Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the single greatest acts of terrorism in human history?

by Akil Awan | (The New Statesman) – –

Surely 70 years is long enough for us to put to rest the tired canard of the atomic bombings on Japan being “the lesser of the two evils”, and recognise the true gravity of this crime against humanity.

Seventy years ago today, the Unites States dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a second nuclear weapon, “Fat man”, was dropped over Nagasaki. To date, these are the only nuclear attacks in the history of human warfare.

The devastation caused by this new weapon was terrifying. The shockwave instantaneously obliterated almost everything within the blast radius. Houses, buildings and trees were levelled to the ground, as if they had been constructed of mere paper. The toll on the cities’ hapless inhabitants was even more dreadful, with the bombs claiming as many as 250,000 lives – the overwhelming majority civilian.

h/t Wikipedia.

Around half the number died on the day of the bombings. The intense heat and pressure of the nuclear reaction wrought unspeakable horror on the soft bodies of the victims in its path – their blood rapidly boiling inside them, before leaving them as dried husks that crumbled to ash.

Shadows of people were etched onto walls and pavements, eerily marking the spot they had been standing only moments before incineration. Subsequent pressure waves squeezed the survivors until their internal organs ruptured inside them. Those who survived the initial explosion succumbed to their dreadful injuries over the following days, or developed strange new illnesses from radiation exposure in the bomb’s aftermath.

It is difficult to survey the carnage and devastation, even in the cold light of day 70 years later, and not be appalled at this flagrant crime against humanity. The key justifications for the bombings still rest on the fallacy that they were necessary to end the war in the Pacific, representing the lesser of the evils. Apologists for the bombs claim the only alternative would have involved a protracted ground offensive that would have proved too costly for the Allies.

The somewhat racialised argument goes that the Japanese adhered to a “bushido” warrior ethic of sacrifice, considered surrender to be dishonourable, and were committed to the notion of “total war”, in which every man, woman and child would be mobilised for war, armed with rudimentary bamboo spears if need be. In other words, the Japanese, having rejected all opportunities to surrender, had vowed to fight to the bitter end. Consequently the planned invasion of Japan, Operation Downfall, would have resulted in much higher casualty figures. The US anticipated losing up to 1m US soldiers during the invasion, alongside another 10m Japanese deaths.

However, none of this cold calculation detracts from the fact that the bombings were indisputably heinous acts of state terrorism, fitting the standard definition almost perfectly: the use or threat of violence against civilians, to instil fear and achieve a political goal. Indeed, the Secret Target Committee in Los Alamos proposed that the large population centres of Kyoto or Hiroshima should be deliberately targeted for the “greatest psychological effect,” and to ensure the bombs’ “initial use was sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognised”.

Incidentally, this curious phrasing also points to the true targets of the bombs – the Soviet Union. This atomic diplomacy was effectively a display of strength and a warning to Stalin, representing the opening salvos of the Cold War.

The selection of the cities to be bombed was also more akin to a scientific experiment, rather than a purely strategic military calculation. The nominated cities had thus far been left deliberately untouched during the regular nightly bombing raids, in order to accurately assess the full capacity and damage inflicted by the atomic bombs.

The decision to use the bombs was also predicated on racist and dehumanising attitudes towards the Japanese. The Japanese were frequently depicted as “yellow vermin”, “living snarling rats” or “monkeys”. Indeed, the dehumanisation was such that the mutilation of Japanese soldiers became widespread. US servicemen frequently removed ears, teeth and skulls as grisly war trophies. Even President Roosevelt was infamously sent a letter opener carved from a Japanese bone by a US congressman. It was easier to drop inhumane weapons on those who were not really human to begin with.

But perhaps the greatest condemnation of the bombings is that they were unnecessary on the eve of the inevitable Allied victory, as the 1946 United States Strategic Bombing Survey later concluded. The Japanese were militarily exhausted and on the verge of defeat at this stage. In addition to staggering casualty figures, and extensive devastation of infrastructure through the aerial bombardment and firebombing campaigns, the naval blockade codenamed Operation starvation had also completely crippled the wartime economy.

Yes, unconditional surrender was publicly rejected by Japan’s leaders. However, privately, they were also making desperate entreaties to the then neutral Soviet Union, to mediate peace on more favourable terms. The Japanese would also have been keenly aware that the collapse of Nazi Germany had worrying implications for the redeployment of Allied forces.

The “betrayal” by the Soviets, who declared war on Japan on 9 August, just before Nagasaki was bombed, was the final straw. The Soviet army quickly defeated the Japanese in Chinese Manchukuo, crushing any vestige of hope that Japan might survive the conflict intact.

There is little disagreement that the atomic bombings constituted war crimes, even amongst its architects. As the US Secretary of Defence, Robert S. McNamara, famously reflected: “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

Surely 70 years is long enough for us to put to rest the tired canard of the lesser of the two evils, and recognise the true gravity of this crime against humanity.

Dr Akil N. Awan is associate professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is on Twitter @Akil_N_Awan.

Republished from The New Statesman with the author’s permission.

22 Responses

  1. “There is little disagreement that the atomic bombings, constituted war crimes, even among its architects…..”

    Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz – who disagreed on many things – concurred in their moral opposition to dropping an atom bomb on a civilian population center – and MacArthur stated that it was against the moral code he was taught as a military officer.

  2. It was not necessary to kill half a million to save several million. But the people who made the decision may not have known that at the time. It’s easier to analyze after the fact than to make decisions in war-time. Truman and his team may have believed they were doing best thing.

    • Gar Alperowitz’s classic Atomic Diplomacy makes clear that those making the decision did know it was contrived to show the Soviet Union who was boss. Those who ordered the Hiroshima and Nagasaki crimes of state terror did not do so to “save several million.”

  3. That the bombings were a crime against humanity were never in doubt, but I had never thought of it as an act of terror. I never knew there were other options to end the war. This was the ultimate racial hate crime. How could the Japanese people ever forgive America?

  4. NR

    Absolutely! By non other than the “guardian” of human rights! #TIP report

  5. Evert van Kuijk

    The Japanese people suffered immensely under the aggressive stupidity of their own military. True, ‘Hiroshima’ is a case in itself.

  6. As far as I can see, all sides in all wars commit atrocities. Possibly one cannot commit to war without dehumanising the enemy. The A-bomb attacks were part of a series of very large scale attacks on civilians by several countries. Each attack always justifies its retaliation on the universally accepted ground that two wrongs make a right. The main difference between a nuclear attack and a conventional major firebombing attack is that the former needs only one bomb. But Tokyo was pretty well completely destroyed by conventional weapons.

  7. Anything is possible, but all the evidence slowly accumulated over the years points to the fact that everyone in power knew that Japanese surrender was imminent , especially after the Russian declaration of war. On the other hand, far more civilians were killed in the horrific firebombings (Tokyo, Dresden, etc.) by the allies for the same political , terrorist purpose. The real horror was not the numbers so much as the launching of the age of weapons of mass destruction aimed at civilian populations.

  8. “As the US Secretary of Defence, Robert S. McNamara, famously reflected: “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.””

    I had thought that quote was about the entire war. It wasn’t just the atomic bombing that was a crime against humanity. There were some in the UK who wanted to prosecute the U-boat commanders, but were stopped when the Yanks pointed out that what the Germans had tried to do to the UK is what the USN had done to Japan.

    That’s the true horror of any major war, the nations involved will end up breaking any ‘rules’ in order to win, or survive. It happens in minor wars too, just look at what GW Bush ordered in Iraq; torture in the prisons and collective punishment in cities like Fallujah.

    If you think you’re being attacked, it’s a simple matter to convince yourself that anything that you can use to defend yourself with is allowed, and damnable when the other side does a similar thing.

  9. The idea that Japan was about to surrender is what needs to be put to rest. There was no peace faction in the Army, and the Army controlled everything. Army hardliners were still trying to keep the war going after the atomic bombs. Fanatic officers even tried to seize Hirohito’s surrender announcement, showing that even the surrender was a fragile thing.

    But the main hypocrisy in all this is that the leftist alternative to either nukes or invasion is a blockade. This from the very leftists who now denounce the economic sanctions that the US slaps on everybody as barbaric. If our sanctions killed 400,000 Iraqis without Saddam Hussein surrendering, then how many Japanese would have died during the winter of 1945-46?

    Meanwhile, North Korea stands as mute testimony as to how determined a country can be with the world against it. 62 years and counting. Mass starvation (supposedly), endless terrorism, a nuclear weapons program. No signs that they’re about to surrender. No one ever brings that up in these Hiroshima arguments.

    • The historiography shows that the Japanese were so alarmed by the approach of Russia that they were in fact on the verge of surrendering.

      • Historiography shows that the Japanese were more concerned about the Russian entrance into the war. However, that in no way threatened the home islands. I have read quite a bit on this subject and have not seen evidence that the Russian action in Manchuria was bringing the Japanese to surrender. What it meant in practical terms is that they were going to lose the land war in China and Korea. Those troops wouldn’t have figured in the defense of the home islands anyway since there was no more Japanese Navy or merchant marine to transport them.

    • Ditto, super390. Truly, how could Japan have been ‘ready to surrender?’ Even following the second bomb 3 days later, the emperor still needed to persuade the army AND put down a coup before announcing surrender Aug 15. The demands of the Allies were well known to Japan prior to Aug 6. There should have been little to consider before waiving the white flag. Even after 70 years, the debate is important, but sadly the author ignores inconvenient facts.

  10. The Japanese committed war crimes on a large scale in China/Manchuria and other territories the conquered, not to mention the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. I figure the immoral equivalency is about even. Bottom line: The Japanese failed to observe an important fact: Don’t start something you can’t finish.

    • The point is that the US *claims* to be morally superior and denies any wrongdoing in the atomic bombings.

  11. This article, to me, is propaganda since it works from a conclusion backwards and presents only one side without any consideration of the other. One thing is that we will never know for sure because the role of the Emperor is still up for debate. After the surrender and before the occupation, the lord chamberlain for the
    Emperor burned many documents relating to the Emperor’s involvement and his role in the government. It is now generally recognized that the picture of the Emperor as an apolitical figurehead was an invention by MacArthur in order to allow for an effective occupation. The reason this is important is that if, indeed, it was the emperor who was critical in the decision to surrender, then the outlook and analysis is much different than if he was a tool of the military. See the biography of Hirohito by Blix I believe is the author. Over the years i have gone back and forth on this issue myself and I don’t see it as all one way or another. While the estimates of US casualties were definitely overblown, I have little doubt that the casualties on the Japanese side would have been at least as high, if not higher, for the Japanese in the case of invasion. One need only to look at what happened in Okinawa. On that island alone over 100,000 Japanese died, many via suicide. While i believe a blockade would have also been a viable option, I think the suffering of the Japanese people as a whole would have ultimately been greater. Finally, let’s not forget the absolute horrors the Japanese visited upon the areas they conquered. In the Nanking massacre alone, they killed more civilians than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. If it weren’t for the Nazis, the Japanese in World War II would probably be considered the greatest war criminals of all time. And, unlike the Germans, they have resisted taking responsibility for many of their actions. While one wrong does not excuse another, this article is so one sided, that it needs to be put in context. I am not anti-Japanese, having spent two years there and I found the Japanese to be friendlier and kinder than the American service people there. But what they did during the war was inexcusable and barbaric and this author gives the impression that he wants to whitewash that.

  12. The Japanese army ion the Asian mainland (I read recently) had orders to massacre all the inhabitants of their labour and POW camps if they lost.
    The bombs crushed the Japanese so thoroughly this was avoided. A blockade would have meant the torture (since they would have had the time to express themselves freely in their special way) and death of these 1000s of military personnel and non-combatants .
    If that was the alternative then it’s hard to feel bad for the Japanese.

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