Jeff Jacoby, in discussing Obama’s visit to Japan (“In Hiroshima, Obama Should Celebrate the Friendship that Hiroshima Made Possible,” Boston Globe, May 14), suggests that — far from simply not revisiting Truman’s atomic bombing decision — Obama should “reaffirm that it was right and just, ultimately saving countless lives, ending a terrible war, and freeing the people of Japan from a savage and fanatic regime.” This lie — this god damned lie — that the Hiroshima bombing “saved lives” has long been a favorite talking point among apologists for Truman’s mass murder, and it’s no surprise to see a hack like Jacoby repeating it.
Like others of his ilk who use this talking point, Jacoby falsely presents “the only alternative to the atomic bomb” as
an invasion of the Japanese homeland. US military strategists were planning a two-part offensive: The first, on the southern island of Kyushu, was scheduled for Nov. 1 and would require an invasion force of 770,000 American troops — five times the number of Allied soldiers who landed at Normandy on D-Day. The second invasion, on Japan’s main island of Honshu, would begin the following March, sending another million and a half men into an inferno from which hundreds of thousands would never return.
Jacoby presents a string of quotes to illustrate contemporary perceptions (mostly by people like Paul Fussell and William Manchester, who at the time had no more inside knowledge of the decision-making process than anyone else) and policy-makers’ assessments in the next several years that, absent the atomic bombings, an American ground invasion of the Home Islands would have been inevitable. But nowhere does he explain why it would have been inevitable.
Jacoby responds to argument that the atomic bombings were “a great moral evil” or “a flagrant crime against humanity” in this way:
Some revisionist historians have claimed that Japan, which by mid-1945 was badly losing the Pacific war, would have been forced to surrender even if atomic weapons hadn’t been used. Others have decried the bombs’ ghastly human toll. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed by heat and pressure so intense that it scorched their shadows into walls and streets; tens of thousands more died later from radiation sickness and injuries.
But it isn’t news that war is hell. And it isn’t clear why dying in an atomic blast is worse than dying in a “conventional” firebombing, such as the nighttime raid on Tokyo in March 1945 that burned up a fifth of the city with napalm and killed 105,000 people, mostly civilians.
But again, he focuses entirely on the moral argument against killing civilians as such and — despite quoting it — fails to address challenges to his assertion that either atomic bombing or an invasion was absolutely necessary. The fact that it’s been a widely repeated claim for seventy years, apparently, is all the evidence he needs.
So let’s take a look at whether the atomic bombings really were the only way to avoid an enormously costly American ground invasion.
First of all, there was high level debate in policy-making circles, and continues to be fierce historical debate, as to whether the atomic bombing was actually necessary to achieve Japanese surrender.
Paul Nitze, number two figure in the Strategic Bombing Survey, estimated that Japan would have surrendered before November 1 had the U.S. not used the atomic bomb, with no need for either an American invasion of the Home Islands or a Soviet invasion of Manchuria. Curtis LeMay, who had overseen the murderous fire-bombings of Japanese civilian populations, later stated his opinion that the war would have ended in another two weeks. Alfred McCormack, Director of Military Intelligence in the Pacific Theater, believed a few more weeks of naval blockade would have been enough to bring about Japanese surrender.
A number of high-ranking military and political leaders believed that Japan would have surrendered weeks or months earlier had the U.S. simply modified the unconventional surrender demand to permit the Emperor or his dynasty retaining the throne as a constitutional monarchy (which in fact it did anyway). As early as May, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew and senior War and Navy Department advisors began suggesting to Truman that, with Japan’s Pacific empire virtually liquidated, the danger to the Japanese monarchy was the main remaining obstacle to surrender.
As early as June 22, Japan sent peace feelers through the Soviet Union offering a surrender that included withdrawal from all territories occupied during the war, so long as the “unconditional surrender” demand was withdrawn. On July 12, speaking personally for the Emperor, Foreign Minister Togo told the Soviets the Emperor wanted an immediate end to the war and would negotiate it on almost any terms that left the monarchy intact. Even Churchill, a week before Potsdam, suggested that the unconditional surrender policy would needlessly prolong the war.
After the atomic bombings, Hirohito took the unprecedented step of intervening directly in the Imperial Cabinet debate to call for surrender only when high-ranking advocates of surrender like Foreign Minister Togo and the Keeper of the Imperial Privy Seal finally petitioned him to do so. The main consideration keeping them from appealing to him until then had been the significant chance that surrender would have ended the monarchy. They finally petitioned the Emperor after the atomic bombings because, first, the prospect of continued atomic bombings of Japan’s cities would almost certainly have exterminated the imperial line anyway, and second, a statement by the Allies on August 10 deliberately refrained from ruling out the possibility of preserving the monarchy. Note that even before Hiroshima, the War Cabinet had voted 12-3 for surrender; it was only the Emperor’s personal intervention that resulted in the required unanimous decision, and his choice to intervene would presumably had a similar effect at any time in the previous few months. If this is correct, simply modifying the unconditional surrender clause in the July 26 Potsdam Proclamation, or even after the capture of Okinawa, would probably have resulted in the Emperor listening to the doves and instructing the Cabinet to surrender, followed by capitulation.
Secretary of War Stimson later expressed the view that, by its earlier failure to indicate in some way its openness to a constitutional monarchy in postwar Japan, the U.S. government had needlessly postponed Japanese surrender.
In any case Japan had effectively sued for peace by the late Spring of 1945; the only consideration in U.S. policy was not whether, but on what terms, Japan would surrender. This is a far cry from the stark necessity with which Jacoby and others of his ilk frame Truman’s choice of mass murder.
Second, even had Japan not surrendered in August — whether from lack of the atomic bomb or for other reasons — it was entirely up to Truman whether to compel surrender through an invasion, as opposed to an indefinite naval blockade. Truman chose, in June 1945, to approve a plan for the invasion of Japan on November 1 if it was still in the war; the responsibility was his and his alone.
And besides all this, let’s remember that the demand for “unconditional surrender” was itself entirely a political choice. Nobody put a gun to Truman’s head and required him to demand unconditional surrender as the only terms acceptable from Japan.
So Truman didn’t “have to” order a ground invasion, or do anything else, if Japan didn’t surrender in August. To suggest that he did was asinine.
But finally, even aside from the consequential issue of whether Japan would have surrendered without the atomic bombing, we need to honestly face the central moral question of targeting non-combatants. Even if Japan would only have surrendered on terms less acceptable to the American state, or would never have surrendered at all, that doesn’t answer the question of whether killing innocent civilians can ever be an appropriate means for achieving any policy goal. I say it cannot.
Jacoby asks what material difference there was between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and earlier conventional fire-bombings of cities like Dresden and Tokyo. That’s a good question. The answer is, absolutely none. None at all. Attempts to terrorize a country into surrender through wholesale murder of its civilian population is a crime against humanity — no exceptions.
The fact that theories emerged to justify such murder, on the grounds that “in total war, where the economy and civilian population are integrated into the war effort there’s no such thing as non-combatants,” and that such large numbers of people accept them, simply shows how much contemporary moral sensibilities have been eroded and corrupted by an era of total warfare. In fact, there’s no moral difference between Truman’s order of the massacre of the civilian population of two cities amounting to hundreds of thousands of people, and the massacres of civilian populations with which the Assyrians similarly terrorized enemies into surrendering over two thousand years ago.
Deliberately killing civilians is murder. It’s that simple.