When the United States adopted torture as a weapon in its “war on terror,” it was a turn to methods that shock the conscience, and when discovered, officials and their media surrogates went to great lengths to gain public acquiescence for their policies. It was not the first time the country betrayed its highest ideals, nor the first time U.S. citizens were led to deny that any betrayal had occurred. The United States had gone down the same road in 1945, when it used nuclear weapons to destroy two Japanese cities. One case involved the product of intensive scientific research, the other methods dating back hundreds of years, if not to prehistory. But in the way the U.S. government made and justified these fateful decisions, the two stories contain many disturbing parallels.

In each case, the United States confronted a real threat. Japan had engaged in a brutal campaign of conquest, and the fight against it would kill or wound nearly 300,000 Americans. Al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks, on the other hand, shocked a nation that had felt almost invulnerable. To meet these threats, an existing program was put to uses never originally envisioned. The Manhattan Project came about because of the existential threat that a nuclear-armed Germany would have posed. By the time the A-bomb was ready, Germany had been defeated. Japan was never a threat to acquire the bomb, but the United States used the bomb against it nevertheless.

One of the streams leading to U.S. use of torture was the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, an effort to prepare American soldiers to resist and survive torture. In its subsequent incarnation, however, U.S. officials used the program’s expertise in resisting Soviet-style torture techniques to implement some of those same techniques. In each case, an arguably defensive program evolved — or was twisted into — something very far from its original purpose.

Making Decisions

In the case of both torture and the bomb, a new president, widely viewed as inexperienced in foreign policy and military affairs, deferred to a more seasoned advisor. George W. Bush, an ex-governor, delegated many national security matters to Dick Cheney, who had served 10 years in Congress and also as secretary of defense. It’s been said that Cheney “dominated the entire national security apparatus” and that his was “the most powerful vice presidency in American history.”2

Similarly, Harry Truman, assuming office upon the death of FDR in April 1945, was heavily influenced by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes. Truman’s appointments secretary called Byrnes “Machiavellian”; to Truman himself he was “conniving,” and one historian sees in him a “penchant for extreme secrecy.”3 On his appointment, The New York Times suggested that Byrnes would “receive far more authority than a president has yet yielded to any man.”4 The parallels with Cheney are clear.

Contrary to much popular discourse, the United States did not face a stark choice in 1945 between a land invasion of Japan and attacking its cities with nuclear weapons: There were alternatives. Truman’s advisors — including the secretary of war and the Joint Chiefs of Staff — pressed for informing the Japanese government that Emperor Hirohito would be spared trial as a war criminal, or at least that his dynasty would be allowed to continue. Japan, after all, was far more likely to surrender with such assurances than without. But Byrnes, standing alone, was able to block this initiative.5 Of course, Hirohito’s reign did continue until his death in 1989.

So sidelined were military officials on the matter of the surrender terms that the Joint Chiefs appealed to their British colleagues to have Winston Churchill bring their message to Truman. 6 It was also known that Russia’s entry into the war — expected in mid-August — would be devastating to Japan’s will to fight, and likely to hasten surrender. (Indeed, coming two days after the Hiroshima bombing, it probably did.) But the United States quickly went from seeking Stalin’s aid to stalling Soviet entry. Here again, the role of Byrnes was decisive.7

Similarly, the United States had — and still has — alternatives to torture. It could have used the non-coercive methods favored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, based on winning the detainees’ trust. Such methods had been used, to considerable success, on Japanese POWs in World War II. Again, the United States rejected these alternatives — or never even considered them. On multiple occasions, the CIA took al-Qaeda operatives out of the hands of FBI interrogators even as they were obtaining valuable intelligence.8 Cheney played the critical facilitating role. In November of 2001, he first asserted what became the administration’s policy: Prisoners in the “war on terror” did not deserve Geneva Convention protections.9 Later, he attacked the FBI for adhering to criminal investigation protocols.10

In both cases, too, government actions reflected hidden motives. Top decision-makers in 1945, for instance, viewed the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an opening shot in the Cold War. Understandably, most hoped to end the war before the Soviet Union could enter and lay claim to any role in the occupation of Japan and in the postwar order in Asia. Furthermore, Byrnes was already envisioning an aggressive role for nuclear weapons in anti-Soviet strategy. 11 These considerations played a major role in the decision to use the bomb.

There were hidden motives in the torture story as well. At least one detainee was subjected to cruelty not for information on terror plots, but to bolster the administration’s case for war with Iraq by obtaining a confession of supposed links between Saddam and al-Qaeda.12 FBI interrogators, focused on determining the facts (and obtaining a conviction), were sidelined in favor of the CIA. Getting at the truth was not necessarily the point, any more than it was when China tortured U.S. pilots and extracted false confessions during the Korean War.

Radical Shift

Just a few years before the atomic bombings, using even conventional weapons to annihilate cities would have been unthinkable. In 1939, President Roosevelt had declared:

The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population…which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.13

Decades later, the US stand on torture was just as unequivocal, with the State Department regularly condemning other countries for the practice. Of course, the US had violated these principles before. In 1945, before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States used conventional bombs to destroy German and then Japanese cities, infamously taking the lives of over 100,000 Tokyo residents on the night of March 9. And the US had periodically resorted to torture, as in the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. But the decisions by Truman and Bush to use atomic weapons and torture were further descents into savagery as state policy.

Helping to make this transformation possible were acts widely regarded as wicked beyond measure. Time and again, righteous anger gives rise to dehumanizing the enemy and the impulse for vengeance. So in the wake of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese were characterized as subhuman or as rats to be exterminated. The chairman of the War Manpower Commission called for “the extermination of the Japanese in toto,” and to a disturbing degree such views were held by the public at large.14

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, meanwhile, were often spoken of as a new Pearl Harbor, steeling the nation for a new fight. Rage again took on racial overtones, as the “Japs” of one war became the “hajis” of another. Truman had said of the Japanese: “The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”15 Bush interrogation policies were built on similar assumptions that “Arabs only understand force.”16 In the presence of such dehumanized views of the enemy, normal restraints give way to the preference for cruelty.

Other powerful psychological dynamics were at work. †When Truman and his advisors learned of the successful test of the atomic bomb, they were intoxicated with a sense of power that dulled their senses to the drawbacks of using that power. Participants’ accounts describe how “everyone was pretty high,” “the President was tremendously pepped up,” and Truman and Churchill “went to the next meeting like little boys with a big red apple secreted on their persons.”17 And when Bush administration officials spoke of “taking the gloves off,” it was not with reluctance, but a certain relish. No matter how coldly rational such people wished to portray themselves, the possession and exercise of absolute power warps one’s view of reality.

Countering Opposition

Criticism of U.S. actions came quickly in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, primarily from religious and conservative quarters.18 To counter this, officials asserted over and over that using the bomb was necessary to save American lives. An easily digestible myth was put forth that the only alternative to the bomb was an invasion of Japan, which, it was claimed, would have cost upwards of a million U.S. casualties.

When the Bush administration faced criticism of its interrogation policies, it followed a similar playbook. Officials insisted that their policies alone stood between Americans and more terrorist attacks. Even in retirement, Cheney has continued this theme, proclaiming that the “intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.” This story was encapsulated in the now familiar “ticking time-bomb scenario.”

Both of these stories are myths. Even if the United States had carried out an invasion of Japan, the “one million” figure was a vast inflation over the estimates made by military planners at the time — at least those of which we have any record.19 Moreover, as noted above, there were other approaches to ending the war — approaches that, had there been no bomb, would almost certainly have been taken. Altering the surrender terms alone might have brought an end to the war before the Soviets attacked. At any rate, an invasion — not to begin until November — would likely have been moot.

Claims that “enhanced interrogation” saved American lives were similarly hard to justify. Like an unspeakably costly invasion of Japan, a “ticking time-bomb scenario” involving a threat to civilians was an extremely remote possibility,20 and even in the military context, experienced interrogators saw torture as ineffective.

But these stories saved officials from having to acknowledge that over 150,000 Japanese had been sacrificed at the altar of power politics, many of them suffering the torture of radiation disease. They allow columnists like Charles Krauthammer to construct apologia for torture as a means of obtaining lifesaving information without a word about the use of false torture-extracted statements to sell a war that has cost the lives of over 4,000 Americans and countless others.

In order to propagate these myths, officials strove to keep certain facts out of the public record. For example, in the summer of 1945, policymakers were well aware of Japanese efforts to enlist the Soviets as an intermediary in peace negotiations. Just days prior to the bombings, they had intelligence that Japan was considering acceptance in some form of the Potsdam Proclamation’s demand for unconditional surrender.21 Yet the U.S. government hid this information, along with the fact that American POWs had perished in the bombings22 — perhaps because it clashed with the trope of “saving American lives.”

Decades later, Bush and Cheney could ill afford to acknowledge that their “alternative set of procedures” and the climate it produced had caused the deaths of numerous detainees. To do so would have spoiled the picture of an absolutely good America fighting against an absolute evil.

But despite assertions that national security required utmost secrecy, officials readily violated this principle whenever it suited their purposes. When it came to light that some scientists had resisted using the bomb without warning on cities, it was decided to reveal the classified information that other scientists had given their approval.23 Similarly, it’s alleged that when Secretary of State Colin Powell opposed administration moves to ignore the Geneva Conventions, Cheney’s office leaked the information to discredit him in the eyes of conservatives.24

The Language of Power

“Abuse of human beings and abuse of words go hand in hand,” writes Jonathan Schell. “The words that name the deed fog over, or are driven from the language. Refusal to face the fact of torture has cost us the very word ‘torture,’ now widely referred to, as if in obedience to some general edict, as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ or ‘harsh methods.'”25

Government officials have employed even blander language. CIA Director George Tenet, for instance, wrote of transferring one detainee to another country (he meant Egypt) “for further debriefing.”26 In 2005, Bush insisted that “torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.”27 Yet, the United States indeed “rendered” detainees to states like Egypt and Syria that by the State Department’s own accounting were known to torture. Then there was Bush’s fondness for the word “tools,” as in “it’s vital that our folks on the front line have the tools necessary to protect the American people.” Of course, using the word “torture” would have had serious legal implications.

Such recourse to euphemism was less in evidence in the bomb story. Government officials used other linguistic manipulations instead. On August 9, Truman stated that “the world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base.”28 Though Hiroshima contained several military installations, to suggest that what we had bombed was a “military base” was to pretend that its restaurant proprietors, its schoolteachers, its children, and old people never existed. This blurring of distinctions between military and civilian had its parallel in the torture story as well, for while the word “torture” was shied away from, “terrorist” was used with abandon. Thus, Cheney declared that “In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.” Contrary to this rhetoric, many of those “terrorists” had no involvement in terrorism whatsoever.29

Ironically, policymakers in neither era were likely to have recognized that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with weapons of mass destruction, done with the explicit desire “to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible” precisely fit the definition of “terrorism.”

Mainstream criticism of torture is often framed in terms of the damage done to the reputation of the United States. Thus, Thomas Friedman decried Guant·namo for “inflaming sentiments against the U.S. all over the world and providing recruitment energy on the Internet for those who would do us ill.” Although John McCain briefly took a principled stand by saying that “it’s not about them, it’s about us,”30 opponents often restricted their challenges of security policy to calling it counterproductive. This had certainly been the approach of those arguing for alternatives in the Truman administration. Urging that a warning be made prior to dropping the bomb, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall said, “We must offset by such warning methods the opprobrium which might follow from an ill-considered employment of such force.”31

After the bombing, however, many critics focused on ethical dimensions. William D. Leahy, who had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs, later wrote of the bomb that “in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion.”32 Out of the public eye, even Truman may have harbored secret doubts. At a cabinet meeting on August 10, according to Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace, “Truman said he had given orders to stop atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing as he said, ‘all those kids.'”33 If Bush ever felt such qualms, they have not yet seen the light of day.

The Power of History

The commonalities in the stories of torture and the bomb show that history has great bearing on today’s struggles. The very ability to see such patterns empowers activists opposing barbarism. Confronted with excessive claims of secrecy, they are equipped to point out how often it has been used not for legitimate security purposes but to control public debate and protect reputations. The parallels also suggest that in an executive branch that asserts ever greater national security powers, it can be dangerous for a single advisor to hold disproportionate sway over presidential decisions.

The consequences of allowing myths to persist are profound. A recent poll found that 61% of Americans continue to believe that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. It was an explicit goal of the myth-makers to gain public support for nuclear weapons as the basis of American strategy during the Cold War.34 Unwillingness to face the facts regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki enshrined the principle — not just for the United States, but for any nation — that nuclear weapons were a legitimate means of defense. The Cold War is long over, but U.S. reliance on these weapons actually increased. Under its Global Strike command, the Bush administration could target nukes at any location on earth.35 Admiral James O. Ellis explains: “If you can find that time-critical, key terrorist target or that weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpile, and you have minutes rather than hours or days to deal with it, how do you reach out and negate that threat to our nation half a world away?”36 The ticking time-bomb scenario, it seems, has more than one application.

Another poll finds that 46% of Americans believe that “there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects.” Will this myth of justifiable torture become entrenched and have effects as pernicious and long-lasting as the nuclear myths?

There are critical differences in the two stories in this regard. Public advocacy is stronger now, and organizations such as Human Rights First and the ACLU are a significant counterforce to the spin-control and obfuscations used to defend torture. Torture critics can also make use of tools like the Freedom of Information Act that were not available to their predecessors. Today, as well, critics can appeal to a wide array of domestic and international laws regarding the treatment of prisoners.

In the end, then, the torture myth, despite the parallels to the nuclear myth, may not prove as resilient. Whether it does depends on the determination of advocates to deny torture any place in U.S. policy.


Gar Alperovitz. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. New York: Vintage, 1995.

John Costello, The Pacific War. New York: Rawson, Wade, 1981.

John Dower, War Without Mercy. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: the Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. New York: Anchor, 2009.

Jonathan Schell, The Seventh Decade: the New Shape of Nuclear Danger. New York: Metropolitan, 2007.

Jonathan Schell, Torture and Truth. The Nation (June 15, 2009): 15-18.

Costello, p. 675.

Mayer, pp. 323, 62.

Alperovitz, pp. 202-3, 576.

Alperovitz, p. 200.

Alperovitz, p. 304.

Alperovitz, pp. 245-6.

Alperovitz, pp. 413-4.

Mayer, pp. 106, 156.

Mayer, p. 79.

Mayer, p. 270.

Alperovitz, pp. 134, 146-7.

Mayer, p. 135.

Dower, p. 39.

Dower pp. 53-5.

Alperovitz, p. 563.

Mayer, p. 168.

Alperovitz, pp. 224, 259.

Alperovitz, p. 438-42.

Alperovitz, pp. 466-7, 518-9.

Mayer, p. 330.

Alperovitz, p. 412.

Alperovitz, p. 612.

Alperovitz, p. 449-50.

Mayer, p. 124.

Schell 2009, pp. 17-18.

Mayer, p. 119.

Mayer, p. 108.

Alperovitz, p. 521.

Mayer, pp. 183-4.

Mayer, p. 329.

Alperovitz, p. 53.

Alperovitz, p. 3.

Alperovitz, pp. 416-7.

Alperovitz, pp. 459-60.

Schell 2007, p. 5.

Schell 2007, p. 128.

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