Historians making judgments about awful acts in history (burning heretics, A-bombs, etc)

(Dr. Ted Davis) #1

And, I hasten to echo some other comments on this thread: burning people to death for heresy or any other “crime,” real or imagined, is never justified, IMO. Never. I offer no defense whatsoever on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church specifically or Christianity generally. I will, however, do what I can to clarify what actually took place historically, and in that context I don’t hesitate to say that Bruno simply wasn’t a “martyr for science.” That’s a myth.

Speaking as an historian, then, I note that within living memory American soldiers (and soldiers from some other nations) immolated countless Japanese soldiers with flame throwers on many Pacific islands, and American airmen (and airmen from some other nations) immolated hundreds of thousands of Japanese and German civilians (not to mention a few Americans who just happened to be in the wrong places at the wrong times) with incendiary bombs. (I’ll leave Vietnam out of this, but it wouldn’t be hard to find more examples.) Does this then mean that we should conclude that the United States is a dreadful nation that ought to be wiped from the face of the earth? I hope not–but those acts are still undeniably part of our national history. It’s not a trivial matter to make historical judgements, especially when one is confronted with awful acts that might (at the time) seem to have some rational justification. We need to be awfully careful not to draw overreaching blanket conclusions–the very type of conclusions drawn by Carl Sagan and some others about the history of Christianity and science.

The Medieval Gap and New Atheists Today
(Stephen Matheson) #2

The thing is, even though I believe you, and agree that Sagan wrote a lot of crap about religious history, I cringe when I see the focus on the Bruno story. The more you talk about how Bruno wasn’t a martyr for science, the more you invite people to complete the sentence: “…he was a martyr for theology.” To the historian or any other lover of truth, it matters that Sagan and Tyson tell the story wrong. To the civilized human, it matters that the real story is about a person being burned to death solely because of stuff they believed, by people who are called “the body of Christ.” Maybe it really does seem to you that “burned for believing in science” is a world away from “burned for believing in the plurality of worlds.” It sure doesn’t seem that way to me.

(Stephen Snobelen) #3

Many thanks Ted, for the added details on Bruno in your post on the White thesis. Jim, I discussed Bruno in the second and third instalments of this series. I specifically refer to his death as a tragedy. And to speak to Stephen Matheson’s quite legitimate concerns, my point is not to deny that this was a tragedy, but rather to set it in its proper historical content. A much fuller treatment of Bruno would of course explicate the nuances with much greater clarity. My own aim was to argue that Bruno is not a good candidate for a martyr of science. He is perhaps the closest we get to this in the early modern period, with Galileo perhaps being the next closest (although such things are hard to quantify), but as far as I can see there are no straightforward cases of the Church putting people to death for “science”, even though through the secular authorities they did for other causes. I am happy to amend this conclusion if a good case can be made for someone being put to death for holding a scientific view. I would like to add that I agree with Ted’s point that as egregious as burning someone for heresy is, there is also a wider terrible history of such atrocities, including the immoral flamethrowers of WWII, along with the A-Bomb and the fire-bombing of Dresden. The basic problem is human nature, along with power misused, as another poster astutely noted. Where human nature creates evil in religion and where power corrupts absolutely in religion, there should be reflection and a change of ways–as in other human endeavours.

(Albert Leo) #4

Steve, this may be straying a bit from the topic of a Medieval Gap, but it heads directly into the most fundamental questions a human being can ask: What makes us Human? What is the reason for our obvious Brokenness, our need for Salvation? How does evolution play a part in the problem, and does religion play a part in the solution?

Not to deny the importance of Scripture in looking for answers, I have tried to see where reason and science would lead me. In nutshell (pun for Nut’s shell), here’s my view: (1) We evolved as a large-brained primate, Homo sapiens who acted mostly by instinct until brain was programmed into Mind. (2) The invention of language and the ability to communicate abstract ideas made us human with a moral sense, but also with the ability to form cooperative societies that relatively quickly mastered the planet. (3) Evolution promoted an instinctive behavior that had strong components of selfishness and lust for power. (E.g. the early bird hatchling shoving later siblings from the nest; the beach master elephant seal trampling his own offspring while dueling for mastery of his harem.) While acquisition of a moral sense–a conscience–could prompt newly minted humans to rise above evolved instincts and act with compassion, it was tempting for individuals to seek leadership in the new societies that were becoming sources of power that the earth had not heretofore seen. Words and language had now become the tools to mold and lead societies that wielded more power than the most dominant individual could heretofore exert.

In the light of this “nutshell worldview” we can examine some points in your last post, Steve. In the 16th century, European society was dominated by a Christian church that taught that our life on earth was merely an exile, a testing ground, for entry into our true, spiritual home in Heaven. Bruno promoted a theology that would change all that; i.e. he threatened the power structure, and he threatened to lead countless souls away from the road to Heaven. Burning Bruno served two worthwhile ends (they would argue); it eliminated the threat to the masses of Faithful, and it served as Purgatory for Bruno. He could go straight to Heaven.

Communication of Ideas had this power for humans, and it could be used just as easily for Bad Ends as for Good Ends.

What about your examples for WWII, Steve? War itself is always tragic, but, as an infantry private who fought in WWII, I am convinced the end can sometimes justify the means; i.e., choose the lesser of two evils. As the end of the war in Europe was in sight, there was no topic of greater importance to us GIs than: "Maybe most of us will be lucky and survive the war against the Nazis, but how many of us will die in the invasion of Japan?" You list the A-Bombing as an Atrocity. In my opinion, NOT the one dropped on Hiroshima. We will never know if that would have ended the war without bombing Nagasaki. But, as infantry rifleman, I can believe we would have had to kill more Japanese in an invasion than died in Hiroshima. For sure, we killed more in the Tokyo fire raid. Was that more humane, more morally justified? Without a doubt the bombing Dresden was immoral. It served no purpose other than to impress the Red Army that we were not to be messed with. And killing one’s enemy with a flamethrower is no more immoral than shooting him in the gut. It is a faster way to die, and less painful, than some I have witnessed.

We give immense power to those who lead our societies. In the West we have experimented with theocratic rule, but the Inquisition in 15th century Spain left a bad taste in our mouths. Currently in the Mideast, there are martyrs (?) willing to die to impose Sharia Law. If Original Sin makes any sense, then Lust for Power seems to be a good candidate.
Al Leo

(George Brooks) #5


Far be it from me to even mention a certain science writer … his name will go unmentioned for the foreseeable future (!).

But I would like to point out that extending your zealous apologia to make an equivalence of the act of burning enemy soldiers who would not surrender or retreat … as somehow the same as burning people for defects in their theological conscience (i.e., heretics) - - who engaged in no combat or even any felonious criminal activity - - is making for some prettty ripe literary flourishes.

Maybe you should have some nice hot tea. Something soothing and calming. I’m a little concerned that you will work yourself into quite a tormented state.

Where does the line begin to gather … for those who want to write sympathetically for Evangelicals and their sincere belief that professors who teach Evolution should be fired from their jobs and denied a right to publish books of interest to the people?

Maybe people who so criticize the sincere and devout YEC’s should “put a sock in it” ?

George Brooks

(Nick) #6

I’m a little lost on the flame thrower thing. How is it immoral? I don’t think it is appropriate discussion on this site actually. I also don’t think the bombs were immoral either. Once the enemy surrendered, we stopped using bombs and flame throwers on them.

(George Brooks) #7

@nickster… He chose flame-throwers because he is trying to make a parallel to the modern world’s moral equivalent of burning Bruno alive …

(Nick) #8

I understand that, I just don’t see the moral equivalence.

(Stephen Snobelen) #9

Al, some great thoughts here. Many thanks. I’m a fifth-generation pacifist and dedicated to non-resistance. My paternal grandfather was a C.O. in WWII and served in the Rockies building fire roads (the worry was that the Japanese were going to bomb the west coast). A great uncle was held in a detention camp in WWI. Nevertheless, this is a personal view and I have a deep and abiding respect for men (and women) who served (including an uncle who fought and was injured in Vietnam) and I understand why governments feel the need on occasion to go to war. I would also certainly want to defer to the assessment of someone who was in the field of battle. There is an argument that a “display drop” of the bomb in Japan (after altering the Japanese army of the time and location) may have been sufficient to elicit a surrender. But given how strongly the Japanese at that time were against surrendering, it is difficult to say if this would have been enough. It seems clear that one goal of the Allies was to occupy Japan before the Soviets–and yes, to save the lives of U.S. servicemen. We discuss these moral quandaries when we teach our students about the ‘Big Science’ of the Manhattan Project. Back to Bruno, perhaps one could say that the Church at the time saw themselves as being at war with heretics and that the end justified the means? I would encourage anyone interested in Bruno’s case to read the relevant article in Galileo goes to jail (2009).
Thanks again for raising thought-provoking issues.


As I understand it, Japanese troops were given no protocols for surrendering, which was considered extremely shameful. They were expected to fight until they died. Occasionally they made their own citizens commit suicide.

(Jon) #11

There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that US high command knew the bombs were not necessary, that Japan was trying to surrender, and that Japan was no longer a military threat. She was completely blockaded, unable to control her own airspace, and was being destroyed relentlessly and with impunity, by US firebomb raids.


Where is the evidence?

(George Brooks) #13


You may be confusing the Allies’ ability to defeat Japan with the Allie’s ability to do so without hundreds of thousands more Allied casualties.

I have never seen one treatment, presentation or theory that America would obtain the surrender of Japan without suffering the resistance encountered on Okinawa.

In 90 days, the casualties are loosely described like so:

20,195 dead, 12,520 killed in action.
55,162 wounded, 26,000 psychiatric casualties.

Japanese (American Estimates):
From 77,166 killed to 110,000 killed (U.S. Estimate)
More than 7,000 captured

Plus Civilian: 40,000–150,000 civilians killed out of estimated 300,000 pop

(Patrick ) #14

Decisions at the end of WWII were made to save American lives. Japan had to be invaded and American troops were getting ready to invade Japan where it was estimated that over 100,000 American casualties were expected. Atom bombs as well as massive bombing were meant to minimize American casualties when Japan was invaded.

Regarding Bruno, he was executed because he was a dreamer who had blasphemous thoughts and spoke and wrote of them. Bruno was no scientist, just an imaginative fellow who spoke and wrote too freely. Recall that freedom of expression wasn’t enshrined until the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution centuries later. To me, Sagan and Tyson hold up Bruno as “one who dared to dream” and was killed for it. If you read some of Bruno ideas, you certainly won’t say that he was scientific or even logical. He was a dreamer with a vivid imagination. Bruno wasn’t a martyr for science, as he wasn’t even remotely scientist. He wasn’t a martyr from anything. He was killed by those in power to serve as a reminder not to dream, or speak, or write about anything that could be construed as contradictory to those in power. A Japanese man saying what Bruno dreamed of in 1945 Japan would have been killed too.

(Jon) #15

Where do I start? Let’s start with the scholarly consensus.

The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it”, J. Samuel Walker, “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update*,” DIPH Diplomatic History 14.1 (1990): 97–114.

Now let’s look at the primary sources material, the actual historical sources.

Admiral Leahy (Chief of Staff to Roosevelt and Truman), wrote this seven weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima.

It is my opinion at the present time that a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted by Japan and that will make fully satisfactory provisions for America’s defense against future trans-Pacific aggression.”, Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science Inc, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc., 1985), 36.

After the bombs were dropped he maintained his view that they were totally unnecessary and gave no support to the war effort.

“It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.”, Joseph Grieco, G. John Ikenberry, and Michael Mastanduno, Introduction to International Relations: Enduring Questions and Contemporary Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 210.

When Eisenhower was informed of the decision to drop the bomb, he had grave doubts. He wrote this in his memoirs, recording his reaction when told of the decision by the Secretary of War long before the bomb was deployed.

“During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”, Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science Inc, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc., 1985), 36.

In 1945 he expressed his opinion to the Secretary of War that the bomb was not necessary.

“Eisenhower, at least, seems to have expressed the view to Stimson in mid-1945 that the bomb should not be used because, “first, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.””, Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science Inc, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc., 1975), 40.

In 1945 Hoover sent a memorandum to Truman saying that peace with Japan could be arranged without the need for further conflict (such as the bombs or a land invasion). In 1946 he described this memorandum to Douglas MacArthur. Interestingly, MacArthur agreed with Hoover, saying that both military losses and the use of the bombs could have been completely avoided.

“I told MacArthur of my memorandum of mid-May 1945 to Truman, that peace could be had with Japan by which our major objectives would be accomplished. MacArthur said that was correct and that we would have avoided all of the losses, the Atomic bomb, and the entry of Russia into Manchuria”, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 351.

MacArthur himself said he saw no military justification for dropping the bomb.

“When Norman Cousins asked MacArthur about the decision to use the atomic bomb, he “was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.” (Cousins 1987: 70-71).”, David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (Duke University Press, 2008), 305.

Admiral Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, stated publicly in 1946 that the dropping of the bomb was totally unnecessary from a military perspective.

The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. . . . It was a mistake to ever drop it. . . . [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. . . . It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before.”, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 364.

Admiral Nimitz said the bomb should not have been dropped, and was completely unnecessary from a military perspective.

“…I felt that that was an unnecessary loss of civilian life… We had them beaten. They hadn’t enough food, they couldn’t do anything.”, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 364.

Admiral Hill (commander of the Fifth Amphibious Force), said that there was no support among the admiralty for an invasion of the Japanese homeland.

neither Admiral Nimitz or Spruance (Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commander of the Fifth Fleet) considered that it would ever be necessary to invade the homeland of Japan.”, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 364.

Although the president believed that the bomb was necessary to avoid loss of American life in a land battle, Ernest King (commander in chief of the US Fleet and chief of Naval Operations), told him bluntly that it was not.

“The President in giving his approval for these [atomic] attacks appeared to believe that many thousands of American troops would be killed in invading Japan, and in this he was entirely correct; but King felt, as he had pointed out many times, that the dilemma was an unnecessary one, for had we been willing to wait, the effective naval blockade would, in the course of time, have starved the Japanese into submission through lack of oil, rice, medicines, and other essential materials.”, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 360.

You haven’t read the original sources (see earlier in this post), including the actual tactical assessments of the US military high command.

Some military commanders argued that neither an invasion of the home islands nor the dropping of atomic bombs was necessary to defeat Japan. If the United States had been willing to wait, said Admiral King, “the effective blockade would, in the course of time, have starved the Japanese into submission through lack of oil, rice, medicines, and other essential materials.””, Dennis Wainstock, The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996), 65.

There was absolutely no need for a land invasion of Japan, and the US knew it.

They weren’t made to save American lives, and the US high command knew that Japan did not have to be invaded. There was literally nothing to do. Commanders of the US air raids were already complaining that they had no meaningful targets left, and that they could not find anything to bomb which was even worth the fuel used to fly out and bomb it. Meanwhile the admiralty was saying a land invasion was unnecessary.


You mean Japan surrendered before the first bomb was dropped?

(Jon) #17

I mean, as I said, that here was absolutely no need for a land invasion of Japan, and the US high command knew it, and there was absolutely no military justification for dropping the bombs. This is what I was asked to provide evidence for, and I have supplied plenty of evidence demonstrating it is true.

As for surrender, Japan was going to surrender even without the bombs being dropped, and the US high command knew it. JF Byrns, Secretary of State, wrote this about the Japanese surrender proposal which was offered before the bombs were dropped.

"[S]timson urged that we agree to [the Japanese] proposal. While equally anxious to bring the war to an end, I had to disagree, pointing out that we had to get the assent of the British and Soviets; that we had their concurrence to the Potsdam Declaration with the words “unconditional surrender,” and any retreat from those words now would cause much delay in securing their acquiescence.

Since the Japanese were patently anxious to surrender, it was not the time for them to present conditions. The President requested me to draft a reply. I went to my office and wrote a message which met with his approval."

A study in 1946 by the US War Department’s Military Intelligence Division came to exactly the same conclusion; the Japanese were already actively offering a surrender.

The Emperor and the advisors immediately surrounding the throne had come to a decision to end the war as early as 20 June 1945 and by 9 August, the date of Russia’s entry into the war, were actively attempting to carry out this decision.…The Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies. The entry of Russia into the war would almost certainly have furnished this pretext, and would have been sufficient to convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable…The war would almost certainly have terminated when Russia entered the war against Japan.

The bombs did not save any American lives at all, and did not end the war or even hasten the Japanese surrender. The Japanese had already indicated they were prepared to surrender as long as the emperor was maintained, a condition on which the US agreed when accepting the Japanese surrender after dropping the bombs.

(George Brooks) #18

Ha! Totally speculative and quite unlikely.

@beaglelady, It just shows how logical a person can sound when cherry-picking historical sources. Jon must be outrageously amusing at weddings too.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #19

Let’s see. Jonathan produces what … about a dozen or so direct quotes from generals, admirals, and military leaders at the time to back up his point that the A-bomb droppings were not justified, and this is the sum of George’s response:

Well, historical sources be damned! George has spoken.

What really gets me is that just over on a neighboring thread we have people all worried about how Christians [and or the Bible] are allegedly justifying horrible evil, while over here they make themselves busy actually justifying something in our own parents’ lifetimes that wiped out entire cities … that would include women and children by the way, wouldn’t it, George? Was the destruction of Hiroshima “chattel” destruction or merely indentured destruction? But oh … I forgot. When ancient people made war it was despicable evil. When we Americans make war it is totally justified.

A bumper sticker that says it all: War is terrorism on a big budget.

Until Christians (and others) in modern affluent nations stop prostrating themselves before the almighty altar of guns and bombs, I will always find it difficult (not to mention creepy) to take it seriously when they work up indignation about ancient wars.

(Jon) #20

George you are forgetting that I am simply repeating the scholarly consensus. This is not an idea I have invented, and it is not a matter of cherry picking sources, it is the consensus of scholars who have studied the topic. Here it is again.

The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it”, J. Samuel Walker, “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update*,” DIPH Diplomatic History 14.1 (1990): 97–114.

If you disagree then you need to present evidence for your claim.