Adapted from an excerpt from Presidents' Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions at http://www.amazon.com/...
This month is the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, reason enough to recall both the reasons many convince themselves the bombings were done, and the actual reasons.
What: The targeting of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb. Many scholars argue that Truman's true target was Stalin, hoping the display of the A bomb would intimidate the Soviets. It did not, in part because Soviets already had atomic bomb secrets obtained from spies.
The Body Count: 200,000 to 220,000 immediate deaths, 370,000 severe long term injuries or early deaths from radiation and other effects, including cancer, emphysema, leukemia, sterility, birth defects, blindness, deafness, and severe burns.
Who Also Gets the Blame:
Contrary to apologists' claim for the atomic bombings, most military leaders opposed using the A-bomb. Generals Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley, and Admiral Nimitz all opposed the use of A-bombs against Japan. Even “Blood and Guts” Patton opposed it. Only General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, supported the A-bomb's use.
One of the most important Asian history scholars, James Dower, argue that World War II in Asia became a de facto race war. Dower's War Without Mercy documents how the Allies, largely white nations with centuries of white supremacist practices and pseudo scientific racist teachings, felt humiliated by being defeated by an Asian or nonwhite power.
Atrocities in the Pacific Theater were widespread. In such an atmosphere, where many Americans even called for genocide, the murder of every last Japanese as revenge for Pearl Harbor, it is appalling but not surprising there were few objections to targeting Japanese civilians by the A-bomb's use. There were military targets in both cities, but they were small and could have easily been dealt with by conventional bombing.
Most who argue in favor of the bomb's use or make excuses for the mass deaths of Japanese civilians have a very racist image of the Japanese. One of the ugliest lies is the notion that all Japanese were fanatics who would rather die than surrender. Thus many racists blame either the warrior code of Bushido, or all Japanese collectively.
But in fact, Bushido was a code for the upper class, especially Japanese officers. Bushido is distinct from the samurai code, and the former developed relatively late, in the 1890s. Generals in the Japanese military did not start arguing for suicide as a military tactic until late 1943, and its most widespread use was extremely late, from the Fall of 1944 on. Many Japanese leaders originally objected to suicide attacks as against the spirit of Bushido, which calls for an awareness of death, not glorification of suicide.
Thus claims that all Japanese were fanatics who would have fought to the end is an argument ignorant of the basic facts, often argued by those whose view of Japanese is formed or influenced by wartime propaganda that demonized all Japanese people as subhuman monsters. There are easily half a dozen huge pieces of evidence to the contrary:
1. Japan actually had an outstanding human rights record for its earlier democratic period. Much like Germany, one can point to long periods of humane civilization as well as far briefer periods of atrocities. Japan had thriving democratic, liberal, socialist, and labor movements until fascism overtook the nation relatively late, in the mid 1930s.
2. Japan's government always had strong peace factions, both military and civilian. The navy tended to favor peace, while the army had more warmongers. The army often had to resort to threats and at times assassinations of opponents to get its way. In the end, the peace faction did win out and Japan surrendered.
3. Bushido, “fight to the last man,” and “suicide rather than dishonor” was an attitude of the elite. Though some of the government tried to indoctrinate these ideas into all Japanese, they largely did not succeed. The simplest proof of that is obvious. Japan did surrender. Extremely few Japanese committed suicide because of surrender. Only a small number of officers and cabinet members did so. More than a few American observers were astonished at how placidly most Japanese accepted defeat, even bearing little grudge against Americans. Part of the proof of the lack of resentment is how many US servicemen came home with Japanese wives.
Even within the military, the most famous examples of suicide, kamikaze pilots, numbered less than 5,000 out of a Japanese military that numbered over six million. In the other famous instances, “suicides” by soldiers and civilians during battles such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa were often murders or driven by threats of murder by Japanese commanding officers. In other words, enlisted soldiers and civilians were given no option: commit suicide in battle or your commanding officer will execute you.
As Dower points out repeatedly in War Without Mercy, the even greater reason most Japanese soldiers often did not surrender was because they knew that many American soldiers killed Japanese POWs, even torturing and mutilating them. Admiral Halsey, US Navy commander in the South Pacific, openly adopted the slogan, “Kill Japs, kill Japs, and kill more more Japs.” Had so many American soldiers not executed POWs indiscriminately, many more Japanese soldiers would have surrendered.
4. Further proof is just by looking at the death rate of Japanese males as soldiers. Three million were killed in wartime, one of every four Japanese adult males. While that is high, it is far from being the highest in history, or supposed proof of alleged innate fanaticism as anti Japanese racists like to portray.
What nation had the highest proportion of its males killed in a war of aggression?
The dubious record goes to Paraguay, with over three quarters of its adult males dying in the War of the Triple Alliance. Also high up on the list is France during World War I, with over half of its young men dying. Finally, another “nation” high on the list is the Confederacy, which lost one quarter of all its soldiers in battle or from disease. So perhaps to the surprise of anti Japanese racists, both the white supremacists of the Confederacy and French nationalists were willing to die at a similar or a higher rate, and thus were equally or more fanatic, than Japanese soldiers. The same was true also for Paraguayans during their failed attempt to be an empire.
6. The final proof of most Japanese not being fanatics is looking at their history postwar. Not only has the Japanese government and military not committed anything close to its prior atrocities, the nation's constitution strictly prohibits wars of aggression. Even sending military hospital ships abroad for aid is controversial. Japan has large, thriving, and influential peace and environmentalist movements. There is a faction of the public that refuses to admit past atrocities.
Other justifications for dropping the A-bombs do not stand up to critical scrutiny either:
“It saved a million lives.” When Truman first defended dropping the A-bomb, he claimed it saved half a million lives. Only the next day, he upped the claim to one million American lives saved. Where he got the second number is unknown. Seemingly he pulled it out of thin air. Actual US estimates of American lives that would be lost in an invasion were as low as 30,000 to 40,000, along with less credible higher ones.
“It was the only choice except an invasion.” This is very easy to refute. Japan is an island nation with no oil, and its navy and air force were wiped out by this point. Use blockade instead. No invasion was ever needed at all, except for one obvious factor: the Soviet Union would shortly enter the war against Japan.
In the past several decades, since the end of the Cold War, more US scholars have admitted what American egoism could not before: in World War II, in both Europe and Asia, the fascist powers were defeated largely by the Soviet Union. In Europe, over three quarters of all German troops fought the Soviets. (Prior to D-Day, that number was over nine tenths.) In the Pacific Theater, the Soviets ended the war quicker, not the A-bomb.
For in accounts by the principal Japanese government leadership, the entry of the Soviet Union is mentioned more often as a reason for surrender than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviets invaded with over a million and a half troops on a wide front. Manchuria and much of Korea were taken by the USSR in a very short time, less than five weeks, where the US had fought slowly across Pacific islands for four years.
Thus in the assessment of many scholars, the atomic bombings were really revenge for Pearl Harbor or to intimidate the Soviets into behaving postwar. If one argues revenge for Pearl Harbor was needed, it is hard not to see that as openly racist. And indeed Truman was a racist, with a documented hatred of Blacks, Jews, and especially Asians. Truman was even briefly a Ku Klux Klan member.
Truman later in life did try to overcome his own bigotry, courting Black voters, desegregating the US military and federal workforce, and supporting the new nation of Israel. But there is no evidence his change of heart came in time to affect his decision to use A-bombs against Japan. Just the opposite, Truman said publicly he “lost no sleep” and “decided it like that” (said while snapping his fingers) to drop nuclear bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Such callous racism on his part deserves to be recognized for what it was and condemned.
Finally, Truman failed in his assessment of how the bombings would affect Stalin. Since the USSR had already lost tens of millions to the war, why would anyone think the loss of a few cities would be threatening? Not only that, Stalin himself caused the death of tens of millions of his own people to wipe out opponents. Clearly Stalin cared little for Russian lives. Any American alive at that time should have seen that, as could anyone knowing that time period. Americans not wanting to admit Truman's failure may share his ideological blindness and in some cases his anti Asian racist views.
Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College, a former Fulbright Scholar, and the author of Presidents' Body Counts. He is a longtime activist for www.newagefraud.org. More information on him is at http://alcarroll.com.