Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A dark cloud

We are a few days away from the 64th anniversary of events that are among the most consequential in world history. It was early in August of 1945 that the United States, attempting to bring to an end to the Pacific campaign of World War II without an invasion of Japan's home islands, unleashed new and catastrophic weaponry, dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some 240,000 people were killed directly, while many thousands more were made ill, dying later. The Empire of Japan surrendered unconditionally on Aug.15 because of the bombings and because the Soviet Union backed out of their treaty with Japan and was ready to invade from the north while the US prepared to do so from the south.

A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that 61% of Americans believe that using the atomic bombs was the right thing to do, while 22% disagreed and 16% were undecided. It's no surprise that women, Democrats and young people were less likely to approve of the bombings than men, Republicans and older folks.

As an unabashed liberal, my first inclination is to believe that using such destructive weapons on civilian-filled cities is immoral. There is, however, a great deal to consider on this topic, and I don't disparage anyone who comes to a conclusion based on an examination of the evidence and reasoned thought -- whatever that conclusion may be. (Wikipedia has an entry on the issue that does a decent job briefly laying out the arguments on both sides.)

By the summer of 1945 it was clear that Japan could not win the war, yet Emperor Hirohito and his military commanders refused to surrender. The fighting in the Pacific went from island to island, with American forces closing in on the home islands and the Japanese employing desperate tactics, such as kamikaze pilots. After the US victory at Okinawa, plans were coming together for an invasion of Japan that was scheduled to begin on Nov. 1, 1945. Estimates were that the invasion, Operation Downfall, would bring unprecedented casualties on all sides -- possibly a million American soldiers, several million Japanese soldiers and millions more Japanese civilians.

In the end, President Truman decided that the US needed to drop the recently developed atomic bombs to hasten the end of hostilities and to save American lives, and today most in the US still see this as the right course of action. It seems, however, that some of the country's top military leaders -- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Chester Nimitz and others -- believed that the war had essentially already been won and that using the bombs was unnecessary. After meeting with Truman, Eisenhower later wrote:
During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.
I'm not saying it was an easy decision then or that it's an easy judgment today. I'm just saying that when top military people -- including a five-star general and future president -- clearly had misgivings about such drastic actions, those of us who don't agree that it was right and necessary aren't necessarily foolish or unserious or revisionists or lily-livered. Any way you slice it, the Japanese government and military of the period engaged in many abhorrent actions, and the steps taken to finally end the war were sorrowful days for all of humankind.


Eric Bradley said...

The morality of the thing is especially difficult to wrangle if it's true that more Japanese civilians would have been killed by an invasion. But deliberately and directly targeting non-combatants is never morally permissible, whereas unintentional civilian casualties that occur despite strict measures to avoid them is a tragedy but not necessarily immoral.

Here's a thought - why didn't we get the emperor to get on a cruiser and watch us blow off a few bombs on an uninhabited area and then let it sink in a bit?

Or why didn't we give the Japanese some time to digest the FIRST bomb going off instead of blowing another city into oblivion a few days later before the damage could really be surveyed?

Eric Bradley said...

Another sad fact - more Japanese were probably killed by all the firebombing done across the nation than by the atomic bombs. I wonder why that's rarely spoken of? Maybe because the a-bombs ushered in the atomic age and all its madness?

N.starluna said...

James Carroll did a thoughtful op-ed about this on Monday.

I particularly like this part:

"To firmly regret atomic use in the past is to invite absolute renunciation of nuclear weapons in the present and future. That there was an untried way to act then means there is an untried way to act now."


Jim said...

Thank you both for the thoughtful comments. I have several responses:

1. The quandary in Eric's opening paragraph in his first comment is a difficult one to parse. He wrote, "...deliberately and directly targeting non-combatants is never morally permissible, whereas unintentional civilian casualties that occur despite strict measures to avoid them is a tragedy but not necessarily immoral." I would generally agree with that statement (though my inclination is to pick apart whether choosing military action is inherently immoral -- though WWII is perhaps the easiest case to make), but in our particular historical instance the United States knew that it was likely that millions of Japanese civilians would be killed in an invasion, many of those spurred by honor, propaganda and brainwashing to pick up any weapon or implement at hand to attack US soldiers. I’m not sure if American government and military leaders knew how many would be killed by the atomic bombs, but how do we apply Eric’s standard if they were relatively certain that 5 million civilians would die in an invasion, but fewer than a half million using the bombs?

2. Eric also writes, “…why didn't we get the emperor to get on a cruiser and watch us blow off a few bombs…” Sadly, even if this had been logistically possible, it may not have done anything. First, Hirohito knew the war was unwinnable for a while, yet he refused to step up and order his military leadership to cease hostilities. Second, the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb did not shock him into acting – as it would have almost anyone – and neither did the Nagasaki bomb. He and other top Japanese officials were still trying to get their empire the best terms for an armistice. Only when the Soviets reneged on their agreement with Japan and attacked the empire’s interests in China – and prepared to attack Japan itself – was Hirohito willing to surrender, as the very survival of the country was in jeopardy. Even then, Japan surrendered only with the understanding that the emperor would remain the titular head of the country. He seems to have been a vain, careless and foolish man.

3. Eric’s second comment, that “more Japanese were probably killed by all the firebombing done across the nation than by the atomic bombs,” is true and it is one of the points that James Carroll makes in the column that N.starluna provides a link to. In just the last six months of the war, he tells us, the American firebombing of Japanese cities killed more than one million people. This fact, among others, Carroll writes, “had already made moot the ethical question about using the atomic bomb.” As is the case for my first point, the options we’re talking about and the events that surrounded them were so horrific that it reminds me of a line of dialogue from one of my favorite films, “Apocalypse Now”: “…charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.”

4. As Carroll points out, we have the ability to see historical events in the context of decisions, actions and events that came afterwards. The US developed the bomb because we feared that the Germans were developing one; we used it on Japan to end the war – and probably as much to intimidate the Soviets; the Soviet Union developed the bomb and the two countries engaged in an arms race that defined the end of the 20th century and its numerous proxy wars; eventually other countries acquired nuclear capabilities, pointing weapons at each other and destabilizing the world; advances in technologies and breakdowns in governments make it more and more likely that a non-state entity (al-Qaida, for example) can get nuclear material and could use it to kill a large number of people. This seems to me to be the way everything works: once something is created, developed or released (AIDS, the Internet, CO2) it has a life of its own and there is virtually no way to know what direction and form it will take – and no way to get it back under control.