It was the eminent psychoanalyst C. G. Jung who said, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."
What is true in the realm of the individual is also true in the rite of passage of nations. The greater the nation, the more enlightened its ideals and course in history, the more pronounced its capacity for becoming conscious of its darker moments.
On the anniversary of dropping the atom bomb on Japan, Aug. 6, devastating the civilian population of Hiroshima, we revisit the search for a rationale. The explanation given by President Harry S. Truman that persists to this day is it was necessary to save American lives and win the war.
Yet if we review the consensus of the leading military commanders and policy formulators of the allied forces in World War II it is clear that it was overwhelmingly opposed to the use of the atom bomb against Japan. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied forces, declared in his second memoir, "Mandate for Change," "Japan was already defeated, dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, no longer mandatory to save American lives."
Eisenhower’s view was shared by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard, Gen. Curtis LeMay, main architect of strategic bombing in the Pacific and later the Berlin airlift, Adm. William Leahy, U.S. Chief of Staff Adm. Chester Nimitz, Adm. Halsely, and the farsighted sinologist Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Army forces in the Far East, who later warned Kennedy and Johnson against America's ill-fated military incursion in Vietnam.
As MacArthur expressed it, “There was no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the emperor.”
Already over two months before the bombing missions, Herbert Hoover who, like MacArthur, had lived in the Orient and understood the psychological symbolism of this figurehead as the nexus of cohesion in Japan's surrender, visited Truman to counsel him to allow the retention of the emperor. "Tell them they can have their emperor if they surrender, that it will not mean unconditional surrender except for the militants, you'll get peace in Japan — you'll have both wars over."
Hoover's appeal to Truman was summarily dismissed. When the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Hoover wrote to Army and Navy Journal publisher Colonel John O’Laughlin, ”The use of the atom bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.”
Truman’s chief of staff, Fleet Adm. William Leahy, the first military officer to hold a five-star rank, expressed his abhorrence in similar terms in his autobiography of 1950. “The use of this barbarous weapon [atom bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons . . . I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
In the course of decades a formidable body of research on the decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan has been amassed. Samuel Walker, the chief historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acknowledged in 1990, “Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan.
"Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time.”
It is highly unlikely, as Einstein and others later commented, that Roosevelt would have dropped the atom bomb on Japan. However, his insistence on "unconditional surrender" was a prescription for immeasurable senseless carnage.
At the Casablanca Conference he referenced Ulysses S. Grant’s use of the term, but he failed to note that Grant was setting the conditions of a specific engagement in the civil war, the Battle of Fort Donelson, not mandating a stipulation for ending the war itself.
There are several examples in subsequent battles when Grant allowed reasonable and indeed farsighted terms of surrender, as at the Battle of Appomattox Court House toward the end of the war, when he allowed Lee’s soldiers to return home on the basis of parole and on horses. Such humane, prescient measures enacted as victory approached facilitated the surrender of the Confederate Army.
Truman himself remained intractable in attempting to justify his decision to drop the atom bomb on the civilian population of Japan in the years following the war.
The number of American lives he claimed were saved swelled to sustain his hermetically sealed conscience: it morphed from 46,000 on June 18, 1945 to 125,000 in a letter to the journalist Irv Kupcinet, dated 1963. At the thought of how posterity would judge him, there was a wild spike to 500,000 in his memoirs of 1955.
From a psychological perspective, Dr. Deborah Larson at UCLA brought to light in her book "Origins of Containment" that Truman felt inferior to his father in decisiveness and attempted to compensate for this throughout his life, often by rash action.
In the political theater, those in his inner circle relate that he particularly feared he would be compared unfavorably with his predecessor Roosevelt. The decisiveness of Roosevelt's co-authored earlier saturation bombing of Dresden may well have activated transference from Truman's relation to his father to prove himself.
In this biographical context a hyperbolic utterance of Truman becomes more intelligible and takes on historical implication: "I am here to make decisions, and whether they prove right or wrong I am going to take them."
Hence the irrational dismissal of wiser men and more accomplished military minds like Eisenhower, Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Bard, Gen. Curtis LeMay, main architect of strategic bombing in the Pacific and later the Berlin airlift, Leahy, Nimitz, Adm. Halsely, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Forces in the Far East and recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor.
From a moral perspective, distinguished leaders of the world's religions, including every pope since the event, continue to remind us of the inhumanity of the nuclear weapons inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, conceivably the most important Catholic thinker of the 20th century, wrote a prose poem entitled “Original Child Bomb,” a translation of the name the Japanese gave the bomb in its aftermath. A dark, ironic mimesis of the proceedings leading to the event, Merton referred to his verse as an "anti-poem."
Three years later, upon the death of MacArthur in 1964, a prayer the general had composed after the war was published. In it he implores that his son may be granted the wisdom to “reach into the future, but never forget the past." May this wisdom extend also to nations.
G. Heath King, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and former professor of interdisciplinary studies at Yale University. He is the author of "Existence, Thought, Style: Perspectives of a Primary Relation, Portrayed Through the Work of Søren Kierkegaard."
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