Dropping the Atomic Bombs Was Good, Actually

The use of atom bombs to end war with Japan in 1945 was not only defensible, but actively good. The critics who ignore the historical record and embrace presentist analysis fail to deal in reality.

Around this time each year, the Internet is flooded with hot takes about how the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indefensible, unnecessary, and downright evil. These critics label the bombings as one of the prime atrocities of American imperialism and use them as fodder for their argument that the United States is uniquely bad for the world. This year, the hot take machine has been supercharged by the release of director Christopher Nolan’s latest historical film, Oppenheimer. That movie, released on July 21, is a biopic following the career of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key scientists running the Manhattan Project and the man often called the father of the atomic bomb.

The film, which has received plaudits from reviewers and moviegoers, struck a nerve on Twitter, where it was accused of glorifying an act of devastating brutality. These critiques of the atomic bombings ranged from “it was unnecessary” and “Japan was already surrendering” to “Imperial Japan wasn’t that bad” and “the US was the real bad guy in the war.” And these indictments of the American actions in 1945 came from a true plethora of online communities: actual communists, anti-imperialist and anti-war activists (read: anti-American activists), Japanophiles and anime lovers, right-wing Catholics (for some reason), general contrarians, and assorted too-online weirdos.

The problem with this perpetual narrative is that it’s completely, unabashedly wrong. The use of nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945 was not only justifiable, it was at root correct. The decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives, including an order of magnitude more Japanese lives than it took. This is proven by the historical record and is eminently easy to understand if one actually decides to do good history. With that, let’s engage in some good history, shall we?

Read More »

Reluctance as Policy

The Biden administration has a fatally flawed understanding of our position vis a vis our geopolitical adversaries; their consequent reluctance to capitalize on weakness betrays American interests.

Geopolitics has always moved quickly in the modern era, accelerated by rapid communications and technological progress. Swift nautical vessels carried letters across vast distances in the Early Modern period; railways connected the world even faster, fundamentally altering the human perception of time itself; wired telegraphy made it so that messages could be transmitted as quickly as electrical currents could flow, while wireless telegraphy – the radio – created mass culture as we know it; television and satellite coverage made those messages into a natural audiovisual medium, bringing global events into sharp focus. Now, in the 21st century, information can flow from one corner of the world to the other instantaneously and powerful human and computer networks can work together to analyze, contextualize, and present this data nearly as quickly. This technology allows decision-makers near-total perception of the information environment. The task of statesmanship is to understand this information, determine what is salient and what is not, and – ultimately – to make choices on that basis.

Regrettably, the Biden administration is failing on that crucial task. Instead of making timely strategic and tactical decisions to forward our national interests and grand strategy, they have seemingly adopted a policy of reluctance. In an era of rising Great Power competition and conflict, we are signaling impotence with respect to our two primary geopolitical antagonists – Russia and China – just as they are each dealing with significant weaknesses of their own. This is exactly the time we should be showing strength and capitalizing on the challenges of our rivals, but instead we are proving indecisive and hesitant. That is a recipe for disaster.

Read More »

“An Ideal and Patriotic Interest”: Strategy in the South Pacific

The South Pacific has once again become a strategic theater for Great Power competition, and the US is falling behind. Still, it is not too late to win the day and cement American primacy in a critical region.

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “South Pacific”? For most, it likely conjures up images of white sandy beaches, lush tropical forests, and incredibly expensive vacations. Others may think of the musical of the same name, or the hard-fought WWII campaign pitting the Americans against the Japanese. For a small number of us, it brings to mind one thing above all else: strategic competition. The region has been a hotbed of imperial rivalry for at least the past 150 years, ebbing and flowing in its importance as various world powers have risen and fallen. Now, its strategic role has returned with a vengeance, as China vies with the United States and its regional allies for local primacy. New developments in the China-US competition over these myriad islands have brought the issue into sharper focus, called to mind important historical parallels, and led to a key question: what should the US do to claim the upper hand in this struggle for power and influence?

Read More »

‘Scratch a Russian’: The Influence of the ‘Mongol Yoke’ on Russia


“Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar.” This famous aphorism playing up the relationship between Russians and the steppe peoples who once lorded over them under the auspices of the Golden Horde has been used to denigrate or dismiss Russia in comparison to Western Europe for centuries. But does this maxim contain a grain, or more, of truth? The debate over this important question has been raging for longer than the Horde control over Russia lasted, and it has no conclusive end in sight. According to Charles Halperin, “Most specialists in medieval Russian history have described the Mongol influence as negligible or entirely deleterious” (Golden Horde vii), but more recent scholarship has challenged these age-old conclusions. In a lively discussion in the pages of the journal Kritika, scholars Halperin, Donald Ostrowski, and David Goldfrank litigate this issue with gusto; these debates exemplify the diverse positions that can be plausibly argued given the available evidence.  In the case of the ‘Mongol Yoke’, clear evidence is unfortunately lacking. Due to the sack of the Golden Horde capital of Sarai by the warlord Tamerlane around 1395, we are entirely lacking any archival records of the Tatar[*] administration of Russia. Russian sources are far more prevalent, but as will be discussed later, are also heavily biased against the Tatars and any possible positive influence they had on their Russian successors. Given this evidentiary challenge, falling on either side of a binary on the question of the impact of the ‘Mongol Yoke’ seems somewhat absurd, yet many scholars take these positions. The true answer likely lies deep in the gray area between the two poles. This paper will argue that the ‘Mongol Yoke’ had a distinct, significant impact on its direct successor state of Muscovy, as well as future Russia, but that the new state did not necessarily see itself as a direct continuation of the Tatar legacy nor did it adopt Tatar institutions wholesale. Evidence of the Tatar impact, or lack thereof, in the areas of economics, military matters, the administrative state and its institutions, religion, and culture will be examined.

Read More »

The Road Not Taken: Medieval Novgorod as an Alternate Path in Russian History


Counterfactuals and hypotheticals can be useful frames through which to examine history, as they can help scholars understand that the future is never set in stone and that contingent factors leading to diverging paths can result in wildly different potential outcomes for societies. Pre-Imperial Russian history is replete with these sorts of ‘what-if’ questions, ranging from thoughts about possible development were the Mongols to have avoided Russia to changes that may have resulted from a full Polish takeover of Muscovy during the Time of Troubles. One such question that sparks the imagination is: What would Russian history look like if the medieval statelet which anchored the nascent Russian nation was Novgorod instead of Muscovy? Would Russia have made a decisive turn towards Europe, centuries before the actions of Peter the Great? Unfortunately, historians can never know the answers to these questions; yet by studying the unique cultural aspects of medieval Novgorod, its parallel, but opposing development with respect to Muscovy, and the institutions and policies that made it different, we can envision the road not taken.

Medieval Novgorod, often styled as ‘Great Novgorod’ (Velikii Novgorod) or ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’ (gospodin Velikii Novgorod) after the mid-fourteenth century[1], was a semi-autonomous city-state located in the northwest of the lands comprising the polity of Kievan Rus’. It was distinct in nearly all attributes of state and society – economics, culture, religion, foreign relations, and internal politics – from other Russian polities of the time, particularly Muscovy. Novgorod was an essentially independent entity within greater Russia from the time of its expulsion of Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich in 1136 through its capture by Grand Prince Ivan III in 1478[2], but its history and alternative path began at least two centuries earlier. The city-state’s unusual character was reflected in its status as the only nominally republican polity in the Russian lands, as well as its ability to abstract itself from many of the typical concerns and politics that roiled its neighbors. It was able to keep its singular way of life, system of government, and ancient privileges of self-rule intact through five centuries of unmitigated chaos which completely upended the rest of Russian society. Novgorod’s history can be handily divided into four segments: the period of early settlement and development (900s to 1136), the phase of initial autonomy under Kiev (1136 to 1240), the era of local rule under the Mongols (1240 to 1387), and the final age of independence before the Muscovite takeover (1387 to 1478).[3] During this era of autonomy and self-rule, the city-state controlled more than the city of Novgorod proper and its immediate environs; it held and administered a territorial and colonial empire that, at its zenith, “stretched from the Baltic to the Urals and covered an area approximately the size of present day France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined.”[4]

Many attributes of Novgorod were remarkable when it came to the rest of Russia in the medieval period, but four key factors are the most relevant to the city-state’s development as an alternative to Muscovy: internal politics, foreign affairs, economics and commerce, and religion and culture. All of these realms of Novgorodian civilization were distinct from those of Muscovy in the medieval era and presage some of Imperial Russia’s future alignments and ideologies. From strong relations with the West, especially Germany, to the focus on commercial expansion and resource exploitation, Novgorod was reminiscent of Peter the Great’s Russia, as well as contemporary European maritime city-states. Novgorod was an outpost of high culture and religious piety in an age when neither were in large supply elsewhere in Russia; the pragmatic policies of the city-state allowed it to weather the storms of internecine Russian warfare, Mongol invasion and hegemony, and rising Muscovite autocracy – at least until 1478. It was in that fateful year that Novgorod’s nominal autonomy, independent status, and inimitable civic ethos fell to the armies of Moscow; still, Novgorodian cultural currents remained bubbling under the surface as a wellspring of the famed Russian ideology of dissent for centuries afterwards.[5] Before delving into the specific traits of Novgorodian life that made it special, it is critical to contextualize how and why Novgorod was able to develop this exceptionality.

Read More »