Seventy years after the United States waged what to this day remains the only instance of nuclear warfare in history, Americans persist in subscribing to the view that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, whatever the moral perils of such an undertaking, were justified by exceptional circumstances. It is taken as an unimpeachable fact that the nuclear attacks on the two Japanese cities saved lives; on this argument, the invasion of Japan would have energised its fanatic residents to a renewed defence of their country, and the war might have stretched out for several more months, or even longer.
The proponents of this view have advanced an apparently noble kind of moral calculus, whereby the atomic bombings not only saved American lives but the lives of their very antagonists, since a protracted war would have decimated what remained of young Japanese men. If this argument be stretched a bit further, the US was animated not merely by the desire to preserve the lives of its own youth but by reverence for all human life. Further, Japan’s unconditional surrender, which the US had insisted on as the condition for bringing hostilities to an end, is described by those who justify the bombing as having been wholly precipitated by the picture of utter devastation unleashed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An obdurate country, slavishly holding itself in subjection to the writ of the emperor, had no other recourse.
It is also characteristic of the US that, on every anniversary of the bombing, a supposed “debate” is thought to take place among Americans vigorously arguing in support of, or in opposition to, the atomic bombings. Certainly, some arguments resonate more strongly now than they did in 1945 or in the years immediately thereafter. The end of the war had brought forth a new adversary in the Soviet Union, one reason among others why German war criminals tried at Nuremberg were, barring the first set of some 20-odd Nazis who had occupied the highest positions in the Third Reich, handed down insignificant prison terms when they were not simply acquitted. If a demonstration had to be furnished to Stalin of the immense and unmatched military prowess of the US, nothing was calculated to achieve that effect as much as a new super-bomb that was immeasurably greater than anything witnessed thus far.
If war-time rape of enemy women is merely the way in which rapists convey messages to enemy men, the nuked cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by this reckoning, were intended to show to an emergent world power under the dictatorship of Stalin the probable consequences of embracing the enmity of the US. Further, now that “multiculturalism” and “diversity” have become enshrined as the very armour of a liberal democracy, there is greater willingness to acknowledge that the atomic bombings were, in good measure, prompted by a vicious racism that made it all too easy to dismiss the Japanese people as vermin who merited nothing but complete annihilation. The chairman of the US War Manpower Commission, Paul V. McNutt, spoke for many people when he publicly declared that he “favoured the extermination of the Japanese in toto”. Elliott Roosevelt, the then president’s son, admitted to then Vice President Henry Wallace that he supported the continuation of the war against Japan “until we have destroyed about half of the civilian population”. These views were by no means atypical.
What is astonishing, however, is the indisputable fact that even the enlarged parameters of the liberal critique of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still do not permit the probing of more fundamental questions and a robust critique of the entire course of American history. Two considerations, but there are many more, might be brought to the fore. Why, for instance, did American planners target Hiroshima, a city of comparatively moderate military significance? American scientists, military strategists and politicians were keen to assess the impact that a nuclear bomb might have on its target.
In the months preceding the nuclear attacks, dozens of Japanese cities and towns had been firebombed. Large portions of major Japanese cities, including Tokyo, had already been reduced to ashes. A nuclear bomb thrown on Tokyo would have been “wasted” and it would have been difficult to measure its impact. Hiroshima had yet to be ravished, it was virgin territory; never mind that most of the casualties were bound to be civilians. Or consider Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech describing December 7, 1941, when the Japanese initiated war with a lightning attack on Pearl Harbour, as “a date which will live in infamy”. Most people have naturally supposed that Roosevelt was lamenting the treachery of Japan and its declaration of hostilities against a peace-loving nation. But tacitly what Franklin Roosevelt, and millions of Americans, had in mind was another kind of infamy — the supposition that the US uniquely reserves the privilege to unilaterally bomb other countries, and that any nation that dares breach Fortress America must contemplate its own doom and destruction.
The narrative of American exceptionalism, as is well known, has enjoyed remarkable longevity, and every American president has subscribed to it, not excepting the quasi-African American President Barack Obama, who is frequently on record as having pronounced America as the world’s one indispensable nation and the greatest force for good on earth. Let us suppose that we affirm this narrative, so long as it is perfectly well understood that the US singularly retains the sinister distinction of having carried out an attack of nuclear terrorism — not once, which would be shameful enough, though it is doubtful that the word “shame” is any more part of the lexicon of American society, but twice. There is scarcely a nation-state whose conduct might be described as irreproachable, and there are a great many countries where, scandalously, the better part of too many people’s lives is squandered in securing a mere two meals for the day. We can easily recognise that America has been a land of opportunity for many; nevertheless, in the intellectual laziness and moral stupor that characterise the conduct of most Americans, evidenced in their steadfast refusal to question the role of their country in precipitating one of the greatest moral and spiritual crises to have afflicted humanity with the atomic bombings of Japan, the US remains quite exceptional.
The writer is professor of history, University of California, Los Angeles