Nagasaki – the greatest war crime in history?

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Byth Eto = Never Again

Seventy years ago today, the Unites States dropped the second atomic bomb “Fat Man” on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Three days earlier, a first nuclear weapon, “Little Boy”, was dropped on Hiroshima. To date, these are the only nuclear attacks in the history of human warfare. Disappointingly few were present at the commemoration event in Roath Park today. Surely we dare not forget!

There have been a variety of articles and programmes tucked away in the schedules, but not enough in my opinion. Among the better articles I have read was by Dr Akil N. Awan is associate professor in Modern History, Political Violence and Terrorism at Royal Holloway, University of London. He wrote an excellent piece in New Statesman recently in which he said:

It is difficult to survey the carnage and devastation, even in the cold light of day 70 years later, and not be appalled at this flagrant crime against humanity. The key justifications for the bombings still rest on the fallacy that they were necessary to end the war in the Pacific, representing the lesser of the evils. Apologists for the bombs claim the only alternative would have involved a protracted ground offensive that would have proved too costly for the Allies.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 17.09.51The somewhat racialised argument goes that the Japanese adhered to a “bushido” warrior ethic of sacrifice, considered surrender to be dishonourable, and were committed to the notion of “total war”, in which every man, woman and child would be mobilised for war, armed with rudimentary bamboo spears if need be. In other words, the Japanese, having rejected all opportunities to surrender, had vowed to fight to the bitter end. Consequently the planned invasion of Japan, Operation Downfall, would have resulted in much higher casualty figures. The US anticipated losing up to 1m US soldiers during the invasion, alongside another 10m Japanese deaths.

However, none of this cold calculation detracts from the fact that the bombings were indisputably heinous acts of state terrorism, fitting the standard definition almost perfectly: the use or threat of violence against civilians, to instil fear and achieve a political goal. Indeed, the Secret Target Committee in Los Alamos proposed that the large population centres of Kyoto or Hiroshima should be deliberately targeted for the “greatest psychological effect,” and to ensure the bombs’ “initial use was sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognised”.

Incidentally, this curious phrasing also points to the true targets of the bombs – the Soviet Union. This atomic diplomacy was effectively a display of strength and a warning to Stalin, representing the opening salvos of the Cold War.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 17.12.53The selection of the cities to be bombed was also more akin to a scientific experiment, rather than a purely strategic military calculation. The nominated cities had thus far been left deliberately untouched during the regular nightly bombing raids, in order to accurately assess the full capacity and damage inflicted by the atomic bombs.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 17.16.30The decision to use the bombs was also predicated on racist and dehumanising attitudes towards the Japanese. The Japanese were frequently depicted as “yellow vermin”, “living snarling rats” or “monkeys”. Indeed, the dehumanisation was such that the mutilation of Japanese soldiers became widespread. US servicemen frequently removed ears, teeth and skulls as grisly war trophies. Even President Roosevelt was infamously sent a letter opener carved from a Japanese bone by a US congressman. It was easier to drop inhumane weapons on those who were not really human to begin with.

But perhaps the greatest condemnation of the bombings is that they were unnecessary on the eve of the inevitable Allied victory, as the 1946 United States Strategic Bombing Survey later concluded. The Japanese were militarily exhausted and on the verge of defeat at this stage. In addition to staggering casualty figures, and extensive devastation of infrastructure through the aerial bombardment and firebombing campaigns, the naval blockade codenamed Operation starvation had also completely crippled the wartime economy. 

Yes, unconditional surrender was publicly rejected by Japan’s leaders. However, privately, they were also making desperate entreaties to the then neutral Soviet Union, to mediate peace on more favourable terms. The Japanese would also have been keenly aware that the collapse of Nazi Germany had worrying implications for the redeployment of Allied forces.

The “betrayal” by the Soviets, who declared war on Japan on 9 August, just before Nagasaki was bombed, was the final straw. The Soviet army quickly defeated the Japanese in Chinese Manchukuo, crushing any vestige of hope that Japan might survive the conflict intact.

There is little disagreement that the atomic bombings constituted war crimes, even amongst its architects. As the US Secretary of Defence, Robert S. McNamara, famously reflected: “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

Surely 70 years is long enough for us to put to rest the tired canard of the lesser of the two evils, and recognise the true gravity of this crime against humanity.

It has to be acknowledged that many dispute Dr Awan’s analysis above. But I would contend that, even if one accepts the bomb apologists arguments for the initial bombing of Hiroshima, it is impossible to apply the same thinking to Nagasaki. It is the details of the Nagasaki bombing that really endorse Dr Awan’s analysis, especially the contention that what we have here is a scientific trial that puts Dr Mengele’s crude experiments utterly in the shade.

So, in conclusion:

  Little Boy was a uranium fuelled bomb; Fat Man was a plutonium fuelled bomb. The previously, and otherwise unaccountably, untouched cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the baseline tests. Which would prove most ‘effective’?

  That the Soviet Union was the intended audience has been extensively researched by Professor David Holloway. He summarised his view in an interview by saying [bombing Hiroshima] was seen as something unnecessary because…it was clear that Japan would be defeated. And secondly, it was seen as a kind of anti-Soviet, a kind of sly, or cunning anti-Soviet political move. So yes, it was seen very much as directed against the Soviet Union and directed against the Soviet Union, not only in order to deprive the Soviet Union of gains in the Far East, but generally to intimidate the Soviet Union. You know, look what we have. We have this bomb which is so powerful that with one detonation, we can destroy a city. And you better behave yourselves. You better be more tractable, more amenable in the dealing with the post-war settlement in Europe. And I think that’s very much how Stalin interpreted Hiroshima. 

  The military case was not being made by many in the military: 

  • o   “It always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” – General Henry H. “Hap” ArnoldCommanding General of the U.S. ArmyAir Forces Under President Truman
  • o   “I had been conscious of depression and so I voiced to (Sec. Of War Stimson) my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at this very moment, seeking a way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face.’ ” – General Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • o   “Japan was at the moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of ‘face’. It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”  – General Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • o   “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was taught not to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”  – Admiral William D. Leahy, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Thus, Harry Truman stands accused of perpetrating one of the greatest “war crimes”, if not for dropping “Little Boy”, most definitely for his failure to pause after the Hiroshima bombing.  Hiroshima remains, at the most generous, a highly questionable act, but failing to wait to see if it, along with the Soviet declaration of war, would produce a swift Japanese surrender is indefensible. So when, on August 9, the second atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, killing another 90,000, the vast majority women and children, the evidence becomes pretty much incontrovertible.

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