This week marks the seventy-second anniversary of an event showcasing both the ascent of the human species to the top of the evolutionary ladder and its descent into what could be the darkest and final chapter of our roughly 200,000 year run on this planet : the bombing of Japan by the United States with nuclear weapons.
On August 6, 1945, the United States Air Force deployed the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, incinerating a few thousand acres of densely populated city, killing anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 people in the blast; perhaps another 70,000 died from exposure. On August 9, the U.S. continued by dropping a plutonium bomb on Japan over the city of Nagasaki, killing maybe 40,000 instantly and another 40,000 from the aftermath. American apologists offer that these mass murders were essential in ending the Second World War while minimizing Allied casualties. Certainly, that’s what I learned growing up, the pertinent question being whether this is true; it wasn’t until I took world history under Dr. Pat Ledbetter, longtime activist, jurist, and professor, that I ever heard the decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan come into question.
Quite relevant today is Donald Trump’s quite harsh rhetoric toward the nation of North Korea as reported by the New York Times. His outrageous words,
[t]hey will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen[,]
as usual exhibit the uncensored, grotesque gaffes we’ve come to expect from him. They also eerily echo similar words by Harry S Truman, president at the conclusion of the Second World War :
[the Japanese can] expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
The parallel may have been on purpose, as Trump seems to fancy himself the most accomplished president of our time, and Truman, in Americana, is widely regarded to have successfully ended the single most destructive conflict in history. Trump can rest at ease spiritually, according to “faith leader” Robert Jeffress : contravening Romans chapter twelve’s directive to refrain from repaying evil for evil, he suggests that God’s instructions don’t apply to the government, and thus this same, loving “god” has bestowed upon Trump license to obliterate North Korea. Certainly some hearts, are indeed, “desperately wicked.”
Though the philosophies of extremist devotees of Trump might not be all that surprising in their rapacity and blood-lust, the the claim that the atomic bombs were necessary to save American lives at the conclusion of the second world war, is, in fact, propaganda. It turns out that the Japanese had suggested a surrender months before the bombs landed, asking only that they keep their emperor, largely a figure head and cultural symbol. Washington refused, despite General Eisenhower, among others, urging Truman that
it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing … to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting [negotiations], was a double crime[.]
Additionally, Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, apparently argued that
[t]he use of this barbarous weapon…was of no material assistance in our war against Japan[;] [m]y own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages [...] I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.
The Nation suggested in an investigative report released on the seventieth anniversary of the bombings quite accurately that we Americans need to face the ugly truth that the war was ready for a bloodless conclusion before Truman ordered the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of people. Military head after military head uniformly agreed that the bombing was unnecessary, raising the more serious question of why one would wreak such horrendous havoc unnecessarily on civilians, and why no one exacted a political price for it.
One can easily point to an incredible misinformation campaign demonizing the Japanese as subhuman, feral monsters, documented by Anthony Navarro in A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American Propaganda during World War II. He offers a critique of both sides, but the imagery is striking. Lingering resentment about Pearl Harbor eased propagandizing Americans, despite the attack being retribution for America freezing supply lines in Manchuria and conducting war exercises a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, facts conveniently missing from the American consciousness. We Yankees, perhaps, simply didn’t think the Japanese deserved to live.
It’s reminiscent of the euphoria when Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, murdered by a special operation in Pakistan which incidentally risked nuclear war; elite media and governments alike believed murder of a suspect without a trial was a monumental achievement, documented on Wikipedia‘s summary of official statements. It seemed lost on interested parties that constitutional protections, inherited from Magna Carta, simply don’t matter in certain cases where the state deems them unnecessary. I myself was stunned at the hysterical outpouring of happiness on Facebook and other social media. I found myself nearly alone asking whether the dissolution of basic human rights in the case of a defenseless suspect made any sense. It’s true that if he were actually guilty of masterminding the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, his was a vicious, malevolent crime. But then again, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush committed atrocities, uncontroversially, so far off the spectrum by comparison that it’s impossible to even imagine, documented by Noam Chomsky. Standing next in line are Barack Obama with the drone assassination campaign, Bill Clinton in Serbia, and, yes, even dear Jimmy Carter in complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor under Suharto, documented by Joe Nunes.
In any case, historian Hanson Baldwin argued in The Great Mistakes of the War that Washington’s “unconditional surrender” demands needlessly cost lives and lengthened the duration of the war; he wrote
[b]ut, in fact, our only warning to a Japan already militarily defeated, and in a hopeless situation, was the Potsdam demand for unconditional surrender issued on July 26, when we knew Japanese surrender attempts had started.
Even the conservative Mises Institute editorializes that the bombing was one of the greatest crimes ever committed; John Denson argued in The Hiroshima Myth that the bombing was knowingly unnecessary. In a more recent article, Ralph Raico continued the critique with a quote from physicist Leo Szilard, one of the originators of the Manhattan project :
[i]f the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.
Dr. Szilard was making the obvious point that what evils others do seem to resonate while our own crimes either languish in the vat of forgotten history or simply cease to be crimes. I’ve long argued that if Hitler had won the war, we would have eventually either forgotten his crimes or exalted them; after all, isn’t this precisely what we’ve done with Truman and the atomic bombs, Jackson and the Trail of Tears, Washington and the extermination of the Iroquois in the Sullivan expedition, and so on. At worst, state apologists would argue that these events, like the tragedies of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, were perhaps strategic blunders rather than the more deserved casting of “fundamentally immoral,” a description with which 52% of Americans surveyed in 1995 by Gallup agreed; that of course requires the events to even remain in public consciousness.
Returning to the atomic bombs dropped in 1945, Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa summarized a lengthy search through official Japanese records, communiques, and memoranda in a 2007 article appearing in The Asia Pacific Journal, titled “The Atomic Bombs and the Soviet Invasion: What Drove Japan’s Decision to Surrender?“,
what decisively changed the views of the Japanese ruling elite was the Soviet entry into the war [...] [i]t catapulted the Japanese government into taking immediate action [...] [f]or the first time, it forced the government squarely to confront the issue of whether it should accept the Potsdam terms.
That is, the overwhelming evidence is that the Japanese military elites acceded to the Potsdam requirements because of fear of Soviet aggression, further undermining the assertion that the nuclear bombs ended the war. The hideous irony is that the Allied forces permitted Japan’s emperor to remain in place at the time of surrender, the only condition the Japanese leaders required in their earlier attempts.
The historical question is whether the Japanese really would have surrendered; I’ve unfortunately seen monstrous commentary online to this effect, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of lives were easily forfeit next to a demand made by the Allied leadership eventually tossed by the way side. If there were even a chance for peace by accepting what really was a trivial request by comparison to the massive loss of life to follow, shouldn’t we, as activist David Swanson often suggests, give peace a chance?
Establishing that the dropping of the bombs wasn’t necessary to end the war seems academic; further, we know now the architects of said wanton decision were even aware it was unnecessary. So why carry out such an action, as we asked earlier? It turns out that the answer is akin to why a child might pull wings of of butterflies : just to see what happens. Echoed later by Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns in Senate testimony about escalating the bombing of civilians in Laos after Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt on the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, the rationale boiled down to
[w]ell, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do.
Further, Truman felt a display of force was necessary to place the tenuously-held alliance with Moscow on notice, intended to restrict the Soviet sphere of influence once the spoils of the Second World War became available, as Howard Zinn argues with much historical evidence in his final book, The Bomb.
The myopic jingoists over at The National Interest argue otherwise, suggesting the savage butchery of hundreds of thousands was an understandable price to pay :
would even one more Allied death have been worth not dropping the bomb, in the minds of the president and his advisors, after six years of the worst fighting in the history of the human race?
Tom Nichols goes on to argue that Truman would have faced impeachment if he’d revealed the existence of the bomb later to war-weary Americans, and that they would have thirsted for blood if they learned of a more expedient conclusion. His argument is approximately the same as that from a propaganda piece from The Atlantic published in 1946, seventy years earlier : physicist Karl Compton argued, seriously if you can believe it, that the Japanese wouldn’t have ever surrendered, as a “well-informed Japanese officer” told him
[w]e would have kept on fighting until all Japanese were killed, but we would not have been defeated[.]
Both arguments are absurd, as Americans can easily learn that a more expedient, less destructive conclusion was available as of May 1945, and yet only a few of us in the margins believe Truman should have faced a war crimes tribunal. In a similar vein, the Taliban in Afghanistan offered to hand over Osama bin Laden, provided we offered him a fair trial and not continue to bomb their country. Would they have? We’ll never know, as Bush scoffed in his repulsive drawl, “We know he’s guilty.” But then again, what is a couple hundred thousand Afghans, or 200,000 Japanese lives to America-first chauvinists, a question now coming to haunt us with Trump’s incisive, menacing rhetoric?
As we’ve discussed previously, nuclear war is one of two existential threats looming over human civilization, both of which the Republican party has committed to accelerating : escalate both ecological catastrophe and the growing atomic maelstrom. Trump’s threats toward a small nation with whom we can genuinely pursue peace imperils millions of lives and risks war with both China and Russia. Our series on Cuba aims to demonstrate that harsh sanctions, imperialism, and aggression universally backfire, as one can see with one example after another in our history, and to further expose the many near-misses the nuclear age has wrought on a hapless species, many of which appear in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, gatekeepers of the Doomsday Clock.
So during this solemn week, let’s remember that history can repeat itself if we allow it. We Americans can stop Trump and the warmongering political elites, if only we organize and resist. Some decent references on getting involved to move us to a nuclear-free world are Waging Peace, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Simon’s Foundation.
We’ll close with words from the only officially recognized survivor of both nuclear blasts, Tsutomu Yamaguchi :
[t]he only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies.