President Obama was roundly slammed by conservatives last week for acknowledging the victims of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Japan that helped end World War II.
These attacks from the right actually tell us more about today’s conservatism than they do the president.
After the Hiroshima bombing, Russell Kirk wrote to a friend in 1945, “We are the barbarians within our own empire.” Richard Weaver wrote the same year, “The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity.”
Kirk’s landmark 1953 book The Conservative Mind is a primary reason right-wingers in the United States even call themselves “conservative” today, popularizing the term (before Kirk’s influential book, William F. Buckley described himself as an “individualist”). Buckley said of Kirk, “It is inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without [Kirk’s] labor.”
For well over a half century, Weaver’s landmark 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences has been an indispensible part of the conservative canon. President Reagan quoted from Ideas Have Consequences in a speech at The Heritage Foundation. Weaver wrote in the foreword that his book was “a reaction to that war (World War II)—to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions it left in place of the peace and order that were professedly sought.”
Both Kirk and Weaver helped form the core of early National Review.
In 1959—a decade-and-a-half after the use of the atom bomb—National Review editorialized that, “The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed.”
So America’s premier conservative journal was essentially saying that abhorring U.S. use of the atom bomb was conservatism proper.
Suffice to say, things have changed.
After President Obama gave his Hiroshima speech, a Breitbart headline read, “If you don’t want to get nuked, don’t bomb Pearl Harbor.” Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump wanted to know if the president even mentioned Pearl Harbor. The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro called Obama’s speech “repulsive.”
David French at National Review—the same magazine that 57-years prior had called the bombing “indefensible”—wrote, “The Hiroshima bombing was right and necessary.”
And what was it that Obama said that drew such ire from the right?
“Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction,” Obama said. “How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.”
That’s it? It’s pretty tame by old school conservative standards.
Kirk wrote, “Five months have elapsed since Hiroshima was destroyed…” and Americans had proven themselves no better than “little puppets.” Kirk said the dropping of the bombs was the “trump of doom; it was sounded, and the gulf yawning; and we got on listening to ‘the Hit Parade,’ striking, drinking, fornicating, cheating, hating.” Kirk wrote that Americans “are miserable animals in the shambles.”
Obviously Kirk was deeply disturbed by Hiroshima.
Kirk biographer Bradley J. Birzer even notes, “Kirk feared, America had embraced a new world of total war, becoming no better than the totalitarian societies of the world.” “If a just god or gods exist, the skeptical Kirk feared, he or they would make America pay for its crimes against humanity,” Birzer wrote.
Weaver was just as horrified and explicit:
And is anything saved? We cannot be sure. True, there are a few buildings left standing around, but what kind of animal is going to inhabit them? I have become convinced in the past few years that the essence of civilization is ethical (with perhaps some helping out from aesthetics). And never has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this.
Kirk and Weaver apparently both shared the view that God would judge the U.S. for the bombing.
This is far removed from what Obama said. Keep in mind that the president didn’t apologize. He didn’t even necessarily say the U.S. was wrong in its actions.
The president simply said those actions created horrific results that we shouldn’t forget.
A half-century ago, a few intellectuals who couldn’t forget—and who never would—helped create the American conservative movement.