I’ve been reading Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, a companion to their TV series of the same name. It is a compendium of the crimes and follies of the U.S. government in the 20th century.
One chapter is devoted to an indictment of the USA for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stone and Kuznick contend that:
- The dropping of the bomb was partly due to President Truman’s need to affirm his masculinity.
- The dropping of the bombs was partly due to American racism against the Japanese.
- The dropping of the bombs was intended mainly as a deterrent against the Soviet Union.
- Japan’s surrender could have been negotiated without the bomb.
- The Soviet invasion of Manchuria, not the atomic bombs, were the main reason why the Japanese eventually did surrender.
For me, it’s not so simple.
Hiroshima and Nakasaki were the culmination in the greatest mass slaughter of human beings in history. An estimated 50 million to 60 million people, more than half of them civilians, were killed in the war, not counting those who died of war-related famine and disease.
World War Two was a war without mercy. All sides lost their moral inhibitions. I was a small boy during World War Two and I remember the wartime atmosphere. Everyone wanted to win the war as quickly as possible and by any means necessary.
There was no bright line that separated the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings from what had gone before, including the systematic bombing of the German and Japanese cities. I couldn’t have imagined the United States possessing such a powerful weapon and not using it.
It’s a fact that racism was acceptable in the United States in that era in a way that is inconceivable now. I can confirm from memory that American hatred of the Japanese was racist in a way that hatred of the Nazis was not.
At the same time, hatred of the Japanese was not merely racist. The Japanese did hateful things.
The atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial troops in China and southeast Asia were comparable to what the German SS did in Russia, Poland and eastern Europe. Stone and Kuznick briefly mention the 1937 Sack of Nanking, an orgy of mass rape and killing of civilians. There was the Emperor Hirohito’s “kill all, burn all, loot all” order to troops in northern China. Chinese prisoners were considered outside the law of war, and mostly died in captivity.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but the suffering of the Japanese people, terrible as it was, was less than the suffering inflicted by Japanese troops on other peoples. Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have occurred without Japanese aggression.
Stone and Kuznick note that the Japanese government offered to negotiate peace terms with the United States, asking only that Japan retain the Emperor and the Imperial system. Since in fact Emperor Hirohito was retained as a figurehead during the U.S. occupation, why, they ask, did the United States insist on unconditional surrender?
The Japanese military leaders had long recognized that they could not defeat the United States and our allies. Their hope was that the United States would be unwilling to suffer the casualties required to invade Japan, and that a peace could be negotiated in which they would remain in power.
The key phrase here is “imperial system”. This consisted of rule by the Japanese military with worship of the Emperor giving them legitimacy. Some Japanese hoped to be able to retain Japan’s pre-war empire as well.
The U.S. government was determined to uproot that system, and it did, to the benefit of the world and of the Japanese themselves.
Even Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not enough to make the Japanese military admit defeat. Stone and Kuznick are right on that point. Max Hastings, in Retribution: the Battle for Japan, 1944-1945, tells of the determined resistance of the Japanese in Manchuria against the Soviet invasion.
Only after a Soviet invasion of the Japanese home islands appeared imminent did the Emperor Hirohito and his circle decide the Japanese would be better off surrendering to the United States.
Even then, as described by Hastings and by John Toland in The Rising Sun: the Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, there was an attempted military coup intended to keep Japan in the war.
The Allies had moved step-by-step, each step seemingly required by dire necessity, into a situation in which they had no good moral choices. Kuznick and Stone quote an article by Dwight MacDonald in August, 1945.
I remember when Franco’s planes bombed Barcelona for the first time what a thrill of unbelieving horror and indignation our nerves at the idea of hundreds–yes, hundreds—of civilians killed. … …
Franco’s air force was a toy compared to the sky-filled bombing fleets deployed in this war. … … Our hearts are hardened, our nerves steady, our imaginations under control as we read the morning papers.
King Mithridates is said to have immunized himself against poison by taking small doses which he increased slowly. So the gradually increasing horrors of the last decade have made each of us to some extent a moral Mithridates, immunized against human sympathy.
I do not condemn Americans of the World War Two generation. I would be ashamed to condemn those to whom I owe my existence in a free country. They were fighting two monstrous tyrannies, the Japanese Empire, which attacked us, and Nazi Germany, which threatened our existence. They did what they thought they had to do under extreme circumstances.
The problem is that Americans of this generation, who do not face a mortal peril, react to every enemy as if he were a Hitler or Tojo, and take the desperate deeds of World War Two as a standard of normal conduct.
The main significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not as the culminating atrocity of World War Two, but as the beginning of the age of nuclear weapons. There are nuclear weapons ready to be used to this day. At any moment, I and perhaps you could suffer the fate of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If I could change history, the decision I would change is not the dropping of the atomic bomb, but the decision to create atomic weapons in the first place.
Of all the countries in the world, only the United States had the industrial and scientific capability to create such weapons and, even so, our scientists might not have succeeded without the British sharing their knowledge and without refugee scientists from Nazi Europe. Without that precedent, atomic weapons might never have been developed.
But once they did come into existence, it was almost inevitable that they would be used. Dropping the bombs was a default decision.
Oliver Stone’s Journey from Cold Warrior to America’s Untold Story, an interview on the Real News Network.
The Bomb Sends a Message to the World, an interview with Peter Kuznick on the Real News Network.
The Lucky Strike and A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions by Kim Stanley Robinson. Two science fiction stories speculating on what the world might have been like if the Enola Gay pilot had refused to bomb Hiroshima.
Tags: atomic bomb, atomic weapons, Emperor Hirohito, Harry Truman, Hiroshima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, Japan Surrender, Nagasaki, Nuclear Weapons, Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick, President Truman, Untold History of the United States, World War Two