A recent study revealed that over 98 percent of 3-year-olds believe the reason there’s glass on television sets is to keep the people from falling out! Is there a comparably grotesque absurdity among grown-ups?
The answer is Yes, and it comes to mind every August when the anniversary of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes around. Never before in all history has anything so monumental been so monumentally misunderstood as the true story of how and why the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about Japan’s surrender.
There seems very little here to misunderstand. A sleeping America was no match for a sneaky Japan. But Japan was no match for an awakened America. After the stunning success of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and a few months of continuing success, the might of America blistered through, and Japan tumbled into an inescapable downward spiral. America succeeded in developing the world’s most frightening super-weapon and used it on Hiroshima. Japan didn’t surrender. America then dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. Then Japan gave up. So what’s the big breathtaking back-story? Japan, already thoroughly beaten, saw America now armed with a new wonder-weapon, a bomb that can take out a whole city. Time to quit. End of story, right? No, the beginning of a widely unknown story.
Japan did not simply yield to superior force. Despite the inevitability of defeat, the Japanese would have fought on and on until the last Japanese teenager with a spear was shot by the American invaders. Don’t forget, there were Allied air raids over German and Japanese cities that took many more lives in one raid than were lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there was something special about the atomic bomb that allowed the Japanese to surrender. Note the word “allowed.” For this insight we thank the late South African writer and poet Laurens van der Post, who spent the war as a prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp in Java, then the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. Van der Post made the moral case for using the A-bombs on Japan in a thin but powerful book published in 1971, “The Prisoner and the Bomb.” Most of those trying to make a moral case for using the Bomb rely on all the lives saved by that quick nuclear knock-out, the millions of American and Japanese troops and Japanese civilians who would have been lost if America were forced to invade Japan. Van der Post doesn’t invoke a single one of those American and Japanese lives in his argument.
The cruelty of the Japanese toward their prisoners is by now well-known. And as Japan’s fortunes of war declined, their brutality toward their prisoners increased. Many died from starvation, disease and plain old wanton beatings by angry and frustrated Japanese guards. The following is rarely mentioned. When the Germans faced obliteration, the size of their Nazi empire, once stretching from Arctic to desert and Moscow suburbs to the English Channel, had shrunk to a few city blocks in downtown Berlin. But when Japan faced defeat their forces still occupied almost everything Japan had conquered in Korea, Manchuria, China, Malaya, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand etc. And inside that doomed empire were hundreds of Japanese concentration camps and millions of prisoners whose conditions worsened by the day.
Van der Post tells us if the war hadn’t come to an immediate end, more lives would have been lost in those wretched camps over the next six weeks than were lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki!
So what was it about the A-bombs, if it weren’t merely their power, that made Japan surrender so quickly? The Japanese didn’t want to die for the emperor. They were willing to die for the emperor. They took a pledge to fight and die for the emperor.
If, instead of the A-bomb, America had obtained a hundred thousand new B-29 bombers and a couple million more conventional bombs, they would not have surrendered. It was the mind-boggling newness of the A-bomb that the Japanese interpreted as “The Flash from Heaven” that enabled all Japanese to renounce their pledge and surrender with honor. “The Flash from Heaven” told the Japanese “The rules have changed.” “The Flash from Heaven” released the Japanese from their pledge.
We’ve always been at least mildly morally satisfied with the observation that many more lives would have been lost in the invasion than we lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until I read “The Prisoner and the Bomb” I couldn’t imagine a moral case made without citing those military and civilians who would have been lost fighting inside Japan itself.
Every pope, every moral authority; Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, even super-hawk Gen. Curtis LeMay and almost everybody high and inside in government either advised against using the Bomb or later admitted it was a dreadful mistake.
Those millions of prisoners in those Japanese camps facing imminent death if the war hadn’t ended quickly were French, Dutch, British, American, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Manchurian, Indo-Chinese, Burmese and Indian. Nobody polled them to see how they felt morally about knocking Japan out of the war.
The American nickname for the Hiroshima bomb was “Little Boy.”
Little Boy. Big flash!
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