Consider these numbers:
- Approximately 2,225 people killed a day on average: That’s the number Stalin killed if we accept Robert Conquest’s high estimate of 20 million total Stalin victims over his rule of approximately 25 years.
- Approximately 6,000 people killed per day on average: That’s the number we get if we accept Timothy Snyder’s estimate of the number of people the Nazis slaughtered and arbitrarily say that it all occurred during World War II (which raises the average per day).
- Approximately 30,000 a day: That’s the number of people who died in Mao’s Great Famine, caused by the Great Leap Forward, between 1958 and 1961 if we take the high estimate of 32 million; the low estimate, by the way, is 18 million.
Two more numbers: One act on one day—the dropping of a rudimentary atom bomb— killed 140,000 at Hiroshima. Three days later, another atom bomb killed 80,000 at Nagasaki. Virtually all the victims were civilians: children, mothers, elementary school teachers, factory workers, hair stylists, florists, senior citizens.
It’s both horrifying and shameful to contemplate that “the land of the free” debased itself by magnifying the barbarism of Hitler, Stalin and Mao in two one-day orgies of mass killing.
I was reminded of what I believe are the two most shameful moments in recorded human history when I saw “Hiroshima Ground Zero 1945,” an exhibit now showing at the International Photography Center in midtown Manhattan. The exhibit displays some of the 1,100 photographs that the U.S. government had 7 photographers take of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the war. The government ordered the photos as visual evidence for a report on the impact of atomic bombing and the changes to buildings and civil defense procedures needed to prepare for a future attack.
In the exhibit we see only destroyed infrastructure: schools, homes, factories. But each photo seems to whisper the pain of the dead and injured. The collective impact of these lifeless photos reminds us that certain acts are so horrific that the act itself puts those who committed it in the wrong, no matter how just the cause or rational the reason.
Those who try to justify the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki argue that more Americans would have died winding down the war if we had pursued more conventional options. Their argument falls apart, though, when you consider that the Japanese were already pressing for surrender and remember that at the time the U.S. was engaged in a massive program of conventional bombing of the island nation.
The trump card in the debate is the inhumane nature of the act itself. Even if we were to believe that the U.S. government was not fully aware of the destructive power of the atom bomb before Hiroshima, they certainly knew of it immediately afterwards and should have stopped any plans for Nagasaki. As many historians have noted, the real reason to drop the bombs was to show the Soviet communists that we had the power to level their country. For these somewhat suspect geopolitical ends, we as a nation resorted to savage butchery of our fellow human beings.
The construction and deployment of the atom bombs involved many people, but only one man made the decision to drop them, and that was President Harry S. Truman. By doing so, he should have guaranteed himself a dishonored place along side Hitler, Stalin and Mao as one of the worst villains in history. Instead, he is generally rated as one of our greatest presidents. For example, among 17 recent surveys, Truman rates on average as the 7th greatest U.S. president. But I rank him dead last, by virtue of his decision to use the ultimate weapon of mass destruction and then continue to develop even more vicious weapons during peacetime.
In a few days we are going to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. There are many things we can do to commemorate the day. We can attend a rally, sign a petition to dismantle all nuclear weapons, contribute to organizations lobbying to end nuclear weapons and write our elected officials about the issue. But let’s not forget to curse Harry Truman for defiling our country with the sin of mass murder and making a mockery of our public ideals.
And let’s also not forget to feel a personal sense of shame. Even if most of us were not alive at the time, it is still our country and our history, and that makes it our moral responsibility to remember and to ask the rest of the world for forgiveness.