Thank God For the Atomic Bomb: Fussell the Contrarian.

by Jamie Lutton

Paul Fussell  died a few days ago, and my business partner who writes most of the articles for this site suggested I write about him, because of what I owe my very existence to.

Fussell is renowned for writing Class and The Great War in Modern Memory, and I have read both of these books.  However, my personal connection is to his essay Thank God for the Atomic Bomb, which I think he wrote to upset people, by taking an unpopular point of view on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. 

He got the title from William Manchester, a respected historian. In his book  Goodby Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War; he said:
After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion Japan’s home islands – a staggering number of  Americans but millions more of  Japanese – and you thank God for the Atomic Bomb.

Fussell was a veteran of World War II, and had knowledge of what was going on in the Chinese mainland before the atomic bombs were dropped. Thousands of people – Chinese, Japanese, and American civilians and solders were dying from direct combat or as civilian casualties. Allied casualties ran to 7,000 a week alone.   Eminent economic experts, like John Kenneth Galbraith, after the fact, deplored the dropping of the atomic bombs. He is an author and economist, who had served in FDR’s cabinet, in charge of controlling inflation during the war. He is an author I revere,  that I have rarely disagreed with; an important Keynesian who has written intelligently and well about American follies and economic fortunes. But here, he had no hands-on experience in the war.

The Hiroshima bomb made a cloud 11 m. high.
Fussell wrote “he’s  (Galbraith) not the only one to have forgotten, if he ever knew, the unspeakable savagery of the Pacific War.”  Fussell pointed out that Galbraith (and other contemporaries who deplored the use of the bomb) did not have boots on the ground military experience.  To put it bluntly, they had not carried a gun, slog though the mud and shoot people, over and over.  And had not had to face the fury of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific, which had had over five years to entrench themselves in China and other lands they occupied.

There was a lot of abuse of the Chinese population during the Japanese occupation alone.  In one city alone, Nanking, in a six week period in 1937, 250,000 to 300,000 civilians were massacred, some rounded up while alive and flung into mass graves and buried alive, bayoneted, etc. Infants and women were not spared.

Nanking was the capitol at this time of the Republic of China, so I imagine the Japanese wanted to absolutely control the country by destroying its capitol..  So, when preparing for the invasion of Japan, at the end of the war, the American military leaders knew that there would be heavy causalities on both the Japanese side and the American side. The Japanese government was blindly determined to sacrifice their own people and fight street to street to hold the Japanese mainland.  When the bomb was dropped on those two cities, the Japanese gave up.

I have some skin in this history.  My dad was in the group of Marines that would have landed on Japanese soil. 5’6” tall, weighing about 110 ten pounds, and not that adept with a rifle (as he said to me) he would have died in the invasion.

And I would not have been conceived, and would not be here now..

Paul Fussell is renowned for his book on World War I, The Great War in Modern Memory, and Class his amusing  and provocative book about the American class system he wrote in the 1980’s.   But it was this essay that he shows his contrarian genius. I suggest anyone reading about the war in the Pacific in World War II read this essay.   It is easy nowadays to deplore dropping the bomb.  The real villain here is ideology.  Evil ideology led the Japanese to invade their neighbors and murder them wholesale. Evil ideology led the Nazis to murder their non-Aryan citizens and their neighbors, the Slavs, etc.

First, the evil ideology is formed, then violence ensues. Both nations' ruling elites wanted to occupy oil fields to fuel their empires. It is, after all, cheaper to own oilfields than pay for oil – and establish ‘colonies’ for their ‘superior race’ were willing to murder millions of civilians who stood in their way.

We must be alert when evil ideologies arise, and combat them with reason and knowledge.

As important his Fussell’s other books are, and certainly better known and more widely read than this essay, this is the writing of Fussell’s that I remember most vividly. But after all, I have skin in the game:  My own life.