70 years have now passed since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Round numbers being what they are, a debate that never really ended has come back into public consciousness, as it probably will again in 2020. Since it’s in my consciousness right now, I felt compelled to write on the topic, even though it’s rather a different subject than most of this blog’s posts.
As an avid student of history, I’ve studied the bombings and their controversy over the years. My own opinion has vacillated a great deal. In school, I was absolutely certain that the bombings were a necessary evil that ended the war without an invasion. In high school and college, I began to have doubts. These days, I suspect that the bombings ended the war earlier than it otherwise would have. I admit that there’s no way to be certain, because the bombings preceded the Soviet entry into the war, which some in the Japanese government claimed was more important than the a-bomb in terms of their decision to surrender.
Japan as Aggressor and Victim
This is a deeply uncomfortable subject to me. I love the modern Japan. My study abroad there ten years ago was one of the most important experiences of my life. When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2007, I found it impossible not to be moved by the images of horror, the sadness of the artifacts of daily life warped by heat and pressure, the survivor artwork. The remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, usually referred to as the A-Bomb Dome, were so somber. It was such a jarring experience when a crowd of schoolchildren greeted my father with such warmth and curiosity in the shadow of what is perhaps the most enduring symbol of the past hostility between Japanese and Americans.
It was enough to elicit idealistic (and I suppose, naïve) flights of fancy. If only the world’s leaders would conduct themselves with the idea that their intractable enemies today could become the best of friends in 50 years or so. All these conflicts worldwide…Do the factions in Syria or Afghanistan think their decedents will still be fighting the same war a thousand years from now? If not, then why not make peace now and save everyone the heartache?
But for all Japan has accomplished peacefully in the past 70 years, it is impossible to forget that the militant Japan of the 1930s and 1940s was a very different place. By all accounts, Japan has never come to terms with the atrocities it committed during its war of aggression against the nations of the Pacific Rim, which is virtually whitewashed from the history books its students study. By focusing on the great suffering of the victims while providing only the briefest of explanation about the war that led to the city being bombed, the museum has been criticized as furthering a culture of victimhood from the results of a war that Japan started in the first place. The doublethink that is Japan’s role as aggressor vis-à-vis Asia and the Allies while at the same time taking on the role of victim with regard to the atomic bombing is certainly odd. One could argue that American perception of the event has its own issues as well.
The Good War
In the United States, World War II has acquired an almost saintly mythos. Views on the Axis Powers’ brutal aggression haven’t changed much over the years, and rightfully so. During wartime, as a rule, national passions flare; the average citizen hates their country’s enemies. Over the years, though, opinion tends to soften. The Germans of World War I, the Spanish of the Spanish-American War, and communist forces during the Vietnam war seem, through the lens of history, to be normal people who were enemies by virtue of political grounds, not ethical ones.
The unparalleled atrocities committed by German and Japanese forces during World War II, however, have set them apart from America’s other enemies before and arguably, since. Look at the labels for World War II in the United States. It has been referred to as “The Good War” or “The Last Good War”. The men and women who fought in the US military and worked in its factories have been called “The Greatest Generation”. I can’t say if these viewpoints are universally held in the American public, but at the very least, few or no mainstream voices question the labels. It’s almost as if questioning the mythos is sacrilege. The use of atomic weapons is probably the greatest controversy about America’s role in the war. Frequently, the ethics of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are debated in isolation from the much larger issues surrounding the way the air campaign was waged against the Japanese home islands in 1944-45.
A Necessary Evil?
I feel that many of the debates over the use of the atomic weapons miss the forest for the trees. By virtue of their unparalleled, singular power, perhaps compounded by the horror of radiation poisoning, the debates focus on whether or not the atomic bombs should have been used or not used. Historians point out that the firebombing raids against Japanese cities killed many more people than the atomic bombings did; more people may have died in the firebombing of Tokyo than did in Hiroshima. Had the atomic bombs not been used, there is every reason to believe the firebombings would have continued.
From an ethical standpoint, I find it difficult to accept that killing people with nuclear explosions is any more or less problematic than killing them with fire, as both seem to be simply horrendous and inhumane ways to die. It’s worth pointing out that had neither the firebombings nor the atomic bombings been attempted, there is every reason to believe that the Allies would have continued the interdiction of Japanese commerce by aircraft, submarine, and mines. Had this occurred, deaths from starvation during the winter of 1945-46 may well have exceeded those from the air campaign. And how many thousands on both sides would have perished if the invasion of the Japanese home islands had gone forward?
The human impulse is to view particularly gruesome deaths with disdain, but the ethical arguments against the bombings leads to a disquieting calculus. If the deaths of 100,000 Japanese (for instance) in atomic or firebombing is reprehensible on moral grounds, would taking the alternative route and allowing perhaps 200,000 to perish from starvation really be any better? As far as I’m concerned, anyone who argues the atomic bombings or fire bombings should not have been used on ethical grounds needs to present an ethical alternative to bringing the war to a close.
The biggest controversy from a scholarly standpoint is what role the Soviet entry into the war played compared to the atomic bombings in bringing about Japan’s surrender. Stalin kept the promise he made at the Yalta Conference to open hostilities against Japan three months after the defeat of Germany, although to the general public at the time, it surely must have seemed suspicious that he declared war so soon after the atomic bombings. Would waiting to use the atomic bombs until after impact of the Soviet campaign in Manchuria was felt in the Japanese government have worked? Or would it only have led to the Soviets expanding their postwar sphere of influence into Japan in the same way they did in Korea?
Is There Any Way to Wage a “Good War”?
Still, I have yet to read any account that points out the inherent contradiction between labeling World War II as “The Good War” and the fact that it was the only time America has waged “Total War” against an enemy’s civilian population. Indeed, World War II was the only time that America’s military resorted to leveling its enemy’s population centers. Many Americans now would say that the Vietnam War was wrong or unethical, but virtually none would describe World War II that way. Still, the US Air Force didn’t firebomb Hanoi. I suspect that were it not for the sheer evil with which Germany and Japan waged war, many commentators would now be arguing that the fact that America resorted to area bombing of population centers at all (only a few years after its moral outrage at the bombings of Shanghai or London) was a sign of the country having lost its moral compass.
Certainly, there were good reasons to launch the firebomb campaign against Japan from a military standpoint. The US Army Air Force legitimately tried to perform a “precision bombing” campaign against Germany, targeting factories and other military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Unfortunately, the limitations of the technology of the era – unguided munitions and optical bombsights – meant that these attacks were of limited effectiveness. It was so easy (and strategically sound) to resort to firebombs when the time came to bomb Japan. Why waste American lives with multiple raids dropping explosives on factories (most of which would miss) when they could simply blanket the area once with firebombs, which were certain to reduce every factory (and most of the factory workers) to ash?
I can’t say whether using nuclear weapons against Japan was right or wrong, because I simply don’t know how events would have transpired if the alternative courses of action had been used instead. But I would like to see some of the mythos about World War II dispelled in the eyes of the American public. No matter how evil the enemy, wars are an ugly business. Americans are justifiably proud of the role their country played in bringing Axis atrocities to an end, but that pride should be tempered by the knowledge that along the way, America exacted a greater toll in civilian lives greater than any other war in its history.