Steve Weatherbe and the Atomic Bombs: A Tragic Combination

By Chad Brown

Brown cover image

Tricycle and metal helmet from the Hiroshima Peace Museum | Photo by Roger H. Goun used under CC

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb devastated the city and killed over eighty-thousand people. Three days later, on August 9th, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing sixty to eighty-thousand people. As time passed, more in both these cities continued to die from radiation poisoning (“Bombing”). Since the dropping of the bombs, intense debate has raged over their justification. Historians, journalists, and all manner of academics have argued whether the bombs were necessary evils or unjustified tragedies. Journalist Steve Weatherbe clumsily tackles this debate in his article, “Weep if You Will for Hiroshima, but Ignore the Liberal Lamentation.” In this article, he uses fallacious reasoning, baseless attacks on his opponents’ character, and false information to make a faulty argument in favor of the use of the atomic bombs.

Steve Weatherbe is a Canadian journalist who has written articles for LifeSiteNews, The Catholic World Report, and other conservative media outlets.[i] He has an especially large number of articles for LifeSiteNews, a right-leaning news source known for the “promotion of conspiracy theories, [and] pseudoscience” (“LifeSiteNews”). “Weep if You Will for Hiroshima, but Ignore the Liberal Lamentation” was published in the Alberta Report, a Canadian newspaper that journalist David Olive of the Toronto Star called, “Borderline racist, avowedly parochial, and seldom less than frankly misogynistic” (Olive). The Alberta Report was marketed towards western Canadian conservatives and rural Canadians. The now defunct publication pushed a highly conservative and often offensive viewpoint that is pervasive in Weatherbe’s article.

Weatherbe’s article is meant to be a response to academics who argue the atomic bombings of Japan were not justified. He begins by attacking a strawman of these academics, calling them “hand-wringing liberals, subversive socialists, […] shortsighted environmentalists[,] and opportunistic academics” (Weatherbe). It should be noted that Weatherbe is not only using an ad hominem attack against his opponents (something frowned upon in academic communities and unconducive to a valid argument); he is also insulting an imaginary person. This name calling is leveled at a strawman opponent of Weatherbe’s own creation: a fictional socialist, environmentalist academic who supposedly embodies the characteristics of everyone who argues against the atomic bombs. Weatherbe then claims these “opportunistic academics” are wrong for lamenting the atomic bombings. He states that, while the civilian casualties caused by these bombs were tragic, “there was nothing special about them just because they died atomically.” He claims that the civilian casualties caused by the bombs are no worse than those caused by Japan’s many war crimes in World War Two. Both these points are technically correct, but they deeply misunderstand the argument against the atomic bombings. None of the academics against whom Weatherbe claims to be arguing would make the case that nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a greater evil than those committed by the Japanese. The argument against the atomic bombs has very little to do with the Japanese atrocities. The argument is that the bombs were not necessary to end the war, so they were unnecessary tragedies. This argument does not hinge upon the atomic bombs being worse than any Japanese atrocity or the war not needing to end. It hinges upon there being other avenues to end the war. Furthermore, those who oppose the bombing would not claim that the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be mourned because they died atomically; they would claim that they should be mourned because they died unnecessarily.

Weatherbe introduces one of the academics he is attempting to refute, Martin Sherwin, a history professor at George Mason University and Pulitzer Prize winning author. Sherwin was renowned for his work on atomic power and how it affected the modern world (Reynolds). Weatherbe introduces Sherwin as an opponent to the atomic bombs who “is usually otherwise occupied at Dartmouth College where he presumably undermines the patriotism of American youth.” What Weatherbe seems to be doing is comparing arguing against the atomic bombs to undermining American patriotism. This is false. Criticizing the actions of one’s country does not qualify as undermining patriotism because patriotism does not entail a refusal to criticize one’s country. In fact, analyzing and understanding your country’s past mistakes in order to prevent them from being repeated is a vital part of good patriotism. Sherwin is therefore being a greater patriot than Weatherbe, because he is willing to discuss his country’s mistakes instead of clumsily attacking anyone who deigns to criticize them.

After Weatherbe introduces Sherwin’s argument, he does a good job summarizing it with integrity. Weatherbe summarizes Sherwin’s argument as follows: “the Americans disregarded [other ways of ending the war] because they wanted a revenge that only utter humiliation of one’s enemy could bring. And they wanted to show the world—especially the Soviets—they had the Bomb.” Something that Weatherbe glosses over when summarizing Sherwin’s argument, however, is that the war could have been ended by offering immunity to the emperor of Japan instead of dropping the bombs. Sherwin cites the acting Secretary of State, Joseph Grew, who urged Truman to modify the unconditional surrender to offer this immunity. After the war, Emperor Hirohito was not even tried as a war criminal. He was not killed, and Japan still has an emperor. Japan’s emperor is now only a figurehead, but the emperor of Japan was a figurehead during World War II, as well (Sherwin 5). Truman’s stubborn commitment to the policy of unconditional surrender is integral to Sherwin’s argument, so it is important that Weatherbe addresses it if he wants to properly refute Sherwin.

To support his argument, Weatherbe introduces the book Japan’s Longest Day, a record of events surrounding the bombings compiled by the Pacific War Research Society. The book was created by a process of thoroughly interviewing key figures in the Japanese government at the time of the bombings. People who were interviewed for the book include many military officers and many important government figures such as the Minister of Home Affairs, the Grand Chamberlain, and the Chief of Military Affairs. This source is credible and academic, and it offers a great deal of validity to Weatherbe’s argument. A large portion of the book is dedicated to a thorough account of the day leading up to Japan’s surrender. For the purposes of analyzing Weatherbe’s argument, however, the account of what happened before the bombings is of greater importance because this is the portion of Japan’s Longest Day that Weatherbe misuses.

Japan’s Longest Day begins with the Potsdam Declaration. This was the final ultimatum offered by the United States to Japan before the nukes were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Weatherbe claims that, in this declaration, the Allies “subtly but clearly indicated that Emperor Hirohito could keep his throne. They did this by softening their previous demand for unconditional surrender of the Japanese state, calling instead only for unconditional surrender of the Japanese military.” This claim is entirely false. The Potsdam Declaration does call for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese military, but it also states, “There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest” (“Potsdam Declaration”). This demand can easily, and was likely intended to, be interpreted to include Japan’s emperor.

Weatherbe’s claim is even contradicted by Japan’s Longest Day, the book which he cites as his primary source. Japan’s Longest Day does suggest that the Potsdam Conference was a softening of the demands from the Cairo Declaration, the previous ultimatum sent by the Allies (Ōya 14). The book does not claim, however, that the Potsdam Declaration extended immunity to the emperor as Weatherbe suggests it does. Japan’s Longest Day actually seems to suggest the opposite when Ōya states, “It is impossible to guess what would have happened if the Allied powers had, at the moment [before dropping the bombs], offered assurance that the Japanese polity, in the form of the emperor, would be maintained: the war might have ended” (20). This statement clearly implies that Japan’s emperor was not offered immunity. The book does not say whether its authors believe that offering this immunity could have ended the war. It is primarily an account, so it does not concern itself with discussing alternative histories, but the book does make it clear that the continuation of the imperial system was of utmost importance to the Japanese decision makers. Ōya states that “Both groups—those who favored peace and those who favored war—were alike in their determination to preserve the essential structure of the nation [the emperorship]. […] Japan without her sovereign was as unthinkable to one side as to the other” (12). It is clear the possible removal of Japan’s emperor was a massive deal-breaker in the Potsdam Declaration.

The rest of Weatherbe’s article is a summary of the state of the Japanese government regarding surrender. His claims are consistent with Japan’s Longest Day and other reliable sources. At the end of World War Two, the Japanese high command was in a deadlock regarding peace. Some, such as Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Shunichi Matsumoto, wanted to accept the Potsdam Declaration as it was (Ōya 13). Others, especially those in the army, held no desire for peace even after the atomic bombings (Ōya 23). This deadlock needed to be broken to reach peace. There were two ways this deadlock could have possibly been broken: changing the terms of peace or drastically changing the balance of the war. As said before, there is good evidence that guaranteeing the preservation of the emperorship could have broken this stalemate and led to peace. The other option was a drastic shift in the balance of the war, something to shock the Japanese into peace. This was achieved via the atomic bombings, but there could have been other ways to accomplish this without killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In his article “Why Hiroshima Was Immoral: A Response to Landesman,” Douglas Lackey suggests events other than the atomic bombings that could have shocked the Japanese into surrender. Douglass Lackey is a philosopher and ethicist who teaches at the City University of New York. He received his PhD at Yale, and he has published many academic articles on ethics with regards to nuclear warfare.[ii] He suggests the first alternative shock would be dropping a nuke on an uninhabited part of Japan. This would have delivered the same message to the Japanese high command as dropping the nuke on Hiroshima—that the Allies could utterly destroy Japan without a land invasion. If this did not work, the United States had another nuke which they could have then dropped on a city like Hiroshima. Lackey calls the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima—instead of on an unoccupied region—“the greatest missed opportunity of the war” (41). Another alternative Lackey mentions is an event which actually happened, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria. On August 8, 1945, the Red Army descended on the mainland holdings of Imperial Japan (41). Within a week, the Soviets conquered most of the holdings, which had taken decades for Japan to acquire. Within two weeks, the Soviets claimed islands just north of Japan, which had long been considered part of the Japanese mainland. This was the Red Army at its peak. It was the largest army the world had ever known. To the Japanese, the Red Army was as unstoppable as the atomic bombs (Lackey 41).

Weatherbe’s article is unable to respond to any of these claims by Lackey. He is not even able to refute the common argument that offering immunity to Japan’s Emperor could have ended the war. Therefore, Weatherbe’s argument is not convincing. The question remains: why would Weatherbe want to write such an offensive article? It would be reasonable to think that this article is the product of Weatherbe’s biases. Judging by articles Weatherbe has written for The Catholic World Report, a Catholic news outlet, it appears that Weatherbe holds a conservative, Catholic viewpoint.[iii] A Catholic viewpoint, however, does not lend itself to bias in favor of nuclear weaponry. In fact, it suggests the opposite. The Catholic Church holds a firm position against the use and possession of nuclear weaponry. Stephen M. Colecchi, a consultant on Catholic social teaching and international concerns and the ex-director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, discusses this in his article “What Does the Catholic Church Teach about Nuclear Weapons?” He quotes many important figures in the Catholic Church who condemned nuclear weaponry. He states that “in Hiroshima, Pope Francis declared: ‘The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral.’” Many other popes and bishops have echoed the sentiment of Pope Francis, so it seems Weatherbe’s article is discordant with his Catholic faith.

The reason “Weep if You Will for Hiroshima, but Ignore the Liberal Lamentation” exists can be discerned by looking at who published it. David Olive’s article on the Alberta Report states that the publication peaked in quality and subscriptions in the 1980s. By the time Weatherbe’s article was published in 1995, the Alberta Report had reached its end of life. The paper would close within the next eight years. Even before the publication was failing, it was, at its worst, comparable to “the careless swagger and rhetorical violence of hate literature” (Olive). In this light, Weatherbe’s article is hardly surprising. It is a hate piece written and published to gain attention and reaffirm the beliefs of the Alberta Report’s target audience. It was not written to convince with reason; it was written to help prop up a dying newspaper.

This does not make Weatherbe’s article a harmless attention grab. It is still deeply problematic. Even beyond making bad arguments, Weatherbe treats the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, alongside the casualties of those events, with far too little respect. Early in the article Weatherbe states that “there was nothing special about them just because they died atomically.” Here he implies these casualties need to be special for these deaths to be a tragedy. Furthermore, in that paragraph he compares Japanese war crimes to the atomic bombings in a way that suggests war crimes cancel each other out. It’s as if Weatherbe is saying that Japan’s war crimes are a blank check for United States to do anything with. In his concluding paragraph, he likens the atomic bombs to sledgehammers used to gain a mule’s attention: “The atomic bomb was a pretty big sledge hammer, admittedly. But the Japanese state enthral[l]ed to the military was stupid beyond mulishness” (Weatherbe). Even if the atomic bomb was a sledgehammer and the Japanese state was a mule, the bomb was not dropped on the Japanese state. It was dropped on a civilian center, and the second one was too.

Steve Weatherbe’s article “Weep If You Will for Hiroshima, but Ignore the Liberal Lamentation” is problematic. It uses blatantly invalid arguments to present a callous disregard for human life. It presents a view in which any amount of force and any casualties can be accepted so long as it is done to stop the bad guys. The atomic bombs were not mere sledgehammers. They were the most powerful bombs humans ever made, and they were not used to hit a mule. They were unnecessarily used to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

[i] See, for example, his gathering of essays collected at The Catholic World Report (“Articles”) and at Muck Rack (“Steve Weatherbe”).

[ii] See, for instance, his academic biography on the CUNY Graduate Center website (“Douglas Lackey”).

[iii] Again, for reference, see the list of essays collected at The Catholic World Report (“Articles”).