Around this time of year the press releases add up by the troy ton announcing anguished marches, prayer vigils, concerts and unbridled apologies for America's "shameful" use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, and three days later on Nagasaki. The standard moral justification for dropping those bombs is simple: If the war had dragged on and America had been forced to invade the home islands of Japan, loss of life among American troops, Japanese troops and Japanese civilians would have far exceeded the losses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Let me state the moral justification for dropping the bombs without invoking the life of one single American troop, one Japanese troop or one Japanese civilian.
In 1971, South African author Laurens Van Der Post put it between covers of a thin book entitled "The Prisoner and the Bomb." Van Der Post spent the war as a prisoner of the Japanese in a concentration camp in what had been the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. He spoke fluent Japanese. For reasons of space and taste, I'll omit his descriptions of Japanese cruelty to their prisoners. Their brutality was unspeakable, even when they were winning the war. As the war turned against them, the Japanese somehow found ways to increase their mistreatment.
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One day in August of 1945, a Japanese military limousine pulled up to the gate and demanded Van Der Post get in. He had no idea what was in store. He didn't think they were going to execute him because, for that, they didn't waste time with limousines. Up the mountain they drove, to the mansion that had been the home of the Dutch colonial governor and now the Japanese commandant. Imagine this battered, emaciated prisoner, dressed in tatters with sandals crudely fashioned from old truck tires, being led into a huge ballroom where the entire Japanese officer corps, all in impeccable summer dress uniforms complete with ceremonial swords, bowed down to him and, raising little cups of rice wine, said, "Congratulations on your victory!"
The automatic explanation for Japan's quick surrender is, of course, that they saw America had a totally new kind of weapon that could take out a whole city with one plane and one bomb, and they were clearly beaten, so they gave up. Wrong! Suicidal warfare did not begin with Islamic extremism. Remember the kamikaze pilots, trained to fly their planes right into American ships? The Japanese people were perfectly willing to die, down to the last one, for the emperor. Being overpowered by a new weapon was not why Japan surrendered immediately after the two bombs.
Van Der Post tells us that the revolutionary nature of the A-bomb was interpreted by the Japanese as the "Flash from Heaven" that released them from their obligation to die for the emperor and enabled them to surrender.
Here now, is the moral justification for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Hitler's Germany was in its last days, the Nazi empire that once stretched from above the Arctic Circle to Egypt and from the English Channel to the gates of Moscow had shrunk to six city blocks in downtown Berlin. By contrast, at the end, the Japanese held over 95 percent of everything they'd conquered: a huge hunk of China, all of Manchuria and Korea, Indonesia, Malaya, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong; they'd only lost a few islands to American invasion. Across that vast empire there were hundreds of Japanese prison camps with millions of prisoners enduring treatment that rivaled the Holocaust.
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Van Der Post estimated that, if the war had lasted only another six weeks, more lives would have been lost in those prison camps through starvation, disease and cruelty than were lost to the atomic bombing. Despite Japan's dire situation, if their "suicide" mindset had remained intact, it would have taken much longer than six weeks to end it.
Emperor Hirohito, you'll recall, was not regarded as a "human." He didn't do fireside chats or hold town-hall meetings. He was literally revered as a god. The Japanese people had never heard him speak! But Emperor Hirohito made a recorded statement to the Japanese people, remarkable in that he never used the word "surrender." He just said, "The war has progressed in a manner not necessarily to Japan's advantage. Be respectful of the foreigners who will shortly arrive."
I confess to being fixated on the Japanese audio engineer who, sitting with earphones on a few feet away from the emperor, recorded that message.
I'll never quit wondering what it was like having to interrupt the emperor and say, almost literally, "Excuse me, God, I seem to hear a high-frequency oscillation here. Would you take it again, from the top?"