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War Crimes, Past and Present

April 30th, 2009 · 48 Comments

You know that Simpsons episode where the doctor explains that Mr. Burns is simultaneously suffering from almost every disease known to man, but remains healthy because they’re in a precarious equilibrium, like a horde of obese men simultaneously trying to squeeze through the “door” of his immune system? And in honor of that image, they dub the condition “Three Stooges Syndrome”? This is often how I feel reading Michael Goldfarb, because when someone is confused in so many different ways over the span of two short paragraphs, it’s easy to get paralyzed. But let me take  a shot:

It comes at about the 5:50 mark. Cliff May asks [The Daily Show‘s Jon] Stewart whether Truman’s use of the atomic bomb was a war crime, Stewart ruminates and then responds with an unequivocal “yes.” He’s certainly not the only American who would take that view, but it’s a useful reminder that the most vocal and popular criticism of the Bush administration’s war on terror policies comes from people who, if they were being as honest as Stewart, would also judge Lincoln (suspension of habeas), FDR (internment), and Truman (use of nuclear weapons) as war criminals or tyrants or worse.

Stewart repeats the charge again later in the interview, but you have to wonder whether this was one of the rare times that he just got outmaneuvered on his own show. Serious people have debated Truman’s decision for 60 years, but even those who disagree with that decision rarely describe it as “criminal.” And if it was criminal, whatever crimes the left alleges of President Bush seem pretty trivial in comparison.

I realize it’s probably not a position taken often at the offices of the Weekly Standard, but the suggestion that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes is not, in fact, crazy or rare.  A Japanese legal review concluded as much two decades after the fact, Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard described it as such*, and indeed, the Wikipedia article devoted to the debate serious people have been having for 60 years contains a lengthy section titled “the bombings as war crimes.” To the extent it’s a controversial claim, it’s controversial because we don’t like calling U.S. presidents war criminals, not because it’s a difficult question whether obliterating entire areas inhabited by large civilian populations with the flimsiest of military targets as a pretext should now be regarded as a war crime. There might be some genuine question as to whether it was a war crime under the understanding of international law that obtained in 1945, but as evidence for the proposition that it counts as a war crime under the current widely accepted definition, we can cite no less an authority than John Bolton:

A fair reading of the treaty [founding the International Criminal Court], for example, leaves the objective observer unable to answer with confidence whether the United States was guilty of war crimes for its aerial bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in World War II. Indeed, if anything, a straightforward reading of the language probably indicates that the court would find the United States guilty. A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is intolerable and unacceptable.

Bolton, of course, takes this to be a knock-down argument against the ICC, but note that he doesn’t actually have an argument beyond finding it “intolerable” to acknowledge a rule of war under which Harry Truman would have been a war criminal. Whatever ambiguity existed in 1945 was a function of the fact that we had overt rules dealing with poison gas, not nuclear explosions; the broad principle that military attacks should be targeted to avoid indiscriminate killing of civilians is a long established one. You might argue that it was a “necessary crime” that avoided the far greater loss of life that would’ve otherwise been incurred in an invasion—and you would, given what we now know, be completely wrong—but that’s a different question.

All that said, it’s not clear exactly what the questions have to do with each other. At first blush, it looks like this is supposed to be a classic reductio: If you conclude Bush committed war crimes, then you will apply the same judgment to Truman; that’s outrageous; therefore the premise is falsified. But “war crimes” isn’t some catch-all meaning “bad stuff people do in wars,” there are a series of specific but distinct codified and widely accepted laws of war. There’s a set of rules governing bombing of civilian targets. There’s a set of rules about treatment of captives and torture. They’re different. Goldfarb seems a little fuzzy on this, since he throws in the internment of the Japanese and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, both of which may have been unconstitutional—certainly the view that Korematsu was wrongly decided is now pretty mainstream—but neither of which would appear to be as war crimes.

In any event, I understand the form of argument, “if interrogation method X used by Bush is torture, then you must classify method Y the same way.” I don’t know what to do with the argument: “If Bush violated laws of war prohibiting torture, you must conclude Truman violated laws of war protecting civilian populations.” We have always understood the prohibition on torture to encompass waterboarding. That fact doesn’t obviously depend on how we want to interpret the prohibition on indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilian populations.

Maybe it’s supposed to be a more indirect argument: The sort of people who think Bush committed war crimes have an unseemly disposition to regard the actions of beloved presidents as criminal. I’m not sure what to do with that one either; it’s not a response to any particular claim about any particular purported violation, and Goldfarb doesn’t actually argue that the view of Hiroshima & Nagasaki as war crimes is wrong; he just falsely asserts that it’s an unusual one.

Dwelling on that last line a bit, I think the actual argument is something along the lines of: “Look, do we really want to risk the twilight of the idols that would ensue if we judged all our own leaders by the same standards we expect the rest of the world to follow? If we do it in Bush’s case, we’ll probably have to conclude that Truman’s decision was more heinous by an order of magnitude.”  The cases are different enough that, again, I don’t think that’s so much a direct entailment as a “opening the floodgates” argument against the crimethink of passing moral judgment on the military decisions of American presidents. I leave it to the reader whether that’s a compelling consideration. To my mind, blotting out torture and the killing of civilians seems like an awfully high price to pay for keeping our monuments polished.

* I initially misattirbuted Szilard’s characterization to his friend and colleague Albert Einstein. Though Einstein also became a vocal opponent of atomic weapons, and condemned their use against Japan, I have no evidence that he used the word “crime” in that context.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · War



48 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Apr 30, 2009 at 11:57 am

    The unwillingness to reevaluate historical figures is a result of the hagiography that gets passed off as history in U.S. schools (not to say this is a phenomenon limited to the U.S.). Nation-states, wheee!

  • 2 Noah Yetter // Apr 30, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    FDR and Lincoln WERE tyrants.

  • 3 Chip Smith // Apr 30, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    You’re on quite a roll, Julian. That last line is a small gem.

    I don’t know if you are being glib in characterizing moral criticism of executive military decisions as “crimethink,” but having recently read much of the criticism mounted against Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke,” I can say that the shoe fits in that instance. Baker’s most strident detractors invoke the concept of “moral equivalence” loosely, wrongly, and often, yet they seem determinedly incurious about where serious consideration of the problem might lead.

    Perish the thought, I suppose.

  • 4 dan // Apr 30, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Might take a look at The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara, in discussing his work planning the (conventional) bombing campaign in Japan, recalls a discussion with LeMay in which they concluded that if the war was lost, they’d be tried as war criminals. As I recall, McNamara seemed to think that judgment was basically correct; he certainly wasn’t laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea. Somehow I doubt LeMay would recognize the legitimacy of such a judgment, but McNamara, for all his faults, is a smart, thoughtful man…

  • 5 Crimes of War, Now As Then « Upturned Earth // May 1, 2009 at 1:36 am

    […] of War, Now As Then Via Will, Julian Sanchez tries to explain to Michael Goldfarb that the fact that Harry Truman was a war criminal does not mean that Bush and Cheney weren’t. […]

  • 6 bayesian // May 1, 2009 at 2:57 am

    re: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

    You might argue that it was a “necessary crime” that avoided the far greater loss of life that would’ve otherwise been incurred in an invasion—and you would, given what we now know, be completely wrong.

    I have no difficulty in labelling most of the bombing campaigns (particularly the firebombing in Japan, arguably also the starvation inevitably caused by the submarine and mining campaigns) as war crimes.

    However, given the knowledge that Truman had at the time or reasonably should have had, if the most likely outcome was that the nuclear bombing would save lives (not just casualties and collateral deaths from Downfall, but e.g. the deaths from starvation that were occuring in large swathes of China at the time, some of which, e.g. Hong Kong, I believe were mentioned in contemporary documents), I’m not sure that the full mens rea for war crimes would be present.

    Granted that relevant international law does not allow a utilitarian minimization of total casualties as a justification for acts which are otherwise war crimes.

    By the way, care to provide a quick cite or two for your certainty that the “necessary crime” argument was categorically false based on present understanding of facts? Last time I read up on the topic (during the Enola Gay wankfest), I came to a fairly different conclusion, but maybe I read too shallowly and/or new information come out since.


  • 7 Julian Sanchez // May 1, 2009 at 10:52 am

    The short version? There was really no need to insist on “unconditional” surrender — that literally began as a slip of the tongue on FDR’s part — and internal documents make it clear that impressing the Soviet Union was a core motivation. There was a negotiated surrender to be had.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // May 1, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Try, say, John Glover’s “Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century”

  • 9 Stewart Apologizes » YoGoG.com // May 1, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    […] compelled to retract the statement upon further reflection, which is more than one can say for the lemmings who eagerly followed him off the cliff. How would history have judged a man who could have saved […]

  • 10 Matthew Yglesias » On Michael Goldfarb // May 1, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez: You know that Simpsons episode where the doctor explains that Mr. Burns is simultaneously suffering from almost every disease known to man, but remains healthy because they’re in a precarious equilibrium, like a horde of obese men simultaneously trying to squeeze through the “door” of his immune system? And in honor of that image, they dub the condition “Three Stooges Syndrome”? This is often how I feel reading Michael Goldfarb, because when someone is confused in so many different ways over the span of two short paragraphs, it’s easy to get paralyzed. […]

  • 11 Halfdan // May 1, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    There was a negotiated surrender to be had.

    That’s doubtful. Yes the Japanese foreign ministry wanted to surrender, but they had little or no pull in the military dictatorship. The evidence that I’ve seen points to a willingness to fight to the death on the part of both the military and the people. People disagree, but I don’t think there’s a consensus–especially not when viewed with the available evidence of the time.

    That said, I don’t think the likelihood of surrender has much bearing on the warcrime status of the atomic bombs. It was either a warcrime or it was not.

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // May 1, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    What you’re describing is the split over *unconditional* surrender. By the summer of 45, the emperor was looking for a mediated/conditional surrender, and having broken Japan’s diplomatic ciphers, Allied leaders did indeed have evidence of this available at the time. And indeed, U.S. officials were at the same time discussing modifying the “unconditional” surrender demand on the (well supported) theory that the status of the emperor was a sticking point that would unnecessarily prolong the war. We had viable alternatives, we knew it, and we did not pursue them.

    But yes; that is a separate question. Again, I think it’s almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that the bombings would today be regarded as a war crime under the currently accepted definition, not least given that internal deliberation over target selection emphasized the desirability of striking a nominally military target surrounded by a large civilian population for the value of the added psychological impact it would have. There’s somewhat more leeway to dispute whether it was a war crime under international law at the time, but it’s hardly a stretch.

  • 13 You Dropped The Bomb On Me « Around The Sphere // May 1, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez argues with Goldfarb: […]

  • 14 Reductio ad Historiam « Upturned Earth // May 1, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    […] sure that there are others who could do a better job of this than I, but for the time being how about: likely by way of the same morally […]

  • 15 JohnMcC // May 1, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    Without addressing the question of whether the atomic bombings in Japan were war crimes it is pretty easy to understand why that is a widely denied idea in the USA. The battle for Okinawa had been an incredible bloodbath. The armies that had won WW2 in Europe were being transitioned to the Pacific for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was widely expected that Americans would suffer a million casualties. Then in two strokes, all those GIs could suddenly expect to go home safely. Pretty strong experience.

    It seems fair to look at it from that point of view before making up your mind.

  • 16 southpaw // May 2, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I think another way to state the ‘twilight of the idols’ argument that Julian lays out is, “if something as uncontroversially popular (from the perspective of Michael Goldfarb) as nuking Japan is a war crime, why should I take seriously the very idea of war crimes? All wars are crimes . . .”

    And while I will concede that there is very little public appetite for examining the alleged crimes of Harry Truman, torture is obviously a far different matter. Torture is not only a war crime but a violation of domestic law, treaty obligations, and jus cogens. In an homage to virtue, the Bush administration never admitted or stood behind its practice of torturing detainees, preferring instead to lie about and conceal the program. And the public is consistently opposed to torture and supportive of the idea of prosecutions.

  • 17 J.L. Peppers // May 2, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I realize that logic is for right-wingers like Goldfarb what garlic is for vampires, but someone really needs to let him know that “everyone else does it” is not only NOT a valid defense -it’s an admission of guilt. The tu quoque fallacy is for losers.

    Just like Michael Goldfarb.

  • 18 WJA // May 2, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Dude, did you read the original Wikipedia entry about the bombing, or did you bypass that to go straight to the controversy? It totally contradicts your claim that H & S were merely “large civilian populations with the flimsiest of military targets”:

    “Hiroshima was a minor supply and logistics base for the Japanese military. The city was a communications center, a storage point, and an assembly area for troops… The city of Nagasaki had been one of the largest sea ports in southern Japan and was of great wartime importance because of its wide-ranging industrial activity, including the production of ordnance, ships, military equipment, and other war materials.”

    Maybe Hiroshima is an arguable military target, but hardly a flimsy one, and Nagasaki seems quite uncontroversial.

  • 19 Tim // May 2, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Dan beat me to it by recommending The Fog of War. Here’s the clip on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=er2xCn3_QcQ

  • 20 Vidor // May 2, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    There is no evidence to suggest, as Sanchez does, that there was a “negotiated surrender” to be had on the terms that we were willing to grant. The United States would not have accepted a surrender that allowed Japan to maintain its mainland Asian empire–Korea, Manchuria, much of the rest of China, Vietnam. The Japanese had shown no willingness to surrender on those terms until after the nuclear bombs were dropped.

    Finally, it is all well and good to fuss over Marquess of Queensbury rules, but the notion that civilians were off limits in World War II had long since been abandoned by both sides. Germany and Japan certainly showed no compunction about killing civilians, as the residents of Nanking and Leningrad would be happy to tell you. The best way for Japan to have avoided the destruction of their country would have been to not go to war with the United States.

  • 21 Vidor // May 2, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Further, if Japan had offered to surrender at any time in 1945 on the grounds which it did offer after the nukes and the Russian entry into the war, we surely would have taken their offer.

  • 22 John Sanzone // May 2, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    The million casualty thing…I wonder if it was just an excuse for the bombings, though being young I’m not sure what the mentality of Americans was back then…if they really needed such conditioning to swallow such an act, or if they really didn’t care.

  • 23 The Violence Below « Loon Theory // May 2, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    […] Sullivan points to Julian Sanchez’s response to some musings by Martin Goldfarb – who seems to suggest that there is room for […]

  • 24 JC // May 2, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    JULIAN SANCHEZ: “”I realize it’s probably not a position taken often at the offices of the Weekly Standard, but the suggestion that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes is not, in fact, crazy or rare. “”

    Well…..good thing that Goldfarb NEVER even used those words, huh Sanchez? What a lame “strawman” you constructed for your “big bad self” to knock down. WHAT A CROCK.

  • 25 Matt Holbrook // May 2, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Before he continues to trade on this myth that the Japanese were seriously looking for a negotiated surrender, I would suggest that Mr. Sanchez read Richard Frank’s book Downfall, which painstakingly goes through the American debate over use of the atomic bomb as well as the Japanese “attempts” to secure a negotiated surrender.

    As for the latter, Frank’s evidence shows that those efforts on the part of Japanese diplomats such as the ambassador to Switzerland were free-lance activity with no sanction from the home government.

    Frank also reviews in detail the American discussion of the planned Kyushu landings, which would have been the first invasion of Japan proper. It came as a great shock to the American leaders when intelligence estimates showed a much more determined resistance than initially expected, including an estimated 10 thousand kamikaze flights. It is from this evidence that Truman and the Joint Chiefs came to believe that there could be up to a million casualties in mounting an invasion of the home islands. And they had enough anecdotal evidence to back that from the campaign to take Okinawa.

  • 26 Vidor // May 2, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Max Hastings’ “Retribution” (“Nemesis” in the UK) also punctures this myth that the Japanese were looking for a way out–or, at least, that anyone with the power in Japan to make the decision had decided to sue for peace on terms we would have granted.

  • 27 mike // May 2, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I think the whole discussion of whether Truman was a war criminal misses the point. The reality of World War II, despite the fact that we study it in school, is actually inconceivably horrible to many modern people, particularly Americans. There was nothing particularly special about Hiroshima and Nagasaki except for the fact that they were the only cities to be bombed with nuclear weapons. But all sides wreaked great destruction and killed tens of thousands with far more convention weapons. It was really in response to these horrors that we created the modern conception of war crimes.

    My point is that in light if the terrible new warfare introduced by World War II, I don’t think we can fairly call out our leaders at the time for not fully comprehending the sheer awfulness they were causing. But Bush, in a world far less dangerous and with the benefit of hindsight still authorized all kinds of terrible crimes that those who studied interrogation knew were likely to be ineffectual. Causing terrible suffering unnecessarily, ineffectually and when you should know better. That’s the height of criminality.

  • 28 mike // May 2, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    By the way, it’s worth mentioning that Truman was urged to be far more brutal, and to even step up the bombing campaign following Nagasaki, advice he refused saying that Japanese brutality does not justify our own.

  • 29 remember nanking // May 3, 2009 at 1:19 am

    10s of millions killed by conventional weapons.

    a couple hundred thousand by the two atomic bombs… and the liberals go NUCLEAR!

    This is called “shrill” for a reason.

  • 30 TheTradingReport » Blog Archive » links for 2009-05-03 // May 3, 2009 at 7:27 am

    […] Julian Sanchez: War Crimes, Past and Present […]

  • 31 paradoctor // May 3, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Blessings to Jon Stewart, for saying out loud what I have thought silently to myself for my entire life.

    I suppose we can let Truman off the hook for committing his war crime before nuking a city was even thought possible. (No ex post facto law.) Stewart is willing to give a pass on grounds of temporary insanity – a bit lenient, I think.

    What I cannot forgive Truman, Stalin, and the rest of the nuclear warriors, is the shadow they cast upon the minds of all mankind. I, and all born during the cold war, had to live without the most elementary feeling of human security. We all had to live ready to be cast at any moment into a literal Inferno – and for no sins of our own. This is morally grotesque.

    No wonder the hippies rebelled. They should have rebelled harder.

    I say that merely possessing such weapons is a crime against humanity.

  • 32 YouGotItWrong // May 3, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Most societies recognize that crimes may be committed in preventing other crimes. Taking a life of an aggressor to save the life of two innocents, while technically a crime, will not result in punishment here, Canada, the EU, etc.

    So, call it a crime if you wish.

    It was a sound decision.

    I always find it amazing the weakest and most incapable are always the quickest to second guess the doers in this world.

    Incredibly, some 20-35% of the US population (depending on the polling date during WWII) was OK with making peace with Hitler and letting him have his area of the world.

    About the same % of people today were hard core against Iraq.

    Some people will fight for nothing. Their opinion means nothing.

  • 33 Avatar // May 3, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I also endorse Frank’s book on the matter. Specifically addressing the point of a Japanese willingness to surrender, the foreign ministry and members of the civilian government favored the “one-point” plan (maintenance of the dynasty, which is what the Japanese surrendered under but not actually the terms the US agreed to uphold; it happened to work out that way, is all…)

    The ministers of the military (not, one should point out, subordinate to the civilian government; in contrast, civilian government officials who opposed the policies espoused by the military were frequently assassinated) favored a “four-point” plan. This included no occupation of Japan and self-disarmament. There is no doubt whatsoever that, after the rise of German fascism in the ’30s, that the US would have refused either of these terms under any circumstances.

    Finally, it’s also worth noting that, even with both atomic bombings and the Soviet entry into the war (which took Japan completely by surprise, it’s worth noting – they were counting on Soviet diplomatic intervention in their favor!), there was a coup attempt aimed at stopping the broadcast of the actual order to surrender, with the implied approval of at least one service head. It was a pretty close thing – had there been less compelling reasons to abandon the fight, there’s no telling whether the Japanese military would have permitted the government to surrender.

  • 34 Hal_10000 // May 3, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    I know it’s going to sound hackneyed, but that’s because it’s very true: it is easy to look back from the luxury of 60 years in time and an orgy of information Truman didn’t have and say that he made the wrong decision.

    It’s much more difficult to see the decision as he had to make it — in the wake of the horrors of Saipan, Iwo, Okinawa, Tarawa etc.; with the information we had coming in on Japanese plans for defense of the mainland; with what we were learning about the treatment of prisoners. The contention that this was a war crime seems to rest on being ability to peer into the mind of Truman and assume base motives. It seems to exist in this world were decisions are made with perfect information available, rather than the fractured and often contradictory information from which decisions are actually made.

    If you need to pour through the documentation decades later to conclude that the dropping of the A-bomb was unnecessary, it seems you’ve already ceded the argument. No?

  • 35 Hal_10000 // May 3, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    PS – I’m trying not be a jerk here, but it seems like a lot of the A-bomb debate has a resemblance to certain conspiracy theories. i.e., because I can poke some holes in the official story (the bomb was dropped to end the war and save millions of lives), that means I can posit, without proof, any alternative narrative (Truman was a racist; Truman wanted to intimidate the Soviets; Truman was sadistic; Truman wanted to try out his new toy, etc.)

    I don’t see that that gets us anywhere.

    I have no problem revisiting history to learn moral lessons or have debates over the wisdom of decisions. But I get very nervous when we impugn evil motives to decisions we don’t like and dismiss contemporaneous accounts and motivations for something more modern and sinister.

  • 36 Harry Eagar // May 4, 2009 at 12:55 am

    Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s ‘Racing the Enemy’ has exploded any notion that the Japanese were ready to surrender. He used the Japanese documents to do it. Hard to argue with them.

    Sanchez doesn’t know what he’s on about.

  • 37 A Good Idea at the Time « Just Above Sunset // May 4, 2009 at 2:13 am

    […] Sanchez here argues that listening to such changing of the context can drive you […]

  • 38 Gregory Koster // May 4, 2009 at 3:06 am

    Dear Mr. Sanchez: You write in your post:

    “…Albert Einstein claimed before the fact (in a letter to Roosevelt) that the use of an atomic bomb would be a war crime…”

    The only letter I know of that Einstein wrote to Roosevelt can be found here

    The phrase “war crime” is not in this letter, dated 2 August 1939, but not seen by Roosevelt until November 1939. Nor is there any discussion of the ethics of using such a weapon. It is a precis of atomic research at the time, and a recommendation that the US Government get going with same. If you have another letter in in mind, please cite it. If you can. If you can’t, enjoy the sloppy Sullivan kiss, with its attendant page views.

    Sincerely yours,
    Gregory Koster

  • 39 Derick Schilling // May 4, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Per this link, Einstein sent FDR four letters, three of them in 1940, when it was uncertain whether a practical bomb could be made, and a fourth in 1945, intended to gain Leo Szilard a hearing from FDR:


    None of them mention war crimes. As the text of the fourth letter makes clear, Einstein was not privy to the secrets of the Manhattan Project.

    I endorse the previous recommendations of the Richard Frank book, DOWNFALL. By reading the Tokyo-Moscow Japanese diplomatic messages in the summer of 1945, the Truman administration learned that the Japanese were seeking Soviet mediation of the Pacific War, but were unable to agree on terms for negotiation. This is far removed from a willingness to surrender.

  • 40 Julian Sanchez // May 5, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Greg Koster’s right; it was Leo Szilard, not Einstein, who used the phrase.

  • 41 Harry Eagar // May 5, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Well, Szilard wrote the letter Einstein sent to FDR to get the bomb project rolling. Everybody knows that, right?

    Oh, well, based on this thread, probably not.

  • 42 Derick Schilling // May 5, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Szilard did not use the phrase “war crime” in his famous July 1945 petition, nor in the cover letter he circulated with the petition. See texts at:


  • 43 MQ // May 11, 2009 at 12:14 am

    It is not so easy to separate modern war from war crimes. The U.S. wars in Iraq, and before that Vietnam, certainly involved many war crimes, one doesn’t have to go back to WWII. Hiroshima and Nagasaki only stand out because they are so far the only use of nuclear weapons against other human beings.

  • 44 Repository of Arcane Knowledge - Weblog · Mushroom Clouds and Moral Mediocrity // May 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    […] it to a comedian to state plainly that Truman’s use of atomic weapons was a war crime, only to backpedal out of political expediency faster than you can say Arlen Specter. This […]

  • 45 The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room » MIDDAY ROUNDUP // Jun 19, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    […] politics in Vienna – Jamie Fly, Weekly Standard A Bush executive order on torture? – emptywheel War crimes, past and present – Julian Sanchez Anti-equality coalition crumbling – kos, Daily Kos Flubbing Churchill – Ed […]

  • 46 Eunomia » The Argument From War Crimes Returns // Feb 5, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    […] Others have already covered this fairly well, but I suppose I should say something about Michael Goldfarb’s preoccupation with defending past war crimes. Julian Sanchez makes the important point regarding the nuclear strikes on Japan: To the extent it’s a controversial claim, it’s controversial because we don’t like calling U.S. presidents war criminals, not because it’s a difficult question whether obliterating entire areas inhabited by large civilian populations with the flimsiest of military targets as a pretext should now be regarded as a war crime. […]

  • 47 Aaron Aarons // Oct 5, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Coming across this at a late date, and pretty accidentally, it strikes me that everybody who has commented here accepts the premise that one side of this inter-imperialist conflict over domination of East and South Asia and the Western Pacific, the side of the U.S., had a “right” to do what was necessary to defeat and subdue the other side, Japan. In case it matters, one should note that Japan was not ‘Fascist’, and certainly not ‘Nazi’, but under a military dictatorship that was far less murderous at home than many of those backed by the U.S. in the following decades (e.g., Indonesia and Guatemala), and certainly not more murderous abroad than the U.S. has been from 1950 (Korea) to today.

    Momentarily accepting for the sake of argument that the attacks on the U.S. mainland on 11 September 2001 were not a false flag operation but were indeed carried out by Muslim Arabs retaliating for direct and indirect U.S. violence against their peoples, those attacks were far more justified than any of the U.S. attacks on Japanese cities during World War II. Indeed, especially given that the U.S. population has a lot more ability to oppose U.S. imperialism than the Japanese population had in 1945 to oppose Japanese imperialism, it’s hard to argue that — presuming some force were able to carry it out — a policy of massive attacks on U.S. population centers continuing until the U.S. stops its direct and indirect attacks on other countries would not be justified.

  • 48 Mohammed AL-Saedi // Oct 19, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Japan Can Never Dodge Settlement of Its Past Crimes

    Pyongyang, October 18 (KCNA) — It is fortunate that the “Society for Asking about the State Responsibility for the Massacres of Koreans after the Great Quake in Kanto” was formed in Japan recently.

    Rodong Sinmun Monday observes in a signed commentary in this regard:

    This clearly indicates that the hideous crimes committed by the Japanese imperialists against humanity can never be concealed and the Japanese government can never evade the responsibility for liquidating its past crimes no matter how much water may flow under the bridge.

    Germany honestly reflected on its past wrongs and has worked hard to fully redeem them. Quite contrary to this attitude of Germany, Japan has persistently evaded its responsibility and obligation to liquidate its past crimes, thus becoming the target of the world rebuff and condemnation.

    The world is demanding Japan redeem its past crimes not merely out of the sympathy with the aging victims but is prompted by its desire to keep Japan from following the footsteps of the Japanese imperialists and the wish to build a world where such historic tragedy does not repeat itself.

    Japan is persistently dodging the settlement of its past crimes in a bid to repeat its crime-woven past. This is evidenced by the fact that Japan is putting spurs to the moves to revive militarism and turn itself into a military power, obsessed by the ambition to realize the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”.

    The persistent efforts on the part of Japan to go without redressing its past crimes would only touch off bitterer worldwide criticism of it and precipitate its thorough international isolation.

    Japan’s settlement of its past crimes is not something for others but for itself. It would be well advised to properly understand this and redress its past crimes as early as possible.