I watched a movie entitled Above and Beyond the other day. It was a old-style studio biopic, in this case made by MGM in 1952. It was apparently one the last movies overseen by Louis B. Mayer before the control of MGM was wrested from him.
The subject of the film was Paul Tibbets, the man who commanded the mission that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Colonel Tibbets piloted the Enola Gay himself on that mission to Hiroshima. The film is a well-made example of its type: The subject has a problem to solve, they face conflicts, and eventually overcome them. A film such as The Life of Emile Zola or Sergeant York isn't much different from Above and Beyond when you come right down to it.
What made this film compelling was how it depicted Col. Tibbets's internal conflicts about the atomic bomb. He was depicted as having misgivings about how it could kill so many civilians. He comes across as an honorable man, a person who struggled with his conscience and ultimately decided to do his duty. Say what you like about the morality of using the atomic bomb, the decision to use it was a defensible position. I would like to think that in President Truman's shoes, that I would have decided to drop the bomb into the sea, within sight of the Japanese coast, as an example, rather than dropping it on a city. The fact is, however, that U.S. bombers had killed tens of thousands of civilians already by using incendiary bombs on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. So, if killing thousands of civilians by using conventional weapons was defensible (and I don't think it really was, but that is easy for me to say after the fact, isn't it?), then how was killing thousands using a single bomb any less defensible?
The Japanese had killed thousands of civilians themselves during the war (e.g., the Rape of Nanking, the occupation of the Philippines) and there was little sympathy for them among Americans. The Allied commanders were facing the serious prospect of a land invasion of Japan which would have cost millions of lives on both sides. Perhaps continued conventional bombing of Japan, combined with a blockade of their ports, could have forced a surrender, but it was the responsibility of Allied commanders to end the war as soon as possible, with a minimum of Allied casualties, wasn't it?
The real Col. Tibbets, to my disappointment, seems to have felt none of the misgivings depicted in the film of his life, as is evidenced in this interview he did with Studs Terkel. One can believe one did the right thing and still feel regret over the pain one caused, but that is not the case with Col. Tibbets. It is too bad.
One last observation about the film is that Robert Taylor, an actor not known for the emotional depths of his performances gave a very good performance in the role. I am no fan of Taylor, as he was a Red-baiter and an arch-conservative who ruined the career of Howard Da Silva, among others, by his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he did a good job on this film.