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?
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stems not from Soviet nostalgia, but a deeper desire for Russian Imperium. How should the West respond?
[Note: This piece was initially published in February 2022, a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was reposted in February 2023 as the first anniversary of the war approached.]
As you likely have seen, the predicted invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces has indeed come to pass. It has only been a few days, and the fog of war is still thick on the ground, but the invasion seems to be total and the resistance has been fierce. Russian forces have attacked all across the country, from the coastal cities of Odessa and Mariupol, to the northern areas around Kharkiv and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to the capital of Kyiv itself. Ukraine’s defense has been stronger than many observers – including the Russians – had anticipated, and acts of heroism have been reported widely. The war is moving very quickly, and the facts on the ground may have even changed by the time you read this; as such, this piece is not meant to be an exhaustive update on the military situation in Ukraine – there are far more knowledgeable people than I writing about that. What I can do, however, is explain and correct a key misconception in how many Western pundits and politicians – President Biden included – view Vladimir Putin’s motivations for this attack. They are correct in seeing Putin as driven by historical factors and nostalgia for past glory, but they ascribe that longing to the wrong era. He looks not to the Cold War of the 20th century, but to the Great Power conflict of the 19th. The Russian President does not seek to become the leader of a revived Soviet Union, but a new Tsar. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn’t; understanding this historic rationale and properly contextualizing it can help us better understand Putin’s worldview, learn a great deal about his future ambitions, and determine how best to respond to this unprovoked invasion.
The rhetoric of imminent threats to the political system has been used and abused throughout history to stifle dissent, polarize politics, ostracize opposition, and much, much worse.
Political persuasion has been an art for millennia, going back to the very earliest non-absolutist systems such as ancient Greece and republican Rome. In those days, the targets of persuasion were primarily a socially-homogenous elite oligarchy which controlled politics without real input from the majority of the people. As time went on and these systems evolved (with fits and starts) into their more modern and recognizable forms, bringing more people into the political process, the targets of persuasion broadened. This expansion of the electorate, especially after the democratic revolutions and reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries, helped lead to the simplified messaging, inflammatory rhetoric, and hyperbolized language we are so familiar with today. Perhaps the easiest message by which to persuade voters to your side is the invocation of peril, especially to the political system or “way of life.” Much of the power of this message emanates from the association of the State with the People more broadly; instead of Louis XIV’s formulation “L’état, c’est moi,” we have a more pluralistic – although no more accurate – vision, “Létat, c’est nous.” This binding of People with State makes it possible to expand a narrow political danger to encompass all of society, feeding an attitude of existential menace. This stoking of a feeling of danger to the very foundations of the nation (and thus the People) is a powerful motivator by which to get your way politically; as such, it has been used by governments repeatedly over the past two centuries to achieve their goals – often for the worse.
The term ‘useful idiot’ has a long and storied Cold War history, often being used to pejoratively describe Western leftists who amplified and played into Soviet propaganda. Useful idiocy came in many forms, from outright laundering of Soviet lies (see Walter Duranty) to simply falling for the USSR’s disinformation and false narratives. Some in the latter category still exist today and seriously argue that, for instance, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were not actually spies (apparently they have not seen the Venona Files). Most of these useful idiots were on the political left, but the main thing that their politics had in common was a reflexive anti-American bent. Useful idiocy as a relevant political concept fell out of favor at the same time the Soviet Union did, and most thought it relegated to works of history. Now, just as Great Power conflict has returned with a vengeance, so have the useful idiots.
Seventy years ago today, on April 3, 1948, President Harry Truman signed into law the most sweeping non-military foreign policy achievement of the 20th Century, perhaps in all of American history. That success, colloquially known as the Marshall Plan, helped revitalize Europe, set the stage for the next 50 years of American relations with the continent, and largely shaped the Europe we know today.Read More »