Tomorrow, President Obama will visit Hiroshima, the site of the 1945 atomic bombing that claimed as many as 170,000 lives.
Obama’s visit gives the United States a chance to reckon with its atomic history — a process that should involve finally laying to rest some shameful myths. But the US media isn’t interested in giving up on the old stories just yet. Instead, the opinion pages of mainstream newspapers reveal a stunning commitment to nuclear apologia.
Perhaps the most unabashed argument comes from Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, whose May 14 op-ed appeared under the headline, “In Hiroshima, Obama should celebrate the friendship that the A-bomb made possible.”
Jacoby’s article — while outrageous — fits neatly into the narrative cultivated by mainstream news outlets. The overwhelming consensus in the American press is that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while tragic, were justified.
The Wall Street Journal recently called on Obama, “as well as his Japanese hosts,” to recognize Truman’s courage in authorizing the bombings, saying the attacks saved lives.
The New York Times invited skeptical readers to “ask the few surviving veterans of that generation” whether there is any “moral equivalence between a Japanese campaign that killed more than 20 million in Asia and the horror of the bomb that ended it all,” implying that the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought it on themselves.
Some commentators, like Jacoby, have pointed to the supposedly benevolent postwar occupation that restructured Japanese society in America’s image as justification enough for the attacks.
But the mainstream narrative — that the bombings were not only justified, but ultimately motivated by the desire to assist ordinary Japanese — is bullshit.
The Bond the Bomb Built
Even the American military and political establishment claimed to be against the bombing of civilians — that is, until the United States adopted and perfected such techniques.
When Germany and Japan began bombing cities in the 1930s, Washington expressed shock and horror at the loss of civilian life that followed. Addressing the governments of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Great Britain in 1939, President Roosevelt said that the bombing of civilian population centers had “sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman” and “profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.”
But a few years later, the United States would bring its own bombing campaign to a dramatic culmination in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks — which killed as many as a quarter million civilians.
Adding to this hypocrisy, some have even taken to describing Japan’s postwar development boom as the result of that country’s devastation. In his Boston Globe article, Jacoby characterizes the lucrative US-Japan relationship — which he terms “a great friendship” — as the atomic bomb’s lasting legacy.
This “great friendship” began with the American occupation of Japan — during which the United States supposedly facilitated Japan’s transition from a rogue state “that had inflicted unspeakable brutality” to “a bulwark of democracy, freedom, and stability,” well absorbed into the West’s sphere of influence.
One wonders if Jacoby considers the suppression of any public discussion of the bombings evidence of a “good friendship.” Because that’s what the US occupation did, even prohibiting Japanese medical research into the effects of radiation toxicity on survivors for years.
And nowhere does Jacoby mention that for some the deployment of nuclear arms in the Pacific was linked to honest-to-god exterminationism — some US commanders, like Vice Admiral Arthur Radford, believed that Japan should be bombed until it was “a nation without cities,” and the surviving Japanese became “a nomadic people.”
But we shouldn’t be surprised by the US media’s reluctance to bring up this history, as the very newspapers now clamoring to justify the atomic bombings once eagerly contributed to the propaganda frenzy that encouraged such views in the first place.
In his book War Without Mercy, historian John Dower records the extent to which the US media was successful in stoking the flames of hatred. Dower cites a 1945 survey that found that 23 percent of American respondents wished the United States had had the opportunity to use “many more of them [atomic bombs] before Japan had a chance to surrender” — betraying a widespread desire for the mass slaughter of Japanese. One 1944 poll shows that one-eighth of Americans responded to the question “What do you think we should do with Japan as a country after the war?” by replying, “kill all Japanese.”
And all this at a time when Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in internment camps across the United States.
Obviously, these openly exterminationist ambitions were supplanted by other plans for the country during the US occupation — including the controversial deindustrialization policy that dismantled Japanese industry to pre–1930 levels, clearing space for US direct investment. But one thing is certain — the bombing wasn’t about ensuring a better life for ordinary Japanese.
Mainstream accounts are correct to point out that war is hell, and yes, all sides committed unspeakable atrocities.
But the American press played a central role in whipping up the hysteria needed to support war crimes like the nuclear bombings. And today, as Obama prepares to become the first US president to ever visit Hiroshima, the media continues to play its role in shaping the legacy of the atomic attacks.
A Necessary Evil?
But what about the most common assertion nuclear apologists make — that the deployment of nuclear weapons was necessary to end to the war and prevent even greater bloodshed?
It’s just not true. Even some of the most prominent commanders in the United States military recognized that dropping the bombs wasn’t necessary.
Dwight D. Eisenhower — once Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, later to become president — told Newsweek in 1963, “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
Still, some argue that, short of a nuclear attack, only a bloody ground invasion could have brought down imperial Japan. According to this logic, the bombings saved untold thousands of Allied and Japanese lives.
Major General Curtis LeMay, who helped design the US bombing strategy in the Pacific, disagrees with that premise. In 1945, he said, “The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb . . . The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”
The truth is, by the time President Truman authorized the bombing, the Japanese state was in disarray, the Japanese armed forces decimated by disease and malnutrition, and Japan profoundly isolated following the surrender of Nazi Germany.
The Japanese citizenry was war-weary as well. The 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey reported that “despite the rationing of food beginning in April 1941, the food situation became critical,” as crucial goods grew scarce and the Japanese population faced a looming famine.
So why did the United States drop the bombs at all? State Department official William Dyess later offered a clue on NBC, when he said, “the Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times. Therefore, they have to take this into consideration.”
It wasn’t about ending World War II. It was about setting the stakes of the Cold War by proclaiming American willingness to use weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations.
By dropping the bombs President Truman held a gun to the head of the entire world — and despite Obama’s empty promises about nuclear non-proliferation, that gun remains in place to this day.
Hawk in Dove’s Clothes
The New York Times has cast Obama’s Hiroshima trip as further evidence of the president’s commitment to “curbing the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and lowering the risks of nuclear attack,” describing nuclear non-proliferation as one of Obama’s “signature issues.”
But Obama’s much-touted moves towards non-proliferation are grossly insufficient compared to the United States’s international obligations as signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The forty-five-year-old treaty established an arrangement in which non-nuclear states promised to not develop nuclear weapons in exchange for nuclear states’ disarmament. In the United States, the latter half of the deal is by now almost totally down the memory hole — America continues to research and perfect its stockpile.
The Non-Aligned Movement — formed during the Cold War to represent over one hundred non-nuclear states — continually denounces “the lack of progress by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear weapons in accordance with their legal obligations and undertakings.”
And with the thirty-year, trillion-dollar nuclear upgrades program the Obama administration initiated, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has ensured that the United States will continue to flout its international obligations for decades to come.
President Obama’s diplomatic visit is an expert piece of posturing. His people have already made it clear that the trip is not to be interpreted as a reevaluation of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb — much less an apology.
But somber photographs of Obama at the site of the bombing — sure to flood the American news media tomorrow — fit well into the president’s own dishonest narrative regarding nuclear weapons.
Despite his rhetoric, Obama has show himself to be a proponent of nuclear arms over the course of his administration, joining the ranks of other hawks like George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, who claim to oppose nuclear proliferation even while working actively to ensure that the United States remains the world’s preeminent nuclear power.
President Truman also claimed to be no great fan of nuclear weapons, describing the atom bomb as “an awful responsibility.” From retirement, he justified his decision to bomb Hiroshima by invoking the historical burden of the American executive — great men must sometimes do terrible things to prevent further suffering.
Now, seventy-one years on, Obama will visit the site of Truman’s specular atrocity to once again present the bombing of Hiroshima as a simple tragedy, rather than an unforgivable outrage.
The American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki invited outrage from around the world. But today, too many Americans seem determined to remember the nuclear attacks as unorthodox humanitarian interventions, rather than as war crimes on a massive scale.
Despite the urgent need to build a world free of nuclear weapons, the myth of nuclear necessity seems as strong as ever.