Should the United States apologize for the nuclear bombing of Japan at the very end of World War II?
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 70 years ago this month, killed as many as 250,000 people, most of them civilians. For many of the victims, it was a horrible, excruciating death, and for many others, the effects of burns and radiation, although not immediately lethal, produced years of agony. Should we say we’re sorry?
My answer is no, but I do not dismiss the question out of hand. It is, after all, naggingly relevant, raising issues of proportion, race and culture. A recent article on the website of the decidedly liberal magazine The Nation makes three points. The bombings were animated by racial animus, they were disproportionate to the number of U.S. deaths that might have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese mainland, and the bombs amounted to wretched excess: Japan was ready to surrender anyway.
Maybe so. But an imminent Japanese surrender was hardly apparent at the time. Instead, even as the war was ending, the Japanese fought nearly to the last man on Iwo Jima, a month-long battle in which almost 7,000 Marines were killed. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, only about 200 were taken prisoner. Some held out for weeks in caves. Still later in 1945, the Japanese fought tenaciously until mid-June to hold Okinawa. That battle cost 14,000 American lives.
There was reason to believe that Japan would never surrender and that an invasion of the main Japanese islands would result in staggering American casualties. If that was the case, then any weapon that saved American lives would be considered justified. The author of the article in The Nation, Christian Appy, states, however, that the casualty projections were always exaggerated. Whatever the figure, a commander in chief has the responsibility to husband American lives.
What about racism? “American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of ‘yellow peril’ racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but subhuman,” Appy writes. Yes, indeed. But at the same time, the Japanese were doing their level best to prove that the bigots were right. They had abused and murdered POWs, they had massacred civilian populations and — no small matter this — they were flying their own airplanes into American fighting ships. The famous kamikaze attacks cost the Japanese almost 4,000 pilots and killed almost 5,000 American sailors. Americans had to wonder: What kind of people would sacrifice their own in pursuit of what, by then, was a losing cause? Little wonder we thought of the Japanese then as we now think of the Islamic State.
American abhorrence of Japanese military culture was hardly standard racism. Sure, racism was present — but so was barbaric behavior on the part of the enemy. The same could be said about the Nazis. After all, the A-bomb was first intended for Germany, but Berlin surrendered before it could be used.
Harry S. Truman was characteristically terse and not particularly introspective about his decision to use the bomb. But it is clear from his diary — cited by Appy — that he loathed the Japanese, who, after all, had started the war with a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The president was a product of his time, and terrible times they were. Three major powers had emerged that did not hesitate to slaughter innocent people — Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan. As for America and its allies, they had already firebombed Dresden and Hamburg and incinerated many of the major cities of Japan. The writer L.P. Hartley said that “The past is a foreign country.” The past of 1945 was a world steeped in blood.
Could a “demonstration” bomb have gotten Japan to surrender? Who knows? Was Truman intent on accelerating the surrender so as to keep the Soviets out of Japan? Maybe. Was the loss of Japanese civilian life out of proportion to the projected loss of American life? Probably.
These questions are well worth pondering, but so is this one: What could Truman have said to Americans who lost a loved one in an invasion of the Japanese home islands if they knew he had a weapon that could have ended the war and not used it? What, in the dead of night when sleep did not come and he stared at the ceiling, could he have said to the American dead? I chose Japanese lives over yours? Truman did what he had to do.
No apology is needed.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.