From a long missive on Kiro5hin by Roger Williams, where he discussed (among other things) the building of the atomic bomb:
Perhaps the biggest myth of the American national character is that we are the Good Guys.
Whenever this atomic subject comes up and my views come out I often get some pretty hostile responses. I think it’s because it’s hard, it takes a real shock to the system, to admit to yourself that your country didn’t just needlessly and horribly kill a few hundred thousand people; your country does stuff like that all the time. To recognize the magnitude of the problem is to realize that we are not, in fact, the Good Guys. And that’s a very traumatic thing to have to accept.
From America’s beginning we have been a nation of high ideals but low values. We’re the kind of nation that can accept the 3/5 compromise on slavery right after ratifying a document that says “all men are created equal.” We can hear something like the Dred Scott decision and most of us are fully capable of saying “sure, that makes perfect sense.” Then we can have a big old knock-down drag-out civil war on the issue that kills a few million people, as we trip over ourselves finding ever newer and cleverer ways to kill each other. Then we can pick silly fights like the Spanish-American war just because we don’t have anything else to do.
In a sense it was an accident that we came out of WWII looking like the Good Guys; it helped that we were sneak-attacked and that the Germans really went out of their way to make us look good by comparison. Under other circumstances the atomic bombings of two inhabited cities would have been roundly and widely criticized. But it seems that Teflon, which was invented for sealing surfaces at the Y-12 diffusion plant (not as popularly believed for the Apollo space program) kept the dirt of our misdeeds from sticking even before we started to apply it to cookware.
We went on after WWII to do a lot of Not Very Good Guy things, from the Cold War missile buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam to Iran/Contra to Iraq. Now there’s a typically American approach to something we don’t understand very well; befriend both sides in a nasty long-standing conflict and then screw them both over! How to win friends and influence people, American style. When you’ve got the world by the tail you can do whatever you want.
Now as interesting things go, building the atomic bomb is one of the most interesting things ever to happen, and the fact that we still argue about it sixty years later is a testament to just how interesting it is. But it also isn’t a very Good Guy thing to have done. And America tends to be cool with things like that, even if we saw too many John Ford movies to admit we’re wearing the black hats in this show.