Just before his last Memorial Day as President of the United States, President Obama visited Hiroshima, Japan. He was the first U.S. president to do so since that fateful day in 1945. Although he did not explicitly apologize for the bombs that put an end to the Second World War, he essentially did. He could have visited the city after his term expires, as a private citizen, and that would have been far more responsible. But to make the remarks he did while visiting as President was a mistake.
He said, “[W]e have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”
He’s partially right. It’s a good exercise for world leaders to remember those horrific bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to learn critical lessons from them. But the President and I disagree on the lessons to be learned. Where he laments President Truman’s decision to drop those bombs, I understand that in the context of the war, and with the information he had, President Truman made the best decision he could have. Where President Obama believes that the best way to ensure it doesn’t happen again is to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without [nuclear weapons],” I understand that the lessons are that those bombs immediately saved lives and continue to save lives today, and that we must ensure the U.S. nuclear deterrent is adapted to meet modern security threats so that our enemies never force us to employ a nuclear weapon again.
The United States owes no apology for President Truman’s employment of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blame rests squarely with the Japanese Imperialists, agents of some of history’s worst brutality and human suffering.
These words are not written lightly.
Nuclear weapons are the world’s most devastating, terrifying weapons. The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 100,000 men, women, children—and ten American prisoners of war. Not only do nuclear weapons cause massive devastation, the psychological impact they have on those who survive is hard to fathom.
Indeed, it was so impactful it compelled the Japanese Imperialists to finally, finally sue for peace.
When many Americans think of World War II they think of the horrors of Germany’s Hitler, the concentration camps, the extermination of Jews and Gypsies. So why didn’t the United States nuke Hitler’s Germany? This is a question often asked by those implying that President Truman’s decision to nuke Japan was motivated, at least in part, by racism. But the first test of a nuclear bomb took place in July 1945, two months after the Nazi surrender. It wasn’t as if the Allies held back against the Nazis. The Allied firebombing campaign against Dresden certainly provides evidence that if the Nazis had been on the offense, rather than having thrown in the towel at the time Truman was testing nuclear weapons, they certainly could have been on the receiving end of the Bomb.
But it was not to be. Instead, it was the equally brutal and merciless Japanese Imperialists who would be the one and only—so far—people to experience the horrors of a nuclear attack. President Obama, referring to those who died at Hiroshima, said “Those who died, they are like us.” Oh, but they were very different than us in critical ways.
But in remembering Hitler, we cannot forget Japan. It killed an estimated 14 million Chinese citizens in its invasion of China. And during the course of that invasion, its forces acted much like Hitler’s SS, conducting mass-scale rapes, grotesque human experimentation, and enslaving countless men, women, and children. Japan’s rank-and-file military fought with a ferocity matched on the European Theater of Operations only by Hitler’s most dedicated fanatics. Japan’s troops fought to the last man, and when its military plight grew increasingly desperate, it launched a suicide-bombing campaign that dwarfs anything ISIS or al-Qaeda have ever imagined, much less attempted. Even many Japanese civilians demonstrated that they’d rather die than surrender—throwing themselves off cliffs to escape American forces.
Not only did they throw themselves over cliffs, as Richard Frank’s book, entitled Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, details that when faced with surrender to the United States, to the shock and horror of our Marines, mothers threw their children over cliffs as well.
This was an enemy who experienced, like the Germans, the merciless firebombing campaigns that ignited desperate fleeing men, women, and children. Richard Frank’s Downfall provides a description of the devastation after the firebombing campaign against Tokyo from Captain Shigenori Kubota, a teacher in the Imperial Japanese Army Medical School and commander of the school’s Number One Rescue Unit:
The entire river surface was black as far as the eye could see, black with burned corpses, logs, and who knew what else, but uniformly black from the immense heat that had seared its way through the area as the fire dragon passed. It was impossible to tell the bodies from the logs at a distance. The bodies were all nude, the clothes had been burned away, and there was a dreadful sameness about them, no telling men from women or even children. All that remained were pieces of charred meat. Bodies and parts of bodies were carbonized and absolutely black.
And yet, the Imperialists did not relent.
In our effort to stop Japan, an aggressor that prompted the U.S. entry into the war with those attacks at Pearl Harbor, the United States prepared to invade the Japanese mainland.
In 1945 my own paternal grandfather was on a troop ship on his way to invade. Likewise, my husband’s maternal grandfather was stationed in the Philippines awaiting his orders to invade.
As outlined in a powerful USA Today column penned by the nephew of Maj. Tom Ferebee, the bombardier aboard the Enola Gay:
For months before the bombing, the War Department had been preparing for an invasion of Japan, the planning for which included casualty figures. The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated as many as 134,556 dead and missing Americans. A study for the office of War Secretary Henry Stimson put the figure at400,000 to 800,000 dead GIs, with Japanese fatalities reckoned between 5 million to 10 million military personnel and civilians. In addition to combat casualties, the more than 27,000 American POWs held by Japan were subject to immediate execution should the U.S. invade.
Had President Truman opted to invade rather than drop those bombs, surely our grandfathers would have been among the dead, and so would many of the fathers and grandfathers of millions of contemporary Americans. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives and ended the war that had already claimed roughly 400,000 Americans.
The challenge for the United States today is to ensure we never experience a war on the scale of the Second World War again. Notably, there has yet to be one since then. While hard to measure, those bombs have had the effect of deterring large scale war and nuclear powers from unleashing the power of the atom. Provided President Obama’s weak and aimless foreign policy, and the increasingly common nuclear threats from Russia and nuclear brinksmanship in North Korea, many have wondered how we have managed to avoid witnessing nuclear use over the last several years? The answer, I think, is that we are still benefiting from the legacy of the Truman administration. Because of it the world knows the power of those bombs, and the willingness of the United States of America to protect its people.
The challenge today is not to summon the courage to see a world without nuclear weapons. That is a naïve, impossible, and I would strongly argue—a dangerous goal. Even President Obama has some understanding of this. It is why after Russia invaded Ukraine and pursued a robust nuclear modernization plan President Obama dropped his plan to unilaterally cut U.S. nuclear weapons. It is why President Obama, in spite of enormous pressure from arms control groups to eschew nuclear modernization plans, worked with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to pay a hefty price tag to modernize the deterrent and commit to all three legs of the triad.
Rather than pursuing global nuclear disarmament, the goal should be to preserve peace and deter the use of weapons of mass destruction. This means the United States must ensure we adapt our nuclear force so that our enemies know we continue to be willing to employ it in the defense of our people and our allies. Speaking of allies, it is worth noting in the context of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the shadow of WWII, that rather than wanting the United States to disarm, the Japanese want nuclear assurances from the United States that in the event they are attacked with a nuclear weapon, we would respond with overwhelming nuclear force. As recalled in Dr. Keith Payne’s 2009 Strategic Studies Quarterly essay on Deterrence and Assurance, “Then Japanese defense minister Fumio Kyuma was explicit regarding the nuclear requirements of extended deterrence. ‘The strongest deterrence would be when the United States explicitly says, ‘If you drop one nuclear bomb on Japan, the United States will retaliate by dropping 10 on you.’”
As I have outlined in a previous Providence essay, the force should not be designed to target civilians. Given the lessons of the extent of the carnage caused by nuclear weapons, few would argue that the United States would ever again employ nuclear weapons that would cause so many civilian casualties. It is because of this—because of the character of the American people—that threatening to target areas near civilian populations would not be a credible threat. Moreover, to deter an enemy, the United States must hold at risk targets that the enemy values. Many U.S. adversaries, like North Korea, value their own populations less than the United States values them, and so holding them at risk is both contrary to American values and incredible for deterrence purposes.
The U.S. nuclear force must remain large enough and diverse enough to provide any American president with a spectrum of options. It should be flexible, resilient, and able to hold at risk all current and potential enemies’ regime and military centers of gravity. It means, among other things, we need to invest in modernizing the force, so that our delivery systems can strike with greater precision and with options of minimal nuclear yields. This, combined with the willingness to do whatever is necessary to protect and defend the lives and livelihoods of the American people is the surest way to prevent another World War and another Hiroshima.
The next President of the United States would do our country and the world a great service by explaining this clearly—and rather than making such a speech from Japan, perhaps he or she should do it from the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is a contributing editor for Providence and a fellow at the Hudson Institute, where she provides research and commentary on a range of security issues and specializes in deterrence and counter-proliferation. You can follow Rebeccah on Twitter at @RLHeinrichs.
Photo Credit: President Obama participates in the welcome ceremony at the Imperial Palace during his state visit to Tokyo, Japan, on April 24, 2014. By U.S. State Department via Flickr.