In his remarks at Hiroshima, President Obama avoided delivering an outright apology for America’s use of atomic bombs to finally break the brutal war machine of Imperial Japan—a decision that won and ended a just war. Even so, the speech raises three unsettling issues.
First, the speech conveys the notion that World War II specifically—and war in general—are somehow thrust upon man, like some natural disaster or dread disease. The president talks about “a terrible force unleashed.” He says “violent conflict appeared with the very first man.” He speaks of the “possibility of catastrophe.”
In fact, war is a choice. War has a cause. World War II was caused by regimes that wanted to dominate the world and to eliminate peoples who were not like them. And because the West feared war more than it feared the designs of the Axis, because the West believed treaties and summits could constrain tyrants, because the West allowed its military and moral strength to atrophy, those regimes waged war.
It pays to recall that the West wanted to outlaw war. In 1927, the foreign minister of France proposed to the U.S. a treaty of perpetual peace between their two countries. The U.S. Secretary of State did him one better and proposed a general pact against war. Fifteen nations signed the founding document—Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Britain, India, the Irish Free State, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, and the United States. Sixty-two nations ultimately ratified the treaty. Of course, less than 12 years later, three of those original signatories—Japan, Germany, and Italy—would attack virtually all of the other original signatories.
As Theodore Roosevelt observed in 1914, “In time of crises peace treaties are worthless.”
With a whiff of moral relativism, the president blandly explained at Hiroshima that:
[The war] was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints…60 million people would die. Men, women, children, no different than us. Shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed, starved, gassed to death.
Note the passive tense. There’s no context about why the war was fought, why the war started, who started it or how it started, who was to blame.
Again, this war had a cause, a culprit. Men and nations made a premeditated choice to wage aggressive war against their neighbors.
Seeking out natural resources and an empire to supply them, Japanese armies swept through East Asia like locusts in the 1930s. Any doubts about Tokyo’s true intentions toward America and the world were put to rest in December 1937, when Japanese soldiers murdered 300,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking and attacked the USS Panay. The National Archives tells the story this way:
The Panay evacuated remaining Americans from Nanking on December 11, bringing the number of people on board to five officers, fifty-four enlisted men, four U.S. embassy staff, and ten civilians. The following day, while upstream from Nanking, Panay…came under attack from Japanese naval aircraft. On the Panay, three men were killed, and forty-three sailors and five civilians were wounded…Japanese officials maintained that their pilots never saw any American flags on the Panay. A U.S. Navy court of inquiry determined that several U.S. flags were clearly visible on the vessel during the attacks. The Japanese government admitted that the Japanese army strafed the Panay and its survivors after the navy airplanes had bombed it.
Washington failed to respond.
While Washington appeased Japan, London appeased Germany. Hitler’s unchallenged rearmament led to his unchallenged seizure of the Rhineland, which led to his takeover of Austria, which led to Munich, which ceded a large swath of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, which only whetted his appetite for war
“We have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road,” Churchill sighed, while the crowds celebrated Chamberlain.
Within a year of Munich, Hitler invaded Poland, officially commencing World War II. But as Japan had proved in Nanking, the war had been underway long before that. It took Washington two more years—and fully four years after the Panay attack—to grasp Japan’s obvious goals.
Winning the Peace
Second, President Obama’s speech at Hiroshima returns to one of his favorite themes—namely, that peace emerges as a result of nations and institutions pursuing it. For example, in his second inaugural, President Obama declared that we are “heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends,” that “we will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully,” that “engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
Likewise, at Hiroshima, he explained that “The United States and Japan have forged…a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war. The nations of Europe built a union that replaced battlefields with bonds of commerce and democracy. Oppressed people and nations won liberation. An international community established institutions and treaties that work to avoid war.”
There is nothing wrong with applauding peacemakers and seeking peace. But there is something fundamentally wrong with not understanding that those Americans who “won the peace” first defeated our enemies:
- Before Truman and Marshall conceived a plan to rebuild Western Europe and prevent Europe from sliding back into war or tyranny, the latter commanded the U.S. Armed Forces and the former vanquished two appalling regimes, then mapped out the global containment of another.
- Before he wrote a constitution for Japan guaranteeing equal rights, education reform, free speech, labor rights, and religious liberty, before he turned Japan from a militarist society ruled by a god-king into a nation with enduring levels of individual freedom, MacArthur waged and won a just war against Japan’s armies.
- Before he shepherded Germany back into the family of nations, before he presided over a partnership enfolding the Americas and Europe, Eisenhower breached Hitler’s Fortress Europe and led an army of armies into the heart of Germany to crush our enemy.
- Before men with names like Clay and LeMay rescued West Berlin with an armada of food- and coal-laden planes, they were killing Nazis.
In short, American and British soldiers liberated the “oppressed people and nations” of Europe and Asia and the Pacific. Europe built its union of “commerce and democracy” under the shield of American protection. Tojo and Hitler weren’t defeated by diplomats. West Berlin wasn’t sustained by State Department communiques. The West wasn’t protected from Stalin by ambassadors. Korea, Kuwait, and Kosovo weren’t freed by sit-ins. The Horn of Africa and Hormuz, the Sinai and South China Sea, are not kept open by international institutions.
Third, the visit itself is the apology. The wreath-laying, the embrace of survivors and family members, the call to “remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war”—all of these serve as an unspoken apology.
This is regrettable because, while war is terrible, while the atomic bomb is a terrible weapon, while World War II was the most terrible of all wars, the reality is that waging, winning and ending a just war does not require an apology, or a “look inward to take stock of who we are.”
Sadly, what seems to be required is a history lesson for the president’s speechwriters. I suggest Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms, the History Channel documentary X Day: The Invasion of Japan, and the excellent PBS documentary Victory in the Pacific.
Citing the military and political realities of summer 1945, Victory in the Pacific explains why the use of atomic bombs was morally justifiable in the grim calculus of World War II.
To begin, throughout the island campaigns of the Pacific, Japan’s goal was to bleed the U.S. in order to convince Washington that an invasion of the Japanese home islands was unthinkable. Okinawa was a preview of what would happen when American troops hit the beaches of Kyushu: an 82-day battle that claimed 70,000 Japanese soldiers, killed 12,000 Americans and left another 36,000 Americans wounded—all for a seven-mile-wide piece of rock.
With Okinawa weighing heavy on President Truman and his generals, they warily planned an invasion of Japan’s home islands, starting with Kyushu. The U.S. would land several hundred thousand men on Japan’s southernmost home island. Initial intelligence revealed that Japan had only three divisions defending the island; then intelligence suggested nine divisions, then 13.
If it came to defending the home islands, the Japanese high command planned a death fight to the end—a national suicide pact known as ketsu-go: 5,000 kamikaze warplanes, 1,300 kamikaze submarines, hundreds of “piloted bombs,” a civilian army trained to wage asymmetric war using bamboo spears and anti-tank satchel charges.
Using Okinawa as a baseline, the generals told President Truman to brace for 35 percent of America’s invasion force to be killed or wounded on Kyushu. “That works out to more than 200,000 casualties,” military historian Richard Frank explains. Plus, the U.S. would have to defeat Japan’s deployed forces on the Asian mainland. As Frank explains, the generals predicted, “We could be facing a score of Iwo Jimas or Okinawas across the Asian continent, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific,” translating into U.S. casualties of “somewhere between 600,000 and almost a million.” In the entire war, America lost 405,399 dead.
Given those casualty figures and casualty estimates, historian Conrad Crane argues, rightly, “There’s no way that any American president, faced with the expenditures that’s been put into the project, faced with the casualties in the Pacific, could not have used that bomb. What would have come out later if all of a sudden the invasion went in and had all these casualties, and American public found out later that, well, we had this super-bomb but we didn’t want to use it because we thought we were going to kill too many Japanese?”
Moreover, in this age of relative peace, we don’t understand what total war is. More people died from the conventional firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo (235,000) than from the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (210,000). Hopefully, prayerfully, we will never experience such horrors. The point of this comparison is not to dismiss the loss of so many civilians, but to underscore what Hitler and Tojo unleased on the world.
At Potsdam, the allies demanded Japan’s surrender “or face prompt an utter destruction.” President Truman warned, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
Yet the emperor of Japan responded to the first bomb not by surrendering or suing for peace, but by proposing a cessation of hostilities with numerous conditions: no U.S. occupation of Japan, Japan’s army would self-disarm, no war-crimes tribunals, the imperial system would remain as is.
Even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the emperor’s war cabinet was, incredibly, divided over ending the war. In fact, they debated for three days after Nagasaki. More telling, the ultra-militarist wing of Japan’s militarist government mounted a coup to try to prevent the emperor from broadcasting a surrender message by radio.
This was the regime America was fighting in the summer of 1945. The atomic bomb mercifully ended that regime—and the war Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany began.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to the digital and print editions of Providence.
Photo Credit: Soldiers from the U.S. Army 7th Division using flame throwers to attack a block house on Kwajalein Island on February 4, 1944. Rifles are ready in case the Japanese soldiers come out to attack. Source: Wikimedia Commons.