In the waning days of Mr. Obama’s presidency he chose to do something that eleven previous presidents had wisely avoided – he chose to visit Hiroshima, a city pregnant with evocative memories. For some peculiar reason liberals such as Mr. Obama still struggle with the fact that there is no moral equivalence between the rapacious Japanese onslaught that slaughtered more than 20 million humans in Asia and the two bombs that brought that continuing barbarism to an end.
The surprise attack on the U.S. fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor energized the first great war in which the heavy bomber would be the most feared weapon. Germany had led the way – first in Spain with the bombing of Guernica and then over Britain with the Blitz of London, Coventry, Hull and other cities. The heavy bomber brought indiscriminate horror from above as ever larger aircraft arrived carrying ever larger payloads of high explosives. British and American bomber fleets took revenge on German urban populations but Japanese bombers had been slaughtering countless Chinese as early as 1932, seven years before the start of World War II in Europe on September 1st, 1939.
By late 1944, Japan was within reach of the most formidable of World War II bombers, the American B-29. Japanese preparations for civilian defense were wildly inadequate. Few Japanese had basements and their dwellings were made of wood and paper. So, on the night of March 9th, 1945, when more than 300 B-29s arrived over Tokyo laden with incendiary bombs the city was a tinderbox with few places to hide.
The bombers carpet bombed a working-class area with many small factories that were supplying Japan’s war effort. The incendiary bombs ignited panoramic firestorms that swept across the city, reducing nearly 16 square miles to ash and killing about 100,000 civilians. The survivors were demoralized. Follow-up daytime aerial reconnaissance revealed thousands of charred machine tools mounted on short concrete pillars standing upright in the ash fields, revealing that many of the “innocent civilians” killed in these raids had been contributing to the Japanese war effort inside their homes.
When a single B-29 appeared over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6th, 1945, it caused little concern; it was thought to be just one more reconnaissance plane sent to take photographs.
The Atomic Age
Atomic bombs were the next step in a style of warfare that had been indulged in by all sides by the summer of 1945. The English port city of Hull, population 320,000, and about the size of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, endured damage to 95% of its housing properties but lost fewer than 2,000 civilians. Japan, unlike Britain, had made little to no provision for the defense of Japanese civilians. The 13 to 15 kiloton atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably killed fewer people than the Tokyo firebombing, but the thought that a single bomb could destroy an entire city evoked much greater fear.
Elements within the Japanese military were committed to fighting until the bitter end. They could not promise victory, but they could inflict heavy casualties on the invaders. An American invasion would begin on the Japanese home island of Kyushu and then proceed to the island of Honshu and be followed by a campaign across the Tokyo plain in 1946.
The last great battle of the Pacific War had been the capture of Okinawa, which raged from April 1st until June 21st, 1945, with 92,000 Japanese soldiers fighting to the death. Despite our overwhelming advantage in ground, naval and air forces, there were 65,000 Allied casualties, including 14,000 dead. Meeting with his military commanders on June 18, 1945, President Truman hoped aloud of “preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” A month later, the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated in the New Mexico desert. Our president had been gifted an alternative to years of protracted slaughter.
The United States would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender followed by military occupation while Japan’s leaders were loudly making plans to wage a dogged resistance by its entire civilian population right down to youngsters armed with clubs. To most Americans, an ongoing and open-ended series of Okinawa-style carnivals of death was unthinkable.
The atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did no more damage to those cities than did the firebombing of Tokyo, which had failed to provoke any thought of surrender by the Japanese. The real power of the atomic bombs was their emotional shock value – the suddenly looming monstrous reality that a single bomb could destroy an entire metropolis.
It is clear now that President Truman’s authorization to bomb these two military-industrial targets was the deciding moment that ended the gruesome Pacific War with the loss of the fewest American lives and the loss of the fewest Japanese lives as well. It precluded “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
To the bitter end Japan’s leaders were clinging to a battle plan called Ketsu-Go, or decisive battle. It was all about inflicting so much punishment on the invaders that they would sue for peace; the militants clung to the false hope that the then-neutral Soviet Union would broker a peace agreement even as the Soviets were moving troops to attack Japan in East Asia.
Much of Japan’s population had been mobilized as a national militia for a final furious Ketsu-Go slaughterfest. It would be a nation-wide Kamikaze campaign in the true banzai spirit. The militants who commanded Japan’s military were unshakeable in their commitment to this carnival of death.
Even after two atomic detonations and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on August 8, 1945, the Japanese hardliners wanted to continue the war. It took the unprecedented intervention of Emperor Hirohito to save his people from total ruin. Among the lives saved were thousands of Allied prisoners of war whom the Japanese were prepared to slaughter in the event of an invasion. Pre-invasion estimates placed the number of anticipated American casualties alone at over half a million. The estimates of Japanese losses exceeded those realized at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Not to be forgotten are the millions of suffering people throughout Asia whom these two bombs freed from Japanese oppression. Japan’s homicidal rampage from Manchuria to New Guinea had already killed somewhere between 17 million and 24 million innocent Asians. Japan’s arrogant imperialism seemed unrestrained by any moral code. By best estimates, for each additional month of 1945 that the war continued, another quarter million Asians would die.
Even seven decades later, President Truman’s critics can offer no persuasive alternative to his decision to use the most efficient method at his disposal to prompt a Japanese surrender. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been reduced to ashes by other means in any event. Truman’s authorization to employ the only two atomic bombs in America’s arsenal was the least awful of the choices available to him. He had not shunned some other more moral alternative. Fifteen years after his decision, Truman would write that “sometimes you have a choice of evils, in which case you try to take the course that is likely to bring the least harm.”
The View from Japan
Seventy years on, Japanese school children are taught sanitized accounts of Japan’s behavior in the long years before its attack on Pearl Harbor. Absent are descriptions of the Rape of Nanking or the enslavement of Asian “comfort women” by its military or thousands of other cruel abuses. For them, the vividness of one bomb dropped on Hiroshima stands out in sharp contrast to their anodyne textbook accounts of the historical events that preceded that sunlit August morning. Unlike Germany, Japan has never had a heartfelt confrontation with its true past.
“In Japan, I don’t think that there has been much real evolution, at least among the right wing and the amnesiacs who deny Japan’s destructive war in Asia and insist they were the victims,” said Richard Samuels, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has written several insightful accounts of Japan’s military and the pre- and postwar cultures that were its context. “For them, Obama’s visit will be a chance to reiterate that they are right,” said the professor.
The precious few people who were either the victims of atomic detonations or whose lives were spared because of them are now all in their 90s. The last of the living witnesses of that August day in 1945 will soon be gone.
Where We Are Today
The weapons used to demolish Hiroshima and Nagasaki were firecrackers when compared to today’s nuclear devices. A modern 50 megaton atomic weapon will release 3,333 times the destructive energy of the rudimentary (maybe) 15 kiloton bombs dropped on Japan. Our concern should be proportionately greater.
All the good will of democratically-elected leaders has not produced a nuclear-free world. All these years later, it seems axiomatic that whenever democracies seek to disarm, autocratic regimes are encouraged to invigorate their aggressive militarism.
North Korea inches ahead with its efforts to miniaturize its nuclear warheads to fit their ballistic missiles which are now capable of reaching Japan and the United States. Despite our best diplomatic efforts, Russia has tested new intermediate-range cruise missiles in blatant violation of its treaty obligations. Russia withdrew altogether from the 1996 nuclear test ban treaty to give itself the opportunity to put in place a whole new class of nuclear weapons. China is a blizzard of nuclear-weapon modernization. India is doing the same. Pakistan is enlarging its nuclear arsenal even as it grapples with internal instability. Mr. Obama’s toothless deal with Iran has not slowed Iran’s full-bore rush to develop long-range ballistic missiles of the type perfectly suited for delivering nuclear payloads. The Saudis, who view Iran with trepidation, are making noises about creating their own nuclear arsenal.
We seem to be entering a new nuclear age with ever more destructive weapons in the hands of dangerous autocrats. The Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union has been replaced by regional arms races in the Middle East, South Asia and possibly East Asia.
President Clinton foolishly believed that his 1994 deal offering North Korea economic aid in exchange for promises of disarmament would be honored. President Obama trusts the Iranians with the same self-assurance that Clinton exuded. Trusting thugs, autocrats and religious zealots is a game for fools. Thugocracies cannot be trusted, especially when the costs to them of breaking their promises are negligible.
Doubling down on his naiveté, Barack Obama believed that reducing America’s defensive arsenal and deferring the overdue modernization of our nuclear force would somehow encourage other countries to do likewise. His childlike faith has left America with an aging, and possibly unreliable, nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, our enemies surge ahead.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain cautionary reminders of the horrendous ruin that can be caused by even rudimentary nuclear devices. They are at their most dangerous when dangerous regimes possess them. It was the world’s good fortune that it was the United States that was the sole possessor of atomic weapons in 1945. It should never be forgotten that Harry Truman used America’s two primitive atomic weapons to end a world-wide conflagration that America did not ignite.
January 3, 2017