Bret Stephens, a frequent opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal has essentially freed politicians of both parties to say anything they like—no matter how outrageous, offensive or unfactual—knowing they will not have made the most embarrassing statement of the decade. That honor now goes to Bret, who isn’t really all that much of a maverick, for writing a piece in praise of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago, under orders of U.S. President Harry S. Truman.
Stephens ends the piece with the sentence that also forms its headline: “And thank God for the atom bomb.”
How offensive can you get? It’s absolutely incomprehensible that someone would want his or her deity to bless nuclear weapons. The implication is that the world is better off because a large and growing number of nations can destroy mass numbers of people in seconds, poisoning hundreds of thousands of others with radiation-based diseases that will continue the killing for decades to come.
The article starts from the point of view of a young American soldier—later a writer of cultural history—who remembers his relief to learn that he didn’t have to become part of a Japanese invasion force. Stephens uses this anecdote by Paul Fussell to suggest that the best justification for the atom bomb is that it saved the lives of American soldiers. But as he admits himself later in the article, no one really knows if dropping the bombs saved lives, of if so, how many. Stephens stacks his speculation with numbers and ideas that are supposed to make us conclude that Truman did the right thing, because he spared an estimated 7,000 American causalities a week.
But before Stephens makes his case, he first has to insult the hundreds of thousands of people who join in anti-nuclear rallies or comment on the horrors visited on the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His statement is so shameful that I wonder if he or any of the Journal editors read the paragraph: “In all the cant that will pour forth this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bombs—that the U.S. owes the victims of the bombings an apology; that nuclear weapons ought to be abolished; that Hiroshima is a monument to man’s inhumanity to man; that Japan could have been defeated in a slightly nicer way…” A desire to end war is cant. The realization that nuclear weapons are too horrific to use is cant. The idea that it was inhumane to incinerate 240,000 civilians by pushing two buttons a few days apart is cant. The factual record of Japan’s willingness to end the war before we dropped the first atom bomb is cant.
The only thing cant is Stephen’s reasoning—he can’t seem to understand that certain acts are so terrible that there can’t ever be a reason to justify committing them.
The basic premise behind Stephens’ argument is that in wartime, we can justify all actions, no matter how intrinsically inhumane they are. Stephens and the Journal’s editorial board did support the use of illegal torture by the Bush II Administration, but they also wanted to invade Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from unleashing what turned out to be imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” on the region. And the fact that Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his own people sent Stephens and the Journal into a freaking frenzy.
The best I can determine is that Stephens believes that extreme acts of inhumane brutality should never be allowed unless they are committed by the United States.
Stephen ends the article by stating that it was the specific horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that compelled Japan to develop a less martial society and praises the United States for forgiving Japan its sins and helping the land of the rising sun to rebuild. Thus instead of wringing our hands for living in the land that committed the single two most ghastly and immoral acts in human history (the Holocaust, the death toll from British imperialism and the forced starvation of the Ukraine all consisting of a series of acts), we should instead pat ourselves on the back to celebrate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And instead of associating these gruesome acts with an “insipid pacifism salted with an implied anti-Americanism,” Stephens believes that we should learn the lessons of having a strong leader willing to do what it takes and not feel guilty about it.
Usually I spend some time on the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki apologizing for my country. This year I will apologize not just because we dropped the bomb but also because apologists for nuclear destruction still exist and thrive in the United States.