One of the current issues in America’s relations with Israel is a difference of opinion between the Biden administration and the government of Israel over the conduct of the war in Gaza. At present, American policymakers are pressing Israel to reduce the scope and intensity of its defensive war against Hamas. For their part, Israeli leaders fear that doing so will prevent a decisive outcome. Experienced observers have identified a general American desire to “protect Israel from itself” and retain control of the relationship. Despite occasional ups and downs, America and Israel remain steady allies.
In light of this difference of opinion, which has been reported in the media, Lt. General (Ret.) Keith Kellogg of the America First Policy Institute gave his assessment in an interview on December 7, 2023, with Fox’s Varney and Co. His message was clear: “We need to let Israel ‘finish the job.’”1 He described the current war with Hamas as a “fight to extinction” and stated that on October 7, 2023, Hamas crossed a “moral certitude line.” This term has a precise meaning. The dictionary says that moral certitude may be defined as “a concept of intuitive probability so great as to allow no reasonable doubt.” Crossing the moral certitude line includes the massacre of innocent civilians, rape, hostage-taking, murder and mutilation of captives, wonton destruction of property, and arson. General Kellogg suggested that the Israeli hostages may no longer be alive and that Hamas terrorists may have abused the kidnapped women.
The big questions are how Israel, the aggrieved party, should respond to an attack of barbaric cruelty, and whether others should tell Israel how it must act. On the one hand, Israel makes great efforts to respect the laws of war and limit civilian casualties in Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas targets Israeli civilians and uses its own civilians as human shields. Claiming to be the innocent victim, Hamas, the real aggressor, cynically places its forces and civilians in hospitals, schools, public spaces, and homes and carefully manipulates the press.
An Imperial Precedent
It is not the purpose of this article to recommend a specific policy choice but rather to present a relevant precedent. There is a significant difference in scale, but during the summer of 1945, President Harry Truman faced a similar challenge dealing with Imperial Japan, an enemy that had crossed the moral certitude line. Truman responded to Samuel McCrea Cavert, General Secretary of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, New York City, who, on August 9, 1945, had dispatched a telegram to the President protesting the use of atomic bombs on Japan:
Many Christians [are] deeply disturbed over use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities because of their necessarily indiscriminate destructive efforts and because their use sets [an] extremely dangerous precedent for future of mankind… Respectfully urge that ample opportunity be given Japan to reconsider ultimatum before any further devastation by atomic bomb is visited upon her people.2
On August 11, 1945, the President answered Cavert’s telegram. Living up to his reputation for plain talk, Harry gave him hell:
Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic [sic] bombs than I, but I was greatly disturbed by the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. 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. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.3
It seems that the fitting response to atrocities, which cross the line of moral certitude, belongs in uncharted territory. Beyond President Truman’s personal statement, we have solid information about the process by which he decided to use nuclear weapons. Bruce Lee documented this decision-making process in his book, Marching Orders: The Untold Story of World War II, and a report in the Wall Street Journal.4 Lee explained what the American administration knew at the time and the questions Truman asked. He published a facsimile of the May 14, 1945 memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for “immediate action.” Truman wanted information on “the number of men of the Army and ships of the Navy that will be necessary to defeat Japan. He wanted an estimate of the time required and an estimate of the losses in killed and wounded that will result from an invasion of Japan proper.”
According to the findings of American strategists, “to effectively invade and occupy Japan, two invasions would be necessary: one scheduled for November 1945 and the other for March 1946. The first invasion on the island of Kyushu would employ some 770,000 American troops. The follow-up invasion on the plains of Tokyo, leading to the forced occupation of Japan, called for two million American troops.”5
Bruce Lee drew up the balance as follows:
… The evidence is crystal clear. The use of nuclear weapons to end World War II quickly and decisively averted the death or maiming of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. It also saved the lives of some 400,000 Allied prisoners of war and civilian detainees in Japanese hands, all of whom were to be executed in the event of an American invasion of Japan. Above all, it saved untold hundreds of thousands more Japanese—perhaps millions—from becoming casualties of pre-invasion bombing and shelling, followed by two invasions and forcible occupation.6
Harry Truman fought in World War I, a “war of position,” and knew the meaning of massive losses. Within the context of twentieth-century history, The Great War resulted in the loss of a generation for several countries. The type of peace that followed resulted in significant human suffering, social dislocation, and the rise of totalitarianism. Generations later, we live with the costly consequences of this failure of political leadership.
It is not the purpose of this paper to recommend a specific solution. Nevertheless, Israel’s friends have a genuine interest in permitting the country to get the job done as quickly as possible and achieve a decisive victory — a solution that may save lives on both sides and contribute to the longer-term stability of the region.
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Shapell Manuscript Collection, https://www.shapell.org/manuscript/truman-defends-use-of-atomic-bomb-against-japan/.↩︎
Shapell Manuscript Collection. (This document is listed by recipient and date in the collection of the Truman Library.) The author acknowledges David Lisbona of Jerusalem who shared this source.↩︎
Bruce Lee, “Why Truman Bombed Hiroshima,” Wall Street Journal Europe (May 10, 1995), 8.↩︎