06 August 2005


At 8:15 a.m. on 6 August 1945, sixty years ago today, a nuclear weapon was used against human targets for the first time.

My country did it. We are the only ones who have used nuclear weapons to kill. My country.

The city of Hiroshima was the target chosen because it was relatively untouched by previous bombing, and so the effects of the nuclear explosion would be more dramatic. Around 80,000 people died immediately from the effects of the blast, and much of the city was leveled. It is hard to say exactly how many more died from radiation aftereffects; at least again as many, and probably more.

I want to hold that dark thought.

There is a range in which reasonable people can differ, talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think that it would have been better for humanity if the Bomb had remained a weapon that we had deemed too terrible to use. In our world of nuclear proliferation today, the symbolism would be a deterrent that might help give even the most passionate warriors pause.

But I can respect people who believe that that dropping the Bomb was the better of two bad options. They say that nuclear weapons preëmpted a catastrophically bloody invasion of Japan to end the Second World War. Six decades later, we still haven't used up all of the Purple Heart medals — for injuries in line of battle — which we manufactured in preparation for that invasion.

Lefties like me often argue that neither an invasion nor the Bomb were necessary. The Japanese were close to surrender. The US was stupid to insist on “unconditional surrender,” since this implied to the Japanese that we would kill the Emperor — which we didn't even end up doing. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were really about sending a message to the Russians that we were willing to use the Bomb.

There are good reasons to think this, but it's impossible to be sure. Even a serious historian cannot know the final truth of what might have been. And there are good reasons to think this critique may be wrong. Via DeLong, I learn that the Weekly Standard has a long and fascinating article about some of the new scholarship on the question that casts doubt on those classic lefty critiques, based on newly-available information from both sides of the war, including the code-name “Magic” briefings which US leaders had about decoded Japanese message traffic. (Update: even without that, the battle of Okinawa suggested that an invasion of the mainland would be horrifically bloody.)

Were the Japanese close to surrender? According to the Weekly Standard article, they weren't, and the US knew it.

The intercepts of Japanese Imperial Army and Navy messages disclosed without exception that Japan's armed forces were determined to fight a final Armageddon battle in the homeland against an Allied invasion. The Japanese called this strategy Ketsu Go (Operation Decisive). It was founded on the premise that American morale was brittle and could be shattered by heavy losses in the initial invasion. American politicians would then gladly negotiate an end to the war far more generous than unconditional surrender. Ultra was even more alarming in what it revealed about Japanese knowledge of American military plans. Intercepts demonstrated that the Japanese had correctly anticipated precisely where U.S. forces intended to land ...

Would a guarantee of protection for the Emperor have made surrender possible? Again, the Weekly Standard article suggests no.

... when Foreign Minister Togo informed Ambassador Sato that Japan was not looking for anything like unconditional surrender, Sato promptly wired back a cable that the editors of the “Magic” Diplomatic Summary made clear to American policymakers “advocate[s] unconditional surrender provided the Imperial House is preserved.” Togo's reply, quoted in the “Magic” Diplomatic Summary of July 22, 1945, was adamant: American policymakers could read for themselves Togo's rejection of Sato's proposal — with not even a hint that a guarantee of the Imperial House would be a step in the right direction.
Because of [Under Secretary of State] Grew's documented advice to Truman on the importance of the Imperial Institution, critics feature him in the role of the sage counsel. What the intercept evidence discloses is that Grew reviewed the Japanese effort and concurred with the U.S. Army's chief of intelligence, Major General Clayton Bissell, that the effort most likely represented a ploy to play on American war weariness. They deemed the possibility that it manifested a serious effort by the emperor to end the war “remote.” Lest there be any doubt about Grew's mindset, as late as August 7, the day after Hiroshima, Grew drafted a memorandum with an oblique reference to radio intelligence again affirming his view that Tokyo still was not close to peace.

If all that was true, was dropping the Bomb the right decision? I still say no, but I can respect people who think it was the best we could do — if they still recognize the horror of it, the step into evil that it represented. To quote the Tao Te Ching XXXI again, this time Stephen Mitchell's translation:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn't wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

The important thing for us to today, looking back, is that we must not dismiss the moral weight. Arthur Silber at The Light of Reason argues that this element of how we tell the Hiroshima story is very, very important.

Referring to American leaders, the Chicago Tribune commented: “Being merciless, they were merciful.” A drawing in the same newspaper pictured a dove of peace flying over Japan, an atomic bomb in its beak.

Make that image real to yourself: a dove of peace — with an atomic bomb in its beak. And then make real the image of a parent beating his young child over and over with a belt, and insisting all the time: “I’m doing this because I love you! I’m doing it for your own good!

Do you see the connection now, and why there are no more important issues in the world than these? Well over 200,000 people were killed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and almost all of them were, intentionally and by design, innocent civilians. Make no mistake: these were war crimes, if that phrase has any meaning at all.

And yet we tell ourselves, even today, that we were “merciful,” that we did it for our own good (to shorten the war) — and that we did it even for the good of the Japanese.

If the first denial is allowed to continue and is never challenged, you will be prepared to deny anything — and you will believe the most monstrous lie in the world. You will even believe that you will save the world by destroying it.

Silber talks again and again on his blog about how this madness is a danger.

So I mourn, with sorrow and great compassion, as we should lest the madness consume us.


Anonymous said...

and in the event that you like to see your moral dilemmas acted out by puppets, tonight just HAPPENS to also be the opening night of lunatique fantastique's EO 9066, about japanese internment camps (http://www.lunfan.com/shows/2003_eo9066.html). i was gonna get comp tickets for tonight but my performer friend got sick. bummer. i hope to catch it later.

Reya Mellicker said...

How do you repay a moral debt? How does thinking hard about Hiroshima help you? Do you think that by contemplating - honoring - that historical event, you contribute in some way to healing the vastness of that wound?

My teacher says the best decisions are made in hindsight. At the moment of decision-making, there's no way to understand what the outcome will be. It's important that since WWII, no one has dropped an atomic bomb.

I see one coming - Pakistan? Somewhere around there. Do you foresee it? Will thinking about/processing what happend at Hiroshima/Nagasaki help us prevent it?

These are sincere questions.

xx, Reya

Jonathan Korman said...

Certainly the first step in healing a moral wound is recognizing that you have one. Which is the main thing I was talking about, yes.

Would an America that admits the wrong of Hiroshima and Nagasaki help prevent the use of nuclear weapons again? I don't know, but I hope so.

Reya Mellicker said...

One more question for you - who/what is "the America" you mention, the one that can admit the terrible wrong-ness of Hiroshima?

thanks. This is great, provocative, good for me.

xx, Reya

Jonathan Korman said...

I'm thinking of the whole ball of wax --- the collective attitude of the people of the country, as expressed in our arts and letters and government.

apostropher said...

The other complicating factor in contemplating Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that everybody involved was deliberately targetting civilian populations. The Allies levelled Dresden and incinerated Tokyo prior to dropping the nuclear bombs, producing just as much damage and death, just stretched out over a longer period of time.

Ushering in the nuclear age was indeed a tragedy whose worst may be yet to come, but as a WWII war crime (of which, both sides have long lists), it was only really notable for its ghoulish efficiency.

Brent said...

Conventional weapons killed many more in WWII than any atomic weapons. Just thought I'd point that out.

The atomic bomb brought a swift end to the war, thus saving hundreds of thousands of lives, on both sides (axis vs allies),if the war had continued. If the U.S. invaded mainland Japan, the blood shed could have been in the millions (us and them).

After considering this perspective, it becomes easier to understand Truman's decision.

Also, during the Cold War, nukes were actually used to generate a peace dialog between The U.S. and the Soviet Union. This peace was called Mutual Ussured Destruction. Both sides knew that if one used the nuke the retaliation would be mutual. This prevented any nuclear conflict with the Soviets.

Just wanted to provide a bit of historical perpective to the wackos who call the U.S. evil for our being forced to drop the atom bomb....It did cause Japan to finally surrender, did it not? Speaking of war crimes, let's remember the atrocities of the Japanese during WWII. They were just as bad as Hitler's Germany, or Stalin's Russia.

Please read and study history, because I feel that there is an utter ignorance among many of the critics.

Brent said...

You don't have to leave this here, but I sincerely thank you for being cool about my request, Johnathon. As I said, I look forward to future debate with you, because frankly, you are good at it (so am I?). You are one of the only people that I have had the privilege to debate with that actually makes any sense at all, even though I happen to disagree with most of what you say. I respect your perspective, because it is usually thoughtful, unlike most people who just spew the same 'ol crap, for the sake of being in disagreement.

I would say that you definitely have an independent mind, as do I. I can respect that. That is what this blogging thing is supposed to be, in my opinion anyway.

Again, you don't have to publish this. I just wanted to say thanks.

Brent Roos

Anonymous said...

thanks for the help but why did they want hiroshima to surrender