Sunday, May 15, 2016


Blowing Smoke

Update below.

A propos, I guess, of Obama's planned visit to Hiroshima this week, Tom Carson tweeted:

Only one thing is worse than Hiroshima. That is the likely death toll (American and Japanese) if we'd had to invade -- the only alternative.

The visit has raised the question of whether Obama should, on behalf of the government he is president of, apologize for the deliberate slaughter of some 200,000 Japanese civilians -- and, for that matter, for the fact that the United States was the first and thus far is the only nation to violate the taboo against using nuclear weapons in a war. We've been assured that he will not, and indeed that he can not offer any such apology -- although Ramesh Ponnuru's reasoning rests on a fairly dubious assumption:

If it was wrong to drop atomic bombs on civilian populations, and present leaders can rightly apologize for past wrongs, why shouldn't Obama apologize at Hiroshima? I think the answer is simple. Almost all Americans recognize that slavery and Jim Crow were grave moral wrongs. Most Americans don't view Hiroshima and Nagasaki similarly. They think we were justified.

Obama therefore cannot legitimately apologize on behalf of the American people. He can regret the loss of life while staying silent on the morality of the bombings. Any apology should be left to a future president -- and issued only if America reaches a new consensus on this issue.

Like many issues, what passes for a consensus here is rooted in a serious lack of historical information and a lot of myths that try to continue justifying war in modern society. The history is complicated and elusive, but the from a pure present-tense view the immorality of the bombings should be obvious. I'm not saying that we should make a habit of revaluating past events through present sensibilities -- I would even go so far as to argue that doing so precludes us from being able to understand why history happened as it did -- but really, you cannot seriously claim that dropping nuclear bombs on two cities is in any sense justifiable morally. Sure, you might try to argue that in some case political and historical exigencies make it necessary to do such a thing, and you may present some calculation that such an act produces results that are less awful than not doing it, but that doesn't alter the matter of morality -- at least I don't see how it could.

The historical question was originally muddied by Harry ("the buck stops here") Truman, who as president ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on two Japanese cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Truman claimed that by using the bombs American troops might avoid having to invade and subdue the four main islands of Japan. His argument resonated because in recent battles -- especially Okinawa -- Japanese troops had refused surrender, fighting to the death, and because Japan surrendered unconditionally a few days after using (in Hirohito's words) "a new and most cruel bomb." This view has been repeated ever since, especially in the essay (and later book title) by Paul Fussell, Thank God for the Atom Bomb. (Fussell was a soldier who fought in Okinawa.)

Carson gives us a variation of this standard argument in his tweet -- although notably he includes future Japanese dead as well as American soldiers in the toll expected from invading Japan, a consideration that Truman and Fussell did not make in the least. Indeed, one could also include Japanese dead on all of their war fronts, as well as dead of their opponent armies and the civilians killed by both sides, and maybe even factor in some of those who starved or fell to disease, although the cease fire didn't put an immediate end to the latter. The nuclear bombs ultimately killed about 200,000 people, but you wouldn't have had to shorten the war by much to balance that out.

But even Carson is assuming here that the war had to be fought to a definitive end, that had the US not used nuclear bombs the only way to end the war would be through invasion, and that the invasion would have been far bloodier than Okinawa had been. (American deaths in Okinawa were 20,195, about 4% of all Americans to die in WWII. Japanese deaths included an estimated 77-110 thousand soldiers and 40-150 thousand civilians, i.e. 13-50% of the total civilian population. Japan had a population of 73 million in 1940.) Hardly anyone talks about the first point, since early in the war Roosevelt declared that he US would only accept unconditional surrender, but it's worth noting that that is rarely the way wars end, and in the end the US accepted a condition that Hirohito be allowed to continue, at least nominally, as Emperor (and not be prosecuted for war crimes).

We now know that by mid-1945 Japan was in extremely precarious straits: the US had effectively blockaded the homeland, isolating Japan's troops with no chance of resupply, and preventing import of food and other critical goods, causing widespread famine; and the US had bombed nearly every Japanese city, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions; many (perhaps most) government leaders saw that they had lost the war and were contemplating some sort of surrender; the Soviet Union, at the urging of the US, had finally declared war on Japan, which raised the prospect of divided occupation (as had already happened in Germany) -- some historians have suggested that fear of the Soviet Union had more to do with Japan's surrender to the US than the nuclear bombs did.

In 1965, Gar Alperovitz published the book Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, which argues that an important factor in the US decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan was a desire to intimidate the Soviet Union. I've never quite bought this argument: if the US had seen the Soviet Union as an adversary at that time, why would Truman have pressed Stalin to enter the war against Japan? For that matter, why invite Stalin if Truman had understood that the bomb would have proven so immediately decisive (and therefore so intimidating)? Stalin himself accelerated the Soviet Union's planned entry into the war, perhaps because he was aware of plans to drop the bomb, but more likely because he was aware of Japanese feelers aimed at negotiating peace -- the Soviet Union had been ostensibly neutral in the US-Japan conflict, so seemed to Japanese leaders like the obvious intermediary. Not clear to me whether Stalin jumped in to restore Russian imperial claims (many lost during the disastrous 1905 war with Japan), to advance communism (as happened with the partition of Korea), or simply to provide a counterweight to the expansion of American interests -- all likely factors. But Stalin commanded a huge mobilized and battle-hardened army that quickly routed the Japanese in Manchuria and would have proved decisive in a ground invasion of Japan. And there can be no doubt that Japan's leaders, both for nationalist and capitalist reasons, feared the Russians much more than they dreaded a purely American occupation.

Weighing these factors, I find the Soviet entry to be the more decisive factor behind surrender, but it's easy to understand why that aspect has been forgotten in America, and why the atom bomb has been raised to such a high pedestal. Some major reasons:

  1. Politically, the US (and notably Truman) wanted to hog the credit for defeating Japan, and that desire grew over time, especially after containing Russia became a Cold War priority and the Communists took over China in 1949. In particular, Truman could point to his order to unleash the atom bomb as a decisive personal coup.
  2. Belittling its allies gave the US a much freer hand in occupying Japan and in molding the Japanese government to its taste.
  3. The Japanese found a certain solace in being the victims of such destructive technology, which helped them adopt a submissive stance -- what John Dower wrote about in his book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II -- which made occupation more tolerable.
  4. Ever since, the decision to bomb Hiroshima has been tied up in political struggles, attacked by opponents of the Cold War (Alperovitz, for one) and by advocates of nuclear disarmament, defended tirelessly by supporters of post-WWII American militarism.

The thing to notice here is that the debate is less about the historical war than about later political stances. Still, those who do examine the history tend to raise questions, such as in this piece (which Milo Miles cited in response to Carson): Mark Weber: Was Hiroshima Necessary?. I think Weber makes a good case that a Japanese surrender could have been obtained without the atomic bombings. On the other hand, I also think that there was no way that either the political or military command in America could have decided to show such constraint, and I also believe that the bombings were a fitting end to the era of global imperialist war -- what Arno Mayer called the Thirty Years War of the Twentieth Century -- a demonstration of the futility of such war so graphic that no one could fail to get the point (not that certain vested interests didn't try).

As for the inevitability of the decision, you should understand three key things: how profoundly racist the US was regarding Japan (anti-Asian racism was layered on top of anti-African racism, but had a long and deep history in its own right, and that provided a prism even for viewing Japanese successes in stereotypes); how the US leadership had adopted an ethic of total war (something Churchill had practiced in WWI, but which when combined when racism would turn genocidal against Japan -- US firebombing of Japanese cities started well before Hiroshima); and nobody in the US command from Gen. Groves up seems to have really understood that nuclear weapons were anything more than souped up versions of the conventional bombs already used so prolifically, so it never occurred to them not to use a weapon they had invested so much money in (some scientists understood this, and eventually the concept sunk in).

No time tonight to unpack these three points, but John Dower's 1987 book War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War is the place to start on how racism fed into the war -- a prequel to Dower's Embracing Defeat, cited above. There are also numerous books on the history of anti-Asian racism in the US, not least on the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during WWII -- itself a revealing prism into the racial attitudes of the time. There are even more books on the atom bomb project, of which Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb stand out.

One additional point I do wish to make is that the argument that had Truman not dropped the bomb the US would have had to invade Japan (as opposed to waiting for surrender) is at least as big and hoary a contrafactual as not dropping the bomb. The fact is that an orderly surrender with the Japanese political system intact was a much preferable solution than an invasion and occupation (as had already happened with Germany in 1945, although the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 is another example).

Also, the assumption that an invasion of Japan would have been a repeat of Okinawa scaled up about 150 times was unrealistic (basically a fever dream of American racism, which viewed all Japanese as preferring suicide to submission. Okinawa was a military outpost, where over 20% of the population was uniformed and ordered to sacrifice themselves to make Americans so fearful that they wouldn't dare invade. Japan itself had few soldiers left to defend the island -- most were stranded abroad -- and would have collapsed rapidly (not that the resulting chaos would have been easy to govern -- as I said, an orderly surrender was much preferable).

As Americans, we grow up accepting all sorts of self-flattering falsehoods, including the notion that the undoubted evil of the Axis powers' aggression justifies everything that the US did to defeat them. The fact is that the US did many things that later generations should be ashamed of, and apologizing for them would be one small but concrete step toward making sure that they never be repeated again. The genocidal bombing of cities with fire and, ultimately, nuclear radiation is just one glaring example. The fact is we never paid for those war crimes -- justice is something we imposed on defeated regimes without ever aspiring to ourselves, and failing to acknowledge that makes it seem that we needn't restrain ourselves from committing future war crimes (especially those explicitly called for by Trump, most Republicans, and more than a few prominent Democrats).

One last book I want to recommend is perhaps the most important, not least because it challenges so much of our accepted understanding of how WWII came about: Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008). One thing you will find there is documentation about various steps Roosevelt took to provoke the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which unified American public opinion in favor of entering the war. Another thing you will find is that the only people who made any serious efforts at preventing WWII before it broke out were pacifists. Anyone making excuses for the atrocities of war -- indeed for war itself -- is just blowing smoke.


UPDATE (May 16, 2016):

Woke up Monday morning to find Leonard Pitts writing in the Wichita Eagle that Obama not apologizing for Hiroshima, nor should he. Pitts is normally a liberal thinker especially sensitive to racial slurs, yet he dredges up all the old racist stereotypes to justify his no apology stance:

In the end, then, one can only answer to conscience, and this particular conscience is disinclined to second-guess the long-ago president and military commanders who felt the bombs might obviate the need to invade the Japanese home islands at a ruinous cost in American lives. Remember that the Japanese, inebriated by the "Bushido" warrior code under which surrender equals shame and dishonor, had refused to capitulate, though defeat had long been a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, even after Hiroshima was leveled, it still took that nation nine days to give up.

He then brings up three specific examples of American POWs who were treated horribly by Japan, as if their inexcusable abuse exempts us from having second thoughts about obliterating two cities and 200,000 people. (I'm reminded of the famous Stalin quote where he regards an individual traffic death as a tragedy but the thousands killed in his purges as a mere statistic.) He then gives us of other atrocities that important Americans have apologized for, yet doesn't find anything similar:

Should America apologize? No.

This was not slavery. This was not the Trail of Tears. This was not the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. This was not, in other words, a case of the nation committing human-rights crimes against innocent peoples.

No, this was war, a fight for survival against a ruthless aggressor nation. Japan committed unspeakable atrocities. America did the same. Such is the nature of war.

So war means never having to say you're sorry? I get that "war is hell," and even that once you are stuck in a war it may be better to do something unspeakably cruel to end that war sooner. But I don't get that there is no place for regrets after a war, or that there's no value in the simple decency of an apology -- regardless of how inadequate the gesture may be. For instance, apologizing for the Trail of Tears didn't return the Cherokee to the Carolinas, but it did say that we are embarrassed that our ancestors force-marched thousands of people over a thousand miles into permanent exile, and it also said that this is something we cannot contemplate ever doing again.

I fear that refusing to apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki implies that atomic bombing of cities is something we anticipate doing again -- that it's one of those "options" that none of our political leaders want "to take off the table." Indeed, current plans to spend over one trillion dollars to upgrade America's nuclear arsenal suggest that America's leaders are more committed than ever to threatening what we're repeatedly told is "a dangerous world" with instant destruction.

On the other hand, if we started to apologize for the atrocities that even Pitts admits America committed, maybe we'd be less prone to repeat them going forward.

After Hiroshima, Obama is traveling on to Hanoi, where again he won't find anything for the United States to apologize for -- although the slightest amount of research would unearth volumes (and not just bad things we did to the Vietnamese and Cambodian people -- we did bad things to ourselves as well). We seem to be living under a taboo against conceding that the US has ever done anything regrettable against anyone ever, a delusion that keeps us making the same mistakes over and over. So we owe it not only to past victims to apologize. We owe it to ourselves to reexamine our past behavior and resolve to become better people.