Was the atomic bomb a war crime?

For the first time, Albert’s students overwhelmingly think so. Plus reader responses, links, book club info, & bonus audio from baby P.

Happy Lunar New Year, friends! Goodbye Rat, Hello Ox!

Making your own new year's greeting card is all the rage in Taiwan. Here’s what Albert’s dad made:

The print shows a water buffalo in the bottom right. (The water buffalo, a Taiwanese shui niu, is one of the many ox-like beings in East Asia.) The artist is a family friend from Yuli, Hualien, a rural town on the eastern coast of Taiwan, where Albert’s parents also grew up. The greeting—niu zhuan qian kun—is a pun on the phrase “to turn things around.”

Albert on teaching the atomic bomb and the sea-change in his classroom:

First, a graph. (I typed the question hastily into an online polling app; it should really read “Do you think the use of atomic bombs in World War II was a war crime?”)

And then some backstory to explain why this shocks me.

When I was first hired at AUP in 2013, the chair of my department asked if I was willing to teach a course on diplomatic history. The history department, I was told, had recently undergone major restructuring and needed me in the politics department. New and eager to please, I said sure, why not. Only after agreeing did I stop to remember that I’m not trained in diplomatic history at all.

The months before I finished grad school were a hectic time—I was wrapping up my dissertation and preparing to move from California to Paris. By the time I arrived here, a week or so before the semester started, I finally looked at the syllabus I had inherited.

Oh no, I thought, my heart sinking: the syllabus was organized around a single text, Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. (Advice to colleagues starting new jobs: look at the syllabus before saying yes!)

Okay, I told myself, give the book a chance. But as I sat down and began to read, my horror intensified. Kissinger’s book contains almost every single strand of historical scholarship to which I am opposed. It embraces a great man theory of history. It’s Western-centric. It’s deeply partisan: everyone who opposed his Realpolitik vision of international affairs he either scorns or dismisses. Kissinger does not mention how diplomatic policies affect civilians and “regular people”; he treats anti-war protesters and other members of social movements as gadflies, pawns ignorant of the broader game being played. I also learned from critical reviews that the book is rife with major historical inaccuracies: its portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, the villain in The Three Musketeers but a hero to Kissinger for his commitment to secular Realpolitik, is a misreading at best and a fiction at worst. Then there are the attempts to conceal his own role in sabotaging diplomatic processes—no mention, of course, of the bombings in Cambodia. In short, Diplomacy amounts to Kissinger’s apologia for his disastrous vision of the world.

I called our university bookstore to ask if I could cancel the orders for the book. Too late, they told me, copies had already arrived. I was stuck with it.

After a couple of days spent wallowing in despair, I decided I’d use the course as an exercise in critical reading and interpretation. I’d keep Kissinger’s text, but supplement each chapter with primary sources students could analyze critically. I would make my aims explicit: I’d say from the outset that our task in this upper-level course was to read Kissinger with a skeptical eye. For instance, instead of taking his portrait of Richelieu as gospel, I would assign Richelieu’s own words. We would read snippets of the Nixon–Kissinger tapes so students could assess the book’s account of the Vietnam War. I would also organize debates around several key episodes from diplomatic history that Kissinger had willfully overlooked.

One of those debates concerned the use of the atomic bomb, which Kissinger curiously omits in his discussion of World War II. (Okay, it’s probably not so curious: dropping a nuclear weapon on a civilian population is not an act of diplomacy.) He mentions the bomb only obliquely. He makes it clear that he sympathizes with Truman, recounting a meeting where he “asked Truman for which foreign policy decision he most wanted to be remembered. He did not hesitate. ‘We completely defeated our enemies and made them surrender,’ he remarked. ‘And then we helped them to recover, to become democratic, and to rejoin the community of nations. Only America could have done that.’” We also know now that though Kissinger dissuaded Nixon from using atomic weapons in Vietnam, he also advocated for the idea of “small-nuclear-war.”

I no longer teach that diplomatic history course, but every year I still hold a version of the debate over whether the United States’ use of the atomic bomb constitutes a war crime. I split students into two sides, one defending the decision, the other attacking it. I assign Henry Stimson’s article “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” so they can learn about the military logic at play. I have them read parts of Justice Radhabinod Pal’s dissent, in which he writes: “If any indiscriminate destruction of civilian life and property is still illegal in warfare, then, in the Pacific War, this decision to use the atom bomb is the only near approach to the directives of the German Emperor during the first World War and of the Nazi leaders during the second World War.” They also read a chapter from John Dower’s extraordinary Embracing Defeat and John Hersey’s classic accounts of Hiroshima. More recently, I’ve assigned parts of Susan Southard’s magisterial Nagasaki.*

Then the students debate.

For whatever reason, they always bring the fire for this one. Both sides marshal all the facts they can to ground their arguments and explain the timeline of events with clarity. Prior to deploying the bomb, the American military, industrial, and scientific establishment understood the ramifications of its decision completely, as leaders discussed broader moral and strategic questions for months before they used the bombs. (One of Stimson’s memos from April 1945 suggests that “modern civilization might be completely destroyed” if the weapons are used.) Students question whether the war could have been ended with “conventional” warfare, and whether that would have led to more casualties. Some observe that the Tokyo fire bombings of March 1945 were no less a war crime than the use of atomic bombs, calling into question the frame of the whole debate. They wonder out loud whether the U.S. had other motives, such as checking the Soviet advance into Korea. They discuss the idea of “victor’s justice,” and wrestle with Justice Pal’s charge that if anybody should be charged with war crimes in the Pacific theater, it’s the U.S.   

At the end, I always ask: So where do you all stand? Every year since 2013, students in my classes have overwhelmingly defended the dropping of the atomic bomb as a necessary tactic for the U.S. to put a quick end to the war. Just two years ago, only three (in a class of twenty-five) said the bomb constituted a war crime. The ones who criticize the decision have tended either to have a bicultural background or to be non-American—I remember vividly the shocked look on the face of a German student who fervently marshaled an anti-nuclear stance. She couldn’t believe that hers was the minority view.

The American students who defend the use of the atomic bomb don’t deny that the atomic bomb was a disproportionate show of force, but they argue that Japan had no intention of surrendering and that the U.S. had to limit its casualty count. Others point to a moral argument: if any Great Power could wield the bomb responsibly, it was the United States. In that case, there is an overwhelming sense that America’s decision was a matter of military necessity, and the U.S. was a benevolent force within international politics.

But this year the tide turned, and what shocks me is how definitively. As you can see from that graph above, only two students voted to defend the U.S.’s actions—a complete reversal from years past. When I asked them why, almost every student criticized American hypocrisy. How could you try the Japanese military brass for war crimes, they asked, when the Geneva Conventions state clearly that “wanton destruction” is a war crime? Others drew on environmental reasons, pointing to the devastating effects of radiation on people and nature. One of the most impassioned students in the class called the U.S. military a “death cult.”

The students also overwhelmingly questioned the use of international law and saw the Tokyo War Crime Trials as a sham, little more than a show trial. The trial wasn’t about finding the truth, they said. They were shocked that prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to shield Emperor Hirohito from any fault. They were incredulous that prosecutors had asked General Tōjō to retract testimony suggesting the Emperor had authorized military decisions. They agreed with historians who have argued that the U.S., in its fear of communism, chose to preserve the imperial family as a way to maintain cultural stability. And they expressed much more indignation than previous classes at a photo I always share: Hirohito meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland thirty years after the end of the war.**

Emperor Hirohito visits Anaheim Disneyland in 1975. Disneyland was one stop on a fifteen-day tour, the first formal visit from a Japanese Emperor to the United States.

The about-face in this year’s debate got me thinking of my family’s own journey. My maternal grandfather, a foot soldier in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, fought against Japan. He had his arm blown off during the war and fled to Taiwan in 1949, a penniless one-armed refugee. I never met him; he died when my mother was in her teens. But the stories I heard of him growing up were all heroic—how he rode a bicycle with one hand, carrying my young mother on the back as they went to the market to sell noodles. It was because he prioritized her schooling, she said, that she eventually became a teacher. Growing up, I heard my uncles, her brothers, speak angrily of the Japanese military’s cruelty during the war.

The Taiwan in which I came of age in the early 1990s—a time of democratization, the lifting of repression, and hope—was a period when the public was beginning to grapple openly with the history of Japanese colonization. For the first time, Taiwanese “comfort women”*** told their stories, and Taiwanese activists pushed for official apologies from the Japanese government. When the latter issued a new textbook in 2001 that whitewashed its military brutality in East Asia, one of my uncles exploded. Why couldn’t the Japanese just admit they were wrong, he said. A decade later, he came to visit me while I was doing dissertation research in Berlin. On an icy winter day, we walked to the Holocaust memorial in the middle of the city, right next to the Brandenburg Gate. He was moved, close to tears as we stood there in silence. Later, over beers, he got angry again: if Germany can set up public memorials and apologize for its atrocities, why can’t Japan? For him the wounds were personal. They cut deep.

Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, Statue of a Girl of Peace, 2011. The statue pays tribute to the more than two hundred thousand woman in Korea, China, and across Asia who were forced into sexual slavery throughout East Asia during World War II. In 2019, the Aichi Triennale in Japan was shut down briefly because the organizers received threats for exhibiting this statue.

The same was true for my mother. In college I accompanied my parents on their first trip to Japan, and she told me she had almost decided not to come. As a child she had hated all things connected to Japan; she adored her father and associated Japan with his suffering. It had taken her many years to overcome her hatred, she confessed to me. Even having a bowl of soba noodles was difficult for her.

It was also in the 1990s and the early 2000s, though, that I began to think about Japan’s colonial past in ways that went beyond my family’s bewilderment and hurt. My mother’s side is from China, but my father’s family is Taiwanese from many generations back. He is the youngest of eleven children; his eldest brother was raised under the Japanese system, spoke fluent Japanese, and spoke on the phone with a friend from elementary school, in Japanese, every week until his death. When I interviewed him for a project in high school, he talked about the Japanese colonial period with fondness but remembered the initial years of the KMT regime with terror.

During college I met a survivor of the Hiroshima bombings, and understood for the first time the intergenerational trauma the bombing inflicted on that family: his children and grandchildren suffered, too, from the physical effects of radiation. As the U.S. escalated its war in Iraq in 2003, I chose to write my senior thesis on anti-Vietnam war clergy, wanting to think through the imperial history of America. I began to understand that my family’s own history in Taiwan and China had deep ties to the projection of American cultural and political power across the world. Like my students, I was shocked to learn about the napalm bombings in Vietnam that had been authorized by people like Kissinger. Like my students, I began to question the benevolent nature of American international power, which until then I had taken for granted as fact.  

Of course, who knows if this year’s debate about the bomb portends a broader sea change. The sample size of my class is small. AUP is also idiosyncratic—it tends to draw cosmopolitan students who aren’t wedded to narratives of American power and prestige. In previous years, because my course counts for general education credit with our partner programs, I’ve had a lot of students from schools in the U.S., and their outlook tends towards the nationalistic. Due to the pandemic, this is the first time in years I’ve taught a course made up mostly of AUP students, and I wonder if that skews the balance. Or perhaps I rigged the votes: a bright student, trying to play the moderate, said, “I voted yes, but I would have voted for a third option if it were available: I think that the atomic bomb was a war crime, but that it was also necessary to end the war.”

In any case, I think the U.S.’s disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the past four years of the Trump administration, and our utterly bungled COVID-19 response have combined to shift the way this generation thinks about U.S. power. I wonder if for these students the narrative of America as a benevolent presence, a positive force in international affairs, no longer holds.


* In case you were wondering, students read Dower’s excellent chapter on the Tokyo War Crime Trials, “Victor’s Justice, Loser’s Justice.” Following up on Michelle’s meditation on, um, “questionable” judges from last week, the chapter includes this amazing detail:

The Soviet judge, formerly a commissioner of justice under Lenin, had participated in the Stalinist mock trials of the mid-1930s. He spoke neither of the basic languages of the tribunal (his only two words of English, it was said, were “Bottoms up!”).

I highly recommend Southard’s Nagasaki, a gut-wrenching and meticulously researched book that follows five atomic bomb survivors and their families. Southard shows how U.S. scientists were almost exclusively concerned with making a bomb that would successfully detonate; they didn’t concern themselves with the effect of radiation exposure. When people confronted General Leslie Groves with reports of mysterious radiation-related diseases following the bombing, he dismissed them as “pure propaganda.” As Southard cuttingly observes, he “neglected to say that Japanese claims of radiation illness and death were unsubstantiated by U.S. scientific studies only because those studies had not been conducted.”

** In another class, I juxtapose the photo of Hirohito hanging out with Mickey with this animated Japanese propaganda from the 1930s, showing an evil Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat attack Japan.

*** In case you missed it, the issue of comfort women exploded into public discourse in the past week. J. Mark Ramseyer, a Harvard Law professor, wrote two articles arguing that our narrative of equating “comfort women” with sexual slavery is “pure fiction.” Instead, he claims that the women had entered into a contractual relationship for financial gain. Read Jeannie Suk Gersen’s entire thread here, but this argument here is particularly devastating:

Reader Responses: liberal Korean Catholics, entrenched property rights, and the glory of waiting in Miyazaki films

We love hearing from readers. Here’s a few. (We’ll always ask your permission before publishing anything you write—we promise! And we’ll ask whether you prefer to be anonymous.)

Your newsletter topics are always illuminating but I took particular interest in your recent coverage of Catholicism and how it intersects with politics, identity and the globe. It got me thinking about my parents.

My parents' primary sense of identity is that of being Catholic. It's a thread that runs through their history together, which began nearly 40 years ago when a Catholic nun introduced them to each other in their native Korea; their shared devotion to their faith is what they have most in common to this day. I didn't have a term for it until I read your newsletter, but more so than a conservative Catholic view, the defining aspect of their life and faith is one of decentralized Catholicism, of the Korean-American variety. Through their Korean Catholic church, they found comfort and shared identity among fellow expatriates who exist at their specific intersection of faith and culture. It's no small thing. This community gave them a sense of belonging in a foreign place and remains central to how they live out their lives as Americans, Korean immigrants and Catholics. 

Their greatest wish for me is that I stay true to the Catholic roots of my upbringing. In recent years, I've become non-practicing but I still hold onto my faith as a bridge to my parents, as a way to stay close when our lives, politics and world views have diverged. The existence of a liberal Catholic ideology has made it possible for me to find common ground with my parents on the subject of faith while maintaining a progressive stance politically. There's space in this faith for Catholics like my parents, who based their votes on the single issue of pro-life in 2016, and also for me, who supports gay marriage, a woman's right to choose and racial justice. This inclusivity helps transcend our family's divide of liberal and conservative values, which I find akin to how the decentralized aspect of my parents' Korean Catholic church community helps mitigate the alienation they feel as immigrants. 

The law case that's long interested me is Steel vs Houghton (1788), which entrenched private property rights over the moral claims of the poor to glean the harvest fields in spite of biblical and modern legal precedent. The right to glean the fields is one of those bright seams of right sense and humane compassion that are the perennial ornaments of the Mosaic law. Christianity too quickly becomes cold and class-ridden without them.

(Note: Up to the 18th century, the poor had a right to collect leftovers from a field’s harvest. This practice was so customary that the church bells would ring to signal it was time to glean. In Steel v. Houghton, Mary Houghton gleaned on the field of a wealthy landowner, James Steel, who then sued her for trespass.)

  • For Miyazaki fans, we gift you Zito Madu’s lovely tribute to Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki “grants characters respite through moments when they’re allowed to idle. These gaps have a deep humane quality,” Madu writes: they are “wonderful signals that life is much more than plot and constant action.”

    In our correspondence, Madu has written about the wonders of waiting:

Those moments are some of my favorite parts of his movies. It’s such a tenderness and slowness that’s not seen in many films. This summer I spent a lot of time reading poems by the water and sitting around in open spaces, and my friend described me as a master of “waiting and doing nothing.” I think Michigan, with all the water and space, is perfect for a lot of doing nothing as well. 

We asked him where he learned the gift of waiting. He replied:

I think I've always been like that. I remember growing up in our village in Nigeria and most of my memories involve me laying under a big tree that was in front of our house and walking around aimlessly for hours. So that seems to have expanded as I got older. I actually wrote about laundromats as one of the places I love going to when we first moved to the States because it was a place where people are forced to be still and wait.

Waiting comes up in Madu’s paean to the laundromat: “The idea that you could throw your clothes into a washer and dryer for a few quarters, and have them clean and warm within two hours, seemed absolutely incredible to me.”

If you missed Michelle’s piece about how Miyazaki’s spunky female characters in Ponyo, Totoro, and Kiki helped her make sense of motherhood, it’s here.


  • One of the big stories making the rounds has been the app Clubhouse, which was briefly open to Chinese internet users and then quickly firewalled. In that window, a chatroom appeared where Chinese learned about the horrors of the situation in Xinjiang directly from Uighers. Two podcast episodes that covered the moment particularly well: Darren Byler spoke with the excellent Time to Say Goodbye Podcast about the emotional effect of hearing these voices. The Sinica podcast also had the moderators of the chatroom on their show. We missed the initial window, but we particularly appreciated a chatroom where mainland Chinese users asked Taiwanese users about Taiwan’s independence. Conversation was raw yet civil, contentious yet sincere. In another chatroom, the participants delivered parodic “odes” to the Global Times editor Hu Xijin, a notorious propagandist for the Chinese Communist Party; we were howling with laughter.

  • Rachel Johnston-White and Joseph Peterson have an excellent article in LARB that situates the aggressive policing of Muslims in France within the country’s longer history of secularism. “Why,” they ask, “has laïcité — once the bane of conservatives — now become a right-wing cause with prominent Catholic proponents?” They trace the roots of laïcité, examining in particular the nineteenth-century suspicion of Jesuits. And they explain how the Cold War and Algerian War pushed the French state to redefine laïcité. Secularism has long been concerned “with defining what is and is not religion and which beliefs are compatible or incompatible with the state,” they write. This has been “secularism’s central purpose in France, from the nineteenth century until now.”

  • David Cole writes powerfully about federal executions in the latest NYRB. In the past six months, the Trump administration has rushed the execution of 13 death row inmates. In what Cole calls “death by fiat,” the Supreme Court has signed off on these executions, without even bothering to explain its reasoning. Here are some striking portraits of those who have died at the hands of the state:

    Among those killed was Brandon Bernard, a forty-year-old sentenced to death twenty years ago for a crime he committed in 1999, when he was eighteen. Bernard was involved in a gang carjacking that resulted in the murder of two people, although he did not pull the trigger. At his trial, the prosecutor argued that he should be executed to prevent him, as a gang member, from posing further danger to the public. In fact, the prosecution had expert evidence that Bernard was merely a low-level follower, not a leader of the gang, but it never disclosed that to the defense team, as the Constitution requires. When Bernard’s lawyers discovered it years later in a resentencing of one of his codefendants, the lower courts ruled that it was too late to consider it, even though Bernard could not have brought the claim any earlier.

    Bernard led an exemplary life in prison: twenty years without an infraction. By the end of his life, five of the nine surviving jurors who sentenced him to death supported a request for clemency, as did the prosecutor who successfully defended his conviction on appeal. They did so because of the newly discovered evidence, because they believed his trial lawyers were “phoning it in” and just “going through the motions,” because he was only eighteen at the time of the murder and had a lesser part in the crime, and because he showed profound remorse about his actions. Yet the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

    And several defendants had serious mental disabilities:

    Corey Johnson, a fifty-two-year-old who was executed on January 14 for seven murders in Virginia in 1992, had an IQ of 69 when tested as a teenager. He repeated both second and third grades, and could not name the months of the year when he was thirteen. 

  • Michelle will be talking about her book Reading with Patrick with the Chatham Square Library of the New York Public Library, co-sponsored by Asian American Writers Workshop, this Wednesday, February 17, at 5 PM EST. This library has been a part of Chinatown since 1911. Here’s the link to sign up.

  • If you haven’t seen the court hearing where a lawyer appears as a cat (yes, you read that correctly), you’ve been missing out. This will be our animal video of the week!

Book club reminder: Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat

Thursday, February 25th, 2:45 PM EST. We’re reading Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murat. Email us for the Zoom link or leave a comment here.

If you can’t make this, come join us for the second book club during the last week of March. We’ll read Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which has been called the Japanese Middlemarch (Michelle’s favorite book of all time).

Next week: On Imprisoning Migrant Families

Next week we’ll share our conversation with Julia Valero, whom we met in Texas in summer 2018 while the U.S. government was separating families at the border. Julia works at the nonprofit RAICES in its family detention program at Karnes, one of the three immigration prisons in the United States that detains families. When we met her, she oversaw volunteers, coordinated client intake, dealt with unpredictable guards, and offered legal and emotional support to detained children and parents. We were blown away to see her in action—she managed a chaotic and dehumanizing prison environment with gravitas and grace, and was cheerful all the while. Then we realized she had just graduated from college! (This is why we’re so pro–Gen Z.) This will be the second in an ongoing series on people working on the frontlines of legal services for asylum seekers and refugees. (If you missed the first, with Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado, it’s here.)

And last, bonus audio of baby P.

And finally, Baby P. is expanding her vocabulary. She wants to tell you something: