Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Wednesday will mark the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which, together with the bombing of Nagasaki, killed well over a hundred thousand civilians. That was according to plan; the bombings were intended to make it blatantly obvious to the Japanese that the war was unwinnable and the cost was unthinkable, so that they would promptly surrender. If this was not terrorism, nothing is terrorism. Please do not pretend that the target was a ball-bearings plant.
This much is generally conceded, but it is argued that it was the better of only two alternatives. The other possibility was a D-Day-style invasion that was expected to result in a million American casualties, with even larger numbers of Japanese military and civilians killed. It is easy to say that we must not do evil that good may result, it is argued, but if doing evil saves over three million lives, then the evil must be done.
But were these the only two possible alternatives? Actually, there was another choice available -- one that is so much more shocking than the deliberate slaughter of 100,000 civilians that it is overlooked: admit that the president of the United States had made a mistake.
Franklin Roosevelt had insisted that the surrender of the Axis powers must be unconditional, and Churchill and Stalin had agreed. This was in no small part bravado, which was necessary in the early part of the war, but it was also intended to make sure that the defeat of the Axis would be unambiguous. The Allies did not want a repeat of the claim that Germany had not lost the First World War in the field, but rather was betrayed by cowards well behind the front.
Look at this from the perspective of the Japanese, though. What could unconditional surrender mean, other than that if they knew what the Allies had in mind they would never surrender? It would have been easy for them to imagine atrocities; all they had to do was remember how they had treated China and Korea. The Japanese tendency to commit suicide rather than surrender was only partly a matter of honor; there was also a very practical fear of how the defeated were made to suffer. What terrible things could the Allies have in mind that they were not willing to declare?
Of course, the reality was far milder than anyone, Japanese or American, could have imagined. Tojo was hanged, as were a few others, but Japanese war criminals were pursued with nothing of the gusto applied to the hunt for German war criminals. Japan surrendered the right to wage war, but a small self-defense force was retained. Hirohito abandoned the claim to divinity, but both his life and his office were spared. The occupation forces were well-disciplined, and Japan was welcomed as a trading partner and ally, leading to greater prosperity than at any earlier point in Japanese history.
What if the Japanese had been told what lay in store for them? Would they have stubbornly insisted on continuing to fight, regardless of the costs? Probably not: even before the atomic bombs were dropped, about half the Japanese cabinet favored surrender.
Would this have allowed Japanese militarists to insist that Japan had not "really" been beaten? Possibly, but that kind of person will make outrageous claims no matter what the facts may be. The German perception that their armies had not lost World War I in the field had less to do with the rise of the Nazis than the terms of surrender and (above all) the Great Depression.
Americans have always had too great a tendency to deify our presidents, and FDR was an extreme example. This often comes at a cost. Let us pray that we never again consider the reputation of a president to be worth more than a hundred thousand civilian lives.