This month marks the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in August 1945. Hiroshima city remembered the attack with solemn ceremonies, commemorative and educational activities, and the city fell silent on the day of August 6 to respect all those who were killed and maimed by the bombing. During the official ceremonies to mark the event, doves were released into the sky, and a Buddhist temple bell tolled at 8.15 am. That was the exact time the atom bomb, dropped by the pilots and crew of the American B29 bomber Enola Gay, detonated over the city of Hiroshima in the first nuclear attack in human history on August 6, 1945, 70 years ago.
The blast from the bomb, the latter codenamed with the euphemistic ‘Little Boy‘, vaporised 80 000 people in the city, with thousands more dying over the following days and weeks. Much of the city was flattened, with every building, excepting a few earthquake-resistant buildings, within a 1.6 kilometre radius of the explosion destroyed.
The effects of the radiation took their toll over the subsequent years, leaving a poisonous legacy. In the months and years that followed, thousands more succumbed to leukemia and other cancerous diseases, the consequence of prolonged exposure to severe radiation. This attack, followed by the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, involved atomic weapons. The United States had already subjected Japanese cities to firebombing by conventional means, such as that of Tokyo, in March 1945. That firestorm was so intense and unrelenting, it remains the subject of intensely emotional debate, much like that surrounding the atomic bombings.
Within the period March to August 1945, the United States Army Air Force systematically attacked and firebombed 66 Japanese cities, with any town with a population greater than 30 000 considered a legitimate target. As Associate Professor Tilman Ruff from the University of Melbourne notes, the US Army Air Force deployed on average 500 bombers with a payload of 4000-5000 tons of conventional bombs per city. These bombings took their toll, with the Japanese war effort shattered, and the economy grinding to a halt in 1945. The Toyko firebombing remains the single most destructive and overwhelming attack on any city in a time of war.
Hiroshima – an act of terror masked as a mercy killing
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are portrayed, mainly in the English-speaking world, as actions motivated by a strong desire to end the war as quickly as possible in order to save lives (American). The Hiroshima bombing, and the similar atomic attack on Nagasaki, are given a humanitarian cover, disguised as mercy killings by an American political and economic leadership intent on reducing the death and destruction resultant from a ground invasion of the Japanese mainland.
This narrative of ‘saving lives’, portraying the incineration of two cities and their inhabitants as life-saving measures to avoid a prolonged and bitter war, has become deeply ingrained in the English-speaking countries. Hiroshima has come to symbolise the beginning of a new atomic age of warfare. Remembering Hiroshima as a world-changing event, serves to disguise the destructive impact of the atomic bombings. The New York Slimes, the faithful lapdog of the imperial American ruling class, described the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as ‘awesome brutality’. While the article’s author, Serge Schmemann, does admit that the atomic age escalated the danger of geopolitical disputes to human survival, he casts doubt on ever resolving the ethical question of whether these attacks are justifiable.
This official portrayal, underlying the motivation for the pursuit of nuclear weapons by the United States and associated imperialist powers, is undermined by a number of stubborn facts. By 1945, the Japanese war machine had been largely defeated, the Imperial Japanese navy sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and the economy laying in ruins. The Japanese air force had an achilles heel – fuel supplies, which were in short supply. The Japanese army was retreating, and fighting only rearguard defensive actions to maintain its losing grip. In July 1945, the Allied powers – the USSR, the United States and Britain – issued the Potsdam declaration, insisting on a complete surrender of the Imperial Japanese forces.
As Professor Gar Alperovitz, the principal expert on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks and author of the definitive works on the decision to use the bomb, notes that:
Long before the bombings occurred in August 1945—indeed, as early as late April 1945, more than three months before Hiroshima—U.S. intelligence advised that the Japanese were likely to surrender when the Soviet Union entered the war if they were assured that it did not imply national annihilation. An April 29 Joint Intelligence Staff document put it this way: “If at any time the U.S.S.R. should enter the war, all Japanese will realize that absolute defeat is inevitable.”
The Japanese government was already suing for peace, sending out overtures to the United States and the Soviet Union. The Japanese leadership was worried, not so much by the destruction of cities, but by the removal of the emperor-system should a surrender be negotiated. As early as April 1945, the Japanese government was approaching its main antagonists with proposals for terms of surrender. The United States, under then President Harry S Truman, knew full-well of these tentative proposals, and were aware of the sensitivity with which the Japanese regarded the preservation of the emperor.
Henry Stimson, then US Secretary of War, wrote that:
the true question was not whether surrender could have been achieved without the use of the bomb but whether a different diplomatic and military course would have led to an earlier surrender. A large segment of the Japanese cabinet was ready in the spring of 1945 to accept substantially the same terms as those finally agreed on.
Atomic bombings were militarily unnecessary but politically expedient
In an article for The Nation magazine, Professor Alperovitz stated that; “The War Was Won Before Hiroshima—And the Generals Who Dropped the Bomb Knew It”. That is the title of an informative article in which Alperovitz elaborates that the top American military leadership, fanatical conservatives in their political beliefs, were quite clear in their opinion about the atomic bombings – they were unnecessary and militarily futile. Alperovitz quotes the writings of Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff and the most senior American naval military officer on active service during World War Two. Leahy wrote in his memoirs that:
the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.… in being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.
It is interesting to note that Leahy, writing these words back in 1950, clearly resolved the ethical question surrounding the atomic bombings, an issue that Schmemann, writing for the New York Slimes in 2015, cannot.
Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, stated in a speech two months after the atomic attacks that “the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan…” General Henry Arnold, commander of the US Army air forces, stated in an interview that the Japanese military position was hopeless even before Hiroshima, and that the Japanese air force had lost control over its own skies. This was General Arnold’s statement only eleven days after the destruction of Hiroshima. General Dwight Eisenhower, later to become president, regretted the use of the atomic bomb, and expressed his misgivings when its use was being debated to then Secretary of War, Stimson. After the war was over, Eisenhower expressed the opinion that “it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
The bombing of Hiroshima, and Japanese cities in general, was very expedient politically. The United States had a long history of not only racism towards its indigenous nations, but also against any non-white nations generally. Anti-Japanese, and wider anti-Asian racism, was a deeply embedded features of American media and popular culture. Japan had emerged as an imperialist competitor at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, directly challenging the United States. The ‘yellow peril’ became a fixture in American cultural output. As Christian Appy, author of an article in The Nation magazine explains it:
American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of “yellow peril” racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of “savages” — “ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted the Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true “civilians” and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America’s willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, “The only good Jap is a Jap who’s been dead six months.”
As Appy elaborates, while the most virulent expressions of anti-Asian racism have diminished in the post-World War Two years, the idea that the atomic bombings saved lives, has not.
The entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific war
The USSR had agreed, at two international conferences with the western Allies, to enter the war against Japan in the event of the defeat of Germany in Europe. In May 1945, Germany surrendered, and three months later, the Soviet Union entered the war against Imperial Japan by invading the Japanese-occupied area of north-eastern China, Manchuria. Though this military invasion occurred in between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it had been planned well in advance, and the Soviets were also making preparations to invade the Japanese mainland.
Japan was facing a war on two fronts, its military forces already overstretched. The USSR brought with them not just military prowess and strength, but an ideological commitment to destroy the emperor system, overturn capitalistic relations in the areas they occupied, and implement a socialist system in tune with their political calculations, as the Soviet Army had done in Eastern Europe. Even the most hardline elements in the Japanese leadership knew that the war was all but lost with the entry of the USSR. Now it was a question of not whether it was feasible to continue the war, but what the best possible terms might be in any imminent surrender. In the meetings of the Japanese War Cabinet in 1945, it was recognised that if the USSR brought its full might to bear in the Asia-Pacific, the ability of the Imperial Japanese military to fight would be extinguished.
Japanese historian Yuri Tanaka, interviewed by ABC Radio’s North Asia correspondent Mark Carney, explained that the Soviets would have had no hesitation in overturning the emperor-system, changing the economic structures, and even killing members of the royal family. By August 1945, the Japanese ruling class had no choice but to surrender.
The Soviet Army smashed through the remaining Japanese formations in Manchuria in August 1945. But this was not the first time that the USSR and Japan had faced off – back in 1939, Japan, using Manchuria as a launching pad, began an annexationist war against the Soviet Union. In what was the largest tank battle in history up till that time, the Soviets decisively defeated the Imperial Japanese troops at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. From May until September 1939 the two antagonists fought it out in this this important, decisive, yet largely-forgotten theatre of war. Japan sued for peace with the USSR, and a peace treaty was signed in September 1939.
Japan’s leaders were aware that the Soviet contribution to the war effort would be strategically decisive. However, the political leaders in Tokyo were not the only ones aware of the Soviet Union’s aspirations and capabilities to realise them – the ruling class of the United States was also worried by the rise of an economic and military superpower. The bombing of Hiroshima, while less important that the participation of the Soviet Union in convincing Japan to surrender, was also an opening salvo of a long Cold war against a new ideological and economic enemy. Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Tokyo’s Temple University, stated that the atomic attacks were opening shots in the subsequent cold war, a demonstration of which power has the most destructive weapon in order to intimidate and coerce a post-World War Two political settlement favourable to their interests.
Emperor Hirohito remained in place after the surrender, and the American occupation of Japan resulted in the gradual rehabilitation of that country as a largely pro-western capitalist power in the Pacific, always under the watchful eye of the United States. Atomic diplomacy became a new reality, as the United States used its near-monopoly of nuclear weapons to threaten, coerce and cajole its rivals in its bid to become a supreme international power after the end of World War Two. Hiroshima was the start of atomic intimidation, directed not just at the Japanese ruling class, but also at the emergent Soviet Union. Greater numbers of historians, such as Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University in Washington, and Mark Selden, Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University, are recognising that the atomic bombings were not purely defensive and humanitarian gestures, but rather belligerent actions by an aggressor power intent on demonstrating its capacity for destruction.
A crime against humanity
The atomic bombings by the United States were part of its ruthless drive to extend its economic and military domination in the Pacific, demonstrating the same economic motivations, and contempt for human life, as their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo. The war planners in Japan have blood on their hands – the mass killings of Chinese in Shanghai, the mass murder and rape of civilians in Nanking, the coercion of women prisoners into sexual slavery, the death marches of malnourished and diseased war prisoners as they toiled in hard labour – these are not in dispute, nor are they being whitewashed. Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, must apologise for the crimes of the Japanese military and political command, and cease his efforts to sanitise these aspects of Japan’s war-time history. Abe’s push to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution so as to allow the deployment of Japanese troops overseas must be resisted.
The nuclear age, the age of atomic weaponry, has been constructed on an edifice of lies – that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima ushered in an era of peace. The Hiroshima bombing, and its counterpart in Nagasaki, underlie the mythological absurdity that atomic weapons bring peace and stability. The scramble by the imperialist states to build and stockpile nuclear weapons has only resulted in escalating tensions, and brought the risk of total annihilation of human (and planetary) life ever closer. Each geopolitical dispute can spiral into a cascade of out-of-control events, and the use of nuclear weapons becomes a realistic possibility. The Cold War, far from being a period of peace, was one of an armed truce. While the major imperialist states were largely unaffected by war, the non-white world of Asia, Africa and Latin America bore the brunt of inter-imperialist competition, suffering heavy loss of life in proxy wars of geopolitical rivalry.
The title of the current article comes from an article by Irish journalist Eamonn McCann – Hiroshima was a crime against humanity. McCann writes that the full horror of the Hiroshima bombing was first brought home to the English-speaking world by an Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett:
It wasn’t until the Australian Wilfred Burchett arrived as the first journalist to make it to Hiroshima that the aftermath of the explosion was described to a western audience: “I write this as warning to the world,” was his intro on page one of the Daily Express. He described in detail how he had walked through a hospital ward packed with people with their skin hanging in flaps from their bodies, eyes opaque, dying, but with no visible marks. There being no word for it yet, he wrote of “an atomic plague.”
The voice of the Irish Times is a welcome break from the usual Hiroshima apologia that is recycled on the anniversary of that event. More voices are being raised, asking the difficult questions about this attack. The numbers of the hibakusha – the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings – are dwindling, and their experiences and testimonies need to be circulated around the world to warn of the danger of nuclear weapons. Not only should the United States apologise for the gratuitous acts of mass murder committed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they should listen (as we all should) to the words of the mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui. In his remarks on the seventieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, he said:
Meanwhile, our world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and policymakers in the nuclear-armed states remain trapped in provincial thinking, repeating by word and deed their nuclear intimidation. We now know about the many incidents and accidents that have taken us to the brink of nuclear war or nuclear explosions. Today, we worry as well about nuclear terrorism.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, anyone could become a hibakusha at any time. If that happens, the damage will reach indiscriminately beyond national borders. People of the world, please listen carefully to the words of the hibakusha and, profoundly accepting the spirit of Hiroshima, contemplate the nuclear problem as your own.