Sunday, September 11, 2005

Racing the Enemy

A month ago we observed the 60th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I saved some articles and started recently to look them over. Most of the articles express the opinion that the longstanding controversy over Hiroshima has finally been resolved by a new book entitled Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. The author, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa of the University of California, Santa Barbara, finds that the atom bomb contributed little to Japan's defeat and may have actually encouraged Japan to continue fighting.

This is such an important issue that I'd like to review some of the newest findings on both sides of the controversy, briefly -- and that is the best I can offer, not yet having read Hasegawa's book. But I will also offer my own perspective. It's worth saying right off the bat that I regard the U.S. as having committed a war crime in Japan 60 years ago -- but I also want to say that leaving it at that would miss much of what was wrong about the whole story of Japan's defeat.

Hasegawa wins much of my confidence because he is Japanese-American, and because his book seems to be the first large work to make great use of the Soviet archives. This is, in short, the most internationalist perspective we've yet had. But let's leave these general considerations: Hiroshima was also a specific event, and Hasegawa builds his conclusion from specific data. His book is called a nearly hour-by-hour account, and such a narrative is likely to deliver a precise picture of what the Japanese leaders were talking about among themselves and in external communication, which in turns allows us some entry into how and when they formed their thoughts or changed their decisions. Hasegawa finds little evidence that the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb on August 6, 1945 changed very much at the top levels of the Japanese government. He finds that the Soviet attack on Japanese forces two days later did bring about an urgency among Japan's leaders to consider surrender. It did not change their minds, strictly speaking. The top six leaders were still evenly divided, even after the Nagasaki bomb on August 9th, over the question of how many conditions they would demand that the Allies accept along with Japan's surrender. But upon learning of the Soviet attack, they did call a special session to review surrender options, with one faction now urgently fighting for a surrender that placed only one condition upon the Allies, namely that the Emperor be allowed to remain on his throne. It was the new crisis, and the inability of the leadership to resolve it, that prompted Emperor Hirohito to make an unprecedented intervention in the affairs of state. He chose surrender.

This general picture has long been known: Hasegawa's great contribution is said to be his study of the Soviet archives. Hasegawa emphasizes two things: the extent to which Japan had placed its remaining hopes on gaining Soviet diplomatic mediation; and the fear that the Japanese had of Soviet occupation. It's never been a secret that Japan sought Soviet help in winning more lenient surrender terms from the U.S., but Soviet archives would tell us more about the extent to which Japanese leaders counted on this dialogue and did or did not retain other hopes. The Soviet declaration of war upon Japan was, in this context, a devastating crisis to Japan's leaders. It eliminated the hope of Soviet mediation, crippled the military's hope of facing and repelling an invasion by America alone, and threatened all of Japan with communist occupation (or the possibility of an internal rebellion).

One of the few articles I have which defend the Hiroshima decision is Richard B. Frank's "Why Truman Dropped the Bomb", from the August 8th issue of The Weekly Standard. A few years ago Frank wrote an excellent book, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, and I would offer his arguments as the best remaining ones for the traditional understanding that the atomic bombs were a necessary evil which ended a still larger evil -- and by the latter he means the war, but particularly Japan's continued occupation of Asia. Frank, too, makes significant use of newly opened archives, in this case from Japan and the U.S. His work reveals many of the things wrong with the most critical views of the Hiroshima decision.

One example concerns what American leaders said in the years after the war about the decision to drop the Bomb. Critics correctly noted that the postwar testimonies by Truman and other wartime leaders involved in the Manhattan Project were incomplete, but Frank notes that these men were all sworn not to publicly discuss the secret intelligence that they had received, or the conclusions that they'd derived specifically from that intelligence. In fact much of what they kept to themselves would have argued in their favor. From newly declassified documents we now know that Japan's buildup of troops on the main islands, in anticipation of an Allied invasion, was much larger than the Hiroshima debate has yet imagined: critics have long wanted to emphasize that Japan was essentially defeated before the Bomb, while the mainstream histories have been working without the benefit of the newly opened archives. The build-up was so large that a numerical advantage to the attackers -- necessary for any successful invasion -- could not be guaranteed, and thus the invasion plan had lost critical support within the U.S. military by July 1945. In Frank's view the invasion would never have taken place; it had become unthinkable. So the traditional view that Hiroshima saved countless American boys from perishing in an invasion is wrong -- but the new information means that Truman and the men around him saw themselves as having few options.

Frank also emphasizes that newly opened Japanese files indicating Japan's determination not to negotiate altogether outnumber the few documents, opened decades ago, which indicate a willingness to consider surrender. To my mind, the best argument against Hasegawa's view that the Soviet attack prompted surrender is that the top six leaders were still deadlocked after Nagasaki: the war ended when the Emperor intervened. The Bomb was the excuse given by Hirohito when he ordered the recalcitrant military to surrender immediately on whatever terms could be had; and it was the excuse they accepted. As Frank argues, it saved them face to know, or to say, that they'd been beaten by science and not due to any lack of martial prowess or spiritual vigor.

The chief problem with Frank's recent article, however, is that he does not mention Hasegawa's book or its findings concerning the Soviet archives. An argument must do more than stand on its own; it must also deal satisfactorily with the best counter-arguments. Frank's article does not do this.

When I think of Hiroshima, I cannot help reflecting on a passage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which deals with just war teaching:

Item 2314
Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.

For most of my life I have held the traditional view that the Bomb ended a just war. Without getting into the question of whether the war against Japan was a just one, I can say that there's little question in my mind that the U.S. was racing the Soviet Union to the occupation of Japan and to a dominance in atomic weapons. This is part of what Hasegawa means by the phrase, "Racing the Enemy," and I see no reason to disagree. It is widely acknowledged that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. competed with each other over the spoils of war in Europe; they did so again after the Soviet attack on Japanese forces, with American and Russian soldiers meeting in the heart of Korea, to terrible effect in later years.

Newly opened Soviet archives reveal that Stalin moved up the date of his planned attack on Japan when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, for fear that Japan would surrender too quickly. Enough documents from the American side suggest a similar anxiety among the leaders in Washington. To all appearances, the U.S. and the Soviet Union both pounced on an essentially defeated enemy. And both committed war crimes in the process.

It's here that the articles praising Hasegawa's book have failed to give perspective. Hasegawa does: he emphasizes what has tended to be ignored, namely that the Soviet Union continued fighting Japan up to 23 days after the surrender. This is plainly unjustified aggression, and the destruction it brought about was vast. Frank reports in Downfall that Stalin’s brief incursion into Japanese-occupied China and Korea resulted in mass imprisonment and the eventual deaths of 347,000 people, two-thirds of them civilians. I would add that Stalin installed a repressive regime in North Korea and gave the go-ahead to Kim Il Sung's invasion of South Korea, from which 3 million deaths resulted. Even sticking with Frank's figure, we're talking about a loss of life somewhat larger than what the atom bombs exacted.

Downfall tries also to account for the deaths under Japanese occupation: by one estimate, 100,000 people were dying per month by the end of the war. With this accounted for, finally, we can say we have a truly international perspective. (And probably Hasegawa comes closest). To understand Hiroshima it is necessary to argue that Japan, in relation to the U.S., was essentially already defeated before the Bomb. But the U.S., U.S.S.R. and Japan all were committing war crimes at the conclusion of World War II. Perhaps saying so takes the sting out of any indictment of the Hiroshima bomb: but this would only happen if such a complete perspective were allowed to degenerate into the view that, "Well, everybody was doing it, so what's the big deal?" If we can avoid that sort of thinking, a complete accounting of the crimes and suffering is desirable, indeed necessary.

A final note: the best movie I've seen about this issue is a 3-hour Canadian-Japanese film that was produced for HBO in time for the 50th anniversary, when I first saw it, and simply entitled Hiroshima. (I have a review of it at Amazon). Dess and I saw it last week, and it prompted a very good discussion -- without our old fights. I seem to have changed in my views of war over the last few years, and I don't doubt that my marriage to Dess has much to do with it. But that, as well as my treatments of the Just War doctrine and what it can tell us about certain famous wars, will have to wait for later posts.


Anonymous Ryan said...

I had planned on rebuking your post, but, not having read the sources which delve into the archives, I find myself unable to quarrel with anything you have written. I also find myself in agreement, though I would characterize it a bit differently. I do not think the “U.S.” committed war crimes. One cannot indict a country as a war criminal. I think Truman committed a war crime, and perhaps some members of his administration. I presume you agree. I am wondering, then, if you regard Churchill as a war criminal for the intentional bombing of German civilians, particularly in Dresden. I certainly regard him as such.

September 22, 2005 11:59 PM  
Blogger Kevin Rosero said...

You raise a large issue that I can't answer briefly.

I agree that people rather than nations can be indicted for war crimes.

Now Churchill -- that brings up the question of all the Allied bombing campaigns, including the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, and the American participation in Dresden and in other attacks on German cities. Sometimes I come up with ways to distinguish them morally, but in general terms, what the Allied air forces did in Europe and what they did in Japan are very much alike.

As intentional mass bombardments of civilians, the bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and Hiroshima were all war crimes -- despite the justness of the overall war. The problem I run into is what we mean when we call anyone a war criminal as opposed to saying that someone committed a war crime. We sometimes designate certain leaders with the label "war criminal" as an easy way to lump them with people we also call monsters, such as Hitler or Pol Pot. But I think it can be argued cogently that Churchill and Roosevelt did positive, even heroic things, along with mistakes, and still more things, such as crimes. So I would say that Churchill and Roosevelt committed war crimes, and that they may legally be designated as war criminals, but that such a phrase would be incorrect to define their entire careers or legacies. Even in ordinary life, a man can commit a crime, sometimes a very serious one, and still do many good things. One crime, even a monstrously destructive one like Hiroshima, does not define a person, if there are other things to consider of comparable weight. Because we have invested government with power (the means to coerce violently), we will have leaders, perhaps no better or worse on the moral scales than the ordinary person, who can be responsible for many deaths, as well as many lives saved.

The cultural term "war criminal", as used to mean someone who should never have been let into office, or should be driven from office, and preferably sent to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, I have serious problems with. But the legal designation of "war criminal" as somone who has committed a war crime, I do adopt.

Of course, even then serious differences exist between an atrocity like Hiroshima and one like the Holocaust. The existence of ANY good intention or mitigating circumstance is significant, and ordinary courts judge ordinary citizens in the light of such questions, too. The Holocaust had no positive intentions or mitigating circumstances, whereas I have no doubt that Truman wanted to end the war, that he believed the atomic bomb would help to do so, and that the war was just. All these things have to be argued and not assumed, but I think excellent arguments can be made.

Does this mean that Truman killed hundreds of thousands of people as an innocent error? Well, if he had nothing but good intentions and the war was perfectly just, I would acquit him of having committed a war crime; the domestic equivalent would be condemning him for manslaughter rather than murder. But first of all, this was no accident: Truman knew that he was targeting civilians. Even in a just war this must be considered wrong -- not just a mistake, but an act to be judged according to its resultant destruction, which in this case was immense, premeditated, and without warning.

Furthermore, the president and some of his subordinates had motives other than the preservation of life. Competition with the Soviet Union was one. Revenge for Pearl Harbor was another. Revenge is bad enough in itself, without noting the awful disparity between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. Did the U.S. leadership, furthermore, demand unconditional surrender of Japan as a way to prolong the war and drop the Bomb? These are terribly serious questions, even if a legal court may not be capable of judging them all.

More generally, Allied leaders can be indicted for not respecting human life sufficiently as to question even their best assumptions, for instance their belief that the atomic bomb would help to end the bloodshed of American soldiers.

I'm not responding to you particularly when I talk about how the phrase "war criminal" is used in highly politicized discourse; it's just something I think needs addressing.

A final question I want to raise is whether people can be judged in our legal courts, or courts of opinion, according to laws that did not exist at the time of the acts in question. In 1945, some forms of warfare had been outlawed by bodies of international law, while atomic warfare had not -- but of course, such warfare was new to the world. It would be right to try such an act under prohibitions made afterwards (which never happened in this case with mass air bombardment and atomic warfare, since the Allies were guilty of both).

Also, if a Hitler invents or calls attention to a modern type of genocide, I think it's appropriate to write new laws and to try the perpetrators under such laws (which does not mean I think there were no problems with Nuremberg or with the larger issue of victors' justice).

In short, if the Holocaust or the atomic bomb is found technically to be within the laws of its times and locales, that is no reason not to condemn it as a crime. If we find people condemning it in hindsight, there's a chance that not merely nationalistic purposes are driving them, but that existing mores and laws are informing their moral and legal judgment of acts for which they have not yet written specific laws.

September 25, 2005 8:46 PM  

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