Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Unnecessary Bomb

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

It was 8:15 during the rush hour commute in the heart of downtown when the bomb exploded. The plot had been years in the making; the bomb designed for maximum casualities. The intended target had been a major bridge over the river; instead, a hospital was at the epicenter of the inferno. In a flash, thousands of people disappeared, shadows on walls all that remained to show that they had ever existed. The culprits themselves escaped in their plane, a B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay. Sixty years after the terrorist attack, the survivors of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, have still not recovered.

"But wait a minute," you say. "Hiroshima wasn't a terrorist attack. Even if it was immoral, it ended the war, preempting a bloody invasion of the Japanese Home Islands and, thus, saved more lives than it killed."

That's the standard American excuse for Hiroshima. I learned it in school and believed it for a number of years. Unfortunately it is dead wrong on both counts. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago was not only immoral, not only an act of state-sponsored terrorism, it was also unnecessary. The latter may be the greatest tragedy of all.

The Thin Line

If you'll recall, this issue came up in an earlier post about terrorism. The best definition of terrorism that I can come up with is "an attack on civilian non-military targets," with war being "an attack on military targets." (I'm open to any other distinction between terrorism and legitimate wartime actions.)

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were primarily civilian targets. Each city had tens of thousands of civilian residents and comparatively little military value. The strategy in attacking these civilian targets was to wear down the resolve of the civilian population to continue to support their government's aggression. Make life miserable enough for the common people and they will tire of war. If that rationale sounds familiar, it was the same motive of the 9/11 hijackers and Eric Rudolph.

So, how did it get to the point where the U.S. targeted civilians in wartime? You have to understand the American psyche after Pearl Harbor. Government propaganda of the time portrayed the "Jap" as a sinister type of ape, not even human at all. This often happens in wars: the enemy is "dehumanized", "otherized", (the utlanning is transformed into the varelse, so to speek) so that it is not immoral to do unspeakably bad things to them. As Montesque observed about slaves, "It is impossible to suppose these to be men, for if we suppose them to be men, the suspicion would naturally follow that we ourselves are not Christian." Therefore, they can't really be men.

Remember also what every propaganda poster proclaimed: not "The only good Japanese soldier is a dead one," but "The only good Jap's a dead Jap." "Stay on the job until every Murdering Jap is wiped out!"Not to mention the ever-popular sub-human ravishing a chaste white woman posters. There is no underestimating the effect this kind of thinking had on Americans in the military as well as in Washington.

Add to this Imperial Japan's well-deserved reputation for atrocity (Google up "Rape of Nanking" or "Bataan Death March" for an eye-opening look at how the Japanese treated their defeated foes) and it is indeed not surprising that the military and political leadership had no qualms about targeting Japanese civilians. While no war is entirely a matter of good versus evil, most historians agree that the Axis forces were certainly far worse than the Allies.

Britain and the U.S. started bombing explicitly civilian targets fairly late in the war. By early 1945, residents of Dresden felt safe. Their city had no military value, no defenses to speak of, and had not been seriously attacked thus far in the war. Dresden was the cultural and artistic center of eastern Germany, a city swelled to overfilling with panicked refugees. Most of the city's inhabitants were civilians (the elderly, women and children), concentration camp inmates, and Allied POWs. The rumor that the allies intended to make Dresden Germany's post-war capital contributed to the calm--a calm which was shattered on the night of February 13, 1945 when British bombers dropped "incediaries" on Dresden. The city turned into an inferno as fires consumed most of the city at a cost of at least 25,000 civilian casualities. Kinda makes 9/11 look like the work of amateurs.

The next month, March 1945, saw the world's first major employment of napalm, as American bombers incinerated a quarter of Tokyo. As most of the buildings were wooden, they didn't stand a chance. The firestorm raged for days, completely destroying 15 square miles of Tokyo real estate and killing well over 100,000 civilians. Tokyo had military forces, to be sure, but a far greater number of civilians.

So, when the time came to decide where to drop the atom bombs in Japan, there was no discussion of sparing civilians. That moral line had already been crossed long before. The atomic bomb was simply viewed as acheiving what was acheived at Dresden and Tokyo with only one bomb, rather than thousands. More efficient. Less risk to American pilots. A win-win situation for everyone. Except the Japanese civilians. But they had already been factored out of the equation.

The grim truth is that the war was effectively over before the atomic bombs were dropped. As Doug Long [in italics throughout] reveals, "When Air Force chief General Hap Arnold asked in June 1945 when the war was going to end, the commander of the B-29 raids, General Curtis LeMay, told him September or October 1945, because by then they would have run out of industrial targets to bomb." Think about that for a moment: by September or October the Japanese would no longer have an industrial base. Without an industrial base, they could not continue to fight the war.

"While Japan was being bombarded from the sky, a naval blockade was strangling Japan's ability to import oil and other vital materials and its ability to produce war materials.
Admiral William Leahy, the Chief of Staff to President Roosevelt and then to President Truman, wrote, 'By the beginning of September [1944], Japan was almost completely defeated through a practically complete sea and air blockade.' Then in May of 1945 the surrender of Germany freed the Allies to focus their troops and resources on defeating the final enemy, Japan." The handwriting was on the wall. Japan's defeat was imminent. No invasion of Japan, with possibly hundreds of thousands of American casualities, would be necessary after all. Admiral Chester Nimitz and other military leaders were adamant that Japan was effectively beaten and that the atomic bombs were pointless.

So, why did Japan wait until mid-August to surrender? The Potsdam agreement, broadcast around the world, stated that the policy of the Allied forces remained to only accept Japan's "unconditional surrender". The Japanese interpreted this to mean they would not be allowed to keep their emperor, whom they worshipped as a god. Japanese Foreign Minister Togo stated in a July 12, 1945 message to Japan's ambassador in Russia that "as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender, our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort".

Due to the advanced codecracking capabilities of the U.S., a translation of this telegram was on Truman's desk soon thereafter. Thus, the Americans knew that the Japanese were really just fighting to keep their emperor. If Truman really wanted to end the war early, he would have done it now. But allowing the Japanese to keep their emperor would have meant something less than complete "unconditional surrender." It would have stipulated a condition. Ever since Pearl Harbor, the emperor of Japan had been made out to be the mastermind of all of Japan's aggressions, the byzantine nature of Japanese cabinet and military politics not being as well known then as today. Today we know that when Hirohito finally told his cabinet to accept the Allied terms for surrender, he was overturning all precedent, as the emperor was merely supposed to rubber-stamp the actions of the cabinet. Unfortunately, at the time, Hirohito was viewed in much the same way as Mussolini or Hitler. We hadn't granted those thugs immunity. The American people wouldn't stand for allowing Hirohito to remain in power.

So, to review: 1) the Japanese were willing to surrender before Hiroshima if they could be allowed to keep their emperor, 2) the Allies knew this, but decided to bomb to force "unconditional surrender", 3) the Japanese surrendered after the bombings, but on condition of being allowed to keep their emperor, 4) the Allies had no more nuclear weapons at this point so they wisely decided not to press the point and accepted Japan's "unconditional surrender."

Huh? Maybe I'm missing something here, but the atomic bombings don't seem to have accomplished much of anything beyond killing a lot of Japanese civilians (plus 22 American POWs at a camp in Hiroshima).

There may have been additional reasons for dropping the bombs. Perhaps Truman decided to drop the bombs to intimidate the Russians or stop them from overrunning Japan (though, much like the Germans had a few months earlier, the Japanese would surely have preferred to surrender to the Americans rather the Russians, so they probably would have surrendered before the Russians defeated them. Indeed the Russian entry into the war was so contemporaneous with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is difficult to tell which was the deciding factor in Japan's surrender.)

In the end, only two things seem clear: dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immoral and unnecessary. It killed far more lives than it saved and Japan surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the exact same terms it was willing to before those bombings. That is the sad legacy of Hiroshima: that thousands more people died needlessly in the last chapter of the bloodiest war in the annals of history.