Were they war criminals?

As Britain's first war crimes trial begins, Philip Nobile asks the unaskable

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TO WINSTON Churchill, Hitler and his henchmen were arch fiends. Their crimes, he wrote in The Second World War, "exceeded in horror the butcheries of Genghis Khan". After victory in Europe, Churchill wanted to impose swift punishment, a firing squad instead of trial. Roosevelt and Stalin insisted on a judicial resolution. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg then prosecuted 22 top Nazis and sentenced 12, including the absent Martin Bormann, to the gallows.

When Churchill was informed of the verdicts on 1 October, 1946, he was momentarily chilled. "It shows that if you enter a war, it is supremely important to win it," he remarked to General Hastings Ismay, his chief of staff. "If we had lost the war, we would have been in a pretty pickle."

As an Allied statesman whose orders led to the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians in a war that killed more than 40 million non-combatants, Churchill felt a kinship with the monsters of the Third Reich. It goes without saying, of course, that no moral equivalence obtained between Auschwitz and carpet-bombing, far less between Hitler's executioners and British and American air crews. Even so, Churchill conceded that Axis and Allies alike had created "moral havoc" in Europe. Both sides had engaged in "the hideous process of bombarding open cities from the air". Allied planes had exterminated some 600,000 Germans. The Luftwaffe killed some 60,000 Britons.

Despite bluster on the outside, Churchill brooded about atrocities unleashed on his urging, or in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with his complicity. At Potsdam in 1945, he had endeavoured to change Truman's mind about demanding unconditional surrender from Japan. According to the Magic intercepts, the Emperor's status was the major obstacle to capitulation. Tell Japan to keep Hirohito, the prime minister urged the president, and maybe then they will give up. But Truman turned him down.

"When you deal with the beast," Truman thought, "you have to treat him like a beast." Since Japan was America's show, Churchill backed off. The Potsdam Declaration was sent without a face-saving gesture toward the Emperor. Truman's message to the Japanese was surrender or die. And so they died, women and children in their tens of thousands, gruesomely melted like a Dali watch.

However much Churchill rued the Bombs of August, he found the mots justes to cushion the blow. In The Second World War, he claimed that the superweapon saved a million Allied boys from being slaughtered in an invasion, and thus it was a "miracle of deliverance" which averted "a vast indefinite butchery" and brought "peace to the world".

Still, Churchill was not deceived. Hiroshima hounded him down the years. "The decision to release the atom bomb was perhaps the only thing that history will have serious questions to ask about," he said to Lord Mountbatten in 1946. "I may even be asked by my Maker why I used it, but I shall defend myself vigorously and shall say, 'Why release this knowledge to us when mankind was raging in a furious battle?'"

After re-election as prime minister in 1952, at the age of 77, he worried about the fate of his soul. Amid hoists of champagne at a White House stag dinner in January 1953, Churchill startled Truman with a heretofore forbidden question: "Mr President, I hope you have your answer ready for that hour when you and I stand before St Peter and he says, 'I understand you two are responsible for putting off those atomic bombs. What have you got to say for yourselves?'"

Truman was not amused by his guest's theological gambit. The president had grown to hate the bomb. After dropping the first two, he halted a third, imagining "all the kids" who would be killed. During the 1948 Berlin Blockade, he informed an itchy-fingered Army Secretary that the bomb was not "a military weapon" but was "used to wipe out women and children and old people". As the Manhattan Project head, Robert Oppenheimer, said ex post facto, "The atomic bomb is shit."

Nonetheless, the president was adverse to examining his conscience in public. When Oppenheimer visited the White House and complained about having blood on his hands, Truman cringed, telling Dean Acheson, his secretary of state, to keep Oppenheimer out of his sight. "I could not worry about what history would say about my personal morality," he later explained. "I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right."

Part of Churchill's charm was a raffish bluntness, as when he needled a Saudi king at a state dinner by saying that his own religion commanded that he drink wine and smoke tobacco at meals, and proceeded to do both. "It is fun living in the same decade with you," declared FDR unabashedly in a letter. Truman felt similarly, but not that January night in 1953. Sensing the president's uneasiness, the defense secretary, Robert Lovett, jumped in. "Are you sure, Prime Minister, that you are going to be in the same place as the President for that interrogation?"

"Lovett, my vast respect for the creator of this universe and countless others gives me assurance that he would not condemn a man without a hearing," Churchill shot back, warming to the joust. After some chit-chat regarding venue, Churchill exclaimed, "Well, there will be a trial by a jury of my peers."

"Oyez! Oyez!" said Acheson. "In the matter of the immigration of Winston Spencer Churchill, Mr Bailiff, will you empanel a jury?"

So the game of parlour Nuremberg began. The members of the jury, which included General Omar Bradley, Averill Harriman, and other Washington bigwigs, adopted the identities of historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Socrates, and Aristotle. Churchill dismissed Voltaire for his atheism and Cromwell for tyranny. When Acheson elected to sit as George Washington, the defendant feigned objection and waived a jury trial. But the sport was too entertaining to abandon, and the jury carried on deliberation. Truman did not join his Allied partner in the dock, opting to preside over the mock tribunal from the judge's bench.

Unfortunately, the record runs dry at this point in the story, which was first revealed in Margaret Truman's 1972 reminiscence entitled Harry Truman. "The case was tried and the Prime Minister was acquitted," was all she wrote about the trial, offering no information on the grounds for the verdict or on her father's reflections about the evening.

During the same Washington sojourn, Churchill honoured Truman at the British embassy and reprised the taboo question about slaughter and salvation. "I well remember the discussion between WSC and Truman about how they would be received at the gates of heaven after having authorised the dropping of the atomic bomb," Martin Gilbert quoted the British ambassador Sir Roger Makins in Churchill. "They faced this occasion with considerable sang froid. WSC said, 'I think we are entitled to assume the Almighty will apply the principles of English common law.' The PM was in rollicking form and the dinner was a huge success."

In the closing paragraphs of Hiroshima, John Hersey quoted a Japanese physician named Sasaki, a survivor of the first explosion. "I see that they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo just now," Dr Sasaki said. "I think that they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb and they should hang them all."

History, of course, did not grant Dr Sasaki his wish. But what if Churchill and Truman had been tried under the Nuremberg Charter? What if the shatterers of Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were accused of war crimes defined at Nuremberg as including the "wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity?" Would they be found guilty?

Herbert Hoover protested that the Bombs of August were used "not to kill fighting men, but to wipe out women, children and civilian men and whole cities". Eisenhower wrote in Mandate For Change (1963) that "dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary". Even worse for the two defendants was the learned opinion of the former Nuremberg prosecutor and eminent Columbia University law professor, the late Telford Taylor. Although Taylor granted the benefit of the doubt to the destruction of Hiroshima (as a reputed war-ender), he pointedly remarked in Nuremberg and Vietnam (1970) that "it is difficult to contest the judgment that Dresden and Nagasaki were war crimes".

With a nod to Nuremberg, furthermore, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council updated Augustine's prohibition against the deliberate killing of non-combatants with the following anathema: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man." Despite some unheavenly hold- outs such as Paul Johnson, who argued in Modern Times that stopping the atomic massacres "would have been illogical, indeed irresponsible", moralists and ethicists have universally condemned what the Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres has labelled "the Japanese holocaust".

Yet asking whether Truman and Churchill were war criminals is the forbidden question of the Second World War in the United States and Great Britain. It is forbidden because the answer is as obvious as it is intolerable.

Philip Nobile is an American journalist and author of 'Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and the New York Review of Books'.

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