Monday Morning Quarterbacking
A Supper Club Talk
Lynn A. Brant
There has been an unwritten (and quite often not followed) rule that one must not speak on one's professional area. I'll be delving into history a bit in this talk, but my only professional component in history is "earth history". I have often talked about events of hundreds of millions of years ago, but tonight I will go back only seventy some years.
A letter to The Atlantic magazine once claimed that if the colonists had been a little milder in their rhetoric in 1775 we might have avoided the Revolutionary War, and over time, our differences with England would have diminished. England eliminated slavery in 1833, which would have avoided our Civil War. Then in 1914, Germany would have seen that England, with the strength of the United States behind it, would have been too great a foe and would not have started World War I. Without WW I there would not have been WW II. Our country would be like Canada and all would have been at peace.
As somewhat of an Anglophile, I find this pleasing; however, it is total and utter nonsense. Maybe the war with England would have started in 1833, or maybe that would have been the start of our Civil War. Maybe there would have been some other world war with Maine and Mississippi on opposite sides. Who knows?
Looking back in history, one can make reasonable cause and effect connections to show that A caused B which then caused C, but eliminating A in the past would not have created a vacuum of events from that time forward. If no A, then no B and C, but we might have had events D, E, and F. The progression of the course of humanity through time is an almost infinite series of actions taken by millions of people at every turn. Once an action is taken a whole new set of options then exists.
John Lewis Gaddis in his The Landscape of History uses the metaphor of a landscape for the past. The historian cannot visit that landscape but tries to understand it in her mind. It is a landscape partially shrouded in fog. Even if we had a time machine to take us to that past landscape, we would still have only a view of it no larger than that of just one person. We cannot get into the minds of the people of the past except as documents and other accounts permit. This is the job of historians.
A characteristic of history is that it is chaotic: meaning that outcomes are very sensitive to initial conditions. As Gaddis points out, the actions of a Hitler or a Lee Harvey Oswald altered everything from that time forward. But what if the person making the cartridge that went into Oswald's rifle had had a moment of distraction that allowed an imperfect shell to not fire when Oswald pulled the trigger? That or any of a million other things could have altered the events of that morning in Dallas? Every moment is the beginning of the rest of history and the outcomes are sensitive to the conditions at that moment.
The participants of history - that being everyone who is alive - also cannot know at the time how things will work out in the future. We make decisions on what we think will produce some desired effect, but we can never be sure. As Yogi Berra once said, "prediction is difficult, especially about the future" (more or less). Looking back and examining a moment in history and then predicting what would have happened in light of different decisions people might have made at that time is fraught with the same difficulties. We simply don't know what would have been the outcome in world events if Oswald's rifle had not fired. Would there have been the Viet Nam War or the civil rights laws that were passed during the Johnson administration?
To criticize or condemn the decisions made in history by other people is Monday morning quarterbacking. It's easy to criticize from a distance of time and space, and say, "they should have done ..." or "they never should have done ...". We who are making those post hoc evaluations were not there. We are even limited in using history for our own decision-making because the future landscape will not be that of the past. Think of the wisdom and utility of Maginot Line which was built with the historical knowledge of WW I in mind!
The summer of 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Although I was only three in that summer of 1945 and little aware of world events taking place, the War shaped my life in many ways in the seven decades since. This was especially true of my service in the Navy during the Viet Nam War where I served with and under men who fought at Midway and other places. We were even using some of the weapons from World War II in Viet Nam.
Many analyses of the War have been made since 1945, and many of the participants have written books telling their view of the conflict. Many of these books are self-serving, and all the authors had only a limited perspective of that great struggle. All the important decision makers are now dead, and none of us was there, but people like to argue about what happened and what should or should not have happened. These arguments amount to Monday morning quarterbacking.
On the morning of the 6th of August, 1945, the United States used an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima with an explosive force equivalent to about 15-20,000 tons of TNT, and it wiped out the center of the city and something like 100,000 to 150,000 lives. Three days later the U.S. used another atomic bomb on another city, Nagasaki, killing at least another 50,000 people. These were the only atomic weapons that have ever been used in warfare. More than 70 years after these events, several countries around the world now possess the ability to go to war using nuclear weapons, but so far they have not been used. On and around the 70th anniversary of the bombs I saw lively discussions online about whether using the bombs was morally and militarily justified. This topic is ripe for discussion and contemplation and many people have strong feelings about whether we should have used those weapons in 1945. But the fact is that they were used and many people died. It is part of world history, and nothing will change that. But the Monday morning quarterbacking is still going on.
Looking back, decades after the events, many have put forth various arguments why we should or should not have used the bombs. Many of the arguments for and against using the bombs have merit, but all are somewhat affected by the distortions inherent in all historical accounts. No one in this room was in or near Hiroshima or Nagasaki in 1945, nor were any of us in the decision-making roles in 1945. We must rely on personal accounts handed down and documents in libraries and the like. Even more so, we depend upon historians who have analysed these accounts and documents. Many of the first-person accounts are very biased in attempts to make the authors look good or to justify their decisions in wartime. Others at the time have expressed views and opinions based upon their very limited awareness of conditions surrounding events at the end of the war. As Bob Robinson once said to me that anything written within the first fifty years of an historical event is questionable. Good, well-researched history, written by impartial analysts, after the passions of the events have cooled down, come the closest. And as Gaddis says, even those accounts are subject to different interpretations. In addition to analysing the War itself, the events and decisions made during the War have had long-lasting consequences, and the 70 years that have elapsed since the War gives us an opportunity to assess those consequences. Other than seeing the effects on those two cities at the time, no one in 1945 could have foreseen the long-term influences of those bombs on how the events have worked out over these intervening years.
Many of those claiming that the United States should not have used the bombs against Japan seem to base their case on three main arguments. First, using the bomb to kill innocent civilians was an immoral act. Second, they claim that the war was essentially over, Japan was defeated and about to surrender and the use of the bombs was pointless slaughter of civilians. Third, we should have exploded one bomb in a remote area in a demonstration of its effects so the Japanese would realize the potential destruction of their country if they did not surrender. I think each of these claims is fraught with logical weaknesses, and I want to explore these just a bit.
Unlike some other wars that the United States has been involved in, we entered World War II with great reluctance. The Nazi war machine was running over Europe for more than two years before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and then Germany declared war on us in December of 1941. Japan quickly ran over much of the Pacific as Germany was destroying civilization in the other half of the world. We weren't fully aware, at that time, of the atrocities that were being carried out by these two military powers, but we knew we had no choice but to fight an all-out war. Before it was over in 1945, millions of people died, many more millions lost spouses, children, parents, and friends. Many were made homeless as their cities were attacked, and in many cases, destroyed. The war was not fought on isolated battlefields away from civilian populations, but fought on land, in the air, and on the sea over very large portions of the planet.
New technologies were applied in this massive killing machine: the latest battleships and aircraft carriers, heavy, long-range bombers, advanced fighter aircraft, radar, proximity fuses, napalm, jet aircraft, ballistic missiles, atom bombs, and more. And the war was led by a fanatical attitude of the Japanese that saw a greater dishonor in surrender than in complete annihilation of their country. Hitler wanted the Germans to fight to the last man. There has never been any war on the face of the earth that was like World War II. We had no choice about fighting that war and no choice about winning it.
Morality is defined as the character of rightness or wrongness, and being in accord with principles or standards of right and wrong. An act is moral if it is in accordance with a set of standards of good conduct. But where do these standards originate? E. O. Wilson explains that humans are an eusocial species with the capacity to have empathy and altruism, in that they sometimes place the welfare of the community above their own individual welfare. Part of being human is the recognition and necessity of a moral code. Morality permits individuals to get along harmoniously within society. But this moral code is not etched across the cosmos; it changes through time and among different groups of people, and the capacity for altruism apparently goes back in time to before our species evolved. What might be moral at one time within a certain group might not be moral in another time and place. Think of the changing attitudes toward slavery, race relations and the worth of and rights of women. The dentist from Minnesota who shot Cecil, the lion, would have been within the moral code of a century ago but found his actions at odds with many Americans in the 21st century. Alcohol passing over the lips is regarded as immoral by Methodists (at least when I was growing up), but Lutherans take communion using real wine!! And Unitarians drink the stuff for fun!
But the peace-time moral code breaks down - and may even become a disadvantage - in war. When the survival of one's community is at stake, the dominant rule that applies is to survive and to win the struggle, and the moral code is altered to fit. The altruism is now directed only toward members of the group one sees oneself as being in. Now the welfare of one's companions take precedence over the individual's welfare. A soldier runs out into the rain of shrapnel and flying bullets to save a buddy, not just to win the war for the United States.
Especially in World War II, the distinction between combatant and civilian disappeared. Those in uniform under immediate fire were supported by all their comrades who worked toward victory: the fellows who loaded the artillery shells into the guns, the guys who ran the engines of the aircraft carriers that launched the bombers that went after the enemy planes and ships that threatened the Marines on Guadalcanal and other battlefields. But this chain of support ran back to the scientific labs designing new weapons, the factory worker who produced those weapons, the woman who riveted the wings on the fighter planes in St Louis, and the farmer in Iowa who grew the grain to feed those guys dodging bullets on the battlefield. These people were no less part of the war than the ones in immediate combat. This was also true of the Germans and the Japanese.
The moral code becomes "to do one's duty", to contribute to winning the war, to defeat the enemy, and if necessary, to kill and maim, to render wives widows, and children orphans. A PBS series a few years ago was about an American fighter pilot over Europe after the D-Day landings. He told of strafing German soldiers and having to decide whether to aim slightly differently to take out a soldier who was about to escape his guns. He said he knew that soldier probably had a wife and kids, a mother and father, and hopes for a long life, but that same soldier might kill an American soldier the next day. He had no choice but to touch the rudder and fill the man with bullets. The life of the potential American soldier became more important than the life of the enemy combatant. His duty was clear. The moral code of war took precedence over our peace-time ideas of right and wrong.
However, "you can't escape thinking about history in moral terms" says Gaddis in his The Landscape of History. "The reason is that we [humans] are, unlike all others, moral animals." Gaddis quoting R. G. Collingwood says, "History cannot be scientifically written unless the historian can re-enact in his own mind the experience of the people whose actions he is narrating." Gaddis goes on to say, "The resulting impressions will never be the same as your own." I take this all to mean that we can evaluate the morality of people and their actions in history but we must be extremely careful. Evaluating the morality of Hitler is easy; that of others not so. Judging the morality of the atom bomb must take into account more than the horror of the killing of two hundred thousand people at the time.
There are two other considerations that apply to historical events, and especially to World War II. The first of these is the recognition that nobody had a complete, synoptic view of all the events and conditions at the time. This is often referred to as "the fog of war" but it applies to peacetime events as well. All wars involve new technologies and tactics, but World War II was outstanding in its use of new weapons and the need to meet new challenges. Much of the War was trial and error. We tried bombing ball bearing plants because we thought that would bring down the Nazi war machine, but it didn't work. We bombed German aircraft plants, but that only partially worked. When we bombed their oil supply and synthetic oil plants we got some real results. We also bombed rail marshalling yards to considerable effect, but that killed a lot of civilians. We finally bombed the hearts of cities resulting in more deaths. After we started to use B-29's against Japan we leveled city after city. We used bombing campaigns in what we thought would shorten the War to avoid more loss of lives on our side. In addition, the Germans were developing new weapons at a fast clip, such as jet fighters and ballistic missiles, which made victory as quick as possible an overriding concern. We had to do what we thought at the time was necessary to end the War, and to end it quickly.
I find it interesting that the use of the two atom bombs against Japan is considered by some as a moral issue, but the fire bombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 that killed nearly as many people is rather forgotten. There is also the matter of the killing of hundreds of thousands more in other bombing campaigns. Is the killing of 100,000 people in a millisecond flash less moral than killing the same number over several hours in a firestorm? The objection to the use of atomic bombs against Japan on moral grounds has its weaknesses, unless one wants to argue that our whole war effort was immoral and that we should have never fought. But not fighting the enemies in World War II would have been encumbered by many bigger moral questions.
To criticize the morality of Truman and his advisors suggests that our morality is superior. Can we justify that? What gives us reason for such a belief? Had we been there and knowing what was then known (not what we know now), would we have acted differently? Some of us would and some wouldn't - that is the nature of conducting a war. And we don't really know which of us would have made the wiser decision over the course of history. And who among us have had the burden on our shoulders of having to win a war?
The second criticism of using the atomic bombs was that Japan was defeated and about to surrender, and that the bombs were not necessary; the bombs were overkill, if you like. But this argument is also weak.
I've never done this experiment but it is claimed that if you throw a frog into hot water it will immediately jump out. However, if you place a frog into a pot in cool water and then gradually heat it up, the frog will not jump out. The frog gradually gets used to the rising temperature and will cook to death. Of course, we see lots of cases of this kind of thing among humans - the rise of violence and poverty in our cities, for instance. This also applied to Japan in World War II. Although a long way from being defeated after Midway and Guadalcanal, Japan's fortunes were headed downhill after those battles. Once we took the Marianas from where we could reach all parts of Japan with our B-29's and after we effectively destroyed their navy at Leyte Gulf, Japan had essentially no chance of winning. Without a navy, her troops, scattered across the Pacific, could not be brought to bear, and she was cut off from vital supplies. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was in October of 1944 - more than nine months before Hiroshima. During those nine months we took Iwo Jima and Okinawa at great cost. Just in the battle for Okinawa, there were 12,000 Americans killed and 36,000 wounded. The Japanese lost 110,000 soldiers and some 150,000 civilians who were killed. We bombed city after city, including that raid on Tokyo in March of 1945 - five months before Hiroshima. The Japanese themselves had determined that they had lost the war by as early as January 1944, a year and a half before Hiroshima.
The Tokyo raid on 9 March destroyed over a quarter-million buildings, left over a million people homeless and more than a hundred thousand dead or wounded. Two days later we hit Nagoya with 1790 tons of incendiaries, and two days after that B-29's dropped 1644 tons of incendiaries on Osaka. Then Kobe was hit three days after that by 2400 tons wiping out much of that city. In just eleven days we flew almost 1600 sorties against these four key industrial cities. After March of 1945 no tanker reached Japan to bring in the oil she needed to carry on the war. Those in command of running the war, were getting used to defeat. They were numb to the destruction of their military and their cities. There was no question about Japan being defeated by the summer of 1945, but when would she surrender?
What the atomic bombs did was to throw, in a matter of speaking, a splash of hot water on the frog. But even after the destruction of Hiroshima, the Japanese Supreme Council for the Direction of the War was deadlocked. Calling for one last great battle on Japanese soil, General Anami, the war minister, argued against surrender and is quoted:
Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?" (quoted from Hopkins)
There was the big question among the Americans about how to end the war. The Soviet Union was prepared to enter the war on the 15th of August. There were American plans to invade the home islands with a million troops in what could be expected to be very heavy losses. The Japanese had two and a half million troops on the home islands plus they were conscripting all males between 15 and 60 years of age and all females between 17 and 45. These "civilians" were being armed with everything from bamboo spears to carpenter awls. Everything the Japanese could use to kill Allied soldiers was being prepared for this final, and awful, bloodbath. Truman later wrote that he had asked General Marshall about casualties if we were to invade Japan, to which Marshall indicated a quarter million Americans casualties. That did not include Japanese losses.
Truman had advisors in his decision to use the bomb. A highly secret committee was established consisting of eight members, that included three prominent scientists, which met in May of 1945. At the end of the month the committee met for two days with an additional advisory panel consisting of four physicists involved in building the bomb: Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton, E. O. Lawrence, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. The committee and scientific panel were unanimous in recommending use of the bomb against Japan as soon as possible, and to use it in a way that it would serve as a demonstration of its effects.
In mid-July the allied leaders met at Potsdam, outside of Berlin. Shortly before meeting with Churchill and Stalin, Truman learned of the successful test of the atom bomb. The Potsdam Conference put together terms for Japan to surrender, terms that some thought were quite generous. This offer was at first turned down, but it was essentially accepted by Emperor Hirohito the day after the bombing of Nagasaki.
An invasion of Kyushu was planned for November, 1945, and the Americans, including Truman, expected the war to last well into 1946. If Anami's suggestion to allow Japan to be destroyed had been followed, the bombs did indeed save perhaps millions on both sides. The war was definitely not over!
David McCullough, the historian, writes:
"And how could a president or the others charged with responsibility for the decision, answer to the American people if when the war was over, after the bloodbath of an invasion of Japan, it became known that a weapon sufficient to end the war had been available by midsummer and was not used?"
This leaves the third question of whether it would have been better to blow up some unoccupied area to demonstrate the power of the bombs. Truman's secret advisory committee considered this option and decided against it. I find this Monday morning argument particularly weak.
Disregarding the practical aspects and logistics of exploding the bomb (which we weren't even quite sure would work) in a place that would make a mental impact upon the Japanese Command, what would such a demonstration accomplish? Singed grass and blown-over palm trees aren't very convincing. What it would have shown the world is that we then had a very powerful weapon, and every country would decide they needed one too without understanding the true effects such a weapon could produce. The bombs we had in 1945 were not one-off, never-to-be repeated devices; they were the opening of a brand new technology that would eventually spread around the world. Singed grass and blown-over palm trees do not have the emotional and intellectual effect of seeing a leveled city, a woman's dress pattern burned into her back by the intense radiation, and a best-selling book, Hiroshima by John Hersey, describing the effects of such a weapon. Would Hersey have written about singed grass and blown-over palm trees?
Within a rather small number of years several countries had the bomb; but not just the bombs measured in terms of tens of kilotons but in terms of tens of megatons. Bombs one thousand times as powerful as the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in the hands of the Soviets and several other countries.
We can make a good argument that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indeed demonstrations - realistic demonstrations - of the effects of atomic weapons. The very fact that no nuclear weapon has ever been used in over seventy years, effectively bolsters that argument. Had several countries gone on to develop thermonuclear weapons, as they did, and then plunge the world into a war using those weapons, more people would have been killed than in all of World War II. The demonstrations on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have done much more than ending that war; they may have saved the world itself over the following decades. Singed grass and blown-over palm trees would not have done that.
Referring back to The Atlantic letter suggesting that the colonists rhetoric was too strong and that history would have been much different had we been more polite, our not using atomic bombs in World War II would have also affected history in unknown ways. The war may have lasted a few more weeks or months, many more would have been killed in conventional warfare, and the Russians might have insisted upon a division of Japan like Germany. Of course, we'll never know what might have happened. But imagine a divided Japan controlled in part by the Soviets: would that have been good for the Japanese? Monday morning quarterbacking can't evaluate these imponderables.
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Bradley, James, 2003, "Flyboys", Little, Brown, and Company, 398 pp
Cutler, Thomas J., 1994, "The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944", Naval Institute Press, 343 pp
de Waal, Frans, 2013, "The Bonobo and the Atheist", W.W. Norton & Co., 289 pp
Gaddis, John Lewis, 2002, "The Landscape of History: how historians map the past", Oxford University Press, 192 pp
Hersey, John, 1946, "Hiroshima", Alfred A. Knopf, 152 pp
Hopkins, William B., 2008, "The Pacific War: the strategy, politics, and players that won the war", Zenith Press, 392 pp
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