“An ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages”
Even after long seventy years of the most catastrophic event of the last century, the jury is still out on whether the bombings of the two Japanese cities were justified, morally or strategically. There are those who argue in favour of Truman's decision, flaunting the same argument as his—destruction of the two major Japanese cities saved several million American soldiers' lives. And to lace it with a patina of morality they add "and the lives of many thousands Japanese too". Many opine that it was absolutely unnecessary.
It was not as if Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only Japanese cities to come under severe aerial assaults during the Second World War. Strategic bombardment or firebombing of one another's strategic conurbations was a plan adopted by both the Allies and the Axis Powers. And while one gets to hear and read more about the Battle of Britain, glorifying the role of the Royal Air Force against Luftwaffe's action in support of Hitler's strategy to bomb to smithereens London and other industrial cities of Britain, we come across very little about the destruction of German and Japanese towns and cities by allied aerial bombardment—Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo among which stand out as having suffered the most devastation.
In fact between November 1944 and June 1945 assault by USAAF B-29 bombers on Tokyo destroyed an estimated 286,358 buildings, killed an estimated 100,000, more than the number that perished in the two atomic bombings, and injured 1,000,000. London pales when compared to the sheer scale of destruction wreaked on Tokyo during those seven months.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different stories though. The "Little Boy" and "Fat Man", names of the two atom bombs, the first dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the second three days later on Nagasaki, were the only two instances of atomic attack which have not been repeated, thankfully, since then. But the effects of the explosions have been carried down by the succeeding generations of Japanese, very much like the many North Vietnamese who bear the debilitating after-effects of "Agent Orange" used by the US military against North Vietnam, even to this day. And thus it is no wonder that a leading American Catholic voice, Commonweal, in August 1945 termed Hiroshima and Nagasaki as "Names for American Guilt of Shame."
Reportedly, even now 56 percent of Americans believe that the bombing was necessary, which was not the case, going by the comments and reflections of many US senior military officers. Obviously another instance of "manufacturing consent" through demonising and over-blowing the potential of an adversary, as we saw being done in the case of the invasion and occupation of Iraq; more than 100 rationales were cooked-up for the occupation of that country. Japan in the spring of 1945, was an adversary that was already defeated and seeking the help of a third country while suing for an "honourable peace".
According to General Eisenhower, "Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary … 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 that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face.'"
Similarly, Admiral Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Truman, commented, "It is my opinion that the use of the 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 not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."
The New York Times had this to say of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "We are the inheritors to the mantle of Genghis Khan and of all those in history who have justified the use of utter ruthlessness in war." Norman Thomas, a six-time presidential candidate, called Nagasaki "the greatest single atrocity of a very cruel war."
There are others reasons why Truman went for the use of atomic weapon. But that can be a separate subject of discussion altogether. For us let us revisit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if only to remind ourselves of the havoc that can be perpetrated on humanity by those whose obsession for power causes them to suspend their faculties and use the most destructive weapon ever produced by mankind on mankind itself.
It takes only a single egoistic maniac to pull the nuclear trigger, as the world witnessed on August 6, 1945. And there are still a few of them about with their hands on the button. It is a near miracle that nuclear war has been avoided so far but escalation of the threat has continued due to the activities of some countries.
The non-proliferation regime is skewed. In the Middle East we have a country—Israel, considered in the polls of European public opinion, according Chomsky, as the most dangerous country in the world, "which has armed itself with nuclear weapons which inspires other countries in the region to do so". In South Asia we have the most unique situation of two nuclear-armed states sharing a common border and constantly on the throes of a conflagration.
The world must unite on, what experts claim, the two most pressing issues which threaten the species—environmental disaster and nuclear proliferation. The world has come together on the former, although the so-called leader of the free world has chosen to opt out of the Paris Agreement. But the complete denuclearisation of the world remains a far cry. We can only keep our fingers crossed.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc, (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.