1) Why does Fussell “thank God” for the atom bomb? What role does his own experience of history play in shaping his views as an historian?
Fussell recounts (Fussell, 452) that an invasion was planned for Japan which would have resulted in an enormous number of civilian and military deaths from all sides. Former Pfc. E.B. Sledge is quoted in Fussell’s article as writing, “[Every Japanese] soldier, civilian, woman, and child would fight to the death with whatever weapons they had, rifle, grenade, or bamboo spear.” Fussell himself was destined to be part of that invasion, writing that “The invasion was definitely on, and I know because I was to be in it” (458). Therefore, Fussell’s argument is twofold: 1) that more Americans would die without the bomb; and 2) that Japanese civilians would be killed in large numbers during the planned invasion, meaning the bomb was instrumental in limiting the loss of human life. Fussell’s knowledge comes from real war experience (459) and he notes that people who believe the bomb was unethical “do not come from the ranks of society that produce infantrymen or pilots” (451).
2) Considering Fussell's discussion of the treatment of Japanese skulls during World War II, as well as all the other atrocities of World War II (the Holocaust, the Japanese invasions in Asia, the Allied fire bombing of Dresden), what do you think about the way that many historians call World War II “The Good War”? What does the term mean? Why have historians chosen it? Is it appropriate?
“The Good War” refers to the fact that the Allies were fighting for democracy. However, the US soldiers were often barbaric in their treatment of the “Japs”, considering the Japanese race a “pestilence” with even the Marine Corps Journal printing that the mission of the US was to “exterminate” the Japanese (pp.457-458). Therefore World War II is little different to other wars regarding man’s treatment of humanity. “The Good War” is hardly an appropriate label for the slaughter.
3) What has been the impact of the atomic bomb on U.S. history?
While dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that many U.S. servicemen “were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all” (459), the incident ushered in the nuclear age, including “The stupidity, parochialism, and greed in the international mismanagement of the whole nuclear challenge” (463). Fussell points out how badly we have managed this resource, referring to the nuclear plant disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Additionally, Fussell writes that the A-bomb “tamed” Japan, resulting in a very different economy with which the U.S. now interacts through “merchandising and tourism” (457). Finally, using the bombs launched an ethical argument that continues today and Fussell covers both sides of the debate in his article.
4) What function does morality play in historians’ views of the past?
Fussell notes that “In general, the principle is, the farther from the scene of horror, the easier the talk” (454). It is difficult, he writes, to overlay our “rational and even genteel ethics” on an event through which we did not live (455) and which did not directly threaten our own life (462). Fussell points out that a historian has a “tidy hind-sight” and that those who made the decision to use the bomb were not aware of the enormous long-term health issues the weapon would create (456). In order to properly evaluate what has gone before, Fussell says we must pretend “that you don’t know the present” (456). This is a difficult process and Fussell’s argument is that it is too easy for historians to make the mistake of judging people’s decisions on the basis of what we know now.
Fussell, Paul. Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays. (1988) New York: Summit Books, 1988. Print.