60-Second Expert: Torture and the Bomb

In 1945, the Truman administration’s historic decision to unleash atomic bombs on Japan challenged America’s values and shocked the world’s conscience. More recently, the Bush administration’s use of torture in the “war on terror” presents similar controversies. Despite the difference in era and method, the two stories reveal several disturbing parallels in how the U.S. government made and justified such landmark decisions.

In both cases, the United States faced potential losses — from an invasion of Japan or another attack similar to 9/11. To meet these challenges, both administrations employed existing programs in ways never before intended, led by the dominant influence of Truman’s secretary of state James F. Byrnes and Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney.

Anger against a dehumanized enemy, “Japs” in 1945 and “Hajis” in the 21st century, also played a central role in justifying each case. There were alternatives to both decisions. Invasion and atomic bombing weren’t the only viable options to secure Japan’s surrender, and non-coercive methods already proven effective by the FBI could have replaced torture. However, hidden motives play a part in both instances. The U.S. government used the atomic bomb as an anti-Soviet strategy and later employed torture-extracted information to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda.

In both cases, the U.S. government deflected criticism by arguing that its decisions saved the lives of Americans. But it also suppressed information about alternatives and the remote probability of the threats.

Polls suggest that 61% of Americans still believe the atomic bombings were justified. Whether myths justifying torture similarly endure will likely depend on the strength of our public advocacy.

Reinsch’s full policy report, Torture and the Bomb, can be read in its entirety on the FPIF website.

Jon Reinsch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a Japan specialist and computer programmer in Seattle.