|On August 9, 1945, the American B-29 bomber, Bock's Car left Tinian carrying Fat Man, a plutonium implosion-type bomb. The primary target was the Kokura Arsenal, but upon reaching the target, they found that it was covered by a heavy ground haze and smoke, pilot Charles Sweeney turned to the secondary target of the Mitsubishi Torpedo Plant at Nagasaki.
Of the 286,00 people living in Nagasaki at the time of the blast, 74,000 were killed and another 75,000 sustained severe injuries.
We've just been through the 60th anniversaries of two of the most indelible crimes against humanity in our history. One doesn't wish to let such a portentous anniversary pass without comment, although generally there is the problem that it's difficult to find something new to say.
This year, however, things are a little different. I have mentioned before that Gar Alperovitz's book The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and the Architecture of an American Myth is the key source to read in order to begin to understand an issue almost irretrievably clouded by decades of U.S. state propaganda.
Alperovitz seeks to show, partly by looking at transcripts of Japanese diplomatic communiques intercepted by the United States under an operation code-named MAGIC, that the United States was well aware that Japan was in dire straits and seeking desperately for any sort of negotiated settlement with the United States that would preserve the emperor's position.
There's a lot more in the book, for example the creation of the Hiroshima myth, the story that the bomb saved countless lives. Alperovitz traces the evolution of the myth, documenting the way that the number of lives saved soared as the political imperatives became clearer.
Undoubtedly, the majority of his work stands and will stand any test of time. Recently, however, some scholarship has brought into doubt the question of just how ready Japan was to surrender and how much the United States could have known about it.
Richard Frank, writing in the Weekly Standard (not a publication I usually give much credence to), says that more recently (mid-90's) declassified MAGIC transcripts of Japanese military communiques paint a very different story. While diplomats may have been flailing for a peaceful solution, the military command apparently was rather intransigently preparing to beat back an invasion and showed no sign of incipient surrender under any terms.
From a different angle, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa (see article by Frank Brodhead), combing through Japanese, American, and Soviet archives, has come to the conclusion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki played almost no role in the Japanese surrender decision, which was dictated virtually entirely by the Soviet declaration of war on August 8.
This seems very plausible. After all, the Japanese ruling class might have expected that the Americans would hang a few of them, subjugate the class to U.S. strategic interests, and for the most part prop the rest of them up in power so as to rule Japan with relative ease -- after making sure they had been properly brought to heel, of course. On the other hand, they could expect the Soviets to liquidate them entirely. This, of course, is precisely the difference between the American treatment of the Nazis and the Soviet treatment.
So what do we make of all this? Does the incredible intransigence of the Japanese military command and its lack of concern for civilian lives exonerate the United States?
This reminds me a great deal of an argument that always got thrown at us regarding Saddam and the sanctions on Iraq. First, we need to kill children because Saddam is intransigent and won't cooperate fully with weapons inspections and killing children is the only way to make him cooperate. Second, Saddam is hard-hearted and doesn't care about the children killed, so it's not our fault that they've died.
I believe the logic error is reasonably obvious. In the case of Japan, it's very clear that the rulers, like Saddam, were hard-hearted and militaristic, that they committed numerous crimes against humanity, and that they shared a great deal of the blame for what was done to their people.
But, just as in the case of Saddam, the United States knew that beforehand. They had incinerated over 500,000 civilians with their deadly firebomb raids, which by the summer of 1945 they were able to carry out without any resistance, and the Japanese military didn't bat an eye.
So the United States set out to kill as many civilians as possible in these attacks, even though, because of the MAGIC intercepts, they were in a good position to believe the killing of civilians would make no difference to the Japanese government. They gave no warning for the Hiroshima bombing; they did give warning about Nagasaki, one day after the bombing. Civilians had no chance to flee. The bombs were set to detonate at exactly the height above the ground that would maximize the blast devastation. Everything was done to kill as many civilians as possible. And, in the end, it may not have made one damn bit of difference in making the Japanese surrender.
I don't see that this new scholarship, important as it is, changes anything in the obvious determination that these are two of the most incandescent crimes against humanity ever committed.
Some wags like to justify the atomic bombings by pointing out the destructions of Tokyo, Dresden, etc. I've never quite understood why committing a crime makes committing another crime ok.
But it does bring up another interesting point. When I first read about the Manhattan project and the bombing of Hiroshima as a child, I didn't distinguish between the fire bombings and the atomic bombing. They killed similar numbers of innocent people, so they were equally bad.
And yet, in a way, horrific crimes as the bombings of Dresden and Tokyo were, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were worse. First, of course, because they started the nuclear arms race and brought us to the point where we can actually annihilate ourselves. Second, because of the radiation and lingering effects.
But there's another way, and it's hard to talk about logically. Freeman Dyson, in his autobiography Disturbing the Universe, talks about his experience. He worked as an analyst for British Bomber Command and, over the years, became completely disillusioned with what he called this "crazy game of murder." Then one day, after he was out and the war for him was over, he picked up a newspaper and saw the headline, "New Force of Nature Unleashed." He said to himself, "This is it. Childhood's end."
It's always struck me that, of all the headlines put up on August 7, that one is somehow the most profound. Even now, reading it sends a chill down my spine. To discover the most profound secrets of nature and use them to incinerate over 200,000 men, women, and children is unspeakable in some way that goes deeper than logic.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of the blog Empire Notes and teaches at New York University. He has been to Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah during the siege in April.
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