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Moral Inversion

Quote from Lifton, Robert Jay and Mitchell, Greg. Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1995)

"From the time of Hiroshima, Americans have assigned themselves the task of finding virtue in the first use of the most murderous device ever created. We have felt the need to avoid at any cost a sense of moral culpability for this act. These efforts have taken us to the far reaches of moral argument, to the extent of creating something close to an Orwellian reversal. And there has indeed been a cost, one much greater than we wish to recognize. "Harry Truman provided in his own life a model for post-Hiroshima national behavior-one of edgy, often confabulatory insistence upon finding virtue in using that device on those two Japanese cities. But collectively we have gone further than Truman in our struggles with not just feelings of guilt but with a larger view of ourselves as a decent people. We encounter continuous doubt about any possible virtue in the atomic bombings-among people elsewhere and, however unspoken, in our own minds as well.

"Immediately after hearing about Hiroshima, Albert Camus expressed his concern about the weapon and the 'enthusiastic commentaries' on it in American, English, and French newspapers. He added that 'it is permissible to think that there is some indecency in celebrating in this manner a discovery, which, first of all, places itself at the disposal of the most awful destructive rage which-over the centuries-humankind has ever displayed' and which adds to a 'tormented world...a new agony, one that has every chance of being final.' In cautioning against celebration, Camus issued a clear, early warning against the kind of moral inversion he anticipated.

"For Americans, however, the bomb suddenly manifested itself as the decisive or 'winning' weapon in the bloody Pacific war, and celebration was inevitable. It was our awesome scientific and technological achievement-something to celebrate in itself, and then celebrate further as a way of avoiding the more painful question of moral consequences. Strongly contributing to this response was the immediate claim that the bomb ended the war quickly and thereby saved lives. By thus rendering the weapon a preserver rather than a destroyer of life, celebratory emotions have been sustained to this moment. But the upward trend of the number of American lives saved suggests that doubt and general unease have entered into atomic bomb celebration over the years.

"In the charged equilibrium between celebration and moral doubt, radiation effects loom large. They are so troubling because they symbolize the bomb's radical discontinuity with previous weapons, its special character as a destroyer of human beings not only at its moment of impact but in its lifelong and transgenerational deadly potential. In that way, the truths about radiation undermine our effort at justification perhaps more than any other aspect of the weapon.

"A devastating reflection of our moral confusions about radiation, and about the bomb, was our official attitude toward studying and treating survivors. American decision makers eventually had to recognize the reality of radiation effects and the importance of studying Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors as 'the first true residents of the atomic age,' as Susan Lindee described them. But the official American group performing the research-the Atomic Bomb Casualty commission-steadfastly refused to offer treatment to the survivors studied, even when they seemed to experience radiation-linked illnesses. Survivors' bitterness was related to their perception of radiation as 'the bomb's unique form of terror' and was often expressed in accusations of being made into 'guinea pigs.' They felt they were being seen as mere objects of research rather than as suffering human beings, and those feelings were accentuated by the sense that the dropping of the bomb was itself an experiment meant to determine what the weapon would do to people living in a city.

"The reason Americans rejected the idea of treatment was expressed by one advisor on the matter who explained that 'to do so would have given confirmation to the anti-American propangandists [who]...insist that such treatment should be an act of atonement for having used the weapons in the first place.' From the standpoint of this argument, as Lindee observed in her recent book on the commission, 'whoever provided medical care to the survivors would be accepting moral and historical responsibility for what had happened to them.' Hence the American insistence that the Japanese government be the ones to make treatment available. Our official narrative precluded anything suggesting atonement. Rather the bomb itself had to be 'redeemed': As 'a frightening manifestation of technological needed to be reformed, transformed, managed, or turned into the vehicle of a promising future,' Lindee argued. 'It was necessary, somehow, to redeem the bomb.'

In other words, to avoid historical and moral responsibility, we acted immorally and claimed virtue. We sank deeper, that is, into moral inversion." (Lifton and Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, pp. 307-9)

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