No Apologies for the Bomb
August 6, 2013 marks the 68th anniversary of the first use of an atomic bomb, and August 9th the last. Japan did not surrender for five days after Nagasaki was bombed, during which time the Soviet Union declared war and the Americans conducted additional, conventional firebombing raids on a Japanese city. Emperor Hirohito was asked to break a deadlock in the imperial cabinet that had blocked an unconditional surrender up to that point.
To this day, Harry Truman is viewed by ardent critics as a war criminal and the United States is deemed as being stained by a sin as indelible as slavery. In fact, last November, a "documentary" on Hiroshima and its aftermath produced by Oliver Stone was shown on television and, as might be expected, it presented the standard apologist's take on the history surrounding Truman's decision to use nuclear bombs. To quote Stone from an interview he gave to the Stanford Daily earlier this year, his production was intended to "cause Americans to rethink your history ... because you're not the indispensable, benevolent nation that we pretend to be." He might have gotten his facts straight before making such an arrogant and ignorant comment, but as we know from his past works, facts seem to get in the way of his agenda.
To begin with, the Japanese military knew long before atomic bombs were used that the war was lost. Why else resort to kamikazes in a last-ditch effort to dissuade the Allies from invading and to force a resolution short of absolute surrender? They could have surrendered long before they did but that was never a serious consideration, if it was a consideration at all. Even at the end, after Hirohito broke the deadlock in his cabinet, some military officers attempted a coup, to place him under house arrest and prevent the nationwide broadcast of his prerecorded statement advising his subjects that the Japanese nation had no choice but to "endure the unendurable." One key reason Hirohito's cabinet had deadlocked in the first place was because some of its members from the military considered the effects of the two bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as being no worse than that of conventional incendiary bombing on other Japanese cities, including Tokyo. And there was a genuine fear that, if the Japanese people found out that their government was negotiating the terms of surrender with the Allies, the government might face a popular uprising. One only has to consider the nation's history to understand why this was a real concern.
From its emergence as a powerful Asian state in the eighth century, Japan had never been successfully invaded or lost a war. The word "kamikaze" means "divine wind" and became part of the Japanese language after typhoons fortuitously prevented a Mongolian fleet from invading the mainland centuries ago. The Japanese people simply did not know the meaning of surrender, and in World War II and after the nation's surrender, not a few elected to commit suicide rather than face what they saw as humiliation. Then, of course, there were those soldiers stationed on remote islands who, for months and even decades after the surrender, refused to abandon their posts.
In the middle ages, a warrior class of strongmen, the samurai, took control of the country and the shogunate, a hereditary office of military dictatorship, was established in 1192. Although imperial rule was reestablished in 1867 in name, a militaristic mindset was entrenched in the thinking of the citizenry, and the people devoted themselves to the welfare of the nation as a whole, the Western concept of individuality being largely unknown. It took the postwar Allied occupation to put an end to that.
Before that, however, the world witnessed one of the most pernicious consequences of Japan's insularity and its historical embrace of a militaristic political posture, the brutality with which it suppressed foreign populations, including especially the Koreans and the Chinese. The "Rape of Nanking" is infamous, as is the Bataan Death March, but less well known is Japan's dispersion of mosquitos and fleas infected with bubonic plague and other diseases to spread terror and untold suffering among civilian populations the army intended to dominate. (Evidence exists that the Japanese Navy intened to use the same bioweapons against American West Coast targets late in 1945.)The Japanese military doctors of Unit 731 in Manchuria engaged in the very type of research and medical experimentation on live human "specimens" that made Josef Mengele a household name.
Japan also undertook its own program to develop an atomic bomb and, though as was learned after the war, it did not get very far, one can only imagine what might have transpired had it been successful. Nevertheless, that program continued up until near the bitter end, because, in the closing days of the European war, a U-boat transporting to Japan a cargo of raw uranium was intercepted by the American Navy.
After-the-fact armchair moralizers such as Stone tend to also overlook the "inconvenient truth" that Japanese scientists had figured out how to use upper air currents to direct hydrogen-filled balloons to the American West coast and that hundreds carrying incendiary charges and explosive devices actually made it here. The incendiary charges were for the purpose of starting forest and brush fires, and the bombs to spread terror by killing and maiming those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong times. One church group picnicking in Oregon came across one such a balloon lying on the ground near their picnic site and, in the course of trying to figure out what it was, were blown to bits. American authorities saw to it that a lid was placed on publicity about these balloons, but they obviously feared that soon enough, plague, anthrax, and other horrible inflictions would become the Japanese military's weapon of choice.
Japan's indifference to the laws of war and human suffering had become infamous. Indeed, they never took great pains to hide it. There was little doubt among the Allies that, if the military had its way, unimaginable numbers of their own people would have died in an effort to avoid the shame of surrender. Truman knew all this, of course, and first and foremost put the lives of American servicemen at the forefront of his deliberations.
It is telling that it was not for a full five days after Nagasaki was bombed, during which the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria and the American air forces continued their bombing of Japanese civilian populations, before the Emperor broke the tie and announced his country's defeat. Lest there any doubt about what the effect of the atomic bombings, the Japanese prime minister acknowledged after the war that they were a key consideration that motivated him to ask Hirohito to speak to the cabinet and decide which way Japan should go. In his broadcast to his people, Hirohito himself left no doubt that the atomic bombs had had their intended effect.
Returning to Stone and his ilk, how full of themselves they must feel for rendering a moral judgment, and about the entirety of the American people no less, after the fact and without any way of proving that, if Truman had done things their way, the war would have come to an end as quickly as it did and, in their eyes, more humanely. Needless to say, it's a fool's errand to imagine how things might have been different had the bombs been left undisturbed and undeployed. But it is a certainty that within five days of the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan did surrender and the war came to an end. As it turned out, the American occupation under Douglas MacArthur, who greatly respected the Japanese people, was relatively benign, and Japan took to democracy and became a close and respected ally. And since Nagasaki, no other atomic weapon has been used in combat.
Of course, since Nagasaki, millions of innocent people have been slaughtered and maimed in the old-fashioned ways we are all familiar with. Most of this death and suffering has been the result of the coming to power of political movements of the type fo whcih Stone and the left have so often expressed admiration. But you never know. Maybe someday he and those who think the way he does will count themselves lucky that they never had to live where people like themselves were in control.