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69 years. Have we learned from the past? I wondered that when, recently, I had an enlightening conversation with an elderly American social worker in Kansas City, my hometown. Talking about traveling in Asia turned into a discussion on the Pacific theater of World War II. And the bomb.

"It's terrible we had to do it, but, we had no choice," she told me "Japanese culture is just like that. They would never give up otherwise. That is how they are."

Kamikazes, imperial spirit, a "love of their homeland" for which they would fight, inch-by-inch, the rhetoric has been flowing non-stop for decades. It was embodied in the racially driven propaganda of the 1940's, the same propaganda that led to Japanese Internment Camps.

We had to kill 120,000 innocent civilians, mostly women and children. We had no choice. Because they were Japanese.

"You're too young. You wouldn't understand," she said, a look of pity on her face

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Would I not? A year earlier, I saw the other side, and found a refreshingly humane people who have not only discovered the power of forgiveness, but also compassion.

I was in Hiroshima as a fellow for US Future Leaders Travel Program, run by the Japan Foundation, a week of cultural exchange focused on building ties around commonalities, not propaganda or rhetoric. Understanding America's history in Japan was a key step, so we made our first stop at the Hiroshima Peace Park, built right below the spot where the bomb exploded. At its center, the iconic dome building, its hallowed shell a ghostly memorial to the power the world felt that sunny, August day, when everything changed.

Our Japanese guide, Kazumi, led us into a small room in the adjacent Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall. A few minutes later, a surprisingly swift, 85 year old woman with thining white hair, walked in with two translators, and, to a silent audience of Americans, told us her story, aided by paintings based on her memories that she held up, vividly showing us what happened.

In 1945, she was just a teenager, one who knew there was a war going on, but besides the absence of men in her small city, she didn't really have an opinion about. Her view of reality was shaped by Japanese propaganda, but not by some innate cultural "spirit." She certainly wasn't going to give up her life for Japan's honor.

After a short school day, all the women from her school went to a factory, where they sewed uniforms for the military. It was here when she saw a bright flash. Then, a loud noise, darkness. Rubble, a few moans, but, most terrifyingly, silence.

She was able to escape, with only light injuries, but most of the girls in her factory were dead. As she walked outside, she saw red, burned people, their skin melting, their faces hallow, their gender indiscernible. They begged her for water. She saw some collapse onto the ground, dead. The formally blue sky was now an apocalyptic red, and she could see fires burning on the hills around the city – the cupped valley having been specifically chosen because it would maximize impact. Black rain began to fall as she found her way to a shelter. She had no idea where to go – the city was devastated, completely unrecognizable – home could be anywhere.

Miraculously, her father has survived, and hoping she was alive too, walked all around Hiroshima looking for her. Two days later, when they found each other, they had a tearful reunion. It seemed like a miracle.

Then, suddenly, a few months later, he was dead. Cancer, caused by all the radiation he absorbed from wandering outdoors. Side effects that the America military knew about, but never bothered to even attempt to inform the Japanese even after they surrendered. Thousands more would die from this willful negligence, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Even she wasn't spared, and twice has had cancerous tumors removed, luckily, both caught early. Japan has provided extensive, free healthcare to all bomb victims, one reason that so many are still alive today, though that number drops every day. Hiroshima has been rebuilt, but the memories of tragedy are strong. That is why, she told us, even at 85, she comes and speaks to visitors like us, talks about memories and images that would traumatize any of us. Because soon, survivors like her will be gone. Then, its up to us to make sure that no other city in the world goes through what Hiroshima went through in 1945. We must continue telling her story.


Rhetoric leads to action. Words have power. Japanese internment camps were setup because "Asian blood is strong" while nothing similar was done for German-Americans or German speakers (President Franklin Roosevelt, of course, spoke German himself). A military invasion of Germany was horrendous, and the firebombing of Dresden (led by British, not American air forces) was horrific, but the scale of what happened in Japan far ellipses anything in Europe. The intentional firebombing of dense, wooden Japanese cities created hundreds of Dresdens, few of which got any media attention. One attack, the burning and destruction of historic Tokyo, killed more people than in any other event in World War II, an estimated 140,000 people, nearly all civilians.

More than the two whose anniversary we commemorate this week, the events which changed the world. Soviet Russia, of course, was watching, and the bomb would be the first halo of another, more psychological, but just as destructive, war.

The decision was made in, what former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called the "fog of war," a fog in which there are no winners. Only losers.


Have things changed? There have been no Atomic attacks since Nagasaki, but countless wars in places like Indonesia, the Congo, Korea, Iraq, and, today, Syria and Gaza, have made the preceding decades just as deadly as the 1940's.

Here in the United States, Asian-Americans may be more integrated into mainstream society than Japanese-Americans in the 1940's, but we are still subject to harmful stereotypes, and we also have plenty of generalizing rhetoric about Asian nations and their culture. Japan is now our ally (and their culture is now "industrious" and "hard-working"), but the new enemy and source of fear and anger is China. And the rhetoric scarily similar.

Take a look at these quotes and see if you can tell which ones are from the 1940's, and which are from the past decade.

"Author was strongly opposed to [country] migration to America because it might lead to [country dominance. He argued that, as [country] grew, its prestige would rise and intermarriage might occur. This was seen, argues the author, as snuffing out “the individualism that had made us great.”

"[Country] study like robots and can't think for themselves. They are very hard working people."

"Pulsing with...martial energy, and boasting a peasantry that, unlike others in history, is overwhelmingly literate, [blank] constitutes the principal threat to America."

"Your [blank] are different. They go into the parts of the city that they like...and buy. They will pay any price that the owner demands, perhaps up to five times its value. The instant the sale is announced the value of the other property in that block begins to decline. They will probably pick up an adjoining house or two at about its assessed value. After that [country] can have the remainder of the block at their own price."

Even if Chinese-Americans are in better situation today than Japanese-Americans in the 1940's, are we sure that heightened tensions wouldn't change that? Tensions are rising in the South China Sea. Many of China's neighbors believe that a regional war is inevitable. There have already been a few spy cases involving Chinese nationals in the United States. Imagine what happens after China overtakes the United States as the world largest economic power in 2018, and its military begins to threaten US bases in Asia. It might not take much for the entire house of cards to fall.

I believe it was our belief in Japan's "alien" culture allowed us to drop a bomb that killed over a 100,000 civilians, without any warming, as our militarism required us to destroy them first. After all, it was only Japanese lives who perished in the attack. And what if the surrender terms eventually agreed to were identical to ones that Japan accepted, in principal, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It wasn't the point. We had to do it. If we keep telling ourselves that, perhaps it will become true, because, history is written by the winners. Us.

Arbeit Macht Frei

When the Dalai Lama visited Auschwitz, the horrific Nazi death camp in Poland where tens of thousands perished, his first reaction was to feel pity for the victims, but, then, to feel even more pity for the perpetrators of the crime. Because it is they who truly suffered in their souls, and it was they who had to live with the conscience of what they had done for the rest of their lives.

Hiroshima has suffered, but its people are working to build a better, peaceful world, where no one goes through what they did. Every year, on the anniversary of the bombing, a giant peace festival is held, with hundreds of thousands attending from around the world. In the middle of the Atomic Bomb Museum, which, to my surprise, has a section on the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during World War II, are the many letters sent by Hiroshima's mayors to any country in the world that conducted Nuclear testing. Instead of calling for Americans to be tried for war crimes, the city has called for the abolition of all Nuclear weapons globally.

America, unfortunately, hasn't yet been able to come to terms with the decisions of our past. We still cling to the belief that "we had to do it." There's a lot we could learn from Hiroshima's far more humane response to suffering and move beyond the false idea that the bomb saved American lives. We claim we had no choice, but we did, as did the victims of Hiroshima. If we let rhetoric make decisions for us, I fear history might just repeat itself somewhere else. If Japanese culture would not allow them to quite in 1945, what is it about American culture that does not allow us to admit we made a mistake 69 years later?

Oh, those quotes above? All, except the last one, are recent, and about China.


Will the world see another atomic or Nuclear attack?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Isn't Fukushima a nuclear attack? (0+ / 0-)
  •  Powerful diary. (6+ / 0-)

    Sadly, generally people don't study history and as such rarely learn from it. What happened in Japan can never happen again, yet I fear it will. It's too easy to get caught up in the propaganda of war for it not to. I am reminded of a conversation I had with an elderly veteran in 2005 concerning Iraq. He wanted to drop nukes there, and then drill for oil through the glass surface that would remain. No matter what I said, he refused to see 'nuking' Iraq as a bad thing, even arguing that we have magical new nukes that are completely safe (I never could understand what he meant by this).

    I keep a framed picture of a mushroom cloud on my book shelf to remind me every day of the dangers of war, greed, nationalism, patriotism, and that as an engineer I will never again lend my skills to the industries of death.    

    "The next time everyone will pay for it equally, and there won't be any more Chosen Nations, or any Others. Poor bastards all." ~The Boomer Bible

    by just another vet on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 06:51:21 AM PDT

  •  Consider the sequel to the bomb (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    hestal, WorkerInUSA, JeffW, kurt, Blubba

    America stepped in and kept Japan from being a divided country like Berlin, which was what the Russians wanted. It defended japan against Japan's enemies, like China, who wanted to try the 10s of thousands of Japanese war criminals who had been running wild in their country since 1937 and before.
    we let the Japanese off almost scott free for all the millions of people they'd killed during their brutal occupation of all the lands they conquered. We never prosecuted their war criminal emperor. We let them modify the unconditional surrender agreement---something we didn't even allow the Nazis or even  our own people: the Confederates, to do.
    We never prosecuted the Japanese doctors who'd been performing brutal, inhumane medical experiments based on the same racist bullshit the Nazis did it with. Many of those doctors became leaders in the fitire Jaapanese medical establishment.
    We forced them to throw out the pack of gangsters ruling them and imposed a democracy on them---The same government they've had ever since. we invested heavily in their country afterwards, helping them into an unprecedented economic boom that lasted for decades.
    Seeing as how the Japanese inflicted a brutal holocaust on every country they occupied, similar and comparable to their allies, the Nazis, the Japanese are very lucky they weren't conquered by people just like them.

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 07:07:42 AM PDT

    •  hmmm. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      just another vet, unfangus, kurt

      that's not the point. no one wins in a war. we haven't yet come to terms with the mass civilian casualties and war crimes we committed, the #1 being the bombs we dropped on a city of civilians. Atomic and fire alike.

      •  That's revisionism (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        JeffW, Blubba, Kasoru

        The bombs were a perfectly appropriate weapon. They ended the war. And the notion that we have not come to terms is ridiculous. Keep that in mind the next time you see the Japanese Prime Minister at Yakusini, honoring Japanese war dead, ignoring the comfort women, Nanking, the entire Japanese record, and failing utterly to admit any culpability.

      •  I thinks its important to understand decisions (0+ / 0-)

        and why they're made.
        Start with this: Japan wanted to end the war but they didn't want to surrender---a BIG distinction.  The peace terms the "Peace party" wanted included keeping their hegemony over Manchuri and Korea. This is like Hitler saying he'd surrender but only if he could keep Poland and Chechoslavakia---only in lalaland.
        That's where the Japanese government was: deluded into thinking they could negotiate their way out and still have their government remain intact. No, they'd had their holocaust going on in too many countries for too long. when the A-bombs fell, the Japanese controlled more territory and more people than  Hitler ever did at his peak.
        And they had just as barbaric a holocaust in these countries going on as Hitler did.
        Wiki gives it as:

        Sources for total Chinese war dead range from 10 to 20 million as detailed below.

        Lets Take the bottom end of that: 10 million, spread out over 8 years---that's roughly an average of one Hiroshima a month!---about 100K dead Chinese every month the war went on, month after month.
        And that's just in China! They were exactly the same in  the Phillipines, Burma, Malaysia, Korea and every other country they occupied. They murdered 100,000 Filipinos just in the battle of Manila alone! They institutionalized rape and torture! No they could not be left in power.
        Furthermore, even if all that about peace feelers is true, essentially what the Japanese leaders wanted most was to keep their government in power. that was why they were waiting until the very last moment and why the Japanese people suffered until the end. Their government was completeley willing to sacrifice them in order to stay in power. How can you blame the Americans for that?
        And, after Pearl Harbor, where they were talking peace while their aircraft carriers were heading for Hawaii, who would ever take them at their word for their intentions? We had to see them surrender at the point of a gun.

        the Japanese were not the victims of WWII, they were the instigators of it and the Americans were not the bad guys in it. We then gave the Japanese a better government than they'd ever had before, the same one they have today, a much lighter occupation than Germany had, sided with its enemies who had been our allies, and defended it from aggression as we do to this day.
         That's the point that needs to be brought up today, as it should every Hiroshima memorial day. The best thing for everyone was to end the war as quickly as possible, which is what happened

        Happy just to be alive

        by exlrrp on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 04:40:26 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  It's Really Complicated Because It's Partly Based (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kurt, Blubba

    on the notion that, absent the Bomb game-changing, we would have had to invade the homeland.

    But it's also based on the established battlefield behavior of the Japanese forces.

    The thing is we had a real life action comparison between enemy cultures in Europe and the Pacific. The Japanese even in militarily hopeless circumstances would not surrender, as European forces on both sides would usually do once there was no hope. The Japanese would fight to the death to the last man, as they did on numerous islands, resulting in extreme casualties and related costs for any kind of conquest. That's a cultural value; where they captured European forces, they regarded us as low lifes for lacking the courage to fight to the death ourselves.

    That very functional issue, not skin color or eye shape, is why it was so obvious that an invasion of Japan was going to be catastrophic for allied forces. It didn't matter how many civilians would or wouldn't join in, the very reasonable expectation was that resistance would be "enough."

    But the necessity for invasion itself wasn't a unanimous opinion even among our military. I've seen a mention on one of the historytician channels that a top admiral had decided he couldn't support the idea of an invasion. Once we had them contained, what was the problem, really?

    The problem evidently was with the Commies, who were enough of a problem in the capitalist mind that Hitler was worth allowing slack in the 30's to create a buffer, and blood and treasure were worth spilling in Japan, later Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and by the 80's was worth launching the repeal of the New Deal and most of the 20th century advances in favor of growing our military capabilities against the commies.

    The dropping of the Bomb was a bow shot to the Commies, who had formally entered the war on August 1st and could've won a big chunk of industrial Japan for themselves, it was because the Japanese people being aliens didn't really matter, and it was because the Japanese military forces in ground fighting could not be stopped short of death even on foreign territory let alone their home.

    We have a lot of racial house to clean among we the people, but the true demon we really need to conquer is ownership.

    The wreckage they've inflicted fighting mere sharing schemes in both foreigners and their own people accounts for most of the 20th century casualty list, and they're now driving civilization toward a mass dieoff that's already killed into the millions, and before we stop it will make the 20th century including willful Holocaust a mere decimal point.

    Gentlemen, if these things are not stopped, they will destroy the earth.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 07:13:33 AM PDT

  •  My mother was a pre-teen and teen-ager (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    amyzex, kurt

    during WWII - she never told me "we had to" about nuclear weapons.  She was both very patriotic and very anti-nuke.  What she told me about the Japanese v. Germanic peoples (including us) was that in regards to war the Japanese have "an on-off switch" that they are either totally at war (at which time our propaganda portrays them as vicious animals) or totally at peace (at which time our propaganda has portrayed them as weak) whereas the Germanic peoples (again including us) are totally war-oriented - we're always in one of 3 phases - preparing for war, at war, or recovering from war.

    As to whether or not another nuke will be (officially) used - ask Americans whether or not anyone else in the world will use a nuke, you get a mixed response, maybe yes maybe no.  Ask the rest of the world whether or not America will use a nuke in the future the response is uniformly "of course, they already have".

  •  My father was in WWII. In the summer of (11+ / 0-)

    1945 my mother took me and my younger sister to Spokane, Washington to see my father who was stationed there with thousands, maybe millions along the west coast, of other young men in preparation for the invasion of Japan. He was a belly gunner on a bomber. I was six years old, but I understood the significance of that trip. I had six uncles in service and one other uncle who was a maker of tools in armaments factories to make the weapons of war. Of those uncles in service three went to Europe where one was wounded. The other three went to the Pacific. One was a Marine, another was a sailor and they returned safely. The other was an infantryman who was already dead, though we did not yet know it.

    We stayed in Spokane about two weeks but finally had to go home so that I could get ready for my first year of school. I knew that I might never see my father again. My parents conceived a child in those two weeks who turned out to be a brother born on the first anniversary of FDR's death.

    On the way out to Spokane we traveled on trains that were jammed to the top with young men in uniform. I still have a memory of their energy. They were constantly moving up and down the aisles, forming small groups here and there for conversation and laughter. It was very exciting for me to be so near to so many of my heroes. But on the way back to Texas the train was virtually empty--no warriors were to be found anywhere.

    At one point we stopped in a large city to change trains. It might have been Denver or Fort Worth. As we left our train we were thrust into a crowd of cheering, crying people. My mother told me that a big bomb had been dropped on Japan and this could mean that the war might be soon be over. I saw joy in its purest form that day.

    Not long after we got back to our small town in central Texas, I went to a birthday party for one of my friends. While we were there the town siren started and did not stop. This was the agreed upon signal that the war was over. In a few minutes my mother appeared and took me back home. We walked through our little Main Street which is only two blocks long and it was full of laughing, crying people--I saw pure joy again. In a few weeks I came home from school and there was my father. More joy.

    My father was older than most of the returning veterans. He was 28. Many of the younger men had joined the service just as soon as they finished high school and they were in their early twenties. One famously joined the navy when he was sixteen. Many of these young men had lived with their parents when they joined up, so they had no home of their own to go to upon their return to civilian life. And many of them had picked up the habits of beer-drinking and smoking while they were in the service. They could not indulge those habits in their parents' home so they came to our house. They could smoke, and they could drink a beer or two, and they could talk.

    They talked about what they had seen and done, but as tourists--they rarely ever talked about the fighting.  But mostly they talked about the future. They were all children of the Great Depression so they talked about how America would fare economically. They talked about all the important things that young, serious men talk and think about. They talked about their futures, their prospects, their hopes. After a time, many of these young men moved away to colleges or jobs in big cities and they built lives with wives and children.

    If we had invaded Japan, my father might have been killed and my brother would have never known him. In addition, after my father came home still another brother was born five years later. This brother would have never known life. And the same can be said of millions upon millions of children born to the veterans of WWII who came home safely.

    So, it is a simple matter to sit here, safe in the world that the Americans of those years built for us. It is a simple matter to speak with certainty about what should have been done back then. But we know what was done back then and out of the sacrifice of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents an entire world was built, a world of plenty. Those Americans left the world a better place than they found it. But their descendants have not done their duty. We, the children of those brave, caring, wise men and women have done poorly. We have not lived up to their example.

    So we should be asking what we should do today, tomorrow, next year to save the world from another kind of threat--but a real threat nevertheless. Rather than second-guessing the actions of those whose very lives and the lives of their loved ones were on the line. Our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of those who come after us are on the line. Where are the people who are certain about what we should do to save us from ourselves? Where are the people who can measure up to those people of the Greatest Generations? I don't see them.

    I have come to expect diaries like this one at this time of year. People have the right to second-guess what others have done, but I also have the right, thanks to my ancestors, to reject their certainty, to recognize it for what it is: empty dorm-room meanderings that are not based on reality.

    I am certain that if my father and my uncles and those veterans of that era were alive today and heard people say that we were wrong to drop the bombs, they would respond vigorously and emphatically, and it would not be polite.

    The diarist says that we have learned little from WWII, but the lessons he thinks we should learn from it are the wrong lessons. In fact, as I see it, the issue is not how little we have learned, but rather how much we have forgotten.

    My father and all of the others who fought and sacrificed during WWII were innocent. They did not start the war, but they ended it, and they deserve to be left alone except to say to them, "Thanks."

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

    by hestal on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 07:37:00 AM PDT

    •  My father-in-law died at the end of June... (6+ / 0-)

      ...and he always thought that Little Boy and Fat Man had allowed him to reach the age of 97. He served in the Navy in WW2 in the Pacific, and my impression was that this thought was common amongst those who also served there and then.

      It's a bit naive to think we can pack the can of worms that were the first nuclear weapons used in war back into their cans. However, we have seemed to avoid firing them off in anger since 1945, despite our numerous shortcomings and flaws.

      Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

      by JeffW on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 08:29:36 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I thank your father-in-law for his service and I (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        JeffW, Calamity Jean, Blubba

        am glad that he was able to live such a long life.

        I have the same impression that you have. Those men who were at risk were very clear, the bombs were necessary.

        Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

        by hestal on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 09:28:01 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  There was no need for the first bomb... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    except for the political message to the world, whatever that was, and the second was gratuitous scientific experimentation.

    The United States for All Americans

    by TakeSake on Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 07:58:39 AM PDT

  •  Are we not to believe the Emperor, then? (5+ / 0-)

    He himself stated the nuclear bombs were part of the reason Japan surrendered in his speech.  We also have Togo on record prior to the bombs refusing the surrender, only changing his mind after the bombs.

    Believing the bombs were unjustified basically requires we believe none of the intercepted Japanese transmissions, or any of the documents recovered after the war, or personal testimony from Japanese government officials.

    And what if the surrender terms eventually agreed to were identical to ones that Japan accepted, in principal, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
    Assuming the Trohan memo was authentic, it doesn't establish (and we know from later documents) that those offering those terms were actually in control of the government (there would be three attempted coups in the closing days of the war, all unsuccessful.)

    The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains uncontroversial in all mainstream US discussion because there's so much evidence justifying it.

  •  Aug 6 & 9 vs Dec 17 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, Kasoru

    Well, it's the annual ritual of American Shame Day. "Oh, we are so evil, to drop the bomb on those peuuurrrr innocent Japanese".

    Except that is a terrible misreading of history. The Japanese were a terrible enemy. They were extremely cruel. The Bataan Death March was called this due to the dreadful treatment of prisoners.

    And then there is the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the 10-year Japanese campaign to unite Asia as a Japanese colony. Highlights of this fun time for all non-Japanese Asian people include:

    1) the many  many thousands of Chinese and Korean women forced into prostitution camps as "comfort women"
    2) the assault on Nanking which started Dec 17 and involved the massacre of 2x-3x as many as were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    3) Pearl Harbor
    4) The confinement of non-Asians in camps in the mainland for 4 years, just as terrible as the American Nisai camps

    War is a dreadful thing. The notion that our bombs were outside the pale is not correct. They were weapons of war. Their status today is different.

    We were right to drop the bomb. The Japanese have no right to complain.

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