Justifying The Unjustifiable.
During this last week I have come across a range of opinions on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It seems there are quite a few people who believe that these bombings of largely innocent men, women and children were necessary and just. Some say these bombs ended the war, while others also add that the instant vaporisation of these two Japanese cities saved lives. Let’s have a look at these notions.
Last week the Guardian newspaper saw fit to run an article about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The author of this piece was a Mr Oliver Kamm, and it was headlined “Terrible, but no crime.“ Underneath this headline ran the sub-heading “Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be remembered for the suffering that was brought to an end.“ The whole article can be read by clicking the following link – http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2142224,00.html
Mr Kamm dismisses the objections of those who decry the deliberate targetting of innocent civilians, those who say the bombs were unnecessary because Japan was already a defeated nation on the verge of surrender, and those who think the bombs were more an experiment and a demonstration of a new American power to it’s future Russian opponent, with the unsupported assertion that these views are “devoid of merit“. He writes –
“The decision to drop the bomb was founded on the conviction that a blockade and invasion of Japan would cause massive casualties. Estimates derived from intelligence about Japan’s military deployments projected hundreds of thousands of American casualties….. …….Truman “hoped that the bombs would end the war and secure peace with the fewest American casualties, and so they did. Surely he took the action any American president would have undertaken.”
Mr Kamm gives no references or sources for the projected casualty figures that were “derived from intelligence”. (though we should all know, and be wary of, how intelligent intelligence can be!) The number of hypothetical deaths that are attributed to the non-use of the bomb range from thousands, to twenty thousand, to hundreds of thousands, right on through to millions. (Am I alone here in thinking I’ve descended into some Orwellian nightmare where the use of an atom bomb saves lives, but it’s non-use is almost genocidal in scope?) President Truman’s first estimate was “thousands” in August 1945. By 1946 he was suggesting the bomb had saved “three hundred thousand-maybe half a million of America’s finest youth“. By 1959 though, Truman had come around to thinking that “the dropping of the bombs . . . saved millions of lives“. According to this line of thought then, the atom bomb was a humanitarian bomb. It saved more lives than it took. But does this contention have merit?
Official estimates of likely casualties were prepared in a report by the Joint War Plans Committee, and handed to the Chiefs of Staff sometime in June 1945. It’s estimates put the human cost of an assault of Japan at about 40,000 US soldiers killed, and 150,00 injured. I would guess that this would be the guestimate with the most merit, as it was made by the military planners at the time. It is a long way from Truman’s later assertion of “millions” of lives saved, and a fair bit less than Oliver Kamm’s assertion of “hundreds of thousands”. Whatever the hypothetical number presented, it has never been an acceptable act of war to intentionally kill innocent civilians in order to save the lives of ones own soldiers. By defending the intentional killing of civilians as somehow having a noble purpose, Oliver Kamm puts himself in the same moral platform as those like Osama Bin Laden, the IRA, or those who would blow up buses for their ’cause’. The killing of the innocent is always “devoid of merit”.
And besides, these numbers are dependent on accepting that there was a real likelihood that to defeat Japan the US was going to have to launch a costly ground invasion. This seems far from likely when one considers other factors like the state of Japan’s navy and air force(routed), and the fact that they were putting out feelers for peace BEFORE the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Several top US military figures thought the Japanese would surrender with or without the bomb. For many scholars, the stubborness of the Japanese in surrendering was down to the American insistence on unconditional surrender.
The Japanese were seeking a way of ending the war without losing face. That they were seeking negotiations with the Russians before the bombs were dropped is beyond question. The major sticking point for them was the future status of their emperor. In his book “Shellshock, The Countdown to Hiroshima“, the writer Stephen Walker reveals that senior figures in the Truman administration felt the Japanese could be brought to surrender without recourse to the bomb, or all-out invasion.
“Even now, hours before the bomb was due to be tested in New Mexico, a window for peace might exist. Everything depended on the terms the Japanese were offered. The key, as Stimson understood very well, was their god. Guarantee them their Emperor, he believed, and they would surely give the Americans their victory. Nor was he alone in his thinking. His assistant secretary, John McCloy, pressed the same point: ‘We should have our heads examined,’ he said, ‘if we don’t consider a political solution.’ The undersecretary of the Navy, Ralph Bard, had even resigned from the Interim Committee over the issue. ‘The stakes are so tremendous’, he wrote in his resignation note on June 27. ‘The only way to find out is to try it out’.
In the next few days, Truman would issue his ultimatum to the Japanese government. McCoy had already drafted a clause that permitted postwar Japan a ‘constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty.’ Stimson now had to persuade the President to accept the clause – and quickly. Let the Japanese keep their Emperor, he had urged Truman in a memorandum just two weeks before, and ‘it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance.’ No invasion, no bomb, no monster.” Page 45, Shockwave, The Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker.
Sadly Truman did not take on this advise and issued Japan with a demand for an unconditional surrender. Undoubtedly this would have had the effect of hardening the hearts of the Japanese top brass, who could be forgiven for suspecting the Americans wished to topple the Emperor, or even hang him for war-crimes. In the event, after the Japanese eventual surrender the Americans allowed Hirohito to remain as Emperor, and he lived to a ripe old age.
So was it the bombs that eventually induced Japan to surrender? No, the Japanese had already shown that they were ready to absorb massive casualties, the widespread firebombing of their cities, in particular Tokyo, by conventional weapons earlier in 1945 had already cost them hundreds of thousands of lives. From March to August the US had bombed over 60 Japanese cities, at a rate of one every other day. The Japanese leadership did not seem pressured by this large scale bombing of cities. Just as Churchill was not cowed by the blitzing of London, Coventry, or Clydebank. From diaries and official documents it is seen that Hiroshima was not viewed as a crisis by the Japanese leadership, but just another piece of terrible news. The Soviet invasion though did bring the leadership to crisis, with the immediate introduction of martial law, and talk of a military coup. Japan could not fight off two nations at a time, not without a viable air force or navy. The Japanese were defeated, and they knew it, surrender was only a matter of time. They fought on only in order to better the terms of their capitulation. Without the Russian entry, it is quite possible the Japanese would have fought on, hoping for mediation from a non-involved Stalin. Once this hope was removed there was no alternative but surrender for the Japanese leadership.
Oliver Kamm, in his Guardian article is trying to justify the unjustifiable. And for this I have no hesitation in awarding him a Mendacity Award. I think I will also give one to the Guardian for allowing this inhumane article to foul up it’s pages. The Guardian have been criticised in recent months for peddling anti-Iranian propoganda. One could be forgiven for thinking this article fits nicely into a pre-determined pattern, of demonising Iran, and softening up the populace for the possible nuking of Tehran – in order to save lives dont ya know!
Shockwave, The Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker. John Murray Publishers 2005.