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Post Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Genocidal Evil?
Created by John Eipper on 12/13/16 5:11 AM

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Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Genocidal Evil? (Timothy Brown, USA, 12/13/16 5:11 am)

Recently we've been discussing whether or not the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of genocide. As I recall, we also discussed this peripherally a while back under the term democide. May I suggest we inject at least a little historical context and a few facts into the discussion?

By most of the estimates I've seen, about 70-75,000 were killed and 60,000 wounded in Hiroshima and 75,000 killed and 75,000 wounded in Nagasaki by those bombings. (I use wounded, not injured, because all were victims of acts of war.) Myriad condemnations of the United States and its allies, including by those perpetually critical of the US regardless, for having, with those two bombings, the "Empire" committed horrendous and presumably unnecessary and unforgivable atrocities almost invariably follow. What never seem to follow are any facts or discussion of historical context.

I suggest that we take into account a few of the facts. One that has not been extensively discussed, albeit not in recent postings on WAIS, has been that the only reasonable alternative was to invade the Japanese homeland. At the time the alternatives being considered involved several different amphibious assaults followed by extended land warfare on Japanese soil. No one could say then, nor can anyone say with certainty today, what the cost in lives and wounded both to Japan's military and civilian populations and the Allied military. According to one set of pre-battle estimates by the Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Allied forces had to be prepared to suffer approximately 247,000 KIAs (killed in action), and 991,000, wounded or missing in action (WIAs or MIAs). Estimates by others ran as high as 1 million Allied KIAs. There were also estimates of the number of casualties the Japanese military might suffer that ran as high as 4-5 million (most of Japan's remaining armed forces), but none I could find of unavoidable Japanese civilian casualties.

Prior to the use of two nuclear weapons that caused Japan to surrender, by some estimates Japan had inflicted on countries it invaded and occupied between 3 and 20 million deaths, most of them knowingly and deliberately inflicted by Japan's military on unarmed civilians.  These acts, by today's standards, could reasonably be called genocidal. To be fair, as democides go (you may want to Goggle "democide" on this) committed by others, the Japanese were pikers, since during the 20th century an estimated 62 million civilians were killed by the Soviet Union, 35 million more by the Chinese, and another 50 million or so by the Nazis and lesser perps.

In my experience, and I attended several wars during my 37 years, 10 as Marine and 27 as a diplomat, there is no such thing as a war without casualties among non-combatants. But when considering all available alternatives (short of having Japan unexpectedly capitulate to the Allies--or the Allies surrendering to Japan--a rather unlikely alternative) based on the best available estimates, had I done the math I would have reached the same conclusion Truman did. Terrible as it was, and it was terrible, faced with the above realities, better 280,000 or so Japanese civilians be killed or wounded than the alternative--having 1 to 4 million Allied military, 4-5 million Japanese soldiers, and most probably a few million Japanese civilians, killed instead.

JE comments:  Harry S Truman may have faced the gravest choice of the 20th century.  Perhaps of all time.  Without the benefit of hindsight, try to put yourself in his place.  What would you have done?

Three aspects not mentioned by Tim Brown above:  1)  Truman's political imperative to end the war quickly, which is connected to 2)  The necessity of keeping the Soviets out of the Japan "theater."  This very likely could have resulted in a divided postwar Japan, like Germany.  Finally, on the other side, some historians argue that 3)  Japan was on the verge of surrender in any case, prior to August 6th, and no Home Islands campaign would have been necessary.

Cameron Sawyer (next) begs to differ with the "Truman had to do it" interpretation.

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  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Necessary Evils? (Robert Gard, USA 12/13/16 8:05 AM)
    Let me add a footnote to Tim Brown's analysis of December 13th, with which I agree.

    The Japanese War Council voted to continue the war even after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima.

    After Nagasaki, the Emperor took an unprecedented step, beyond his traditional role, by announcing surrender.

    JE comments:  Along the lines of "why Nagasaki," was there a Japanese city selected for a third atomic attack?  The article below says Kokura, which had been the initial target for the second bombing:


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  • My Memories of the Japanese Surrender (Richard Hancock, USA 12/14/16 5:51 AM)

    The Emperor of Japan spoke with the voice of the Shinto God on August 15, 1945, announcing the Japanese surrender. He formally signed a treaty aboard the battleship Missouri with Gen. MacArthur on September 2. As part of this treaty, Emperor Hirohito was to remain as the Japanese Emperor. MacArthur agreed with this because he knew that peace would be very precarious if the Emperor were required to resign. The absolute peaceful character of the US occupation proves the intelligence of MacArthur in maintaining the Emperor in his powerful position. In later memoirs, the Emperor said that he signed the treaty aboard the battleship Missouri because "he feared that the Japanese race would be destroyed if the war continued." The Japanese Minister of War committed seppuku, killing himself upon hearing the emperor's decision.

    I was with the Americal Division, arriving as the Third Division in Japan on Sept, 10, 1945. It was grand to see the whole American Pacific fleet anchored in Yokohama harbor. I looked up at the bridge and saw the frightening sight of a Japanese pilot. He was the first live Japanese person that I had seen; others that I had seen lay dead on the battlefields in Cebu and Bohol in the Philippines. The one exception was a Japanese captain, a prisoner in the army field hospital because both of his legs had been blown off.

    In early August, we were training for the invasion of Japan with fears that few of us would survive this attack. On the evening of August 15, 1945, we heard waves of artillery and small-arms fire and were told that the Emperor had surrendered and soldiers were celebrating by firing all of their weapons. One man in our outfit was hit in the shoulder by a stray bullet.

    My point in relating this story is that when you have been involved in a life-or-death struggle with an implacable opponent, never known to surrender, your first thought is relief and celebration that you will survive and ultimately return to be with your loved ones. None of my fellow soldiers gave any thought to the morality of dropping an atomic bomb on the civilian population. They were overjoyed that they would be able to return home. We had lost three of our comrades on July 5, 1945, in addition to seven others who died before I joined the outfit. This seemed a mere prelude to the numerous casualties that we would suffer when we invaded Japan.

    We spent our first three days in a combat perimeter in a Yokohama park. Whenever we left that camp, we carried our carbines (As combat medics, we were armed because the Japanese recognized the red cross as a target rather than a non-combat symbol). After three days, the MPs stopped us and ordered us to leave our arms in camp. This was an astonishing testimony to the power of the Emperor. When he said that the war was over, this ended the fierce hostility that we had experienced in combat. After that we often traveled on trains alone or in groups of two or three with the absolute assurance that we were safe. This is in contrast to what happened in Germany, where my two older brothers served. They said that they carried weapons even after the peace treaty was signed because they were always in danger of encountering some unreconstructed Nazis.

    I spent 11 months in the Army of Occupation in Japan. During this period, I experienced no hostility at all. Of course, I could not speak Japanese other than a few phrases, but I met Japanese that could speak good English and never heard any expressions of discontent about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think they were happier than I was that the war was finally over.

    JE comments:  What a powerful reminder of the mood of the times.  Ending the war was the priority on everyone's mind.  And think of how many Allied and Japanese young men like Richard Hancock would not have survived an invasion of the Home Islands.

    Another serviceman who was there:  James G. Duggan, a Marine Second Lieutenant and David Duggan's father.  David's post is next.

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    • My Father during Japan's Surrender (David Duggan, USA 12/14/16 7:46 AM)
      In August 1945 my Second Lieutenant father (4th Marine Division, 24th Regiment) was on the island of Maui preparing to invade Japan. After Nagasaki, the US had no more nukes in its arsenal and the information was that they wouldn't have another until November. The idea was originally to invade the main island of Honshu, but was shifted to Kyushu, the southernmost island, where the population (and resistance) may be less and the late-autumn water might be a bit warmer for an amphibious landing after the beaches had been softened with the restocked nukes.

      Fortunately (for him), that never happened. Dedicated WAISers might remember that seven years later, my father saw the last open-air nuclear detonation on this continent, in Nevada April 1952, when I was five months old. He had delayed his discharge by a month to witness this event.

      JE comments: Here's James G. Duggan's fascinating 2005 narrative of witnessing "Operation Greenhouse."  I cannot think of a name tinged with more irony. 

      David's father passed away in 2008:


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    • Hirohito, USS Missouri, and Japan's Surrender (David Pike, -France 01/17/17 7:31 PM)
      Richard Hancock wrote on December 14th, 2016: "The Emperor of Japan...formally signed the treaty aboard the USS Missouri."

      Hirohito was not on the Missouri. The Japanese group was led by the crippled Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu. It was signed later in the Imperial Palace. Is there a photo of it?

      JE comments: My apologies to David Pike for misplacing this post. (Thanks, David, for the reminder!)

      I did a brief image search, and did not see a photo of Hirohito signing the surrender.  The closest I've found is of the Emperor signing Japan's post-war constitution.

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