The idea that America is, in any sense, a civilized country is easily dispelled by the orgy of self-congratulation and rationalization that accompanies the dual anniversaries of Harry Truman’s decision to atom bomb the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Want your gorge to rise? Check out the New York Post editorial “The Bomb That Saved Millions,” (August 6) which justifies the bombings as a “military necessity.” The editorial opines that “few at the time questioned President Harry S. Truman’s wisdom in using the devastating new weapon, but revisionist historians and political activists maintain now é more than a half-century later é that the atomic bombing of Japan was militarily unnecessary and morally unacceptable.” The Post is New York City’s most popular newspaper é a place where the official standard of morality is closer to the Code of Lek than the Ten Commandants. So why are we not surprised that the Post finds all this appalling?
The incineration of hundreds of thousands, and the slow death by radiation sickness of tens of thousands more, morally unacceptable? The nerve of these “revisionists”! Why, they must be Commies or unrepentant hippies to believe such a thing, and sure enough, as it turns out:
“Indeed, these historians é many of whom came of age during the Vietnam era, when trashing America was all the rage in academia é consider Truman and others who approved the bomb’s use to be nothing less than war criminals.”
This, we are told, is “nonsense.” All those deaths, and possibly more, were justified by “military necessity”: to hear them tell it, without the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II might well be going on to this day.
One of the job qualifications for being a New York Post editorial writer is a complete ignorance of history, as well as an amorality that might be called Murdochian, as this little screed makes all too clear. For the myth of “military necessity” as a justification for the incineration of two cities has been convincingly debunked by the so-called revisionists, who have shown that the decision to drop the bomb was opposed by an impressive list of Truman’s top commanders, General Douglas MacArthur among them. In The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, historian Gar Alperovitz reveals that Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Rear Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, General Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers, Army Strategic Air Forces Commander Carl Spatz, and Army Air Force General Curtis “Bombs Away” Lemay, all challenged the military necessity argument. Among Truman’s top advisors, Secretary of State Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, former Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew, Navy Under Secretary Ralph Bard, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all took issue with the decision in one way or another. In 1963, Dwight Eisenhower told Newsweek that “it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
There were a lot of alternatives: Truman could have demonstrated the power of the bomb without wiping out several hundred thousand civilians. He could have altered the Rooseveltian insistence on unconditional surrender. At the time, the US was intercepting all Japanese coded messages, and deciphering them, and Truman knew that this was the main obstacle to Japan’s peace party. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged Truman to relent and allow the Japanese to surrender, keeping their Emperor system and their honor intact. But it was no go. When Truman stook the reins, US pronouncements on the subject did not significantly deviate from the unconditional surrender formula, and were purposefully vague.
Another argument against the “military necessity” rationale is that even after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese refused to surrender. Nagasaki was still burning as the Japanese Cabinet met to consider the question: the vote was 12 in favor of surrender, with 3 against and 1 undecided. Since unanimity was required, the war was not stopped until Emperor Hirohito personally intervened. He was persuaded to do so by the proponents of peace within the Japanese government, who were given the upper hand not by the dropping of the bomb but by the understanding that the Emperor system would be preserved by the Allied victors.
This is underscored by General MacArthur’s belief that a full-scale invasion of Japan would be necessary even after the atom bombs were dropped. For, as many of Truman’s political and military advisors informed him, the Japanese considered their Emperor to be a god, and could never permit his demise or that of his dynasty. As Japan’s Prime Minister Suzuki announced on June 9, 1945, “Should the emperor system be abolished, they [the Japanese people] would lose all reason for existence. ‘Unconditional surrender’, therefore, means death to the hundred million: it leaves us no choice but to go on fighting to the last man.” It was only the Emperor’s understanding that the Chrysanthemum Throne would be retained that gave the peace party the trump card: otherwise, those who preferred national self-immolation to surrender would almost certainly have won out.
A panel set up by President Truman to study the Pacific war issued a report, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, in July 1946, which declared,
The report was suppressed, ignored, and shoved down the Memory Hole.
Justice in wartime is the justice of the victors. This is why the war crimes of the Allies were not allowed to be introduced into evidence at the Nuremberg trials, or the trials of the Japanese leaders. It is why evidence of NATO’s war crimes will be dismissed out of hand by the International Criminal Tribunal when they put Slobodan Milosevic in the dock.
In explaining why, in the face of opposition from the military, as well as top officials in his administration, Truman ignored the religious and moral traditions of Western civilization, we are back to the Code of Lek and the ethical norms of New York’s concrete canyons (and Washington’s corridors of power) where revenge is considered the sweetest liquor. This cultural ethos was reflected in a radio address given August 9, after Nagasaki fell victim to the fire from heaven, in which Truman declaimed:
So here was the great guardian of democratic liberal values, the chief executive and symbol of the West’s triumph over the powers of totalitarian darkness, exhibiting a lust for inflicting pain bordering on the pathological. A more overt appeal to savagery can hardly be imagined. Equating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with the wholesale vaporization of innocent civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be funny é to someone with a really grotesque sense of humor. In any case, it is not as if the inhabitants of those unfortunate cities had any say in determining the military policies of their leaders.
Truman may have had his own doubts about the morality of the decision, but in the end domestic political considerations won out over ethical concerns. Never mind about highfalutin’ ethical principles, let’s just get the job done: this sort of pragmatism is supposedly synonymous with the American Way. It was, however, a degeneration of the American character that only occurred at the turn of the century, after World War I, waves of immigration, and the vulgarization of the culture had already eroded the foundations of our old Republic. That such a barbaric act as the fiery immolation of two Japanese cities is, today, being justified and even celebrated in the US is proof positive of our advanced state of moral decadence.
The great horror is that this heinous deed was committed against Japan, a civilization as far removed from our own as the streets of New York are from the African savannas. It’s at times like these that I tend to believe the wrong side won the war in the Pacific. Just think: if we all woke up one day living in some alternate history, as in Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, our cultural malaise would disappear overnight. Instead of listening to the latest loutish lyrics of Eminem, American teenagers would be contemplating the subtle beauty of the Japanese tea ceremony. If contemporary Japan is any clue, the crime rate would be cut by 95 percent, and the literacy rate would skyrocket. Certainly everyone’s manners would improve. All in all, life would be far more civilized, imbued with a gentility that would make the New York Post an impossibility.
Mr. Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com