Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Though I was not yet one year old when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), at this time of year, my thoughts always turn to those horrific days. Perhaps it was the reading of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” that made such an indelible impression on me. Perhaps it was because of my long-standing friendship with a Japanese-American born in a Utah relocation camp during World War II. Perhaps it was the singular horror of such an act that prevents its escape from my mind. Whatever the reason, I can never let the anniversary pass without remembering.
Most Americans seem to believe that dropping two bombs on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a morally justified act that ended World War II in the Pacific theater. I have never understood why killing 110,000 people with two bombs is an act accepted with such casualness by Americans. Further, many more people–tens of thousands–who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time of the bombings died in the ensuing months and years as a result of the blasts.
I have always viewed war as the greatest tragedy of human existence. Most people hold human beings in such high esteem that killing them for food is one of the strongest taboos among our kind. War on the other hand is seen as noble, though its purpose is to kill other humans, not for food, but for the sake of control and power. It is true that America was attacked by the Japanese military at Pearl Harbor without provocation. America was required to respond to defend itself against being overrun by a foreign power. The Pacific war was as horrific as the fight against Hitler. I have counted among my friends numerous men who fought on both fronts, some of whom were wounded and suffered, both mentally and physically, for the rest of their lives. Some of my relatives died in the conflict.
Others have pointed to the devastating effects of the sustained bombing of the residential areas of cities with conventional weapons as evidence that war is a human activity that is inherently immoral: Lubeck; Cologne; Essen; Dortmund; Bochum; Duisburg; Düsseldorf; Hamm; Berlin; Hamburg; Dresden; Warsaw; Wielun; London; Coverntry; Rotterdam; Kassel; Darmstadt; Pforzheim; Swinemuende; Caen; Milan; Turin; Stalingrad, Leningrad; Budapest; Belfast; Belgrade; Bucharest; Tokyo; Honolulu; Colombo; Darwin and others. While those killed in the conventional bombings in Dresden and Hamburg approached the magnitude of the losses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nothing compares to the instant horror of the bombs dropped on those two Japanese cities.
The widespread belief among Americans seems to be that President Truman had no choice about dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the only way to end the war quickly, many believe. This belief has been called into question by historians who have researched the memoranda, cables, and other communications about the decision to drop those two bombs, as well as the strategic position of US forces in the Pacific at the time. Some believe that a demonstration of the horrible power of atomic bombs would have been sufficient to cause the Japanese to surrender. We will never know whether this is true because that’s not what America’s president did.
The US largely avoided bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki with conventional bombs so that when the atomic bombs were dropped, their effects could be accurately measured. They were, in a sense, pristine targets for determining how effective this new weapon was. Truly, this atomic devastation was an experiment from beginning to end.
When the Japanese Emperor Hirohito decided to surrender, he explained part of his rationale with reference to the atomic bomb: “Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
The hatred of Japanese people was so widespread in the US that they were frequently regarded as vermin and caricatured as subhuman. A sizable number of Americans favored the complete annihilation of Japanese men, women, and children. In typical military fashion, the pictures of the two atomic bombings were manipulated for maximum propaganda effect–pictures of dead and wounded people were not allowed; pictures of a mushroom cloud was all that most Americans ever saw at the time. Some graphic images were censored for 22 years afterwards.
A debate about the ethics of the bombings has continued for the last 65 years. Undoubtedly, had the atomic bombs not been used in some fashion, an invasion of Japan would have resulted in the loss of millions of lives. We will never know whether a demonstration of the power of the atomic bomb would have caused Japan to capitulate.
And, based on the opinions of many of our military and civilian leaders, the need for an invasion was far from proven. Prominent voices of dissent about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan included these:
Dwight Eisenhower (in “Mandate For Change,” p. 380): “…in [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent. … During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…”
Admiral William D. Leahy (Chief of Staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, in “I Was There,” p. 441): “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.”
General Douglas MacArthur (as discussed by William Manchester in “American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964,” p. 512): “…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.”
Norman Cousins (a consultant to General MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan, writing of his conversations with MacArthur in “The Pathology of Power,” pp. 65, 70-71): “MacArthur’s views about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were starkly different from what the general public supposed. … When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”
Lewis Strauss (Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, quoted in Len Giovannitti and Fred Freed’s book, “The Decision To Drop the Bomb,” pp. 145, 325.): “I proposed to Secretary Forrestal that the weapon should be demonstrated before it was used. Primarily it was because it was clear to a number of people, myself among them, that the war was very nearly over. The Japanese were nearly ready to capitulate… My proposal to the Secretary was that the weapon should be demonstrated over some area accessible to Japanese observers and where its effects would be dramatic. I remember suggesting that a satisfactory place for such a demonstration would be a large forest of cryptomeria trees not far from Tokyo. The cryptomeria tree is the Japanese version of our redwood … I anticipated that a bomb detonated at a suitable height above such a forest … would lay the trees out in windrows from the center of the explosion in all directions as though they were matchsticks, and, of course, set them afire in the center. It seemed to me that a demonstration of this sort would prove to the Japanese that we could destroy any of their cities at will … Secretary Forrestal agreed wholeheartedly with the recommendation… It seemed to me that such a weapon was not necessary to bring the war to a successful conclusion, that once used it would find its way into the armaments of the world … .”
What we do know is that the United States is the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon against another people. President Obama’s recent commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons is a first step toward eliminating the threat of worldwide nuclear holocaust, but it is a bare beginning as noted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said this past week, “[President Obama] has said many times that he recognizes this is a long-term goal. It is something that will take years of effort by leaders and citizens who recognize the importance of denuclearizing our planet.”
In keeping with this commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons, at this year’s somber commemoration of the 1945 bombings, Japanese officials and citizens were joined by a representative of the US government for the very first time in our history. US Ambassador John Roos said in a statement at the Hiroshima monument, “For the sake of future generations, we must continue to work together to realize a world without nuclear weapons.” Robert Jay Lipton, a US psychiatrist, author, and nuclear weapons opponent characterized the importance of having a US official present at the annual commemoration: “It signifies our joining in honoring the dead–that’s what that occasion is about, honoring the dead–and finding meaning in their deaths. And the overall meaning at that ceremony is warning the world about the dangers of nuclear weapons.”
In keeping with the spirit of honoring the dead from the the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I conclude with this poem, whose authorship and origin are unknown to me. The last line, however, comes from the Cenotaph for atomic bomb victims in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.
You saw the bomb floating down.
You saw the blinding flash.
You heard the deafening roar.
You felt the wrath of the flames.
You heard the frightened screams.
You saw so many people fall.
You stood alone among the devastation.
“Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat this evil.”
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print