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Hiroshima — war crime or not?

65 years on, with the United States having finally decided to commemorate the bombing, the historica

Lots of the papers today are filled with news stories about the 65th anniversary of the world's first atomic bomb attack, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There has been much discussion of how, for the first time, a representative of the United States -- Ambassador John Roos -- decided to attend. The United States is, of course, the nation that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, making it the only country on earth to have used nuclear weapons against another nation.

Two pieces in particular caught my eye. First, the report by the Independent's acclaimed war correspondent Robert Fisk, on the front page of that paper, in which he writes:

On the surface, it's all very simple. Most of us seem to believe the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime. I certainly do. The Japanese were already talking of surrender. That Caesar of British historians, A J P Taylor, quoted a senior US official. "The bomb simply had to be used -- so much money had been expended on it. Had it failed, how would we have explained the huge expenditure? Think of the public outcry there would have been . . . The relief to everyone concerned when the bomb was finished and dropped was enormous."

I agree with Fisk (and with A J P Taylor!). I still can't quite understand how defenders of the US decision to nuke those two Japanese cities can argue, in good conscience, that it wasn't a war crime. To use atomic bombs to literally incinerate hundreds of thousands of men, women and children? If that's not a war crime, then what is? And even if we were to accept that the nuclear strikes were somehow unavoidable, and the only way to end that horrific war and prevent further (largely American) casualties, would that then make them morally correct and permissible? Since when do the ends justify the means?

So I was interested also to read the leader in the (paywall-protected!) Times which was, I assume, written by Oliver Kamm, an ardent apologist for the US strike on Hiroshima. The Times leader says:

The bombings of Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki were a terrible act of war. But they were no crime . . . It seems incredible, but even the destruction of Hiroshima was not enough to force the Japanese cabinet to accept that the war was lost. The xenophobic fanaticism of a powerful constituency within it believed that Japan should resist till the literal extinction of its people. Recent research by Sadao Asada, a historian at Doshisha University, demonstrates beyond reasonable dispute that only the use of the A-bomb -- at Nagasaki as well as Hiroshima -- enabled the "peace party" within the cabinet to prevail . . . President Truman, who ordered the bombings, insisted that his decision had shortened a war and prevented huge casualties. The historical evidence strongly suggests that he was right.

Despite the one-sided view ("beyond reasonable doubt") presented by the Times leader writer (Kamm?), the fact is that an intense historical debate continues to rage over whether or not the use of the A-bomb by the Americans was necessary to end the war in the Pacific. Revisionist historians such as Gar Alperovitz argue that the US political and military leadership knew the bombs were unnecessary, other than to make a geopolitical point about postwar American primacy, because, as the US Strategic Bombing Survey put it in 1946, "in all probability" Japan would have surrendered even without them.

I'm not going to get into the details of the complex, historical debate here. But I will leave you with these quotations, courtesy of Doug Long:

GENERAL DWIGHT EISENHOWER
(Supreme Commander of Allies Forces in Europe)

". . . the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."

Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63.

GENERAL DOUGLAS MacARTHUR
(Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan)

MacArthur biographer William Manchester has described MacArthur's reaction to the issuance by the Allies of the Potsdam Proclamation to Japan: ". . . the Potsdam declaration in July, demand[ed] that Japan surrender unconditionally or face 'prompt and utter destruction'. MacArthur was appalled. He knew that the Japanese would never renounce their emperor, and that without him an orderly transition to peace would be impossible anyhow, because his people would never submit to Allied occupation unless he ordered it. Ironically, when the surrender did come, it was conditional, and the condition was a continuation of the imperial reign. Had the general's advice been followed, the resort to atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been unnecessary."

William Manchester, "American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964", pg. 512.

ADMIRAL WILLIAM D LEAHY
(Chief of Staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman)

"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

"The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."

William Leahy, "I Was There", pg. 441.

JOHN McCLOY
(Assistant Secretary of War)

"I have always felt that if, in our ultimatum to the Japanese government issued from Potsdam [in July 1945], we had referred to the retention of the emperor as a constitutional monarch and had made some reference to the reasonable accessibility of raw materials to the future Japanese government, it would have been accepted. Indeed, I believe that even in the form it was delivered, there was some disposition on the part of the Japanese to give it favourable consideration. When the war was over I arrived at this conclusion after talking with a number of Japanese officials who had been closely associated with the decision of the then Japanese government, to reject the ultimatum, as it was presented. I believe we missed the opportunity of effecting a Japanese surrender, completely satisfactory to us, without the necessity of dropping the bombs."

McCloy quoted in James Reston, "Deadline", pg. 500.

HERBERT HOOVER
(former President)

". . . the Japanese were prepared to negotiate all the way from February 1945 . . . up to and before the time the atomic bombs were dropped . . . if such leads had been followed up, there would have been no occasion to drop the [atomic] bombs."

Quoted by Barton Bernstein in Philip Nobile, ed., "Judgment at the Smithsonian", pg. 142.

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