Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hiroshima: New Questions about Old Rationalizations

Every year around the first of August, Ivy would bring a couple of well worn books to my office, a shawl, and a few articles to put on a table near the worship center on the first Sunday of August. “People need to remember the horror of nuclear weapons” she would say referring to the anniversaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. Ivy was a Japanese American woman, a natural born citizen of this country who had been interned with thousands of others during the Second World War. Every year some would complain that Ivy’s displays were inappropriate for a worship setting: “using those bombs saved thousands of lives,” some would say. Most passed the displays by without a glance. These are not days marked on the calendars of many U.S. citizens. Not remembering may be to our peril.

John Pilger certainly thinks so, and for a lot more reasons than Ivy brought her memorabilia to church. Ivy just wanted to remind us of the horror and suffering that the use of atomic weapons brought to Japan. Pilger, who has twice won British journalism’s highest award as Journalist of the Year, in Wednesday’s Guardian, challenges all of the rationalizations that we have learned in this country about the decision to use the bombs: use of the bombs shortened the war, saved thousands of U.S. soldiers’ lives, and perhaps saved thousands of Japanese lives as well.

On August 6, 1945 the nuclear weapon “Little Boy” was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. While Japan was still trying to comprehend this devastation three days later, the United States struck again, this time, dropping “Fat Man” on Nagasaki. According to
RERF (Radiation Effects Research Foundation), a cooperative Japan-US research organization, by the end of 1945 as many as 140,000 had been killed in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki, about half being killed on the day of the bombing. Since then, thousands more have died from injuries or illness caused by exposure to radiation released by the bombs. In both cities, the overwhelming majority of the dead were civilians.

According to Pilger, the first big lie about the bombings was that people had only been killed by the blast and not by radiation poisoning.
In the immediate aftermath of the bomb, the allied occupation authorities banned all mention of radiation poisoning and insisted that people had been killed or injured only by the bomb's blast. It was the first big lie. "No radioactivity in Hiroshima ruin" said the front page of the New York Times, a classic of disinformation and journalistic abdication...
The second, and according to Pilger “the most enduring”, lie is the old rationalization that the bombs were dropped to save lives that would be lost in an invasion when, in fact, the objective was not as much the unconditional surrender of Japan as it was to intimidate Russia.
"Even without the atomic bombing attacks," concluded the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946, "air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that ... Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

The National Archives in Washington contain US government documents that chart Japanese peace overtures as early as 1943. None was pursued. A cable sent on May 5, 1945 by the German ambassador in Tokyo and intercepted by the US dispels any doubt that the Japanese were desperate to sue for peace, including "capitulation even if the terms were hard". Instead, the US secretary of war, Henry Stimson, told President Truman he was "fearful" that the US air force would have Japan so "bombed out" that the new weapon would not be able "to show its strength". He later admitted that "no effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb". His foreign policy colleagues were eager "to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip". General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project that made the bomb, testified: "There was never any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and that the project was conducted on that basis." The day after Hiroshima was obliterated, President Truman voiced his satisfaction with the "overwhelming success" of "the experiment".

I don't know if Pilger's charge is true or not, but he clearly touches the nerve in the U.S. psyche in which we see ourselves as the unblemished "good guys" and that we used the nuclear weapons only as a last resort.

Pilger is not simply interested in the war over sixty years ago. He believes that these old unexamined rationalizations are bringing us to one of the most dangerous nuclear crises since 1945: the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran.

In defiance of UN resolutions, Israel is today clearly itching to attack Iran, fearful that a new American administration might, just might, conduct genuine negotiations with a nation the west has defiled since Britain and America overthrew Iranian democracy in 1953.
So, if you missed the opportunity to reflect on the catastrophe visited on Hiroshima on Monday, you have a chance on Saturday, the anniversary of dropping “Fat Man” on Nagasaki. What is needed may not be as much an exercise in “remembering” as in “futuring.” We may wish we had paid more attention to Ivy’s displays.

- Milo

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