Monday, August 08, 2005

The Ultimate Sin

Fallout From Hiroshima's Myths:

Sixty years ago Saturday, an atomic bomb was dropped without warning on the center of the Japanese city of Hiroshima. One hundred and forty thousand people were killed, more than 95 percent of them women and children and other noncombatants. At least half of the victims died of radiation poisoning over the next few months. Three days after Hiroshima was obliterated, the city of Nagasaki suffered a similar fate.

The magnitude of death was enormous, but on Aug. 14, 1945 - just five days after the Nagasaki bombing - Radio Tokyo announced that the Japanese emperor had accepted the U.S. terms for surrender. To many Americans at the time, and still for many today, it seemed clear that the bomb had ended the war, even "saving" a million lives that might have been lost if the U.S. had been required to invade mainland Japan.

This powerful narrative took root quickly and is now deeply embedded in our historical sense of who we are as a nation. A decade ago, on the 50th anniversary, this narrative was reinforced in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first bomb. The exhibit, which had been the subject of a bruising political battle, presented nearly 4 million Americans with an officially sanctioned view of the atomic bombings that again portrayed them as a necessary act in a just war.

But although patriotically correct, the exhibit and the narrative on which it was based were historically inaccurate. For one thing, the Smithsonian downplayed the casualties, saying only that the bombs "caused many tens of thousands of deaths" and that Hiroshima was "a definite military target."

Americans were also told that use of the bombs "led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands." But it's not that straightforward. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has shown definitively in his new book, "Racing the Enemy" - and many other historians have long argued - it was the Soviet Union's entry into the Pacific war on Aug. 8, two days after the Hiroshima bombing, that provided the final "shock" that led to Japan's capitulation.

The Enola Gay exhibit also repeated such outright lies as the assertion that "special leaflets were dropped on Japanese cities" warning civilians to evacuate. The fact is that atomic bomb warning leaflets were dropped on Japanese cities, but only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed.

The hard truth is that the atomic bombings were unnecessary. A million lives were not saved. Indeed, McGeorge Bundy, the man who first popularized this figure, later confessed that he had pulled it out of thin air in order to justify the bombings in a 1947 Harper's magazine essay he had ghostwritten for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

The bomb was dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said in November 1945, on "an essentially defeated enemy." President Truman and his closest adviser, Secretary of State James Byrnes, quite plainly used it primarily to prevent the Soviets from sharing in the occupation of Japan. And they used it on Aug. 6 even though they had agreed among themselves as they returned home from the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 3 that the Japanese were looking for peace.

These unpleasant historical facts were censored from the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit, an action that should trouble every American. When a government substitutes an officially sanctioned view for publicly debated history, democracy is diminished.

Today, in the post-9-11 era, it is critically important that the U.S. face the truth about the atomic bomb. For one thing, the myths surrounding Hiroshima have made it possible for our defense establishment to argue that atomic bombs are legitimate weapons that belong in a democracy's arsenal. But if, as Oppenheimer said, "they are weapons of aggression, of surprise and of terror," how can a democracy rely on such weapons?

Oppenheimer understood very soon after Hiroshima that these weapons would ultimately threaten our very survival.

Presciently, he even warned us against what is now our worst national nightmare - and Osama bin Laden's frequently voiced dream - an atomic suitcase bomb smuggled into an American city: "Of course it could be done," Oppenheimer told a Senate committee, "and people could destroy New York."

Ironically, Hiroshima's myths are now motivating our enemies to attack us with the very weapon we invented. Bin Laden repeatedly refers to Hiroshima in his rambling speeches. It was, he believes, the atomic bombings that shocked the Japanese imperial government into an early surrender - and, he says, he is planning an atomic attack on the U.S. that will similarly shock us into retreating from the Mideast.

Finally, Hiroshima's myths have gradually given rise to an American unilateralism born of atomic arrogance.

Oppenheimer warned against this "sleazy sense of omnipotence." He observed that "if you approach the problem and say, 'We know what is right and we would like to use the atomic bomb to persuade you to agree with us,' then you are in a very weak position and you will not succeed. ... You will find yourselves attempting by force of arms to prevent a disaster."

See also here, here, here, and much material here.

Here's pretty much what I believe, caveat emptor:

Truman ordered the nukes to scare Stalin, who had threatened to escalate his eastern front after the fall of Berlin. Russia had some historical scores to settle with Japan, regardless of then-recent Japanese aggression -- the ease with which Japan sank the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War, and the land concessions Russia made after its defeat, being cases in humiliating point. Of course Stalin was a bastard, but what people don't seem to appreciate is that he had good reason to be paranoid. It was in the Russian character to fear invasion from Europe, with good reasons recent and historic. Thus the insistence, which FDR and Churchill somewhat grudgingly agreed-to, for the satellite states in Eastern Europe. While Stalin was a meddler in other places, by the time of WW2 he had co-opted Bukharin's "socialism in one country" doctrine. I don't think people had too much to fear as far as potential Russian satellites in East Asia.

Truman's attitude to Stalin immediately changed in the middle of the Potsdam conferences -- as soon as he recieved word that The Bomb was operational. Thanks Harry, you made a paranoid madman even more paranoid. The Bomb was a geopolitical version of a Dear John letter severing the relationship between America and the Soviet Union. So many civilians incinerated, mangled, and given the gift that keeps on giving -- cancer and birth defects -- among the survivors and their offspring. Just to tell Mad Josef to slag off because we didn't need him anymore.

Japan had been trying to surrender -- it's in all the literature of the major players, even Truman -- before Hiroshima. The hang-up was about not the military junta that had run the country, but the Japanese people's religious need for keeping the Emperor on the throne. As a frame of reference, an American needs to imagine not only being of a defeated nation and people but then afterward being forced to burn his bible and denounce Jesus Christ. Surrender was acceptable to the Japanese; shitcanning something that had been part of their culture since the beginning was something else. Since we ended up allowing them to keep the Emperor anyway, this could not have been the hugest sticking point for us, even under the awful rubric of Unconditional Surrender by which the vindictive pressed their agenda and to which the sensible unfortunately hitched their wagons.

Yes, I'm well aware of the brutality of the Japanese regime. They chopped off the heads of our POWs with swords. But then we took their prisoners, when they were taken alive, and shoved broken coke bottles up their asses. Yes, they did gruesome medical experiments on the Chinese, and practiced biological warfare on the same. Vile. Not to Nazi levels, but vile: our Dresden and Tokyo firebombings can't compete with Axis nastiness.

But the nukes are something else altogether. Dresden, for instance, can be slightly mitigated by the argument that the bombing destroyed infrastructure and production facilities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot. The nukes were intentionally dropped on civilians and intended for them only. The nuking of those cities was a terrorist act, if terrorism is defined as the intentional murder of civilians for political gain. And it's not even as bad as non-state terrorism, as practiced by the IRAs, ETAs, and al-quaedas of the world if you accept, as I do, the doctrine of distinction of moral responsibilities between the Pirate and the Emperor (a higher standard of justice is expected of the latter).

Whatever you think of the Russian angle, even the traditional view can't excuse Nagasaki: it was gratuitous. But excuse it all many do, blinded by nationalist myth and metaphysically certain that the United States could never do evil: it's just not possible.

Still, most decent people do more than clear their throats over the morality of nuking people, even if they think that their country was "forced" to do such acts. They acknowledge the gruesomeness of it all. Decent people that is. There are, of course, others.

Usual suspects* like Max Boot and Victor Davis Hanson: guiltless imperialists of the right who are congenitally unable to blame the United States for anything except on the odd occasions it has not been bloodthirsty enough. Then there are unusual suspects -- like Steve Gilliard who has a hard-on for anything US military related. Gilliard tells us that he watches the History Channel, long under the General Electric corporate umbrella (and so, in the name of synergy, given to producing long programs which are basically commercials for its armaments business), and is therefore an expert who must correct legitimate, if unfriendly-to-myth revisionist, scholars like Bird and Alperovitz. His long and condescending sneer, with a throat-clearing/afterthought mention of morality, is a real treat. Thanks, Steve, but if I want to read callous assholes who enjoy soiling themselves so as to defend any American war crime, there are plenty on the right who are actually good at being so porcine. In fact, I can click on any wingnut site and hear the Guantanamos and Abu Ghraibs excused similarly, on the grounds that, why, such things aren't as bad as what So and So did! Excuses for using nukes on the grounds that the Japanese were worse just aren't good enough. Like what Saddam did, it's irrelevant.

* What I think of military historians in general, the most Prussian lot of academics in the world, is pretty much what James Bond thought of this guy, and for the same reasons. Morality's always a subordinate issue to testosterone to such people.