Thursday, August 6, 2015

Don't forget why we dropped the bomb


Today is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The debate over the morality of the bombing seems muted this year, perhaps by the renewed bellicosity of Japan, which, having whitewashed its history, seems hellbent to repeat it. I wrote this 10 years ago, reminding my lefty friends that, as ethically satisfying as it might feel to flagellate their country over the A-bomb, the decision was the right one.

     Saturday is the 60th anniversary of the United States dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A doubly tragic anniversary in that, with the obliterating grind of decades, a significant number of U.S. citizens no longer realize what a miracle the atomic bomb really was. Instead, they view it as yet another awful moment of shame in a history studded with offenses, whether subjugating Native Americans, supporting apartheid Israel or, on Aug. 6, 1945, murdering 160,000 civilians in Hiroshima for no particular reason beyond our own venality.
     That isn't how it happened. People forget. Japan was a brutal aggressor in World War II, whether it was the invasion of China, the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, or atrocities across the South Pacific. They killed with a guiltlessness that lingers to this day, in the bland, mistakes-happened shrug Japan extends toward its own history, a second crime that makes Germany, with its subsequent apologies, seem like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
     To ask if it was necessary for the United States to drop the atomic bomb is to display an unfathomable ignorance of history. The Japanese showed no inclination toward surrender. The firebombing of Tokyo, which cost 100,000 lives and took place all around the leaders of that nation, did not prompt them to even discuss giving up. Nor did the bombing of Hiroshima -- it took a second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, to do that.
     Yes, we might have defeated Japan, eventually, at the loss of 500,000 or a million lives. But we had this awful technology, wrought from the can-do spirit of America. We should be proud of the atomic bomb, and any lingering doubts should be dispelled by honestly answering one simple question: Had Japan the capacity, in early August 1945, to drop 100 atomic bombs on the 100 largest American cities, would they have done it?
     No one with any honesty can pretend to doubt the answer to that.

HUMANITY FINDS A WAY TO ENDURE

     Odd. When I flopped my fingers on the keyboard, the above wasn't what I wanted to say. Oh, I believe it, in spades. But what I meant to point out was one of my favorite pieces of obscure historical trivia.
     We tend to think of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as separate events, because they took places three days apart. But the cities are nearby, and there were people who fled the bombing of Hiroshima only to be killed in Nagasaki, plus a handful who survived both. It says something terrible about the hand of fate -- you escape one a-bomb, and here comes another. But also something wonderful about the tenacity of the human vessel. We worry about sharks. But there are people who were in cities hit by atomic bombs, twice, and lived to tell the tale.    
                              —Originally published Aug. 5, 2005

32 comments:

  1. So great and not so great countries of the world...what have we all learned from all this aggression and retaliation? Precious little, I would suggest.

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  2. Just a cursory examination of details in Operations Olympic and Coronet, the plans to conquer the Japanese Mainland, makes it obvious the casualties on both sides would be astronomical. Also having witnessed the mass suicide by civilians during the Battle of Okinawa, there was a real fear this scenario would play out from one end of Japan to the other. It was fortunate for all sides, that the shock and awe of several nuclear bombs, convinced the Japanese to submit to unconditional surrender.

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  3. Thanks for taking the non- politically correct view, Mr. S. All Tojo was worried about was saving face, not his people. Unfortunately text books for students, even at the college level, don't always show both sides.

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    1. People weren't taught enough about what Japan was up to in the schools here, but with their non apologetic behavior for so long, that is changing. I knew a younger, Japanese person who said they never heard about Japan's cruelties in their schools till they came to study in the U.S.

      Still they can be a buffer with China today, if allowed to be.

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  4. Everyone here should read the Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang.

    And Japan had committed atrocities against Koreans years before WWII.

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    1. ...such as kidnapping Korean women and forcing them to work as prostitutes servicing the Japanese army. It may be hard for chauvinistic white Americans to imagine that the people of an Asian country could have developed such a deeply ingrained sense of superiority over all other forms of human life.

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    2. The Russians were surprised when the Japanese beat them at the harbor war in 1904. Unlike China whose ruling circle thought they had nothing to learn from the west, Japan studied the Prussian navy in the late 1800's and then made it's own adaptations. Theodore Roosevelt was actually a fan of theirs. His cousin later wouldn't have that luxury.

      How about the babies the Japanese soldiers speared in China?

      Chris, you are mistaken if you think only Americans or whites or westerners can be "chauvinistic."

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  5. Yes, why didn't Tojo surrender after the first bomb when he saw we weren't bluffing? We had the 3rd one waiting. We let them keep their symbolic emperor after the war. I've read they liked MacCarther as overseer because he was aloof. We were nice enough not to drop any on the center of art in Kyoto. They may not have been so thoughtful.

    And the Southeast Asians suffered from them as well. In W2, Ho Chi Minh and further north, Mao were actually helping by fighting the Japanese. Chiank Kai Shek, not so much and that would hurt him later.

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    1. We didn't have a third one waiting. The next bombs wouldn't be ready until October 1945 & there were ten of those, with 12 more to follow.
      Tojo lost all of his power a year earlier in July 1944.

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  6. (MacArthur) correction of spelling

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  7. (chiang) not chiank and not suggesting China is in SE Asia

    Way back in the 80's PBS ran a dramatic but realistic serial named Tenko based on the Japanese camp for mostly western women in Malaysia.

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    1. Japanese women were treated very lowly in Japan itself.

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  8. As one of your lefty friends, I can't agree with much of what you said. However, I t have to agree that the bombing was worth it, not for the reasons stated, but for the many unintended consequences, one of which is that the bomb has not been used since, not by us nor even by any other country with nuclear power that we might think of as being much less restrained than we.

    I think we can be proud of the technological achievement of the atom bomb and at the same time ashamed that we used it and proud again that we've not resorted to using it once more despite the many temptations to decisively resolve subsequent world conflicts.

    john

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    1. Tate, you aren't being very realistic.

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    2. That was one of the reasons Hiroshima was picked, perfect size for the most devastation w one bomb to show everybody else that this technology exists and the next war would be catastrophic if it was used. It was intended to be a warning to the future as well as an ending to WWII.

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  9. Japan didn't know we were temporarily out of nuclear bombs after Nagasaki.

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  10. My favorite obscure trivia about the bombings is the city of Kokura. It was the backup city to be bombed if Hiroshima was clouded over and it was the primary city for bomb number two, but it was clouded over and so Nagasaki was bombed instead.
    Mark

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  11. Yes, as you say we worry of sharks-some people more concerned about sharks, lions then humans.

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  12. Thank you for this! I get really annoyed with guilt-ridden leftists who keen and wail about the atomic bombing while ignoring what led up to it. Salon currently has an interminable article by some nitwit who recounts in endless detail what the atomic bombs did before he finally gets around to his main "argument": A couple of generals somewhere said the bombing maybe wasn't necessary, therefore it was a war crime.

    This is somewhat personal for me, because my father was a Marine who fought in the South Pacific during the war and might very well have been wounded or killed during a conventional invasion.

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    1. Well said, Scribe.

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    2. Paul Fussell, a writer & historian, was on a troop ship going from Europe to the Pacific. When he & the rest of the troops heard about the bomb, Fussell wrote they knew they would live, because there wouldn't be an invasion.

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    3. Fussel wrote about it in a book called "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb and Other Essays."
      The day the bomb was dropped, my father was on an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) as a Navy Ensign. He was attached to an Amphib flotilla getting ready for the invasion. Since i was born 9 months after he got home in February, 1945, I'm inclined to agree with Fussel.

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  13. Here's where we may well have gotten a bracing rebuttal from A-n-A to spice things up, which I'm sure he could muster, though I have no idea what he might think about this. ; )

    I've always been fairly well persuaded by the argument NS makes here, but it's not like there aren't legitimate arguments with regard to the use of, particularly, the second bomb. The Russians entering the war against Japan, some of the Japanese leaders seeing the writing on the wall after Hiroshima, us evolving on the issue of allowing them to keep the Emperor, etc. Unlike our prolific and informed anonymous friend commenting above, I don't recall the details well enough at this point to advance those arguments effectively, though, so I'll just post and run...

    That being said, WWII featured so many bombing campaigns, in both theaters and from both sides, that would have been considered unpardonable atrocities had they occurred in any previous war that the single-minded focus on the immorality of the A bombs seems pretty disproportionate to me.

    I will second Scribe's personal note. It's a disconcerting feature of the atomic age for me and, I assume, a large number of our contemporaries born in the aftermath of the war, that we all recognize the horror of the use of nuclear weapons, while also realizing that many of us may not have been born had they not been used and had an invasion of Japan been required to force the surrender. (I hope one can find that somewhat disconcerting without qualifying as a "guilt-ridden leftist.") ; )

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    1. The Russians were dragging their feet about helping us out in Japan. Their main interested was the Sakhalin islands.

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    2. I think Scribe, bitter or not, would withdraw the "guilt-ridden" comment if he could. Personally, I don't feel guilty about any of the horrific acts the United States has been guilty of during its existence nor particularly proud of the great wonders our country has wrought. I've plenty enough guilt and pride with regard to my own actions. By the way, I probably do not have as much at stake as some of the commenters, given that my father was safely ensconced in England at the time and he had already done his paternal duty some 3 years prior.

      john

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    3. Not withdrawing anything, amigo.

      I think there are plenty of things we should feel guilty about as a nation, but the atomic bombing is definitely not one of them.

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  14. I read the Salon article too and thought his call for a national apology for the bombing was over the top. But he did bring up some troubling points which, unless you think history must be what Napoleon said it must be, "a fable agreed on," I think it's reasonable for historians to consider them. And the "couple of generals somewhere" he cited included General Eisenhower and Admiral Leahy, not insignificant figures.

    I think Harry Truman made the right call -- my brother was in the Pacific and under Kamikazi attack -- but realize that people who are not concerned solely with American lives being lost might question the decision process, particularly as it applied to Nagasaki. It's true that invasion of the Japanese homeland would have been horrendous, but not necessarily inevitable. The Japanese were by then without allies and suffering terrible losses. In earlier times a negotiated settlement with severe economic penalties for the loser would have been possible. However, the Axis powers were so indisputably guilty of war crimes that unconditional surrender and deposition of the Emperor seemed called for. (And as we know, the Emperor was falsely absolved of guilt as a matter of political expediency after the fact and allowed to stay.)

    Unanswered, and probably unanswerable, is the charge that the decision was motivated by a wish to shut out and intimidate the Soviets.

    The odd thing about this discussion, is that most Americans, if they think about it at all agree that the bombing was the right thing to do, but people who raise doubts are termed "politically correct." A curious use of language.

    Tom Evans

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  15. Knowing what I know now, if I was Harry Truman I would still approve it without a moment's hesitation.

    I'd do it for no other reason that to try to spare lives from a mainland invasion. Only the most ignorant apologist can argue that fewer people would have died if we didn't drop the bomb but invade instead. And even if that would be true, how could you tell a parent of a serviceman that would have died in that invasion that you could have dropped a bomb that may have spared their child's life, but you didn't want to kill innocent civilians?

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  16. I think the argument by critics is that given a little more time (three days was not much in the circumstances) and the right incentives the Japanese might have agreed to surrender terms and an invasion would not have been necessary. A lot of "if's," and there's no way of knowing, but you don't have to be a guilt ridden leftist to consider it not totally implausible.

    TE

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  17. Well, since we're having what passes for a discussion about this, I'll throw this out there. This may or may not be an example of leftist nonsense, but it's not based on "an unfathomable ignorance of history." It doesn't even argue that the bombs should not have been used, but that they were not necessarily the single thing that promptly forced the surrender. Even if one chooses to dismiss that conclusion out of hand, this guy makes some interesting points, IMHO...

    "Tsuyoshi Hasegawa - a highly respected historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara - has marshaled compelling evidence that it was the Soviet entry into the Pacific conflict, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that forced Japan’s surrender." ...........

    “Hasegawa has changed my mind,” says Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” “The Japanese decision to surrender was not driven by the two bombings.” ............

    "After a long war and in the space of a few days, the Japanese leadership was hit with two extraordinary events - Hiroshima and the Soviet invasion - and sorting out cause and effect, based on incomplete documentation, may prove impossible.

    'When you look through all the evidence, I think it is hard to weigh one or the other more heavily,' Bernstein said. 'The analysis is well intentioned, but more fine-grained than the evidence comfortably allows.'

    Yet Bernstein, Hasegawa, and many historians agree on one startling point. The public view that the atomic bomb was the decisive event that ended World War II is not supported by the facts."

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/08/07/why_did_japan_surrender/?page=full

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  18. According to Richard Dietch of Sports Illustrated this is one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever.

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima

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