Americans Need to Acknowledge Washington’s Wartime Atrocities

Renewed attention on two historical episodes has revived debate about the wartime conduct of the United States. One was the release in theaters of the movie Oppenheimer, which highlights the role played by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in developing the first atomic bomb. The other episode was the 70th anniversary of the Korea Armistice, which brought a halt to the bloody conflict in that country.

The reaction among both the public and the foreign policy blob underscored how too many Americans remain unwilling to confront the ugly realities of Washington’s behavior. Yet there is compelling evidence that U.S. leaders committed horrifying war crimes. President Harry Truman’s decision to approve the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has attracted considerable attention over the decades. Far less attention has been paid to the massive US bombing campaign against North Korea during the Korean "police action." Both cases, however, involved gratuitous assaults that killed or maimed huge numbers of innocent civilians.

A two-part excuse for the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki emerged promptly, and it has remained largely unchanged over the decades. Part one of the justification is that Japan initiated the war with its unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, and Tokyo therefore was to blame for all of the resulting wartime tragedies. It was a cynical rationale that should have been uncompelling to any objective observer. The attack was hardly "unprovoked," given the prewar conduct of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, especially the imposition of steel and oil embargoes that were strangling Japan’s economy. But even if the Pearl Harbor attack had been cowardly and unprovoked, that episode did not justify the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Pearl Harbor was a military target; the two Japanese cities were civilian population centers of little military value. Japan’s attack was an act of war; the US assaults on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes.

The second part of the conventional excuse circulated by US officials, the news media, and a distressing number of historians is that the only alternative to the atomic bombings would have been a massive invasion of the Japanese homeland. President Truman and his supporters contended that such an invasion would have killed American and Japanese troops in the millions. Therefore, the rationale went, using the atomic bombs actually saved lives – including Japanese lives. That perspective remains the conventional view.

Such a justification, though, is based on the dubious assumption that the only alternative to the bombings was a full-scale invasion. Yet a blockade obviously was another option, and that approach would at least have given Japanese leaders time to contemplate their country’s hopeless position. Peace overtures by Tokyo could not be ruled out under such conditions. That scenario was even more plausible if Washington had been willing to drop its rigid demand for Japan’s unconditional surrender. (Persisting in that maximalist approach almost certainly prolonged the European phase of World War II as well, resulting in tens of thousands of needless additional casualties). Ironically, Washington ultimately accepted Tokyo’s capitulation with an important condition attached – that the emperor could remain on the throne. Conveying flexibility on that issue (and perhaps a few others) might have ended the war weeks or even months before mushroom clouds appeared above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A clear plurality of Americans, though, continue to defend the decision to drop the atomic bombs. They appear even less likely to confront the reality of US brutality in Korea. A new article by journalist James Bovard highlights outright atrocities by the US military, including the strafing of civilians who dared to move at night. There also was the systematic carpet bombing of targets throughout North Korea that other experts have documented.

Bovard notes that "Slaughtering civilians en masse became routine procedure," especially after the Chinese army intervened in the Korean War in late 1950. "[Gen. Douglas] MacArthur spoke of turning North Korean-held territory into a ‘desert.’ The US military eventually ‘expanded its definition of a military target to any structure that could shelter enemy troops or supplies.’ General Curtis LeMay summarized the achievements: ‘We burned down every town in North Korea…and some in South Korea, too.’ Yet, despite the hit-anything-still-standing bombing policy, most Americans believed the US military acted humanely in Korea." There is little evidence that the American public would adopt a different view today.

If American officials, opinion leaders, and much of the public are not willing to acknowledge war crimes that occurred more than 7 decades ago, it is hardly surprising that they are unwilling to face evidence of more recent US misconduct in such places as Lebanon, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. However, Americans who believe in democratic accountability must keep up the pressure to thwart attempts to whitewash ugly historical episodes. In a democratic system, officials theoretically act as representatives and agents of the people. When they commit atrocities and war crimes, we the people are ultimately responsible.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at Libertarian Institute. He also served in various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).