Hiroshima — Seventy Years On

Here it comes again, the hand-wringing, and the moralizing and the rest of it. The New Yorker reprints their 1946 piece on the 1945 bombing:

John Hersey / New Yorker

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place …


Operation Meetinghouse, Tokyo, March 10, 1945 — the single deadliest
bombing attack of World War II, carried out with conventional bombs.
Estimated more than 200,000 dead. 

I partly grew up in Santa Fe, and lived there again in the early Nineties, and the hyper-liberal “We’re Sorry” demonstrations at Los Alamos (thirty miles away) were part and parcel of the fabric of the place. Let’s start here:

Hiroshima NON Amour

Notes: Hart Williams , like Jonathan Yardley, is a member of the National Book Critics’ Circle. Body (including quotes): 1000 words, precisely. I merely wish that I would have had more space for this article. Neither book is done justice in 500 words, but that’s the biz.
Santa Fe Sun, September 1996 Issue.
© 1996 Hart Williams

Touched With Fire – The Land War in the South Pacific, by Eric Bergerud, Viking; 566 pp., $34.95.
The Historical Atlas of World War II, by John Pimlott, Henry Holt, 224 pp., $45.
History Wars,
Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 295 pp., $30.

“Not surprisingly, the critical reassessment of the A-bomb decision launched by [Gar] Alperovitz steadily gained ground after 1965 within academia, especially among younger scholars, as a succession of events eroded the credibility of public officials and their pronouncements: the optimistic bulletins that flowed from Vietnam as the body bags and the shocking TV images multiplied ….” Paul Boyer, History Wars, p. 129.

“Alperovitz, born in 1936, represented a younger generation of historians who came of age in Cold War America, when the bomb evoked … the threat of a world-destroying thermonuclear holocaust.” ibid. p. 128.


Chinese civilians to be buried alive
Nanking Massacre  (Public Domain)

Eric Bergerud’s TOUCHED WITH FIRE is, quite simply, one of the finest histories of any portion of World War II that this critic has ever read. Thoughtful, insightful, filled with a sense of detail and precision that are, evidently, all too lacking in modern “scholarship,” this tome tells the story of the land war in the South Pacific in a way that has been neglected for entirely too long. TOUCHED WITH FIRE is a masterpiece, nothing less.

Bergerud — known for his masterful Vietnam histories, RED THUNDER, TROPIC LIGHTNING, and THE DYNAMICS OF DEFEAT — reaches back in time, aided by numerous interviews of the participants, to chronicle the trench war in the Pacific, potentially one of the most savage and brutal land encounters ever seen in warfare. “I have not tried to create another account of the war in the South Pacific as viewed by important military commanders … instead … I have tried to examine and explain the war’s texture and tempo.”

In this, Bergerud succeeds admirably. Frankly, it was a vicious encounter, a “war of extermination.” Bergerud takes us into the trenches, the foxholes, and the killing jungle. (By far, the vast majority of casualties came from jungle rot, from malaria, from dysentery and other horrific diseases.) The jungle was a worse enemy, in many ways, than the Japanese.


Japanese bayonet practice with dead Chinese near Tianjin (Public Domain)

But, more to the point, Bergerud puts to the lie the commonly held (and off-handedly echoed with dogmatic zeal in HISTORY WARS) view that the war against the Japanese was a “racist” war. No, the Australians and Americans hated the Japanese with a frightening intensity, perhaps, but melanin and epicanthic folds were not the issue. The Japanese refusal to take prisoners or to surrender when the situation was hopeless (the “cult of death” as Bergerud calls it) were the main culprits. Torture, castration, suicidal human bombings and continual “psychological warfare” turned the battlefields of Guadalcanal, of New Georgia and New Guinea into killing fields of immense brutality. Add to that that most artillery, tanks, planes, and infantry tactics did NOT work, and the ground war became chillingly simple: exterminate or be exterminated, with guns, grenades and knives.


Wikipedia: Two Japanese officers, Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda
competing to see who could kill (with a sword) one hundred people first. The
bold headline reads, “‘Incredible Record’ (in the Contest To Cut Down 100
Mukai 106 – 105 Noda—Both 2nd Lieutenants Go Into Extra Innings”.

Bergerud finally succeeds in explaining to us, fifty years later, WHY the combatants often still bear a deep and abiding hatred of one another that the band-aid of “racism” does a profound disservice to. This is not a record of campaigns. And, even though Iwo Jima and Okinawa are skimmed over, without understanding this first year of the land war, no understanding of the later bloodbaths, AND the decision to drop the atomic bomb can honestly be arrived at.

Pimlott’s HISTORICAL ATLAS is an apt companion volume (covering the European Theater as well) and the maps and summaries are glorious. As a “picture” book of WWII, it is among the best I’ve read, and is highly recommended — though more verbiage would be overkill.

Which brings us to HISTORY WARS.


Soochow, China, 1938. Bodies of Chinese civilians,
killed by Japanese soldiers. (Public Domain)

The issues surrounding last year’s Enola Gay controversy are elucidated herein, and, sadly, a better title might have been “The Academy Strikes Back.” Eight scholars present their takes on the brouhaha that erupted between the Smithsonian and various veterans’ groups over “political correctness” and “revisionism.”

What is frightening here (and no doubt was NOT intended) is that the “scholars” have pulled their wagons into a circle. Nearly EVERY essay lumps those protesting the “cutting-edge” plans for an a-bomb retrospective into the Rush Limbaugh/Newt Gingrich camp (often explicitly, by name), suggesting in anything BUT a dispassionate manner that they alone are “serious historians.”

Listen: “In the words of Jonathan Yardley, one of the [Washington] Post’s columnists, the National Air and Space Museum was ‘seeking to engage in what can fairly be called anti-American propaganda.’ Yardley went on to use the controversy as a point of departure for an attack on ‘deconstructionist’ critical theory in general.” (pp. 74-5) John W. Dower’s condescending vitriol would not seem so damning were not Yardley actually the Post’s staff book critic, AND a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism. Dower begs the question: This IS deconstructionist, Post-Modern, (and clearly academic) pique (with the notable exception of Military Historian Richard H. Kohn’s superior essay).


A B-29 Superfortress. (Public Domain)

Listen to the snitty pretentions of the academicians in their choice of phrases: “serious historians,” [“US”] “heroic narrative,” “triumphal narrative,” [“THEM”, both from Dower]; “The essential American metanarrative,” “fundamentally ahistorical” [Marilyn B. Young]; “Patriotic Orthodoxy and the American Decline” [Michael S. Sherry].

Second-guessing Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become a modern academic obsession, and a Monday-morning quarterbacking going back nearly to the date of the bombing. Although “hypothetical” questions are NOT the fair purview of historical reportage, I should point out some oddities here. First, nearly EVERY historian attacks (by implication as boobery) media reports on the incident, UNLESS media reports back up what they say. Second, the Hiroshima controversy invariably is based on Truman “waiting” to see if the Japanese would surrender.

It was a WAR, people. Kamikaze attacks were taking out ships, and huge numbers of Japanese committed suicide, rather than surrender. Wait? For what?

It is not my hope or intention to convert your point of view here. I would urge you read all three books and make up your own mind. But this much is clear: Rush and Newt CAN (rarely) voice trenchant criticisms, AND the writing of the academics in this tome ironically confirms what the “boobs” were saying all along. Yardley WAS right, after all.

This ignited the usual firestorm, naturally.


Atomic Cloud over Hiroshima –
US Army Air Corps.

A self-described member of MacArthur’s staff wrote the paper and insisted that HE knew better. That we ought to have done a “demonstration” bombing to convince the Japanese we were serious. Which seemed odd, considering that the Japanese high command already denied that Hiroshima was actually real, and was just some propaganda stunt. Typical American B-29 attack. They were STILL denying its reality when the Nagasaki attack took place three days later. It took the Emperor of Japan to personally stamp his foot and demand that they listen to terms of surrender for the final act of the passion play to play out.

Remember (and especially as you watch the satanic  ritual called the “Fox News Presidential Debate” tonight) that the human capacity for self-referential consensus “reality” is so strong that you can drop AN ATOMIC BOMB on a country, and the self-deluded leadership can manage to deny its very existence, just as an entire party can deny the existence of global warming, even though the clear effects are just as terrible as were those at Hiroshima.

Usually, “moral” acts are discrete, and each to be judged separately, but Japan, and many in America and around the world pretend that Hiroshima can be viewed in vacuo, separate and distinct from Pearl Harbor, from Corregedor and the Death March to Bataan, or the Rape of Nanking, or a thousand other atrocities committed by the Japanese which are still remembered throughout Southeast Asia. To suddenly pretend that the citizens of Hiroshima were pure as the driven snow and innocents caught up in an act of pure evil is a very convenient way of looking at the reality of August 1945.


Nagasaki bomb. US Army Air Corps.

As I said above, I don’t expect to change any minds here, but take it from one anti-war pacifist, putting one’s self in the American shoes and looking through the lens of 1945, the absurd “alternative” strategies of the endless Monday Morning Quarterbacks of the past three-score and ten look like just that: absurdities.

The effectiveness of those two bombs has  been such that, in the intervening years, no one has DARED to use a nuclear device again. And, because of the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mutually Assured Destruction forestalled World War III and became, instead, a “Cold War” in which the loss of human life was miniscule compared to what might have happened were the Eastern Bloc and the Western Powers NOT constrained by that horror.

In that sense, using the calculation of Jeremy Bentham’s Hedonistic Calculus, we would have to adjudge the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on balance, a GOOD thing.


The B-29 Commander’s actual view of the aftermath
of the Hiroshima bombing. US Army Air Corps.

Ain’t no perfect answers in an imperfect world.

But then,  we can count on those who have never lived in it to provide the counter-argument.


The Crew of the Enola Gay — the plane that dropped the atomic 
bomb on Hiroshima, Japan  on August 6, 1945. (Public Domain)


Here’s a countertpoint from Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. Well worth a listen, whether y0u agree or not:


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3 responses to “Hiroshima — Seventy Years On

  1. Pingback: Hiroshima — Seventy Years On | 2016 Democratic debate

  2. courtney

    As always, eloquently put. Having been born considerably after the event, I have always sided with those who believe that, given the circumstances, Mr Truman had no alternative course of action.

    However, you have studied this matter considerably and perhaps could answer an uninformed query: had the US chosen to detonate the first device offshore of Japan, displaying the awful power of fission while avoiding the catastrophic loss of life in Hiroshima, is there any chance that the Japanese warlords would have taken the hint and stood down?