, cooks, potters, and Zen monks as a decisive blow for peace in 1945, he told the commanding officers on the mission, "Don't let them detonate it too high . . . or the target won't get as much damage." He was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the mild-mannered destroyer of worlds who led the Manhattan Project, portrayed in a new biography called American Prometheus.
posted by digaman (126 comments total)

 
Nice unbiased tone you got there.
posted by null terminated at 8:46 AM on April 13, 2005


So sorry. I'm actually quite enthusiastic about the atomic bombing of civilian populations -- I just hid it well in my FPP. Nice reading of my links in 30 seconds before posting, null. I'll keep your diligence in mind when weighing your criticism.
posted by digaman at 8:50 AM on April 13, 2005


null terminated, you don't think there's anything intriguing about the ironic conflict between Oppenheimer's disposition and the result of his actions?

besides which, what are you saying? that all that shit didn't happen? that it was a good thing?
posted by Embryo at 8:52 AM on April 13, 2005


That was just the particularly pernicious form of blog-spam that poses as conservative media criticism these days, Embryo. Pay it as much mind as the bot that posts such things pays to the FPPs themselves.
posted by digaman at 8:57 AM on April 13, 2005


And when the US government decided to incinerate hundreds of thousands of fishermen, housewives, cooks, potters, and Zen monks as a decisive blow for peace in 1945...

In the interests of thread integrity, let's simply pretend that this sentence does not exist.
posted by deanc at 8:59 AM on April 13, 2005


digaman posted "when the US government decided to incinerate hundreds of thousands of fishermen, housewives, cooks, potters, and Zen monks"

...and the rapists of Manchuria, and the soldiers who bashed out the brains of Filipino babies for sport, and who had made an unprovoked sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and who had fought to the death or suicided rather than surrender on Okinowa, and who would have killed perhaps 100,000 American soldiers in a conventional invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, losing ten times that number of Japanese civilians in the process.

As Paul Fussell, who'd have been one of those American boys except for Truman's courageous decision, wrote, "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb".

Japan decided to go to war, and America's only duty was to end the war as painlessly as possible for Americans. To suggest that American lives should have been sacrificed, and the war prolonged is in no way humanitarianism, it is its opposite.

Death is death, and death by atomic bomb is no crueller -- and in many ways much more kind -- than a slow death by bayonet.

My only regret about the atomic bomb is that it wasn't ready soon enough to use it where it was designed to be used: on Germany.

(And no, I'm not being sarcastic.)
posted by orthogonality at 9:02 AM on April 13, 2005


Can we get some pictures of Naval Officers and their crews after being burned to death or drowned in Pearl Harbor to offset these picture of the burned boy? I mean, two wrongs don't make a right, but let's at least do our servicemen the honor of remembering why we even got to the point of using the Atomic Bomb in the first place.
posted by spicynuts at 9:09 AM on April 13, 2005


I'm certainly not disputing the cruel atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the war. They were numerous, horrific, and should never be forgotten.

Blurring the line between soldiers and civilians in warfare is a slippery slope, however. Just ask the al-Qaeda.
posted by digaman at 9:13 AM on April 13, 2005


I'm sorry, but children were not killed at Pearl Harbor, at least not intentionally. Not that it makes bombing Pearl Harbor right. Sheesh. And Japan started it, certainly. But there's no simple moral equivalence in what you're discussing, and you'd get tossed out head-first of any respectable ethics or logic class for saying as much.
posted by raysmj at 9:15 AM on April 13, 2005


Oh for Christ sake, you stupid fucks.

The Japanese did bad things before and during WWII. We know that. That's not the point. The US government did kill nearly half a million civilians with these two bombs, which, regardless of what their military did, was a BAD THING. Not that it wasn't warranted, not that it wasn't unavoidable, not that I have a better answer, but killing civilians is always BAD.

And that's not what the FPP is about anyway. It's about a conflict within an extraordinary man and I think it does a disservice to him and digaman to turn this into a rah-rah America thread.

I thought it was a good post.
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:19 AM on April 13, 2005


I found the WashPost's review of the book fascinating, and if anything, reading it increased my sympathy for Oppenheimer. That's why I FPPd it -- not to debate the virtues of the bombings.
posted by digaman at 9:23 AM on April 13, 2005


What would you have done if you were Oppenheimer, digaman?
posted by caddis at 9:27 AM on April 13, 2005


spicynuts, two wrongs do make a right. That's precisely what you meant by "offset"--the replacement of guilt with anger. They hit us hard so we hit them back harder. And bombing Pearl Harbor, a military target, is comparable to bombing and annihiliating two primarily civilian cities. An eye for an eye and all that.

The most interesting thing about Oppenheimer and so many men like him is the severe guilt they impose upon themselves afterwards. It does much to confirm my suspicion that guilt is the sure-fire sign of an evil character.
posted by nixerman at 9:27 AM on April 13, 2005


borkingchikapa got there first, but. Dropping the A-Bomb on Japan was one of the worst things the United States ever had to do. Note that I said "had to do," because yes, it's definitely true that the speedy end-of-conflict it represented was the lesser of two evils. But don't pretend that killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants was totally sweet and awesome. It was dreadful. And the post isn't about "was it right or wrong?", it's about "look at this amazing, idiosyncratic guy who had to make that kind of decision." I don't see anything at all improper about allowing a tone which points out just how dreadful the dropping of an A-Bomb is into that post.
posted by logovisual at 9:29 AM on April 13, 2005


No, it could have been about the idiosyncratic guy but the dripping sarcasm, sneering tone and all made this post about whether it was right or wrong to drop the bomb, and we certainly know where digaman stands on that issue.
posted by caddis at 9:33 AM on April 13, 2005


And bombing Pearl Harbor, a military target, is comparable to bombing and annihiliating two primarily civilian cities.

No, it's not. If we would've lost, Americans would've be tried and hanged for war crimes. No matter what you think of the bombing and whether the U.S. "had to do" this or not, this is undeniable. Before the war, deliberately killing civilians was considered unthinkable, and it has been ever since, was against international law and still is.
posted by raysmj at 9:34 AM on April 13, 2005


borkingchikapa writes "I thought it was a good post."

I think it's a good post too. I hope we can explore the substance of it.

But digaman editorialized in an inflammatory way, and that's what people are going to most immediately respond to. I'd have preferred not to, as I figured it would derail the main point of the post, but once digaman had laid down the gauntlet, I couldn't let it go unchallenged.

digaman writes "That was just the particularly pernicious form of blog-spam that poses as conservative media criticism these days, Embryo. Pay it as much mind as the bot that posts such things pays to the FPPs themselves."

And dismissing disagreement as "blog spam" -- well, I'll just say it's reminiscent of the Bush Administration's brushing aside of criticism, and leave it to digaman to decide if that's the intellectual company he wants to keep.

I'd hope not, given his excellent and incisive post today in another thread.
posted by orthogonality at 9:35 AM on April 13, 2005


Before the war, deliberately killing civilians was considered unthinkable

Someone needs an education on the indiscriminate nature of conventional 1940's munitions...
posted by unreason at 9:36 AM on April 13, 2005


Well said, logovisual (too bad we don't have a "best answer" feature on MetaFilter).

Can we get back on track now?
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:38 AM on April 13, 2005


... killing civilians is always BAD.

If you mean unpleasant or undesirable, well, sure! What's good about any war? Killing anyone is bad, in that sense. The question here is whether it was wrong.

I'm sorry, but children were not killed at Pearl Harbor, at least not intentionally. Not that it makes bombing Pearl Harbor right. Sheesh. And Japan started it, certainly. But there's no simple moral equivalence in what you're discussing, and you'd get tossed out head-first of any respectable ethics or logic class for saying as much.

I don't think anyone here is making a claim of moral equivalence - what the Japanese did, both at Pearl Harbor and at Nanking for just two examples, is far worse than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. There's certainly no moral equivalence there, as far as I can tell.

That's why I FPPd it -- not to debate the virtues of the bombings.

I have to agree with orthogonality here - if you really don't want to debate the virtues of the bombings, why use the phrasing that you did and link to a picture of a burned boy?
posted by me & my monkey at 9:39 AM on April 13, 2005


I said "deliberately," and meant in regard to bombs dropped on purely or mostly civilian/commercial or residential areas. I don't need your condescending "education."
posted by raysmj at 9:39 AM on April 13, 2005


What would you have done if you were Oppenheimer, digaman?

caddis, a very provocative question. I'm an amateur Buddhist, so designing bombs to kill millions of people and create the possibility of cataracts, anemia, and genetic defects in the survivors would probably not have been on my agenda. The founder of the Zen center where I studied was Shunryu suzuki-roshi, who was very active in the anti-war movement... in Japan, which was a very unstylish and dangerous position to take under the Imperial government. I admire him for that, and wish he had succeeded in his efforts to prevent the atrocities committed by the Japanese mentioned here.
posted by digaman at 9:46 AM on April 13, 2005


Oppenheimer WaPo link: fascinating. Thanks, diga. The FPP wording was trolltastic, though, and unnecessary.

Orthogonality: spot-on.

When Allied forces first occupied Japan after the war, they found mountains of evidence that Japanese civilians intended to defend themselves tooth & claw, down the last man, woman & child. Dying heroically for the Emporer was a pervasive concept, and few people seemed to resist it. If the bombs hadn't been dropped, I wonder if we'd even have a "Japan" to discuss.

The firebombings of Tokyo, et al, as has been noted plenty before, killed more civilians than either atomic bomb, but again, the efforts were to intimidate the Emprorer & Japanese military into surrendering, soon, to end the war quickly, and to save more lives in the bigger picture. Modern historians have claimed Japan was ready to capitulate by August, but it sounds like wishful, guilt-based thinking. The 'honorable warrior's death' mentality was far too embedded in the culture to come to a full-stop after only four years of fighting the Allies.
posted by dhoyt at 9:48 AM on April 13, 2005


If we would've lost, Americans would've be tried and hanged for war crimes.

I don't think that's true - maybe if we'd lost to countries with emerging democratic/human rights ideas we would've been tried and hanged for war crimes.

Anyway, interesting that we seem to value civilian life more than soldiers lives. It's assumed, but other than the sort of assumption of risk theory, I don't see why it's necessarily true.
posted by Amizu at 9:49 AM on April 13, 2005


I love it that there are still some pricks who whine about MetaFilter as an allegedly liberal place -- a reluctance to appreciate the nuking of kids now equals liberal bias around here. Mr Limbaugh himself couldn't do better, between hits from his crack pipe of course. RushFilter, how sad.

bah.

let's see, in order of importance:
Bird and Sherwin's book, which I am reading (and enjoying quite a bit), shows very clearly that Oppie's career was ultimately ruined by a very interesting mix of personal arrogance, massive doses of professional jealousy by his peers (so many of his peers just hated his guts) and McCarthyism. the very fact that the man who helped barbecue 100,000 enemies (well, civilian enemies) was accused of disloyalty only a few years later is a quite fitting testament to the McCarthyite mindset that thanks to 9-11 came back very much in fashion, as we see daily even here. before Oppenheimer's fall, the military paid at least a bit of attention to the scientist's ideas on how, and why, weapons were to be used, if at all. after Oppie's fall, wmd research became too delicate a matter to be left to the scientists, so to speak.
just like intelligence, thanks to Iraq Attaq, became too delicate a matter to be left to intelligence professionals.


ps -- orthogonality, I understand you're trolling, but don't worry -- the USA would have been much more reluctant to nuke white people instead of "gooks" "Chinamen" yellow-skinned individuals.
after all, American GI's didn't keep many Kraut skulls as souvenirs, you know, something cute to send to the girlfriends back home.
posted by matteo at 9:49 AM on April 13, 2005


If we would've lost, Americans would've be tried and hanged for war crimes.

I don't think that's true - maybe if we'd lost to countries with emerging democratic/human rights ideas we would've been tried and hanged for war crimes.
With disarming candour and good humour, McNamara takes us through his brilliant career as the IBM technocrat who brought new-fangled punch-card efficiency techniques to bear as a military aide to General Curtis LeMay in the second world war, helping to increase the number of buildings annihilated and civilians incinerated in the firebombing campaign of Japanese cities that preceded Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

McNamara says quite openly that he and LeMay could have been tried as war criminals if the result had gone the other way.
posted by matteo at 9:52 AM on April 13, 2005


There's actually substantial evidence that Japan was ready to surrender after the Battle of Okinawa. It's summarized in Gar Alperovitz' excellent book "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb."

Japan was willing to sacrifice Okinawa because Okinawans are culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct from mainland Japanese. Alperovitz argues convincingly that the bombings were meant as a signal to the Soviet Union more than anything else.
posted by jeffmshaw at 9:54 AM on April 13, 2005


nixerman - I should think that the absence of guilt over one's actions was more of an indicator of evil

Oppenheimer is an interesting study in contrasts & if that's the intent, then good post digaman.

Those who may still wish to debate the advisability of using the bomb engage in a debate, from a distance, without end. I, for one, will shed no tears for a culture that either condoned or at least acquiesced in a military that engaged in systematic rape, enforced sexual slavery, beheading of military & civilian prisioners for sword practice, enforced death marches (see Bataan) and slave labor of POWs (with a death rate of 25-30% in Japanese hands for American POWS as opposed to 4-7% in German hands). Ask the POWs what they had a right to expect as American forces closed in - in many cases the Japanese solidiers went crazy, slaughtering the prisoners before they could be liberated. Such would have been the fate of those POWs expatriated from outlying concentration camps to Japan proper to work as slaves in the coal mines to feed Japan's war machine. You won't hear one of them say the bomb was the wrong thing to do - regardless of whatever other geo-political considerations may have been in play in the use of the bomb, their neck was on the chopping block (literally) under the threat of an Allied invasion. The abrupt end brought about by the bomb's use ended that.
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:56 AM on April 13, 2005


dhoyt, um, what you write sounds like wishful, guilt-based thinking. By the time the bombs were dropped, Japan was completely and utterly exhausted.

As for trying to place ourselves in Oppenheimer's shoes it's the wrong way to go. Even if what he did was "acceptable" in his time and place that doesn't make his actions excusable. Looking back, with the blessing of hindsight and historical perspective, we can more fully appreciate what he did and why. Ironically, it's only now, after the fact, that we accept the nuking of cities as completely unthinkable and militaries go on and on about their high precision, smart bombs.
posted by nixerman at 9:56 AM on April 13, 2005


The bombing of Pearl Harbor: brutal, evil, and horrific.

I hope the disturbance in the Force created by my mentioning of the civilian deaths in Hiroshima in a post about the man who led the effort to design the bomb that killed them is now ameliorated.
posted by digaman at 9:58 AM on April 13, 2005


I think raysmj is correct. Prior to WWII, the indiscriminate killing of civilians in war was considered wrong. However, the Japanese kicked started this process through their bombing campaigns in China in the 1930's which killed thousands of civilians. The targets were civilian population centers, not military installations. Somewhere along the line the allies started bombing cities, Dresden and Tokyo being dramatic examples. To me these bombings are more troubling than the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At least with the atomic bombings we had a reasonable expectation that they would lead to quick surrender.
posted by caddis at 10:00 AM on April 13, 2005


orthogonality, I understand you're trolling, but don't worry -- the USA would have been much more reluctant to nuke white people instead of "gooks" "Chinamen" yellow-skinned individuals.

The largest single massacre in history was carried by White people against White people.

By the time the bombs were dropped, Japan was completely and utterly exhausted.

Their bloodthirst had spanned entire decades by then, and there was little reason to believe it would come full-stop after four years of fighting.

diga: thanks for the links and all, but: was this thread supposed to be about Oppenheimer, or about your personal disagreement with the bombings?
posted by dhoyt at 10:02 AM on April 13, 2005


I'm a little surprised by the rather un-nuanced (is that a word?) attitude displayed here concerning Pearl Harbor & Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

I'm no WW2 expert, but hasn't there been a great deal of debate about exactly why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor? Some theories that they felt pressured by the increasingly aggressive American presence in the Pacific and, perhaps rightly, believed that war between the two countries was inevitable and just decided to execute a pre-emptive strike?

Also, re: the A-Bomb, hasn't there also been, perhaps even somewhere on MeFi, discussion that nuking Japan was unnecessary given the much weakened state of their military at the time? I know that Eisenhower among others felt it was not needed, and that some have accused Truman of posturing for the benefit of the Soviets.

I'm not trying to defend or criticize either here, I am honestly not well-versed enough in the history of that era to comment, but perhaps someone with more knowledge on this subject can remark on this. It seems that if this thread is going to become a debate on bombings in WW2, these issues should be addressed.

On Preview: took too long to write this. Been beaten to the punch by about 1000 people.
posted by papakwanz at 10:05 AM on April 13, 2005


diga: thanks for the links and all, but: was this thread supposed to be about Oppenheimer, or about your personal disagreement with the bombings?

Ask yourself, kid. I thought it was about Oppenheimer, which is why the lede of my post was all about the Baghavad Gita, oil paintings, Proust, "gee!," and stuff like that.

IMHO, we've gone pretty far down some wacky road in America when merely mentioning the effects of a nuclear bomb on the people upon whom it was dropped is cited as proof of "bias," but hey, I just post 'em as I see 'em.
posted by digaman at 10:16 AM on April 13, 2005


was this thread supposed to be about Oppenheimer, or about your personal disagreement with the bombings?

Oppenheimer, but I doubt most of those who commented have even read Gleick's review in the main link, not to mention the book itself, so at this point it's moot -- thanks to the usual "centrists" we're discussing the fascinanting topic "Nuking Civilians, Cool or Lame? Views Differ" *

dhoyt, how do you say "nevar forget" in Japanese?

anyway, re the firebombing of Tokyo we have an archived 83 comments bonanza here.

* I'm sure that the same ambivalent attitude regarding the subject of deep-fried civilians will be recorded here if a nuclear attack ever touches American cities, by the way.
posted by matteo at 10:16 AM on April 13, 2005


why the lede of my post was all about the Baghavad Gita, oil paintings, Proust, "gee!," and stuff like that.

Proust was a Godless same-sexer, but Dostoyevsky was an anti-semitical Christian nut, so it's fair and balanced in your lede! bravo!.
posted by matteo at 10:18 AM on April 13, 2005


Heh. Oh and by the way, the tiny minority of people who actually READ THE LINKS in my post before posting themselves will discover that my link on the word "decided" did not, in fact, lead to a website run by the Lesbian Spouses for Nader Who Think the Manchurian Rapists Got a Bad Rap, but to a fascinating collection of full-text documents in the National Archive.
posted by digaman at 10:23 AM on April 13, 2005


The most interesting thing about Oppenheimer and so many men like him is the severe guilt they impose upon themselves afterwards. It does much to confirm my suspicion that guilt is the sure-fire sign of an evil character.
nixerman

You know, I tried to read those sentences as satire, as a deliberate troll, as pure stupidity. I failed.

nixerman, you are not a nice person.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:24 AM on April 13, 2005


Actually, papakwanz, the invasion of Pearl Harbor had similar roots to our invasion of Iraq (depending on who you ask): oil.

As for the Soviet question, many scholars believe Japan would have surrendered once the Soviet Union joined the attack, others believe the Japanese would have fought to the last man (I personally buy this argument more, given their history).

What most people aren't taught in revisionist-happy schools is that the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were littered with notes dropped from aircraft several days before the bombing warning them of their imminent destruction. Also, Hiroshima was not a civilian target (unlike, say, Dresden). But I don't think anyone would argue that the bombings made an excellent demonstration in one-upmanship to the Soviets. And radiation poisoning is a far worse death than a bayonette through the gut, but both should be avoided if at all possible.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:29 AM on April 13, 2005


The driving force behind the Japanese determination to fight to the last man was a confusion between church and state -- their belief that the Emperor was divinely ordained, and that his political actions expressed the will of Heaven.

As Americans of course, we never have such flagrant delusions.
posted by digaman at 10:32 AM on April 13, 2005


A copy of the leaflets dropped on Japanese cities in conjunction with the Atomic Bomb together with the English translation follows.
TO JAPANESE PEOPLE:

America asks that you take immediate heed of what we say on this leaflet. We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man. A single one of our newly developed atomic bombs is actually the equivalent in explosive power to what 2,000 of our giant B-29's can carry on a single mission. This awful fact is one for you to ponder and we solemnly assure you it is grimly accurate. We have just begun to use this weapon against your homeland. If you still have any doubt, make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima when just one atomic bomb fell on that city. Before using this bomb to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, we ask that you now petition the Emperor to end the war. Our President has outlined for you the thirteen consequences of an honorable surrender: We urge that you accept these consequences and begin the work of building a new, better, and peace loving Japan. You should take steps now to cease military resistance. Other-wise, we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons to promptly and forcefully end the war.
EVACUATE YOUR CITIES

Because of the almost inconceivable expense of each individual Atomic Bomb, it is obvious that no live, i. e., "bomb smashing" munitions could be used for practice or training. One of the initial problems of the tactical application of the Atomic Bomb was the necessity for using an air burst to derive the most advantage from the terrific blast effect of the bomb. To get the greatest possible accuracy (using visual instead of radar bombing) with such an expensive weapon it would be necessary to accomplish daylight visual attacks. Because of the wide destructive area of the bomb it would be necessary for only a single bomb to be dropped during any one attack on any one target.
[source]
posted by dhoyt at 10:35 AM on April 13, 2005


The old-timers at Los Alamos used to tell of how, during the early days of the bomb's development, Oppenheimer had carte blanche to go down to the rail station in Lamy (S.E. of Santa Fe) and stop & inspect any train going through and pull whatever off it he wanted/needed, regardless of where the material was destined for. The public in Santa Fe thought they were building a secret submarine base up in the Jemez mountains. Crazy...
posted by Pressed Rat at 10:37 AM on April 13, 2005


With 20-20 hindsight, it might be possible that Japan was already "exhausted" at the time of Okinawa. However, the people making the decisions at the time didn't have that knowledge available to them. In fact, the ongoing debate over whether the US could have won without using atomic weapons in the Pacific theater suggests that at the time there probably wasn't a chance to debate the nuances of japanese martial culture and the liklihood of a suprise surrender. If the evidence to that point was any guide (fighting to the last man, and in fact some continuing to fight for years after the war ended) then there was no surrdender in sight.

With the information available at the time, the choice appeared to be between losing 100,000 or more American military lives, plus 100,000+ Japanese military lives, plus just as many civilians as were killed in Hiroshima/Nagasaki through starvation, collateral bomb damage, and disease. In other words, given the information available at the time, it looked like ending the war faster was a good idea as it would save lives on the net (in addition to increasing the liklihood that the US would be the winner in the end).

I'm not saying that it's a Good Thing to use atomic weapons. Don't get me wrong. It sucked. But given the options and our knowledge at the time, it was probably the best of a group of bad options. If there were a way to have avoided the war entirely that would have been great. But, by the time we got to 1943 things were pretty much FUBAR and the best any country could do was try to hope for a decisive end (as opposed to the long drag of WWI that the Pacific campaign was quickly starting to resemble).
What would you have done if you were Oppenheimer, digaman?
caddis, a very provocative question. I'm an amateur Buddhist, so designing bombs to kill millions of people and create the possibility of cataracts, anemia, and genetic defects in the survivors would probably not have been on my agenda.
As much as I admire your idealism, such pacifist reasoning doesn't work well against an emporer who has his back to the wall and doesn't particularly feel like negotiating. Reemmber, this is the man who ordered his pilots to fly themselves into American ships (in an early example of modern suicide-bombing) when they couldn't get their bombs and torpedos to work sufficiently. I agree it would be great if we could just have gotten all the people in the world to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but that doesn't solve the problem of a brutal dictator hell-bent on domination of the Pacific.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:46 AM on April 13, 2005


thatwhichfalls, um, the statement may seem counter-intuitive but it's not mean. I've never bought into the notion that guilt=suffering and so feelings of guilt somehow redress the crime committed. Far too many people seem perfectly content to live with guilt and for some it becomes a way of life. People seem to get very good at doing awful things and then feeling guilty afterwards--until they "have" to do another awful thing. Oppenheimer's guilt strikes me in this way. It's more a way to with his actions than an attempt to deal with the consequences. As his Wikipedia entry suggests, there's no sign Oppenheimer ever really empathized with his victims.
posted by nixerman at 10:47 AM on April 13, 2005


That's very interesting, Rat.

And another curious historical side note: One of the more auspicious alumni of the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys was one William S. Burroughs. If there were weird vibes in that spot before the Manhattan Project displaced the school, they clearly had no effect whatsoever [note: sound link] on the future author of Naked Lunch.
posted by digaman at 10:49 AM on April 13, 2005


What most people aren't taught in revisionist-happy schools is that the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were littered with notes dropped from aircraft several days before the bombing warning them of their imminent destruction.

I dont know about anyone else, but when I was in school this was brought up anytime the bombings were brought up. (High school class of 99, if that helps)

I recall seeing a documentary about the Manhattan project, that spend a lot of time talking about Oppenheimer. He was a fascinating character, for sure. Thanks for the links digaman.

"I am became Death, the destroyers of worlds." Eerie.
posted by kableh at 10:52 AM on April 13, 2005


Yes, very eerie. And devil, if you think what Gandhi and Martin Luther King were about was singing Kumbaya, you really oughta brush up a little.
posted by digaman at 10:53 AM on April 13, 2005


awesome post digaman!

the rest of you are doomed to chicken and egg it until your lackadaisical hearts fart their last pumping. go back to tv.
posted by Satapher at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2005


... when the US government decided to incinerate hundreds of thousands of fishermen, housewives, cooks, potters, and Zen monks as a decisive blow for peace ...

IMHO, we've gone pretty far down some wacky road in America when merely mentioning the effects of a nuclear bomb on the people upon whom it was dropped is cited as proof of "bias," but hey, I just post 'em as I see 'em.


This strikes me as a bit disingenuous. I think this goes beyond "merely mentioning the effects." Maybe that wasn't your intent, but as a professional writer you may be held to a higher standard of clarity than the rest of us.
posted by me & my monkey at 10:57 AM on April 13, 2005


Ironyfilter: simplifying the debate on the dark side of human nature in war by casting blame or defending the necessity of it in a post dedicated to a man who exemplifies the complexity of the duality of man.

Nifty.

"Before the war, deliberately killing civilians was considered unthinkable, and it has been ever since, was against international law and still is"
"Prior to WWII, the indiscriminate killing of civilians in war was considered wrong. "

You guys should sue the school district you attended. Or at least your history teachers. International law?

Would liberals then be folks who pass laws against people who employ the fallacy of force? Or is that conservatives? I lost my playbill.

Dhoyt! You took my Dresden reference and angered Billy Pilgrim!

"Oppenheimer was not a victim of McCarthyism" (from the article)
Hmmm....

Nuclear brinksmanship might explain away most of the cruelty (whats a few hundred thousand compared to the survival of the world?) but what is neat is how Oppenheimer had to deal with it.

You have what is a truly fine mind, and yet the path is still unclear.
I think Einstein was right to throw up his hands in the face of human conflict (inner and outer) and say if he'd known better he would have become a watchmaker.

Oppenheimer seems to have accepted his role though as a shatterer of worlds.
I think of that path and I have no regrets that the choices I made in life did not lead to my becoming a 'great' man. Who wants to be the father of the atomic bomb?
posted by Smedleyman at 10:57 AM on April 13, 2005


A great documentary about a man who worked on the Manhattan Project, then gave science up to, among other things, work on Atlantic's Atomic Aretha Project, and think up the beat for "Sunshine of Your Love" and whatnot in his spare time.
posted by raysmj at 11:02 AM on April 13, 2005


a higher standard of clarity

Which I accept gratefully. I am definitely biased against incinerating housewives -- whether we do it or the Nazis do it -- even when it seems militarily expedient, or even necessary, to do so. But if you look over the wording of my FPP, I think you'll find that it was strictly accurate, even if I highlighted something that is usually obscured by the vaguer language of people who believe that the bombing was necessary. And the phrase "destroyer of worlds," as kableh pointed out, because kableh actually read the links, was from Oppenheimer's own thoughts.
posted by digaman at 11:04 AM on April 13, 2005


I'm an amateur Buddhist. . .

Is there a professional league now? Or perhaps you meant amateur in the sense of "dabbler, superficial".
posted by spock at 11:07 AM on April 13, 2005


Smedleyman: The international system is marked by anarchy, yes, and winning and having power can keep the law from applying to you, etc. But if you don't win, and you don't have sufficient power in re to the situation, international law will not be an abstraction to you anymore. I'm not suing a school district or any university I attended, thanks.
posted by raysmj at 11:07 AM on April 13, 2005


matteo writes " ps -- orthogonality, I understand you're trolling, but don't worry -- the USA would have been much more reluctant to nuke white people instead of 'gooks' 'Chinamen' yellow-skinned individuals. "

No, I'm not trolling. Fuck, I don't need to troll -- my honest beliefs are enough to generate a pile-on, that manages to get conservative users to damn me as a liberal, and liberal users to damn me as a conservative. Not to mention my sarcasm. When you're me, you just don't need to troll.

But to the substance of your claim -- that America wouldn't have nuked the Germans because they were white -- have you forgotten the firebombing of Dresden?

And if you'll look here, Japan isn't mentioned at all as the impetus that led Einstein to recommend -- and a bunch of other refugees (Szilard, Fermi, Bohr, von Neumann) from European Fascism to build -- the atomic bomb for the US.

Was racism involved? Probably a semi-racist belief that "yellow men" couldn't build an atomic bomb. (I write "semi" because in fact, for entirely non-racial reasons, Germany was far more advanced than Japan in munitions (you need precisely shaped charges to implode the fissionable elements of the bomb), chemistry, physics and rocketry -- we stole Wernher von Braun von Germany, not Japan, after all.)

You are right that we thought of the Germans as white men like us and the Japanese to be less human and more insect-like, and we make lots of "interesting" "souvenirs" from dead Japanese. But our greater regard for Germans didn't stop us from killing lots and lots of German civilians in air raids, and it didn't it stop the Germans from killing plenty of "good Aryan" Western Europeans either.


nixerman writes " dhoyt, um, what you write sounds like wishful, guilt-based thinking. By the time the bombs were dropped, Japan was completely and utterly exhausted.."

jeffmshaw writes " There's actually substantial evidence that Japan was ready to surrender after the Battle of Okinawa."

All well and good, but even if they were ready, they didn't surrender.In fact, they hadn't even surrendered three days after Hiroshima was bombed -- which is why we also atomic bombed Nagasaki. It took another six days after Nagasaki for Japan to surrender.

How many days, how many American soldiers' lives should Truman have sacrificed while sifting the "substantial evidence" it took a post-war historian to find? Another two weeks? Another month? 18,900 American boys -- one third our total killed in Vietnam -- had just died taking Okinawa, with another 40,000 wounded -- how many more should Truman have sent to die to satisfy your 20/20 hindsight?

How many more Gold Star mothers would it take to salve your conscience? We were at war, and in war a President's duty must be to his own nation.


papakwanz writes "I'm no WW2 expert, but hasn't there been a great deal of debate about exactly why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor? Some theories that they felt pressured by the increasingly aggressive American presence in the Pacific and, perhaps rightly, believed that war between the two countries was inevitable and just decided to execute a pre-emptive strike?"

It's interesting as history, sure. But for FDR on December 8th 1941, why the fuck would he care? They attacked us. When we're attacked, it's not our job to psychoanalyze the attacker and worry about his victimhood. Our job is to defeat him. Did they feel pressured? Sure they did -- and we wanted to pressure them, pressure them away from creative the gigantic slave empire they called the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere"
posted by orthogonality at 11:08 AM on April 13, 2005


papakwanz, I don't think anyone really knows for sure why the Japanese attacked. But the best simple explanation I've heard is this: they were scared of the Russians.

Back then, everyone measured their war-fighting capability in terms of their industrial output. Japan was very afraid of Russia, with 10 times its industrial production, so they invaded the mainland to get more resources and to try to get more industry going.

We ceased trading with them as a result, which pissed them off mightily. Suddenly we weren't neutral anymore, we'd declared ourself as an enemy to their ambitions.

So, because they were scared of Russia with its ten-times-greater industrial production, they attacked America, with TWENTY times more production. (and that's at the start of the war... I'm sure it was much greater afterward.)

It must rank up there in the top 10 blunders of all time... don't fight a war on two fronts, don't attack Russia in the winter, don't bomb someone with twenty times your war-fighting capability.

It's sad that their civilians had to pay for the stupidity of their leaders, but I fully support the dropping of the Bomb... it did, after all, end the war.

More people died in the Dresden firestorm, and we deliberately set that after seeing what happened to Hamburg. Somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 people died in the burning of Dresden. I consider that a greater crime, and yet everyone sobs and moans about the nukes *just because they are nukes*. Nobody even talks about the firestorms anymore. Apparently, using lots of small bombs is better than using single big ones, even if you kill many more people with the small bombs. (200k+ in Dresden... about 120k in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.)

Dresden had little military value and its bombing was very unlikely to cause any form of capitulation. Over two hundred thousand people died for no real benefit.

I regard that as one of the worst things this country has ever done. At least we had good reasons to drop the nukes.
posted by Malor at 11:08 AM on April 13, 2005


Who wants to be the father of the atomic bomb?
As one born on the date it was first denoted and grand fathered by a project worker on it..."no one."
posted by thomcatspike at 11:09 AM on April 13, 2005


Yes, spock. There is a professional league. They're called monks and priests.
posted by digaman at 11:09 AM on April 13, 2005


digaman: I was reading last evening about this same topic, just a coincidence. And that's why I paid attention to your thread at all. Anyway, I read in several places that J. Robert says he said that in hindsight (in the opinion of some, to make himself look like a sinner to point out that he committed the sin - but that might be professional jealousy again), and that his brother Frank remembered him saying something more the effect of, "Gosh!"
posted by raysmj at 11:12 AM on April 13, 2005


digaman, I think the point of contention in your post that incited the "was the A-bomb justified or not" tangent was your wording here:

"decided to incinerate hundreds of thousands of fishermen, housewives, cooks, potters, and Zen monks as a decisive blow for peace "

I doubt that Oppenheimer had given serious thoughts beforehand to the people of those cities catching fish, behing happily married, cooking, etc, and I'm assuming it wasn't your intention to imply that he stayed up nights wondering whether the Zen monks would ever forgive him. Rather, in the midst of the most destructive war in history, he was contemplating a political and military decision whose repercussions no one at the time could foresee (unless you believe that some Nostradamus out there had predicted, say, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall). From one of your links:

From a political stand point it would have been unthinkable not to use the bomb. All the money and effort going into building a super powerful weapon that is left on the shelf as American troops die by the thousands trying to take Japan and end the war.

Whether his decision (or more accurately, what was ultimately Truman's) was moral or not, I submit that disquisitions on the nuances of morality are much easier to make from a position of safety and comfort. Thus, I don't think framing Oppenheimer in this moral context ex post facto sheds much light upon his character except that he found himself in a very peculiar set of historical circumstances. Both sides in WWII abandoned previous "rules of war" and were deliberately targetting civilian populations in cities. The Allies were far more successful at this because they gained the upper hand in the war at large.

Back to Oppenheimer's role in all this: it would seem to me that Oppenheimer would be far more concerned with the inhabitants of those very Japanese cities not fishing or making love to their wives, but fighting to the very last and adding to American casualties, as was the popular belief of most Americans of that time (and many historians still today). In that sense, your post was poorly framed as a post about Oppenheimer's character. You may care about incinerating housewives, but Oppenheimer was primarily thinking about potential enemy combatants -- and your post was presumably about Oppenheimer and not your own editorializing, right?
posted by DaShiv at 11:16 AM on April 13, 2005


One additional reason for dropping the bomb was to end the war prior to the Soviets entering the war against Japan. After watching the Soviets install puppet governments in Eastern Europe after the German surrender, the US was not keen to see a similar occurrence in Asia.
posted by caddis at 11:17 AM on April 13, 2005


Where did you people get your ideas about why Japan attacked the US ? "..for oil..., "They were afraid of the Russians" ... increasingly aggressive American presence in the Pacific...?

Emperor Hirohito's brother Mikasa said in a 1966 interview that the basic cause of the war with America was the assisination of Chang Tso-lin (or Tso-lin Chang if you prefer) by the Japanese Army that initiated the turn in the roles of the military and the Emperor.
posted by X4ster at 11:26 AM on April 13, 2005


I am definitely biased against incinerating housewives -- whether we do it or the Nazis do it -- even when it seems militarily expedient, or even necessary, to do so.

I'm not sure what to make of that. If you concede that something is necessary, but are biased against it, does that mean it should be done, or it should not be done?

But if you look over the wording of my FPP, I think you'll find that it was strictly accurate, even if I highlighted something that is usually obscured by the vaguer language of people who believe that the bombing was necessary.

Yes, your wording was certainly accurate. Lots of people died, and they didn't deserve to die. Almost no one deserves to die, for that matter. I am certainly glad that I am not in a position to make these horrendous life-or-death decisions, because I just wouldn't be able to do it. My point was simply that you shouldn't be so oblivious to how your words would be interpreted.

And the phrase "destroyer of worlds," as kableh pointed out, because kableh actually read the links, was from Oppenheimer's own thoughts.

That is completely irrelevant, since it's not part of the text that you wrote. I actually read the links too. I think that the links are good, but that the text that you wrote expresses a provocative opinion, and you shouldn't be surprised that people are provoked as a result.
posted by me & my monkey at 11:26 AM on April 13, 2005


Hague Convention 1907:

...
ARTICLE XXV

The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.

ARTICLE XXVI

The officer in command of an attacking force must, before commencing a bombardment, except in cases of assault, do all in his power to warn the authorities.
...

posted by caddis at 11:27 AM on April 13, 2005


Malor: We wanted the Japanese to surrender unconditionally. That's why they didn't surrender. It's all "what if?" talk now, and to a large extent masturbatory, but the demand for unconditional surrender was pretty darned severe. War in politics by other means, right? So what's the end goal? The late George Kennan, who is quoted in a typically eloquent passage toward the end of the FPP article, remarks about this with remarkable subtlety in American Diplomacy - and mainly about how the WWII experience, and the bombing of civilians and the idea of unconditional surrender, led us to paint ourselves into a dark corner.
posted by raysmj at 11:27 AM on April 13, 2005


Isn't it interesting:

Japanese launch pre-emptive strike against America == BAD OH NOES WE MUST KILLE THEM!

Americans launch pre-emptive strike against Iraq == WAVE THE FLAG OR UR R TRAITOR OMG LOLZ!!!eleventyone

What a difference half a century makes, eh?


That said, I can't even begin to imagine the conflict in JRO's head. His desire for scientific knowledge (which, in a vacuum, is a pure and noble ideal), vs his.. I can't think of the right word. Humanitarianism isn't it... humanity, maybe? I dunno.

Or even the conflict between his patriotism and wanting to defend his country, and his patriotism, and not wanting to see that country perform a horrific act. How's that for a difficult decision?

I guess I've always chosen to believe that he didn't think the military would actually use the bomb, and that the scientific knowledge would be put to peaceful purposes.

It would be so easy to paint him as either the demon that unleashed the spectre of nuclear warfare upon us, or as some sort of intellectual saint who made one oopsie. The realit, I think, is that he sums up a lot of the human condition, and the conflicts (albeit on a somewhat grander scale) that we all experience every day.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:28 AM on April 13, 2005


have you forgotten the firebombing of Dresden?

yes, please remind me how many nucular weapons were dropped on Dresden, I forgot how many.

the amount of WWII US propaganda geared towards depicting the yellow enemy as bestial and subhuman is a sad fact, there's tons of evidence surviving to this day.

Dresden? good old Bomber Harris (my favorite quote: "The only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.", he'd be quite popular in nowadays Washington, D.C.) was that particular brand of British military badass -- an unabashed fan of "area bombing", something we now define more precisely as a war crime. it was the deliberate carpet-bombing of civilian areas to kill the maximum numbers of civilians and hence gravely demoralize the enemy. literally, carpet bomb the enemy into submission (the V-1s and V-2s that had previously fucked London's shit up didn't do much to help Dresden's case in '45, actually)

I humbly remind you that Churchill himself, not exactly a Nazi-lover, had to stop his butcher with these clear words:
"It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise, we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land."
too much of a good thing, apparently.

_____________

but Oppenheimer was primarily thinking about potential enemy combatants --

enemy combatants? why, they should have dragged them to the Caribbean and then proceed to ass-rape them on a regular basis, pee on them, stuff like that!
posted by matteo at 11:32 AM on April 13, 2005


Da Shiv, Oppenheimer was a deeply philosophical man, who darkly quoted the Baghavad Gita in his moment of scientific triumph. His intellectual interest in communism resulted in his security clearance being revoked on the grounds that he was slowing the development of the H-bomb. At a conference on the 50th anniversary of the bombings, he said, "In retrospect, I have a regret."

His own nuanced philosophical dialogues with himself were public and well-chronicled, even if he would have made the same decisions all over again.

your post was poorly framed as a post about Oppenheimer's character

Uhm, it was an FPP about a biography of Oppenheimer. One imagines that issues of his character are raised in such a book, as they were raised plenty in the primary link.
posted by digaman at 11:34 AM on April 13, 2005


Americans launch pre-emptive strike against Iraq == WAVE THE FLAG OR UR R TRAITOR OMG LOLZ!!!eleventyone

Join again when you have a sense of nuance and/or graduate from the sixth grade. In the meantime welcome to my personal banlist.

In other words, why crap all over an otherwise good thread?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 11:36 AM on April 13, 2005


Malor, I do not think your numbers are correct concerning deaths in Dresden. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 35,000 to 135,000 seems more correct. This doesn't affect your arguments, with which I agree.
posted by caddis at 11:38 AM on April 13, 2005


I can't get the article to pull up, but here's a Google cache of a U.S. Army Command and General Staff College paper on the concept of "unconditional surrender" that's about eighteen times more subtle than some posters here seem capable of even fathoming.
posted by raysmj at 11:41 AM on April 13, 2005


matteo writes "yes, please remind me how many nucular [sic] weapons were dropped on Dresden, I forgot how many."

matteo, please help me to understand your point.

Your initial claim was that we wouldn't have nuked the Germans, and did nuke the Japanese, because we were racists.

I admitted there was great racism in America against the Japanese, but that our lack of anti-German racism didn't prevent us from bombing Dresden, arguably a more horrific and less-justified act that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

You then replied to me by telling me once again about US racism against the Japanese -- which I had already agreed existed -- and by enumerating the horrors of Dresden -- which was my point, the Dresden bombing was horrific.

So help me to understand: are you agreeing with me, or disputing me by pointing out what we all already know, that the Dresden bombing didn't involve atomic weapons?
posted by orthogonality at 11:44 AM on April 13, 2005


digaman:
But if you look over the wording of my FPP, I think you'll find that it was strictly accurate
I'm not so sure about this sentence:
    And when the US government decided to incinerate hundreds of thousands of [civilian types]...
Wikipedia puts deaths which might be called "incinerations" at about 119-155k, which isn't hundreds of thousands, nor is it clear how many souls of that number were civilians, since it describes both cities as heavily militarized.
posted by fleacircus at 11:48 AM on April 13, 2005


digaman -- My point was essentially the same as others on this thread: "I think that the links are good, but that the text that you wrote expresses a provocative opinion, and you shouldn't be surprised that people are provoked as a result."

matteo -- You may think it's a cute rhetorical ploy to drag in how the current American administration has disabused the term "enemy combatants", but again I direct you to the link furnished by linked by digaman that conclude:

Excellent code breaking by the Americans did reveal however the steps Japanese were taking and planning to take in defending their country.

Numerous historical sources have corroborated that Japanese civilians were, in fact, being prepared as enemy combatants against the imminent invasion (and Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan, was in full swing and assembling in Okinawa to be deployed even as the A-bombs were being dropped). I fail to see the relevance of your invoking Guantanamo in this context.
posted by DaShiv at 11:49 AM on April 13, 2005


NOW LET ME MAKE A PLEA:

I know what it's like to see a thread that I'd hoped would spur new, critical, thought turn into yet another Kabuki theatre reenactment of the same old arguments.

So, Having said what we needed to say in the oft-rehashed argument over Truman's decision to drop the bomb, let's drop that and turn to the point of digaman's post, and talk about J. Robert Oppenheimer.

I won't, of course, insist on having the last word, so whoever wants it, take it. And if you must continue to rehash the morality of the bomb, of course that's your right.

But how about then addressing the real substance of the FPP, and breaking some new ground rather than re-heating either side's same old tired arguments?
posted by orthogonality at 11:53 AM on April 13, 2005


talk about J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Sure. What about him?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 11:55 AM on April 13, 2005


I think Italy & Germany kinda sorta had us beat in the 'racism' and 'seeking to destroy other cultures' department. Perhaps the pain of that memory is causing some to redirect blame.
posted by dhoyt at 11:56 AM on April 13, 2005


Would it not have been possible to demonstrate the effects of a nuclear bomb on an non- or less-populated area? Over the ocean, just off the coast of Tokyo perhaps? I am not an expert -- was this ever considered? Did otherwise normally sensitive folks, like Oppenhiemer, consider this?

I hope I'm not the only person disturbed by posts in this thread that essentially 'I won't shed a tear for those civilians' because either their 'culture' is unworthy or their government/armed forces did terrible things (Nanking is a good example, Pearl Harbor is not). The lumping together of average citizens and a state's military and political decision makers in order to justify large-scale violence is something that most first-world citizens should be very, very wary of.

Also, nuking two cities is rendered less abhorrent if leaflets (so similar to the false ones, propaganda-filled dropped previously) are dropped beforehand? That makes sense, only a fool would have failed to heed such warnings.

I should add that modern Japanese culture (like German) is in many ways pervaded with guilt. Not all of their crimes have been fully admitted or atoned for, but there's progress. Much of this thread shows the inability of Americans to do the same for the (admittedly less, but I think still) shameful aspects their own past. Perhaps this is less the fault of individuals than the rigidity of my-country-right-or-wrong doctrinal systems that survived in (undefeated) America but were smashed, and rightly so, in Germany and Japan by America.
posted by onshi at 12:03 PM on April 13, 2005


I believe it's been linked to before:

Children of the Manhattan Project
"The mission of The Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Assoc., Inc. is to preserve the historical importance of the Manhattan Project, to recognize and memorialize the efforts of the Manhattan Project veterans, and to promote the safe and beneficial use of atomic energy."
posted by dhoyt at 12:03 PM on April 13, 2005


Hear hear, orthogonality.
posted by digaman at 12:08 PM on April 13, 2005


Would it not have been possible to demonstrate the effects of a nuclear bomb on an non- or less-populated area?

The same reason why 9/11 involved crashing planes into skyskrapers, not grain silos. It drives the point home a lost faster than just a big bang offshore.

And, as previously mentioned, Nagaski was a military city. Think Newport News 20 years ago. Or the island of Hawaii in WWII.

Again, doesn't make it a Good Thing, but it's an explanation as to "why."
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 12:10 PM on April 13, 2005


since it describes both cities as heavily militarized

Then if the Al Qaeda decided to set off a suitcase nuke in, say, San Diego or Washington DC, I assume you'd consider those cities legitimate military targets, and the civilian losses regrettable but "collateral" in wartime, fleacircus?
posted by digaman at 12:11 PM on April 13, 2005


Don't try to cover up your inaccuracy by attacking me with some idiotic hypothetical.
posted by fleacircus at 12:14 PM on April 13, 2005


Would it not have been possible to demonstrate the effects of a nuclear bomb on an non- or less-populated area? Over the ocean, just off the coast of Tokyo perhaps? I am not an expert -- was this ever considered? Did otherwise normally sensitive folks, like Oppenhiemer, consider this?
They tested the atomic bomb in the dessert, though not as largescale as what was dropped on Japan. Nobody, including Mr. Oppenheimer, thought that atomic bomb would inflict the massage damage it did (notice that in the post about leaflets to Japan, it was after the first bombing so we had more of an idea of the actual devastation).

Was racism involved? Probably a semi-racist belief that "yellow men" couldn't build an atomic bomb. (I write "semi" because in fact, for entirely non-racial reasons, Germany was far more advanced than Japan in munitions (you need precisely shaped charges to implode the fissionable elements of the bomb), chemistry, physics and rocketry -- we stole Wernher von Braun von Germany, not Japan, after all.)
One of the main reasons we even started investing into the atomic bomb was because German scientists were defecting to the United States and warning us of German research. Germany began research on atomic bombs before the US did and was very close to implementing them into warfare on smaller V2 rockets for tactical purposes rather than the largescale bombs that were dropped.
posted by jmd82 at 12:18 PM on April 13, 2005


I agree that these hypotheticals can get pretty unnerving, but feel free to point out precisely how the metaphor is "idiotic." By the way, Nagasaki was a late addition to the to-do list. One of the primary choices was Kyoto -- city of temples. Only bad weather and a fervent objection to the Secretary of War by a professor familiar with Japanese culture prevented Kyoto from being the target of the second bomb.
posted by digaman at 12:20 PM on April 13, 2005


Idiotic because it attacks a position I did not take. I'm an argumentative chap so maybe some other time I'd take up that position and actually say the words you seek to put into my mouth.

But you seemed to miss the point: your post isn't accurate. At least, according to Wikipedia.
posted by fleacircus at 12:27 PM on April 13, 2005


"The cumulative death toll of atomic-bomb victims was 237,062" in Hiroshima, and "if taken into account those who died from radioactive materials causing cancer, the total number of residents killed is believed to be at least 100,000" in Nagasaki, fleacircus, at least according to Wikipedia.

But you're right: they weren't all "incinerated," merely 39,000 instantly dead in Nagasaki and 80,000 in Hiroshima, though perhaps some of those were crushed to death and so forth, rather than actually being vaporized or burned. The rest died lingering deaths caused by internal bleeding, cancer, and the other effects of radiation poisoning. So yes, a mere 100-something thousand were killed instantly, not "hundreds of thousands," unless you include those who died of the effects of the bombs and not the actual blasts. Point taken, fleacircus.
posted by digaman at 12:34 PM on April 13, 2005


digaman, oppenheimer wasn't alive on the 50th anniversary of the bombings...which conference are you referring to?
posted by Snyder at 12:38 PM on April 13, 2005


orthogonality: It's interesting as history, sure. But for FDR on December 8th 1941, why the fuck would he care?

Astonishing...

orthogonality:Having said what we needed to say in the oft-rehashed argument over Truman's decision to drop the bomb, let's drop that ...

Holy shit!

History News Network: Truman on Trial.
posted by Chuckles at 12:38 PM on April 13, 2005


jmd82 relies to my rhetorical question:
orthogonality: "Was racism involved? Probably a semi-racist belief that 'yellow men' couldn't build an atomic bomb. (I write 'semi' because in fact, for entirely non-racial reasons, Germany was far more advanced than Japan in munitions (you need precisely shaped charges to implode the fissionable elements of the bomb), chemistry, physics and rocketry -- we stole Wernher von Braun von Germany, not Japan, after all.)"
jmd82: "One of the main reasons we even started investing into the atomic bomb was because German scientists were defecting to the United States and warning us of German research. Germany began research on atomic bombs before the US did and was very close to implementing them into warfare on smaller V2 rockets for tactical purposes rather than the largescale bombs that were dropped."



Yeah, that was the point I was making -- perhaps you should have quoted the paragraph immediately before the one you did quote:
orthogonality in context: "And if you'll look here, Japan isn't mentioned at all as the impetus that led Einstein to recommend -- and a bunch of other refugees (Szilard, Fermi, Bohr, von Neumann) from European Fascism to build -- the atomic bomb for the US.

"Was racism involved? Probably a semi-racist belief that 'yellow men' couldn't build an atomic bomb. (I write 'semi' because in fact, for entirely non-racial reasons, Germany was far more advanced than Japan in munitions (you need precisely shaped charges to implode the fissionable elements of the bomb), chemistry, physics and rocketry -- we stole Wernher von Braun von Germany, not Japan, after all.)"
I don't mind being agreed with at all, but I 'd prefer if you didn't make it look like you're correcting me when you're agreeing with me. ;)
posted by orthogonality at 12:41 PM on April 13, 2005


I can't believe that Truman on Trial article has never had a FPP, but I can't find it in any search. Anybody know if there is a thread about it?
posted by Chuckles at 12:42 PM on April 13, 2005


Would it not have been possible to demonstrate the effects of a nuclear bomb on an non- or less-populated area?

The same reason why 9/11 involved crashing planes into skyskrapers, not grain silos. It drives the point home a lost faster than just a big bang offshore.

The parallel is not actually so obvious. A key message of 9/11 was "we don't need bombs to kill you; we can turn anything into a weapon and we can and will succeed"; you don't create terror blowing up a silo. The terrorists understood taking over airplanes is a one-time, all or nothing surprise plan; they where advertising both their resourcefulness and their ruthlessness.

It would follow, then, that the message of dropping bombs on two civilian populations is "we have weapons of mass destruction and we are willing to use them on civilian populations".

Now, it seems to me that it remains debatable whether it was necessary to deliver the second part of that message before delivering the first part: "we have weapons of mass destruction".
posted by KS at 12:49 PM on April 13, 2005


orthogonality, I have to break the news: Bomber Harris was a Brit. Churchill, too.
also, I'll have more respect for your point when you nuke white people. France seems to be a good candidate, btw. until then, my point stays.

Perhaps the pain of that memory is causing some to redirect blame.

it's more honest when you call me greasy and a wife-beater, dhoyt, this is lame even for your non-existent standards.
tell you what -- I proudly belong to a Resistenza family with a history (in the Forties) of busting caps into Fascist asses and (in the late Sixties) bashing Fascist skulls in for self-defense and to make it safely to class.
maybe that's why you MetaFascists don't like me.
posted by matteo at 12:53 PM on April 13, 2005


Snyder, you're right. I was skimming news articles too quickly.

What Oppenheimer said was this, according to his New York Times obit:

Two years later, he was still beset by the moral consequences of the bomb, which, he told fellow physicists, had "dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war."

"In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatements can quite extinguish," he went on, "the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."
Apogee of Career

In later years, he seemed to indicated that "sin" was not to be taken personally. "I carry no weight on my conscience," he said in 1961 in reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Scientists are not delinquents," he added. "Our work has changed the conditions in which men live, but the use made of these changes is the problem of governments, not of scientists."


In other words, my main point was correct: he was certainly aware of the moral dimensions of using the bomb, even if he would have decided to use it again.
posted by digaman at 12:54 PM on April 13, 2005


Yeah, the 9/11 grain-silo analogy is just stupid and nonsensical. And Oppenheimer can't be separated from the decision to use the bombs, it's the only reason we even bother to discuss his life.

And that Truman on Trial link is great.
posted by nixerman at 12:58 PM on April 13, 2005


Sorry I came in so late...

A couple of factual points:

There was intense discussion at Los Alamos about a demonstration explosion. The scientists were not consulted by the military planners in Washington DC. The military planners feared that a failed demonstration explosion would strenthen the position of the Japanese hard-liners. And there was a great deal of uncertainty about the reliability of the plutonium bombs.

Oppenhimer was approached by scientists who wanted to present arguments in favor of a demonstration explosion. But he stalled them - partly out of fear that this would be a fight he would lose regardless of the outcome. Some scientists regarded this as sucking up to the military.

There was also a great deal of misunderstanding and uncertainty about the effects of an atomic explosion. Contrary to the way it's usually presented, the fallout effects were grasped immediately after the Trinity test.

This is because three people observing downwind were in the primary fallout pattern a received near-fatal exposure. All three were hospitalized, lost their hair and had their white blood cell counts drop dramatically. All three survived and their estimated exposure was one of the data points used for calculating whole-body LD50 for ionizing radiation. The case was anomalous, however, and the resulting dosage estimate was far too high.

Another indication of the uncertainty about the results of atomic bombing can be seen in the decision to continue bombing until Japan surrendered. The production of plutonium at Hanford was sufficient for 1-2 bombs per month. It was thought that it might take as much as five or six months of bombing to compel a surrender.

Time hasn't diminished the misunderstandings or disagreements.
posted by warbaby at 1:01 PM on April 13, 2005


Japanese launch pre-emptive strike against America == BAD OH NOES WE MUST KILLE THEM!

Americans launch pre-emptive strike against Iraq == WAVE THE FLAG OR UR R TRAITOR OMG LOLZ!!!eleventyone

What a difference half a century makes, eh?

Don't recall FDR telling the world by way of the news media he would not surrender like Saddam did with Bush(not saying it was right to invade either).
posted by thomcatspike at 1:09 PM on April 13, 2005


Dagaman you know if your post was to make the bomb's creator to feel like shit, you didn't succeed as they(6,000 works in NN) probably do or did. It sure added some shit to my life.
posted by thomcatspike at 1:13 PM on April 13, 2005


Thanks warbaby, that's totally fascinating.

Thomcatspike, I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're saying. The bomb's creator has been dead a long time, I was pointing to an interesting article about his biography, and alas, I don't know what "6,000 works in NN" refers to. As far as the shit in your life, I hope you have less soon.
posted by digaman at 1:19 PM on April 13, 2005


Hey matteo, you want to point out any of those pricks who call Metafilter liberal, or is that just a straw man set up so you can feel all superior and flaunt your wonderfulness? Surely you aren't acting this way because you're over-defensive about your on countries history during WW2, right? Probably not, since you act this way most of the time. (On preview: I forgot! Everyone who criticizes you is a bigot and fascist! Oh matteo, those who are not with you are against you!)

I think the great difficulty in analyzing the actions of Oppenheimer, trauma, and the rest is that we did not live in that time period, and I think it is very difficult to get into the mindset of a person not only living in a world consumed in such a war, but having to make decisions where the stakes are so high, as we really have nothing to compare against in today's world, I think. I think you're right digaman, (in that he understood the moral dimensions of the bomb while still being able to use it,) but I'd like to add that because he felt that the magnitude of the war he was involved in really changed the context of his moral decisions, (as all wars do, to some extent, for those involved,) so that things that are unthinkable in nearly all situations can perhaps become grim necessities when. Like Cicero said, "In time of war, the law falls silent." It's not an excuse for barbarism, and it's not objective, but when faced with decisions of immense magnitude, (or for a soldier or other combatant, put in a situation far beyond one's normal frame of reference,) most people's normal moral calculus doesn't seem to function correctly, like it isn't probably calibrated for such scale.

KS: I think the reason the drop on Nagasaki was made, other drops were prepared, was that there was a belief that the Supreme council would not believe that the Americans had more then one, that it was a "one time deal," and would continue the war until more were used, more frequently. The same beliefs also applied to the demonstration idea, with the added negative that we just wasted an expensive atom bomb.
posted by Snyder at 1:20 PM on April 13, 2005


"I'm not suing a school district or any university I attended"
Looka hyer son, just 'cause you gots some book learnin'...
Yeah, raysmj, I keep forgetting inflection doesn't carry - must be the conversational structure throwing me off. My apologies, I didn't mean to imply you were stupid. It was more to decry the idea that civilians weren't targeted before WWII and lament the lack of historic context that seemed to be inherent therein in a humorous (albeit needlessly sardonic and self-serving) way.

In the long history of war, civilians have been often targeted (Basil the Bulgar slayer first springs to mind).
Perhaps you meant just Americans? Also debatable. I concede though it's not a matter of policy - but of course it can't be for the very reasons you mentioned (international law, etc.)
It boils down to if we can get away with something we will or lie, whatever. If we get caught we disavow it.
This, to me, is the case here. Oppenheimer could have been told a great number of things by the gubbmint, none of which could be true.

"his brother Frank remembered him saying something more the effect of, "Gosh!" "
So Oppenheimer was the WWII era version of Napoleon Dynamite?
(chuckle)

"It would be so easy to paint him as either the demon...I think, is that he sums up a lot of the human condition, and the conflicts (albeit on a somewhat grander scale)"
dirtynumbangelboy I think Marvel had him in mind when they created Bruce Banner/The Hulk (in addition to of course Jekyll & Hyde).

Still, MADD has worked....so far. (I understand Russian Roulette is thrilling until it suddenly ends)

But the bomb would get made either way. He probably thought it was better to be involved than not be so he could have a chance of influencing events.
Peace through superior firepower looks great on a t-shirt, but people always forget that Nietzsche "The Abyss also gazes into you" thing.
We risk becoming the monster we ourselves fear.
I think it was clear he understood that. Perhaps he felt his intellect could shield the guttural using generals and politicians from making that mistake in an unthinking manner.
It's quite possible though he did not wish to grasp the sword he wanted the thrill of being the blacksmith. Power and the thrill of being associated with it can corrupt anyone. Recognition of one's intellect could be power, it is certainly thrilling. Even though he's terrified Dr. Frankenstein gets a surge of pride from watching his powerful monster bust the place up.
So it's not like we haven't seen this act before.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:27 PM on April 13, 2005


Part of the issue on demonstration versus operationally dropping the bombs had to do with the amount of fissionable material then available to construct more weapons in the event that the Japanese weren't convinced by the demonstration, as well as the fact that although a device had been tested under controlled conditions at Alamagordo successfully, it was by no means certain based on that one test that a successful repeat with a "weaponized" device would occur. A failed demo would have had obvious drawbacks.

This is perhaps less of an argument for the as-yet untested U235 weapon (Little Boy) in that, while not tested, the gun-type design concept had never really been in serious question, at least to the same extent that the more complex PU239 implosion design (Fat Boy) was.

onshi--I understand you're being disturbed by what admittedly may seem a callous attitude on my part in my statement above, & I agree with you about being very wary of lumping together average citizens & state/military decision makers. You must also admit that racism during WWII cut both ways & that the bushido code allowed Japanese soldiers to consider that enemies who surrended to them were subhuman and therefore not worthy of decency. This "culture" allowed/fostered the outrages at Nanking and elsewhere committed by Japanese troops. We're the average Japanese people to blame? - to the extent that they worshipped and blindly followed an Emperor who had abdigated his leadership responsibilities to the military - yes. Awful acts are committed in war - by my comments I in no means attempt to deny they we're commited on the American side. However, I question how much progress has been made in atoning for all the guilt that pervades Japanese society when their own leaders refuse to adequately acknowledge the slavery of POWs, "comfort women," Nanking & other atrocities & little if any meanignful attempt is made to reflect that past in current textbooks.

I don't believe in my country right or wrong, but I won't fault a decision made in that time and place that saved American lives for the reason that Japanese civilians suffered as a result. That doesn't make me a xenophobe. And while we're talking about the abilities, or inabilities, of a people and atoning for guilt, perhaps you can share instances during the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" in which Japan treated Korea, China or any other of its militarily won possessions in a like manner to that in which it was treated after the war by the U.S. (or Europe under the Marshall Plan for that matter).
posted by Pressed Rat at 1:28 PM on April 13, 2005


I feel obliged to point out (since it has been left unmentioned--or I managed to overlook it) that the Japanese/American racism went in the opposite direction as well. The same trend that saw Japan resist western influence and treat with contempt its own westernized Japanese citizens in the 30s and 40s was tied to the notion that the Japanese were the pinnacle of humanity and white people of the West subhuman. This line of thinking helped justify the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and Unit 731's torture (Cf. (but, to be fair, note also the alert) and also.
posted by kimota at 1:28 PM on April 13, 2005


You're right, Snyder, but that's also an argument for the importance of attempting to maintain a very accurate internal moral compass during wartime, when "the law falls silent."

That internal moral compass can help us stay clearheaded when, say, the President of the United States -- as he did the other day -- equates the toppling of that Saddam statue (in an event staged-managed by Army psy-ops teams, according to the Los Angeles Times) with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. But this is off-topic.
posted by digaman at 1:34 PM on April 13, 2005


Historian Eric Rauchway: "... if there were something like a professional historical consensus, this would be it. Nobody's happy about the bomb - Truman wasn't either - but you won't find hordes of historians going around accusing the Truman administration of using the bombs without military reasons in the midst of what was, after all, a brutal war in which the bombing of civilians had already been established as awful, common practice."

Joseph W. Alsop, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, October 23, 1980 (subscribers only, alas): "When considering any great political-military decision, and especially any great wartime decision potentially involving countless human lives, the only rational point of departure is the nature of the data available to the man who really made the decision—in this case, President Harry S. Truman. The main datum President Truman had to consider was the intelligence estimate by General Douglas MacArthur and his staff, that landing on the Japanese islands and eliminating armed resistance thereafter would cost quite literally hundreds of thousands of American soldiers dead or disabled by wounds. If I recall correctly—such estimates were circulated in wartime to the inner staffs of other related Theaters—I first saw the estimate in China. At any rate, the total of Americans to be killed or disabled was put at half a million and, later on, I am told, even higher. Long, long before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, furthermore, the MacArthur estimate had helped to shape the Far Eastern clauses of the Yalta agreement."

Alsop's letter also describes the struggle between the war faction and the peace faction within the Japanese Supreme War Council. "The official program of the war party was a fight to the last ditch by the entire Japanese nation, and then a fight in the last ditch with bamboo spears if need be. There are indications, to be sure, that War Minister Anami understood the need for peace. The principal indication was, quite simply, that he refrained from resigning and thereby bringing down the whole Suzuki Cabinet. But his minimum program was to satisfy the national honor with a gigantic final bloodbath, which would also force the US to accept retention of something resembling Japan's prewar political system when the time came to talk peace. The dimensions of the proposed slaughter can be judged from the forces that were being mustered to resist an American landing: 2,350,000 soldiers of the regular army backed up by 250,000 garrison troops; the entire remnants of the navy and all the airplanes in Japan, including training planes and numbering about seven thousand; 4 million civilian employees of the two services; and the whole civilian militia of 28 million men, women, and boys."
posted by russilwvong at 1:47 PM on April 13, 2005


The lengths to what people will go to to justify violence is why we will always have it.
posted by iamck at 1:54 PM on April 13, 2005


matteo writes " orthogonality, I have to break the news: Bomber Harris was a Brit. Churchill, too."

Yes, but the US Army Eighth Air Force also participated in the second two days of the three days of the Dresden fire-bombing, and, had bad weather not prevented it, would have begun the bombing the first day.


Now let's end the derails and get back to the main point of this FPP, after thanking russilwvong for giving us less heat and more light by quoting historians and contemporary accounts, rather than -- like myself and others -- just giving his own editorial opinion.
posted by orthogonality at 1:54 PM on April 13, 2005


Harry S. Truman: Advancing the Revolution: The ridiculously inflated figure of a half-million for the potential death toll – nearly twice the total of U.S. dead in all theaters in the Second World War – is now routinely repeated in high-school and college textbooks and bandied about by ignorant commentators.

Opening arguments for the prosecution: Q: Yes, let's come to that. On August 9, 1945, your figure for American soldiers spared by the bomb was "thousands and thousands," which climbed to 250,000 at the Gridiron Dinner that December, which topped off at 1,000,000 in a draft of Years of Decision, only to fall back to 500,000 in the published version in 1953. Can you produce any War Department document with any of those numbers on it?

A: No.

Q: Isn't it true, Mr. President, that the only casualty numbers you received for the invasion came from General Marshall in a June 18 White House meeting in which 31,000 casualties, meaning 7000-8000 dead, were estimated for the first thirty days of the Kyushu landing scheduled for November?

A: As I said in Years of Decision, General Marshall mentioned a half-million figure at Potsdam in July.

Q: Did he? But you have no record to back you up, no notes, no diary entry, and there's nothing in Marshall's archives, either. You simply made these figures up as you went along, hoping to deflect public opinion from the rain of nuclear ruin showered on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Yes, russilwvong added lots of light...
posted by Chuckles at 2:04 PM on April 13, 2005


I too, come late to this discussion, but ...

jmd82:

"One of the main reasons we even started investing into the atomic bomb was because German scientists were defecting to the United States and warning us of German research. Germany began research on atomic bombs before the US did and was very close to implementing them into warfare on smaller V2 rockets for tactical purposes rather than the largescale bombs that were dropped."

There are a number of inaccuracies in this as well as other peoples posts (e.g. 'they were about ready to surrender', 'we bombed Hiroshima & Nagasaki to show the Russians', etc), and I don't really want to head out and find a bunch of sources and link to them and take up all that time because I've read and researched this topic for literally decades.

I will say this however, I think that every American should read these two Richard Rhoades books:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

He won a Pulitzer for The Making of The Atomic Bomb (justifiably so), It not only gets into the nuts and bolts about how we got ourselves into the atomic age and it's ramifications we are STILL screwing around with, but it also is VERY illuminating on the ways of Big Government, Big Politics and Big Science.

Also, I can highly recommend "Shaterer of Worlds" as being a very well researched and well written biography of Oppy.

The correct quite is, when asked for his reaction on witnessing the first atomic blast at Trinity, Oppenheimer said:

"Some of us laughed. Some of us were silent. I was reminded of a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu Scriptures. Where Vishnu appears before the young prince and encourages him to do his duty says, 'Now I am become death, The Shaterer of Worlds'".

Also, in getting back to what jmd82 said ("One of the main reasons we even started investing into the atomic bomb was because German scientists were defecting to the United States and warning us of German research ... "), that's inaccurate, and it also reminds me of another of my favorite quotes/stories about this whole era:

The last article that Heisenberg published before all mention of German atomic research went 'dark' concerned the amounts and quantities of specific radiation produced in early (and very preliminary) atomic fission research.

This was published in a scientific journal, which was mailed out to various subscribers. Since this was in the dark days before the internet and such like, it hit those concerned in a sustained, rolling shockwave.

One of the first to receive the journal in the mail was Enrico Fermi, who was then working at Princeton.

This was fortuitous in a number of ways, but most relevantly, Fermi was particularly gifted and being able to quickly do the math involved in computing specific output (yield) from a given quantity of a know radioactive, and now demonstrably FISSIONABLE substance.

Fermi stopped reading the journal halfway through Heisenberg's article when he realized the meat of what he was reading, went to the chalkboard and went to work.

His office mate (whose name escapes me at the moment, but not the irony that Fermi had to share an office) came in later to find Fermi staring fixedly out the office window at the skyscrapers of New York off in the distance.

"Enrico?" he asked after Fermi did not even acknowledge his presence.

"Read that," Fermi said, Fermi said, gesturing at the calculation on the board without turning away from the skyline of Manhattan.

"What about them?"

"Don't you see?" he said finally turning to face his colleague. "All I need is THIS MUCH (he held his hands up to approximate the size of a baseball), and all that will be gone!"

On the word 'gone', he made a sweeping gesture, like wiping dust from a table top.

He turned wordlessly back to stare at the city in the distance, because he KNEW that if he could figure this out from Heisenberg's published works, so could others, and now it was only a matter of time.

His office mate said nothing for several minutes, and then left Enrico Fermi, Nobel Laureate, still staring out the window.
posted by Relay at 2:21 PM on April 13, 2005


I was pointing to an interesting article about his biography, and alas, I don't know what "6,000 works in NN" refers to
Some of your comments which you did correct were making the thread twisted. As it seemed up until your recent comments, you were trolling a post about this one man by this author here. So the wrong impression I had earlier gave ill feelings with the message of this post.
To the author; one man did not make or drop the bomb nor will you fully know how a person’s participating in the bomb being used fully affected their life. Unless you saw it by being a part of the person’s life.
Which is why I referenced the 6,000 workers in Los Alamos, New Mexico working under J. Robert Oppenheimer.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:22 PM on April 13, 2005


Well, I wasn't trolling anything, and if you'd typed "6,000 workers in NM" instead of "6,000 works in NN" I'd have understood what you were saying. Now I do. I hope your grandfather's involvement in the project hasn't caused you too much suffering. It must be pretty complex to be one of the guys who worked on it -- as Oppenheimer's life demonstrates.
posted by digaman at 5:07 PM on April 13, 2005


I just want to say that draftees are civilians too.

Also, Hague was an international treaty, there are no international laws. Japan had managed to isolate itself from the international community over the prior 10+ years so was in no position to come to the international community with claims of victimhood.

There are two levels of historical judgement: moral and wisdom. The moral judgement is what you would have done as POTUS knowing what Truman knew. The wisdom judgement is 'knowing what we know now'.

The larger judgement is that we, perhaps, could have procured the Japanese surrender on our terms if we had guaranteed the institution of the imperial household.

There is no historical way to determine if the surrender was engendered from the nukes or from Russia's surprise and successful invasion of Manchuguo.

IMV either was necessary but not sufficient (but I lean toward Stalin's entry as more significant), but this is a complicated case and arguing hypotheticals is quite pointless.

Anyone with a solid grounding of the course of events 1933 -> 1945 cannot fault the Allies. FDR provoked the Japanese attack in 1941 by insisting on the demilitarization of Indochina and scaling back of the IJA's predations in China.

The events of 1944 in liberating the Philippines (finding our POWs and Philippine allies so badly mistreated) and the 1945 island slogs hardened a lot of hearts.

The #1 rule of war is Don't Fuck Around. Japan had been building balloon bombs in the attempt of returning the terror bombing favor. These were desperate measures, but after the war we found plans for employment of submarine aircraft carriers launching biologic agent attacks on the mainland US. These were mostly abortive in nature but underscores one dimension of the realities behind the use of the bombs.

The IJA was still occupying large swaths of mainland Asia and Indonesia in August 1945. Opening a debate society on how to motivate the IJA to surrender peacefully wasn't in the cards. Killing was, since that was the language the Japanese militarists would understand most clearly.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 5:30 PM on April 13, 2005


Too bad the courage of your Resistenza ancestors never made it to their offspring.
posted by Krrrlson at 6:03 PM on April 13, 2005


thedevildancedlightly >>> Join again when you have a sense of nuance and/or graduate from the sixth grade. In the meantime welcome to my personal banlist.

I submit to you that it's your sense of nuance which needs fine tuning. I was (very clearly) pointing out the establishment/governmental attitude, and the deep and bitter irony of the situation. Looked at objectively (or, rather, from within the framework of 'rules' that govern wartime), the attack on Pearl Harbour (which, lest you get your knickers in a twist, I agree was horrific) was an act during wartime. The attitude, however, seems to be that pre-emptive strikes are only acceptable when 'our' side does them.

Of course, you won't be reading this. You're doing the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "neener neener neener!"

Which one of us is the child, again? I forget.

Back on-topic:

Yes, Smedleyman, I'd have to agree with some of your HUlk reference... though I think that the Hulk is more clearly a Jekyll/Hyde reference, updated via reference to JRO to provide a more realistic (in some senses) character; rather than the inevitable good/evil duality, we see (as with JRO) shades of rgey, and internal conflict.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:24 PM on April 13, 2005


"Don't you see?" he said finally turning to face his colleague. "All I need is THIS MUCH (he held his hands up to approximate the size of a baseball), and all that will be gone!"

Don't forget that "this much" requires enormous expense and engineering genius to get in the first place. It's not like gunpowder, which just about anyone could make. It still takes quite a bit of effort and money to get the top off the genie's bottle.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:27 PM on April 13, 2005


Krrrlson writes (apparently to matteo) "Too bad the courage of your Resistenza ancestors never made it to their offspring."

Thanks for elevating the debate, Krrrlson.

Will you proceed next to the "yo momma" jokes or the "nyah nyah boogerhead" jokes?

I don't happen to agree with matteo on this issue, but I agree even less with debasing discussion to what can be heard at any third-grade recess.

It's lacking in class to call matteo a coward, and it doesn't convince anyone his views are wrong, or that yours are right. So it's pointless and only serves to make you look bad. Why even do it? Why do it to yourself, and why make us listen to it?
posted by orthogonality at 6:44 PM on April 13, 2005


One of the things about the Manhattan project is that it was an industrial-scale undertaking. It was not experimental physics in the sense that the goal was to build one gadget. The goal was to build the total infrastructure of an atomic bomb industry.

Early on -- and this was one of Oppie's key leadership decisions -- it was decided that many many bombs would be needed. And that it wasn't going to be possible to build them out of enriched unranium. There just wasn't enough and it was going to be slow to produce.

But it was possible to take a relatively small amount of uranium and build reactors that would produce plutonium from thorium or unenriched uranium. So the trickle of uranium from Oak Ridge would slowly rise to a threshold where it would become several reactors at Hanford. These reactors would then produce a steady stream of plutonium.

The plutonium processing was the last bottleneck and when it was opened, the entire bomb-making industry came on line, rolling out 1-2 implosion devices a month.

The Little Boy (gun-type uranium bomb) was a backup device in case the problems with the plutonium production continued too long. There was no more uranium for bombs, not because we weren't producing it, but because it was committed to reactors for plutonium.

Once the plutonium started rolling out of the production line, there was a steady and unending supply of bombs.

So the initial plan was to build and drop bombs continuously until the war was won. I don't think in the military/political sphere ever thought of only dropping one or two. They were thinking 5, 10, 20, 30 bombs might be needed.

Oppie'e role was mostly as an administrator and team leader in putting together the bomb-making industry. From the moment that the Chicago pile went critical, there wasn't really any theoretical barrier to the bomb, only practical and logistical ones.

All the same, nobody in the decision chain really grasped what they were dealing with. Radiation was discounted, the general notion was that it was just a very big convential weapon. Once the fallout effects were made plain at Trinity, the knowledge did not spread very fast and never played a role in the decision to drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
posted by warbaby at 8:21 PM on April 13, 2005


the general notion was that it was just a very big convential weapon

Precisely. We'd already rained indiscriminate death:

Total civilian casualties in Japan, as a result of 9 months of air attack, including those from the atomic bombs, were approximately 806,000. Of these, approximately 330,000 were fatalities. These casualties probably exceeded Japan's combat casualties which the Japanese estimate as having totaled approximately 780,000 during the entire war. The principal cause of civilian death or injury was burns. Of the total casualties approximately 185,000 were suffered in the initial attack on Tokyo of 9 March 1945. Casualties in many extremely destructive attacks were comparatively low. Yokahoma, a city of 900,000 population, was 47 percent destroyed in a single attack lasting less than an hour. The fatalities suffered were less than 5,000.

The Japanese had constructed extensive firebreaks by tearing down all houses along selected streets or natural barriers. The total number of buildings torn down in this program, as reported by the Japanese, amounted to 615,000 as against 2,510,000 destroyed by the air attacks themselves.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 8:43 PM on April 13, 2005


It's lacking in class to call matteo a coward, and it doesn't convince anyone his views are wrong, or that yours are right. So it's pointless and only serves to make you look bad. Why even do it? Why do it to yourself, and why make us listen to it?

Because it is nothing less than cowardly to avoid honest debate by insulting and debasing opponents such as, oh say, by calling them Metafascists or fascist vermin (one-track mind here, apparently), then turning tail and hypocritically accusing other members of saying things they did not say. Those oh-so-clever names like KKKrlson and Likudgirl are also real classy. Really helps elevate the debate, as you so well put it.

So, to answer your question, I am subjecting your dainty little ears to these unpleasant words because I am a little tired of the unconditional asshole pass extended to some members here. Why is it that you have no trouble with the "Metafascists" quip yet find mine so jarring?
posted by Krrrlson at 9:31 PM on April 13, 2005


I get the last word, even if no one will read it.

It took time to read through my collection of back issues of LIFE magazine to look for reports of what the first reporters and correspondents wrote about what was found in Japan as the first occupying forces landed. What were the nature of homeland defenses and how had the Japanese military prepared for the expected invasion from American forces. How many Japanese would have been killed by conventional weapons if the decision had been made to not use the atomic bombs?

400,000 soldiers were in Honshu with sufficient arms and supplies to hold out for months. Based on events on Iwo Jima, Palau and Okinawa it's not likely that many of those troops would have surrendered. Adding potential civilian losses on Honshu, combined with additional losses throughout the rest of Japan it seems likely that Japanese losses would have numbered in the millions if the war had come down to a land assault.

So did the use of the atomic bombs against Japan in 1945 cost more Japanese live or did that use save the lives of "hundreds of thousands of fishermen, housewives, cooks, potters, and Zen monks in 1945" ?
posted by X4ster at 11:17 AM on April 14, 2005


Well put, X4ster.
posted by jenleigh at 11:39 AM on April 14, 2005


but after the war we found plans for employment of submarine aircraft launching biologic agent attacks on the mainland US.

The sub's first mission was changed to bomb The Panama Canal. Did you know the sub actually existed? A TV show several months ago showed the US Navy’s footage of it being scuttled. Think they may have been trying to hide its existence from the Russians.
Sunday, March 20, 2005 -- The deep-diving scientists of the University of Hawaii have discovered another monster lurking in the waters off Oahu.

During test dives Thursday, the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory's Pisces submarines found the remains of the Imperial Japanese Navy's I-401 submarine, a gigantic underwater aircraft carrier built to bomb the Panama Canal.

Their first mission was called "Operation PX," a plan to use the aircraft to drop infected rats and insects with bubonic plague, cholera, dengue fever, typhus and other diseases on American West Coast cities. When the bacteriological bombs could not be prepared in time, the target was changed to the Panama Canal.

posted by thomcatspike at 11:43 AM on April 14, 2005


chuckles quotes Ralph Raico: "The ridiculously inflated figure of a half-million for the potential death toll – nearly twice the total of U.S. dead in all theaters in the Second World War – is now routinely repeated in high-school and college textbooks and bandied about by ignorant commentators."

The estimate given by Alsop is for a half-million killed or disabled, i.e. a half-million American casualties, not dead.

There were more than 50,000 American casualties in the Battle of Okinawa, and something like 200,000 Japanese and Okinawan dead (military and civilian).

Regarding estimates for an invasion of Japan, Edward Linenthal's article on the controversial Enola Gay exhibit discusses the issue: "... a text in the first script read: 'After the war, estimates of the number of casualties to be expected in an invasion of Japan were as high as half a million or more American dead. . . . In fact, military staff studies in the spring of 1945 estimated thirty to fifty thousand casualties -- dead and wounded -- in "Olympic," the invasion of Kyushu. Based on the Okinawa campaign, that would have meant perhaps ten thousand American dead. Military planners made no firm estimates for "Coronet," the second invasion [of Honshu], but losses would clearly have been higher . . . . Early U.S. studies . . . underestimated Japanese defenses . . . . On June 18, 1945, Admiral Leahy pointed out that, if the 'Olympic' invasion force took casualties at the same rate as Okinawa [about 35 percent] that could mean 268,000 casualties (about 50,000 dead) on Kyushu.'"

John Gregory Dunne describes the Battle of Okinawa in a December 20, 2001 article in the New York Review of Books (again, subscribers only, sorry):

"The Okinawa invasion was designated L-Day rather than D-Day.... It would be the first battle ever fought by foreigners on Japanese territory—Okinawa (which means 'piece of offshore rope') was politically, although not culturally, a part of Japan, and was just 350 miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of the home islands. The invasion armada was the largest of the Pacific war —1,457 ships, including forty-plus aircraft carriers, eighteen battleships, scores of cruisers and support craft, 150 destroyers and destroyer escorts, and 430 troopships and landing craft carrying an invasion force of 567,000 men—four Army divisions and three Marine—50,000 of whom would go ashore on L-Day after five days and nights of naval and air bombardment.

"Called the Tenth Army, the ground troops were under the command of Army Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the son of a Confederate general who later became governor of Kentucky. Buckner's Tenth would face a garrison of 77,000 men, deeply dug into a labyrinth of hill forts that were like underground land battleships and all but impervious to the heaviest aerial bomb or sixteen-inch naval shell. Some were two-tiered with living quarters, ventilation shafts, and running water, and were connected to each other by a network of caves; one section alone was found to contain sixteen hidden light mortars, eighty-three light machine guns, forty-one heavy machine guns, seven antitank guns, six field guns, two mortars, and two howitzers, along with attendant supplies of food and ammunition. Iwo had proved, if it still needed proving, that the closer the war got to the homeland, the more determined the Japanese commanders were to fight to the death. Seventy thousand Japanese troops died on Okinawa; the toll of civilian dead was estimated at between 62,000 and 150,000 of the island's population of 460,000. Over 12,000 American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen were killed on land, sea, and in the air."
posted by russilwvong at 12:24 PM on April 14, 2005


The only thing good about war is its end (or absence). To the extent the bomb hastened that end I suppose it could be called good to drop it.
But I suppose that too is debatable.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:00 PM on April 14, 2005


Also, something else that no one's mentioned is that we were planning to use gas as part of the invasion of the home islands.

Shore and aerial bombardment. Gas attack. A last round of shore bombardment, and then it was on to the beaches.

Another nifty little bit of trivia is that the War Department had to plan ahead for everything (number of forks needed, mess tents, pencils, etc), and planning ahead for the invasion of Japan was no different.

The number of Purple Heart medals ordered:

700,000

The DoD is STILL drawing from that supply to this day.

Imagine Omaha Beach multiplied to horrific levels and drawn out for months (if not years), and you get a sense of the buzz saw the allies would be walking into.
posted by Relay at 2:27 PM on April 14, 2005


"To the extent the bomb hastened that end I suppose it could be called good to drop it. But I suppose that too is debatable."

Agreed. I wouldn't describe it as "good." I'd describe it as evil, but the lesser evil.

(This sometimes applies to war as well: if your choice is to give in to your adversary's demands, or to go to war, sometimes it's better to go to war. Consider the Winter War of 1939-1940, in which Finland fought the invading Soviet Union to a standstill.)

Hans Morgenthau, writing in "Scientific Man vs. Power Politics" (1946), argues that evil is inseparable from power, and criticizes moral perfectionism:

"There is no escape from the evil of power, regardless of what one does. Whenever we act with reference to our fellow men, we must sin, and we must still sin when we refuse to act; for the refusal to be involved in the evil of action carries with it the breach of the obligation to do one's duty. No ivory tower is remote enough to offer protection against the guilt in which the actor and the bystander, the oppressor and the oppressed, the murderer and his victim are inextricably enmeshed. Political ethics is indeed the ethics of doing evil. While it condemns politics as the domain of evil par excellence, it must reconcile itself to the enduring presence of evil in all political action. Its last resort, then, is the endeavor to choose, since evil there must be, among several possible actions the one that is least evil.

"It is indeed trivial, in the face of so tragic a choice, to invoke justice against expediency and to condemn whatever political action is chosen because of its lack of justice. Such an attitude is but another example of the superficiality of a civilization which, blind to the tragic complexities of human existence, contents itself with an unreal and hypocritical solution of the problem of political ethics. In fact, the invocation of justice pure and simple against a political action makes of justice a mockery; for, since all political actions needs must fall short of justice, the argument against one political action holds true for all. By avoiding a political action because it is unjust, the perfectionist does nothing but exchange blindly one injustice for another which might even be worse than the former. He shrinks from the lesser evil because he does not want to do evil at all. Yet his personal abstention from evil, which is actually a subtle form of egotism with a good conscience, does not at all affect the existence of evil in the world but only destroys the faculty of discriminating between different evils."
posted by russilwvong at 2:32 PM on April 14, 2005


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