There be dragons!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I just saw a good movie on the liberation of POWs in the Philippines called “The Great Raid.” I recommend the movie with caveat; the brutality of the Japanese is graphically depicted. Invaluable in the movie, though, was the timeline and reminiscence of the veterans provided in the extras. These allowed me to put a few pieces together and here’s the history of why we dropped the Bomb on Japan.
In the 1920s there were two factions in the government of Japan; the militarists and the pacifists. The militarists held that it was the divine right of the Japanese people as a superior race to conquer and enslave their neighbors. The pacifists, though no less racist in their views about neighboring peoples, held that military action would result in cataclysm for the Japanese people. One must consider that Japan had only recently “modernized” (see “The Last Samurai” if you can stomach Tom Cruise). Many of their districts and villages were still 17th century hovels consisting of straw huts and rice farmers, most of whom had no electricity, no newspapers and no window into the outside world aside from rumor. The pacifists thought that the strength of the Japanese military was not yet able to withstand the backlash of other modernized countries (and they were right). Yamamato, for instance, (who had studied in America and knew implicitly the character of the American populace) stated that the Japanese army might “run wild” through the islands for six months to a year but would then be steadily and remorselessly driven back by the other nations. However, with the emergence of militaristic Nazi Germany, the militarists saw an opportunity to ally with a “modern” nation of the West and achieve their objectives of conquering their neighbors. They won the ear of Hirohito and thus gained the upper hand in Japan, subsequently allying with Hitler and implementing their plan for domination of the Eastern Hemisphere (no joke. Tojo, the chancellor of Japan, actually stated to his generals that the ultimate goal was to dominate every land and people in the Eastern hemisphere.)
After gaining power the militarists began a campaign of mobilizing the Japanese people toward war. Radios were placed by the government in the central buildings of each Japanese village to disseminate information. This information was controlled strictly by the government. Civilians were constantly reminded of the glory and divinity of the emperor, the greatness of the Japanese people, and the barbarity of their neighbors and of the Americans. Tojo, his cabinet, and Tokyo Rose fed the Japanese people a constant diet of “information” calculated to mobilize them against their neighbors and to stir them to hatred of the Americans. Americans were “weak, corrupt, immoral, ungodly, savage, and barbaric”; a rhetoric that sounds eerily familiar. Most of the unlettered peasants, having no other source of information about the outside world, and trusting implicitly in the greatness and honesty of their government never considered the truth or falsity of such claims. How could they? The whole system of hierarchy, honor, shame, and militaristic Bushido was against their questioning such information coming from their “betters.”
In 1927 the Japanese had completed an ultra-secret plan called the “Tanaka Memorial” outlining the invasion of China and surrounding areas followed by an invasion of the US. Beginning in 1932, every graduating class of the naval academy in Tokyo was asked the one single question; “How would you carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?” The Japanese military flexed its muscle by invading Korea, Thailand, Burma, and surrounding island areas. Then in the late 30s Japan staged a fake attack on their own troops in Manchuria at the Marco Polo bridge. They claimed that the Chinese were responsible for the attack and used the offense as a pretext to launch a massive invasion of China; an event which, because of its immensity, had obviously been long in the preparation and planning. The atrocities committed by the unbridled Japanese military on the locals whom they conquered is beyond description. In 1937, for instance, they beheaded 250,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking. Later in 1945 they killed 100,000 Filipinos in Manila. They did not consider such locals to be human, or at least thought of them as “lesser races” and so could do with them as they wished. The Japanese were no less bigoted in their opinions on this matter than the Nazi with their “master race” theory.
The attack on China and surrounding areas rather caught the American military by surprise, as did the attack on Pearl Harbor which drew us into the war. Looking at the timeline of events, I completely reject the “Roosevelt knew” conspiracy theory wherein paranoiacs claim Roosevelt set the fleet in Hawaii in order that it be attacked and we enter the war. Hawaii was our major military base in the Pacific. The violence and militaristic pretensions of the Japanese were well known and the saber rattling rhetoric had gone on for ten years by the time of Pearl Harbor. The subterfuge employed by the Japanese was completely unexpected, not just by the Americans but by the Chinese, Koreans, and every other country which “played by the rules.” Getting caught on our heels at Pearl Harbor was what the Japanese wanted and, though on heightened alert, the American Navy couldn’t have foreseen the event or its outcome. We were unprepared for a war on two fronts and probably would have done all we could to prevent entering into conflict with Japan. Even when Japanese flyers sank one of our ships, the Panay, in 1937 America avoided opening hostilities even though it was assuredly an act of war; 19 American soldiers were affected by the sinking of the Panay (rather like the attack on the USS Cole). Roosevelt was so keen on not entering hostilities that he merely called the attack “reckless flying” on the part of the Japanese. But Americans were certainly on the alert for a Japanese attack. In 1938, in fact, Americans had exercised a wargame called Fleet Problem XIX in which American forces, playing the role of Japanese, infiltrated and conquered Pearl Harbor. Japanese spies sent a detailed report of the exercise and it became the basis for the actual attack on the island.
Anyway, after we were in the war, things looked pretty grim for Allied forces. There was no absolute guarantee (as we in the future tend to superimpose upon the past in typical anachronistic fashion) that the war would end positively for the Allies. Indeed, we cracked the Japanese code in 1941 and thus were listening to the radio chatter for quite some time. In this way the American military learned of several things to their advantage. Tojo and Yamamato planned to invade Hawaii a second time with their full navy and, once conquering that waypoint, intended to proceed to invade California as well. Our navy, crippled by the attack on Pearl Harbor, would be incapable of defending against such an attack if it came as surprise. Fortunately, the cracking of the code allowed us to intercept and sink all four carriers of the Japanese navy at the battle of Midway thus harming their fleet enough that a second invasion of Hawaii was rendered untenable. Furthermore, the intel from the code informed us in 1943 that Yamamato was to travel by plane to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Sixteen P-38s scrambled, intercepted his transport plane and shot him out of the sky. All Japanese aboard perished.
Yet despite these successes the first part of the war was not bright for the American military. The American navy was crippled at Pearl Harbor. The American air force on Luzon was wiped out in a single raid by the Japanese on December 10, 1941. By 1942 Hirohito reigned over 1/7th of the planet. American military leaders predicted that a conflict of 10 years would be necessary to defeat the Japanese.
In Southeast Asia American forces were driven by the Japanese, pulling back in a fighting retreat to the Bataan peninsula. A Japanese naval blockade surrounded the area and the intent of the Japanese army was to annihilate the Americans. MacArthur, with a small body of American soldiery, slipped through the blockade and escaped to Australia, leaving behind the men on Bataan who fought on until they were short on ammo, diseased, and starving to death. Forced at last by the severity of their situation and the belief that their country had abandoned them to their fate they surrendered to the Japanese. Later, allied forces on Corregidor also were forced to surrender to the Japanese. Such surrender, however, was unexpected by the Japanese military who expected to wipe out the Americans. Suddenly they were faced with the prospect of doing something with 75,000 starving, diseased, shell-shocked Americans. Moreover, they had to get their artillery onto the Bataan peninsula in order to shell the main part of the island. The surrendering Americans impeded this maneuver; after all, they were supposed to be dead, not milling about on the peninsula in a state of slow starvation. The decision then was made to march all the POWs north and distribute them amongst various hastily crafted camps.
But the march north did not reckon on the condition of the men. Healthy Japanese soldiers used very little mechanized transport; they marched everywhere. They expected the Americans to do the same, and quickly too. When men began to collapse from heat, sickness, dehydration, or exhaustion the Japanese soldiers panicked and began to stab, or shoot the fallen. Corpses littered the road north as men, in a blind nightmare of marching, tried desperately to keep from collapsing. Whipped, driven by curses and bayonets, murdered if they fell, they endured a horrific experience later dubbed “The Bataan Deathmarch.” 10,000 men died. For most POWs, arrival at the ramshackle, pitiful little bamboo huts surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire, was a relief from the agony of the deathmarch. Here they could at last collapse in the shade and anticipate sitting out the rest of the war in relative peace.
What they did not realize was that the Japanese did not operate under the same rules as the West. POW camps in the Pacific were, consequently, a very different thing from POW camps in Nazi Germany or Italy (or America, despite the liberal attempts to compare such camps to the American internment of Japanese citizens in relatively comfortable and well-built military-run communities).
Tojo's orders regarding POWs was very clear. Guards, he said, “must supervise their charges rigidly, taking care not to become obsessed with mistaken ideas of humanitarianism or swayed by personal feelings toward prisoners that might grow over a long incarceration.” Rarely did top government officials visit any Japanese prison camps. Therefore, the local commanders could do as they wished without reprimand. However, considering the indoctrination of Japanese troops, reprimand was highly unlikely. If the commander wished, he could make anything, even whistling, a crime and inflict any type of punishment, including execution.[1]
Japanese withheld aid boxes, rations, and medicine from the POWs. They fed the men one bowl of rice and ½ a cup of water each day. The majority of prisoners were put to work in mines, fields, shipyards and factories on a diet of about 600 calories a day.[2]
They beat the POWs savagely if they disobeyed orders, showed disrespect, or requested more humane treatment. They tortured POWs for information. They executed POWs in the most savage ways if they attempted to escape; crucifixion by one arm was a frequent form of torturous death. Corpses of POWs were frequently left out to rot as an example to others. Any who did escape from the camps faced impassable terrain, man-eating tigers, heat, dehydration, and recapture by the heavily fortified Japanese-held villages. Men were routinely shipped from the death camps to slave labor on the mainland of Japan. Of the men who entered camp O’Donnell, for instance, 30,172 perished. Very few escape attempts occurred in from the camps in the Pacific.

The POWs were forced to sign non-escape oaths soon after they reached the POW camps. They signed at the advice of their officers with the secret understanding that the oaths were not morally binding. Escapes were rare. Any re-captured escapees were executed. Not only were they killed in front of the other POWs, but ten additional POWs were executed as well.[3]
U.S. prisoners of war held by the Empire of Japan, 1941-1945 died at a rate exceeding 37% while in captivity. On the other hand, U.S. prisoners of war held captive by Nazi Germany died at a rate of less than 2% while held by the Germans.[4]
As the war progressed and America drew closer to the mainland of Japan two things happened. First, the propaganda campaign increasingly emphasized both the pride in Japanese greatness and the paranoia against America. Battles such as Midway were proclaimed “glorious victories” for the Japanese while reports of American atrocities became almost a daily occurrence. Japanese were told that Americans systematically butchered and raped both Japanese enemies and their own local allies. As the invasion of Japan became imminent the government began training civilians in martial skills. Children as young as three were taught how to use knives, guns, and even the katana (the traditional battle sword of the samurai). The entire populace was galvanized against any land based invasion. American soldiers had already faced a staggering butcher’s yard on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and, most significantly, on Okinawa. Japanese also experienced tremendous losses. For instance 23,000 Japanese had been killed on Saipan alone. 6,000 died at Corregidor. On Iwo Jima 216 Japanese survived of the 20,000 defending the island. In a conventional invasion of Japan Americans would have to face Kamikaze attacks, the Japanese regular army, and an entire civilian population trained to fight door to door, house to house, closet to closet. American military advisors suggest a conservative estimate of one million American military casualties and perhaps five million Japanese casualties. Such an invasion would prove to be a blood bath for Japanese and Americans alike.
Second, the Japanese wanted to erase all record of their atrocities against the POWs. They began burning all records at the POW camps. Then came the orders to liquidate the POWs themselves. At Palawan POWs were forced to dig air-raid shelters. They were then herded into the shelters, walled in by the Japanese using gasoline drums, doused with gasoline and set on fire. Any men who tried to escape were machine gunned to death. It was shear murder. When Van der Post writes about the rumor about executing the prisoners he wasn’t just talking about a bullet to the head. It was quite horrific what the Japanese did and what they planned to do on a large scale would have been barbaric on an equal to Auschwitz or Dachau. The need to end the war quickly became imperative. We had to convince the Japanese to surrender and surrender immediately; both for their sake and for ours.
But the Japanese would not surrender, nor would they listen to reason. The populace knew only that savage Americans were coming to rape and torture them and kill their beloved divine emperor. The militarists were absolutely fanatical in their intent to auto flambé. Self immolation was their alternative to defeat and they intended to take every Japanese citizen and as many American soldiers with them as they possibly could. Moreover, the Japanese had, apparently, gained knowledge through the Germans and their own spy-ring in America of how to effect nuclear fission. They were working on a nuclear bomb. On the very morning of August 6th, Yoshitaki Mimura, a scientist at the Hiroshima Bunri University told 500 Japanese army officers that they were days (days!) away from completing a new weapon called an atomic bomb. As he spoke there was the sound of an allied B-29 overhead, a flash of light, and Hiroshima was incinerated.
America had tested the nuclear bomb once before the holocaust on Japan on July 16, 1945 at a remote desert in New Mexico. Aside from the incineration of the local floral and fauna (lizards and cactus and stuff) there was no damage to be measured. Sand had been turned to glass and rock had been bleached white, but there was no way to assess how destructive this would be against a civilian center. Nevertheless, the American scientists knew they had a powerful weapon at their hands. We therefore warned the Japanese high command that unless they surrendered we would annihilate them, city by city. My suspicion is that the militarists either ignored this ultimatum thinking that the Americans were not so advanced on the Manhattan project, or else interpreted the “annihilation” to be through conventional forces and thus great loss of life. Japanese Prime Minister Kantoro Suzuki responded to the ultimatum with a single word Mulusatsu, “kill with silence”; or in the vernacular “shut up and kill us.” I don’t think they as yet knew of the destructive payload which a nuclear bomb would deliver. These ultimatums were kept from the Japanese populace who had no idea such a bomb even existed. In the days before August 6th, B-17s made several literature drops over Hiroshima telling the populace to evacuate because a great conflagration was imminent. The Japanese government assuaged the local concerns by calling the drops “Allied propaganda.”
When the bomb hit on August 6th, the Japanese were mere days away from finishing their own bomb and from executing their POWs. They had no intent of capitulation. In fact Tojo’s officers attempted to assassinate him in April of 1944. He resigned in disgrace in August and was replaced by the more militant and more savage Kuniaki Koiso who had brutalized the Korean populace during his stay as governor. Koiso assured the emperor that the Japanese would “fight to an ultimate victory!” The devastation of the bomb on Hiroshima, then was a shock to the Japanese system. But moreover, it convinced the populace of the island that their government was terribly and devastatingly wrong about Japanese invulnerability. Rumor of the conflagration spread throughout the countryside within hours, as though some god had touched down on the face of the island. The Japanese peasant, hitherto trusting in his government to protect him and in his own strength to defend against the barbarians was violently awakened to the reality of the modern world; an awakening from which I think they are still recovering.
But the government still would not surrender. Either through pride, fanaticism, or perhaps just a lack of communication about just how bad things were, they continued to defy the Allies and proceed with their plans to execute POWs and defend the mainland. Nagasaki was flattened three days later. I would not be surprised if these two cities weren’t the beginning of a campaign by the allies, rather than two isolated events, to hammer every single Japanese city until they surrendered or were no more. Tensions were that high that the military and most of the American populace probably would have agreed with the program. But such a program never came to fruition because the second bomb broke the back of the militarists. Surrender was declared and the emperor spoke on Japanese radio for the first time personally telling his people to “endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable.”
In retrospect, it seems that the atrocities and brutality of the Japanese were lost amidst the horror of the nuclear bomb. Our attention, captured swiftly and suddenly by the threat of the Soviets, shifted from hatred of the Japanese for their arrogance and barbarism to sympathy for all they suffered from their government and the effects of nuclear fallout. The whole business was pretty horrid, but given the circumstance there was no alternative. Had we not dropped the bomb, no amount of negotiation, reason, appeasement could have deterred the Japanese from butchering our captured soldiers, the local natives of Southeast Asia, and their own people. In war, one must be a realist and choose the lesser of two evils. Though the dropping of the bombs was an evil of nauseating proportion the alternative would have been far worse.
George Washington often stated that the victory of the colonists over the British was nothing short of a miracle. Without the intervention of Providence, he said, the Americas as a separate nation would not be. I think a similar thing could be said of the war in the Pacific (and probably in Europe, too). The cracking of the code; the escape of MacArthur; the survival of the aircraft carrier, Enterprise, after Pearl Harbor; the near fatal successes on the islands of Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Okinawa, and the Coral Sea; the suicidal decision of the Japanese high command to employ kamikaze tactics thus resulting in the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”; and, yes, the Bomb all seem to have been near miraculous events contributing to the defeat of the Japanese and the success of the Allies in the Eastern theater. Imagine for a moment if the code had not been cracked, Yamamato had survived and the invasion of Hawaii and then California had ensued. Imagine if the Americans had failed to develop the bomb and an invasion of the mainland transpired with a butcher’s bill approaching genocide. Imagine if the Japanese had conversely succeeded in creating a bomb and deploying it upon one of our cities on the West coast as they most assuredly would have done. And imagine a Japan still stuck in the 17th century which had never awakened to the generosity and kindness displayed by the American GIs during reconstruction, had never progressed into democracy such that her citizens might enjoy greater prosperity and happiness, had never become the strong ally she now is in our current and greater war against the ideology of terror.

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