President Obama and the moral lessons learned at Hiroshima
WASHINGTON, May 28, 2016 – While on a state visit to Japan, President Obama visited Hiroshima, Japan where on August 6, 1945 then President Harry S. Truman ordered the uranium gun-type atomic bomb 15 kiloton nuclear bomb, Little Boy, to be dropped.
But the bombing of Hiroshima, and three days later at Nagasaki, were the end this conflict, not the beginning.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, a day President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy,” Japan’s Imperial Navy was engaged in a surprise attack on U.S. military installations in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
At Pearl Harbor, nineteen U.S. Navy ships were either sunk or damaged and more than 2,000 Americans killed. The weapon that proved so devastating that Sunday morning was the dishonest diplomacy of an enemy as, at that exact moment in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Cordell Hull was reading a list of peace proposals handed him by Japan’s Ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura and Special Envoy Saburō Kurusu.
When Hull’s reading was interrupted with word of Japan’s sneak attack, he told his dissembling guests,
“In all my fifty years of public service, I have never seen such a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehood and distortion.”
Adding to the lethality of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was the wishful thinking of a U.S. administration that believed peace could be secured by a simple piece of paper.
Bringing the true depths of Japan’s duplicity home, in 1999, Japanese historian Takeo Iguchi discovered a diary entry by a member of Japan’s general staff dated December 7, 1941, “Our deceptive diplomacy is steadily proceeding toward success.”
Even in retrospect, that sequence of events is amazing, as that piece of paper handed to Cordell Hull was being offered by an enemy that four years previously had perpetrated an atrocity that resonates to this day. For a period of six weeks in 1937, Japanese soldiers systematically murdered 300,000 civilians in the Chinese city of Nanking, committing an estimated 80,000 rapes along the way.
“Americans think of World War II as beginning on December 7, 1941, when Japanese carrier-based airplanes attacked Pearl Harbor,” writes historian Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking.
Chang notes that China’s
“… fourteen years of domination by the Japanese military were marked by countless incidents of almost indescribable ruthlessness. We will never know everything that happened in many cities and small villages that found themselves prostrate beneath the boot of this conquering force.”
Americans experienced that cruelty first hand after U.S. forces in the Philippines surrendered to Japan on May 6, 1942. Once disarmed, American and Filipino captives were forced to march 60 miles to prisoner of war camps.
In 2001, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher commemorated those Americans who eventually died in what we now call the “Bataan Death March”:
“They were beaten, and they were starved as they marched. Those who fell were bayoneted. Some of those who fell were beheaded by Japanese officers who were practicing with their samurai swords from horseback. The Japanese culture at that time reflected the view that any warrior who surrendered had no honor; thus was not to be treated like a human being. Thus they were not committing crimes against human beings.”
In the Japanese martial mindset, said Rohrabacher, their soldiers viewed the vanquished as “subhumans and animals.”
That fanaticism grew when American forces landed on the Japanese home island of Okinawa in early 1945. When the shooting stopped 82 days later, more than 12,500 Americans were dead, 40,000 wounded.
“One out of every three Americans ended up dead, wounded, or missing,” said President Harry Truman to his staff, adding that the horrors Americans endured on Okinawa gave him “some idea of what we had to do to defeat them.”
Truman knew an invasion of the Japanese mainland would be even bloodier. That daunting reality factored large in his decision to drop two atomic weapons on Japan. Hiroshima was the first city to experience the result of that decision.
After that devastating attack, Truman said:
“I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb … It is an awful responsibility which has come to us … We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
Sixteen hours after the bombing Harry S. Truman called for Japan’s surrender, warning them to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
The atomic bombings initially killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki. Many more died from radiation sickness to malnutrition in the coming months.
“The wars of the modern age teach us this truth,” said Obama during his visit this week to Japan, who went on to state:
“Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of the atom requires a moral revolution as well.”
His comments echoed those he spoke while in the Czech Republic shortly after assuming the U.S. presidency:
“I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
But Obama failed to note on either occasion that the attack on Hiroshima was ultimately provoked, nor did he mention the original duplicity of the Japanese government as the underpinning of World War in the Pacific theater.
Truman’s justification for America’s use of this deadly weapon was saving lives, and not just American lives. Very few Americans who fought in the Pacific during World War II disagreed with Truman’s decision. His aim was to destroy vitally important military and industrial targets that continued to enable the fanatical Japanese generals to continuing fighting on regardless of the cost in human life on either side.
The bombing of Hiroshima was directed at military and industrial targets. The seaport city of Nagasaki had less of a military presence, but again housed key heavy industries that contributed in a major way to continuing Japanese military might. A Wikipedia entry notes that in Nagasaki,
“Of 7,500 Japanese employees worked inside the Mitsubishi Munitions plant. Including mobilized students and regular workers, 6,200 of them were killed.
“Some 17,000–22,000 others who worked in other war plants and factories in the city died as well. Casualty estimates for immediate deaths vary widely, ranging from 22,000 to 75,000. In the days and months following the explosion, more people died from bomb effects.
“Because of the presence of undocumented foreign workers, and a number of military personnel in transit, there are great discrepancies in the estimates of total deaths by the end of 1945; a range of 39,000 to 80,000 can be found in various studies.”
Obama observed that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first jarring steps in a “moral revolution” But what he failed to note was that this was a moral revolution, led by the United States, that was geared toward defeating the aims of a militarist Japan whose ultimate aim was to take over the world.