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Saturday, October 11, 2003

Final Version WHY WERE NUCLEAR BOMBS DROPPED ON JAPAN TO END WWII? Some War Literature and Films To See

What follows is an exchange with two different students currently enrolled in political science 121, both their comments dealing with the decision of the Truman Administration in August 1945 to drop nuclear bombs on Japan . . . first on Hiroshima, then a few days later on Nagasaki. The decision has been a source of controversy from the start, raising both practical strategic questions and moral ones. The strategic questions boil down to one overriding concern: was it necessary to drop the bombs in order to force the Japanese government into surrendering immediately afterwards? The moral ones are more complex, as they frequently are in international life . . . especially where wars are concerned, including their conduct.

The first set of comments come from Pedro Cortez, who seems to have a vigorously commendable interest in international relations and diplomatic history, several solid courses under his belt, and a stint last year in the model UN, where he played the role of the US government in dealing with the nuclear weapons program of totalitarian North Korea. They deal with the question of US mlotives for dropping the two nuclear bombs on Japan: and in particular, whether they didn't reflect anti-Soviet concerns as WWII neared its end. The lengthy buggy reply follows.

The second set of comments has been posted by Joey Tartakovsky, a senior who has been laudably active, among other things, in journalism on campus. In that capacity, he has repeatedly tangled with the ex-cathedra ideological mumbo-jumbo that the politically correct zealots and dogmatists spew out daily --- frequently backed by put-downs in class, secret tribunals, witch-hunting, and either tolerance of student Red-Guard thugs who drive off campus any invited speakers to the right of Al Gore, or active encouragement of such antics. Not to forget invasions into the classrooms of non-conforming professors by these two-bit thugs, the inane, slogan-shouting storm-troopers of the pc movement. Joey's comments deal with the fierce resistance of Japanese soldiers as the brutal, savagely fought campaigns of US island-hopping in the Pacific drew closer to the Japanese homeland --- and especially the battle of Okinawa that raged for two months and entailed 40,000 - 50,000 American casualties, the beleaguered Japanese defenders, originally 110,000, fighting to the very end rather than surrendering. Didn't these staggering US casualties reinforce the determination of the Truman administration to avoid an invasion of Japan --- which would have entailed a mutual, massive bloodbath lasting months --- and use the nuclear bombs to end the war?

The buggy reply will follow once more. Several good historical films and books and other readings will figure in that reply as well.



I mentioned to you during the break yesterday in class that the Russians entering the war was a big factor in us using the atomic bomb. I agree that we should have had a demonstration on an uninhabited island, as some scientists at Los Alamos urged at the time. We dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima just before the Russians entered the war against Japan.

The chief reason: we had agreed on this at Yalta, months earlier, and Moscow was eager to get into the war in order to have influence on post-war Japan and in the North Asia area. Soviet thinking here was obvious: whoever had conquered a hostile axis country or had military forces in a region had a dominant say over subsequent developments. The Soviets had already been reneging on their commitments to maintain some open access for western influence in East Europe as the Red Army swept across it toward Nazi Germany.

Add to this something else. The western alliance with the Soviets had never been an easy one: it was formed only because of a common enemy, Nazi Germany, and suspicions and mutual worries haunted the alliance throughout WWII. Even then, the Nazis had reached agreement with Stalinist Russia in August 1939 to invade Poland and divide it up. Once the common enemy --- or enemies --- were defeated, the cold war was inevitable, given the bipolar nature of power in the world that emerged and the ideological rivalries between Soviet Communism and the free world.

Back in the states, did Truman use the nuclear bombs against Japan in August 1945 with an eye to the impact of such awesome power on the Soviets?

Some historians claim this. In truth, the motives may have been complex in the Truman administration, but the radical revisionist view that Japan was already clearly defeated and that the overwhelming motive was anti-Soviet seems very doubtful.




Many thanks: a stimulating commentary, just as our exchanges have been in and out of class since its start nearly three weeks ago. I wish there were dozens more like you in the class. Any professor would.

Revisionist History, the Cold War Origins, and the Nuclear Bombs on Japan

The first revisionist work to ascribe an overwhelming anti-Soviet motive in our dropping the nuclear bomb was Gar Alperovitz's work, Nuclear Diplomacy --- around 1963 or so, with some subsequent editions. Essentially, it was part of a rising New Left radicalism in American life that saw the US as a neo-imperial country and, more to the point here, essentially responsible for the cold war's eruption after WWII. In particular, Alperovitz argued that Japan was clearly defeated, that an invasion either wasn't necessary or wouldn't be costly to the US, that the Japanese government was in fact ready for any acceptable peace, and that therefore the motives for dropping the nuclear bombs on Japan had nothing to do with forcing it to surrender. Rather, it was intended to deal with the Soviet Union: first, by quickly ending the war before the Soviets entered or could extend their sphere of influence in Manchuria and China and demand a role in governing post-war Japan; and second, by sending a signal to the Soviets --- who were already violating the Yalta accords in their behavior throughout East Europe (not that Alperovitz or other revisionists argued this) --- that the US had awesome power to deal with Soviet assertiveness in spreading communism.

One of the best follow-ups, critical of Alperovitz, was Martin Sherwin's A World Destroyed, which came out in the mid-1970s. More generally, the lengthy string of revisionist works on the origins of the cold war --- all, remember, blaming the US for either callousness toward the Soviets.or raging anti-communism and over-reaction to the Communist threat, or outright imperial designs to destroy all radicalisms in the world as a prelude to establishing the American capitalist, neo-imperial empire --- was challenged by a number of historians from the outset, most notably by the distinguished historian, John Gaddis of Yale.

In 1998, he published his third or fourth book on the subject. It was the first to incorporate all the new materials that had come to light in the Soviet archives after the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union . Essentially, the book shows that none of the revisionist themes even come close to the truth as to who bore the responsibility for the cold war's start and subsequent eruption into a global conflict. See the informative customer reviews at Amazon: As for a theoretical interpretation of the cold war ---- its start, its development, and its end as the Soviet Union collapsed and international communism along with it --- the best work is by the Russian specialist and IR theorist, William Wohlforth . . . a realist theorist who has done extensive work in the Soviet archives. See his 1994-95 article in International Security: For a recent article by Wohlforth and Raymond Schweller, another realist theorist, on realism and the cold war, see Randall Schweller and William Wohlforth, "Power Test: Evaluating Realism in Response to the End of the Cold War," Security Studies (Spring 2000), pp. 62-127


Why Were the Bombs Dropped on Japan?

Probably the best short, up-to-date summary of the decisions to drop the nuclear bomb appeared in Commentary magazine in September 1995 by Donald Kagan, a historian at Yale: It's wide-ranging and notes that the war party in the Japanese cabinet refused even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki to opt for peace. The war-hawks claimed that the Emperor's decision after Nagasaki to side with the peace-party was propaganda: he had, so they claimed, been made a prisoner by the sell-out doves, and they were determined to stage a military coup, rescue the emperor, arrest and shoot the peace-party, and continue the war to the last Japanese if need be. Ultimately, the war party calculated --- as had the Emperor and the peace-party until Nagasaki was destroyed --- that the Japanese, armed to the last civilian, could inflict enough casualties on an invading US force to force the Americans to sue for peace and not occupy Japan.

Overall, what can we conclude?

In effect, this: As even the Japanese war cabinet's secretary later conceded, without the nuclear bombs, the Japanese --- who were being bombed daily anyway with huge firebombs dropped by new B-29s --- would have continued the struggle for months on end and required a US invasion. As for the invasion and its likely US casualties --- while hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were being firebombed if the war continued --- the estimates range from the high tens of thousands up to hundreds of thousands. A good book that came out not long afterwards, The Invasion of Japan, by John Ray Slates, deals at length with what we have learned from the US and Japanese archives about the planned invasion and the casualty estimates. It's imaginative "what if" history.

There is, by the way, an excellent Canadian-Japanese docu-drama called Hiroshima, which came out in 1999, using an American actor to play Truman (all the other American roles were taken by Canadians). The Japanese did the Japanese side. It seems about as good a dramatic film could be about the complexity of the decisions on both sides, and again makes clear how intransigent the Japanese war-party in the War Cabinet was right up to the very end, failing to carry off the coup against the peace-party only because the head of the army in the end faltered and committed suicide. We also know that other army elements faithful to the emperor and those who supported him were rushed to the palace to deal with any coup.



Prof Bug:

I've always heard that it was impossible to understand Hiroshima without the bloody battle for Okinawa. The Japanese military was resolved to send a message to United States about just how costly a mainland invasion would be. For that reason they defended Okinawa so determinedly for three months even when they know they couldn't hold the island with Japanese military and civilian losses reaching almost a quarter of a million. There were 110,000 Japanese troops on the island, while they had something around 2.3 million to defend the main island, even as they claimed they could muster a civilian militia of tens of millions, fighting if need be with bamboo spears.

This doesn't mean the U.S. couldn't have accepted a less than unconditional surrender or demonstrated the bomb's destructive force first, but Okinawa I think was instrumental in affecting our calculations.



Accurate comments, Joey: thanks.

The brutal, protracted battle that unfolded in Okinawa island in the late spring of 1945, fought by US Marines and Army units with a big offshore armada and air power, was far and away the bloodiest and costliest of all the vicious, hand-to-hand combat campaigns that the US had to fight in nearly four years of Pacific warfare . . . with one Japanese island-stronghold after another destroyed, at staggering cost, only after fierce fighting in steaming jungles and on steep mountain slopes, disease an ever present threat.

The Battle

An island 60 miles long and 18 miles wide, Okinawa was protected as you rightly note by 110,000 Japanese troops, burrowed furtively all over the island in deep, fortified caves connected by tunnels and various concrete fortresses up and down the mountain slopes all crammed with artillery and mortars. The battle began in April --- following the largest amphibious landing in the Pacific war --- with 60,000 US troops: two Marine and two Army divisions. The agonizing, non-stop fighting raged for 82 days, with nearly 1500 Kamikaze fighter attacks on our ships offshore an added source of US casualties. The total number of these was over 40,000! Not only that, there were 26,000 additional Marines and soldiers who had to be evacuated for psychological reasons, a mental breakdown by the battle's end. The Kamikaze attacks sank 30 US ships, and damaged 137 more. In May, huge Tropical storms turned the low-lands and slopes into a huge mudhole, even as the hand-to-hand combats went on raging to the end.

On the Japanese side, almost all the 110,000 soldiers had to be killed, one at a time, pockets of them dug in so deeply in their cave-complexes that it was necessary to go in and attack them with bayonets. Even flame-throwers didn't suffice. Toward the end, the remaining Japanese soldiers would frequently resort to group-suicide with hand grenades. On top of their deaths 42,000 Japanese civilians perished too . . . many of them in the end also choosing suicide rather than surrender to the American forces. Some sources, by the way, find both higher US casualties and far more involving Japanese civilians, perhaps as many as 100,000.

So yes . . . the battle reinforced Washington's determination to use nuclear bombs. Okinawa's dramatic impact here is brought out vividly in the book mentioned above by Slates, The Invasion of Japan The fact that only about 10,000 Japanese surrendered --- far more simply committing collective suicide in their caves, near to starvation --- only added to the impression that an invasion would be unusually costly in US lives . . . never mind that the war with Japan, without the nuclear bombs, would have continued for months and maybe over a year, all the while conventional firebombing of Japanese cities would have continued.

From that viewpoint, the nuclear bombs did their work. They avoided a mutually destructive bloodbath, separated the war-hawks in the Japanese cabinet from the peace-party, brought the Emperor around to the need for peace, and led to a calm occupation of the Japanese islands by the US forces. Millions of American fighting men in the Pacific --- not to mention millions of others being transferred from the European theater after German surrender in May --- were relieved to find out that the nuclear bombs had spared them further agony.


Other Considerations:

Over a million allied soldiers --- US, British, Australian-New Zealand, and Dutch --- were in Japanese prison camps, brutally treated by their captors. Specifically, 37% of US prisoners held by the Japanese died in captivity; the corresponding figure for those in German camps was 2.0%! Other Japanese prisoners fared worse: only 49% ever returned to their homes at the war's end. Large numbers of those who did return had been mutilated or mentally ruined, reduced to skin-and-bones. Nor was that all. Besides the western prisoners, Chinese, Filipino, Thai, Indochinese, Indonesians, and other Asians held in captivity by the Japanese were not only brutalized even more graphically, they were turned into a huge slave-labor workforce near to starvation at all times. Many were also subjects of biological experimentation. See this link.

We know that the millions of total prisoners in Japanese hands --- which included, by the way, hundreds of thousands of US, UK, Dutch, and Australian civilians interned for the war --- were all to be killed in the event of a US invasion of the Japanese home islands.


Follow-Up Readings

A graphic account of the fighting from a Marine's viewpoint --- he participated in the blood-soaked invasion of Peleliu island, only to go on and fight from start to finish in the Okinawan campaign --- is the memoirs of E.B. Sledge that came out in the early 1980s. A professor of biology at a university in Alabama, he wrote the small, remarkably observant and unsettling work privately, for his family, near the end of his life; and With The Old Breed, the title of the memoirs, so impressed those who read it that they prevailed upon him to publish it. Even then, it originally got little notice until the distinguished British military historian, John Keegan, came across it one day and was dumbstruck by its sharp-eyed literary quality. "Among the thousands of soldiers' stories, I am haunted," he said, "by one from the Pacific War . . . one of the most arresting documents in war literature."

Keegan told this to another distinguished writer, Paul Fussell --- a literary critic at Princeton, and himself a former Marine who has written vividly about the Pacific War he participated in. Fussell wrote the new introduction to the Sledge book when it was republished, gaining the reputation that it fully deserves.

On the cruel, barbarous treatment of allied prisoners in Japanese hands, there are four remarkably good films (among others). One, King Rat originally a book by James Clavell --- a British writer --- was made into a memorable film, set in a camp of starving British and Australian prisoners, with a small contingent of US captives with them, with that gifted actor, George Segal, playing the lead US role and matched by Tom Courtney as a British soldier. A second is a riveting Australian film, Prisoners of the Sun, aka Blood Oath, which takes place after the war is over and Australians liberate a Japanese prisoner-camp and put on trial the Japanese officers for war-crimes. The irony here is that the big-shot Japanese in charge, an admiral, gets off Scott-free because the US and Australia have decided after the initial war-crimes trials that they needed to rehabilitate the Japanese in the cold-war struggle with the Soviets now flaring. In the end, only one Japanese officer -- a low-level decent man, who admitted to participating in the execution of allied prisoners --- is shot, and he happens to be a Christian convert. Bryan Brown heads the Australian cast.

A third stars the British rock star, David Bowie --- who acts with surprising skill --- in a film that came out in the 1980s with the title, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Set in a Japanese prisoner camp for British and Commonwealth soldiers, it pits their military code against the far stricter, much crueler military code of the Japanese. The fourth film --- Empire of the Sun by Steven Spielberg --- is unusual compared to the first three. Told from the viewpoint of a British boy separated from his parents when the Japanese overrrun Singapore in early 1942 --- the crowd scenes filmed with glittering visual skill --- it deals with the incaraceration in a Japanese camp in China of civilians for the duration of the war, and it is one of Spielberg's most memorable films, from start to finish.


Recommended Readings

On a factual level, an excellent web site dealing with Japan's war crimes is found here: link.

A very good history of the Japanese army from the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 through WWII --- which clearly documents its transformation from an army known for its chivalry to its barbarous cruelty aand fanaticism in occupied China, the rest of Asia, and toward allied prisoners --- is Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army by a husband-wife American team, the Harries.

The racist prejudices and behavior on both sides in the Pacific War is brought out vividly in War without Mercy, by John Dower --- an immensely gifted historian, who went on to write a Pulitzer Prize winning history of the first two years of the US occupation of Japan that came out three or four years ago: Embracing Defeat In his earlier book, Dower does make clear just how much the Japanese did turn much of Asia into a charnel house.

More generally, a recent book by the gifted Dutch-British writer, Ian Buruma --- married to a Japanese woman, after decades of living in Japan --- deals with the contrast between the way in which the Germans have tried to come to terms with their monstrous war crimes of the Nazi era, as opposed to the denial and evasions that have marked Japan. See The Wages of Guilt.


A Classic Film About German War Crimes

The Australian film brings to mind an even greater film, the best perhaps ever made by Hollywood about Nazi war crimes, Judgment at Nuremberg . . . a Stanley Kramer film of the early 1960s with an astonishing gifted galaxy of actors: Spencer Tracy as the small-town US judge who heads a small tribunal after the Nuremberg Trials, Burt Lancaster as one of 4 Nazi judges put on trial for participating in war crimes --- Lancaster playing a real German who had also been a distinguished jurist and writer before the Nazi period --- Richard Widmark as the US prosecutor, the extraordinarily talented Maximiillan Schell as the German defense lawyer (he won an academy award for his role), and Marlene Dietrich as the proud German widow of a dead German general whom Tracy falls in love with (only for the emerging liason to be ended when Tracy refuses to exonerate the German judges). Judy Garland appears twice in a brilliantly portrayed cameo role, and Montgomery Cliff, another giant actor of the 1950s and 1960s, outdoes her, if possible, in a related cameo role. It's a totally gripping film, where the didactic theme never gets out of control to overwhelm the searing high-voltage drama, a clash of characters and justice hanging perilously in the background . . . politics everywhere too, as in the Australian film.

To explain briefly. The drama of the Kramer film is all the more realistic because the trial takes place during the Berlin airlift in 1948, the cold war swiftly enveloping Europe. American authorities now want to stop the trials, as they did in Japan at the same time, in order to create a new German government and military in the struggle with the Soviets; and so Tracy --- remember, a quiet, unknown small-town judge who, we learn, had just lost re-election in his New England township and has no career to return to --- is subject to increasing political pressures not to convict the German judges. He refuses to cave in. His faith in justice remains his key motive. The convictions that follow are based strictly and unambiguously on the evidence. In behaving according to law and justice, he also loses the love of Marlene Dietrich, who --- unable to save the honor of the German people from the charge of complicity in Nazi evil --- will not even answer his phone call at the end of the film.

Just before Tracy leaves the large house the US authorities have rented for him, Schell --- the German defense attorney --- shows up, unrepentant and stridently self-righteous to the end. "I'll make you a wager, your Honor: in the existing political climate, I bet none of the four judges condemned to life in prison will serve more than two or three years." (All the quotes here, needless to add, are from memory, not the script itself.)

"Herr S . . , " Tracy replies quietly, "you are a very intelligent man and I respected how you defended your clients. You're a particularly logical thinker. So no, I won't bet with you. You're probably right; it's logical, given the times we're in, that they will soon be free --- "

Schell, whose acting role as a tormented Nazi apologist desperate to save German honor by winning the trial brought him the Academy Award, smiles triumphantly.

"--- but logic isn't everything, Herr S. And nothing that politicians or you or anyone else will ever do can change the truth and the justice done here. Nothing on God's green earth can change that. Now if you will excuse me, I've a plane to catch."


There's one more scene, the finale. It's a dazzle of crackling confrontation: between the two main judges --- the American Tracy and the condemned German Lancaster --- and between the two codes of law and justice each symbolizes.

It unfolds in the prison for condemned Nazi war criminals run by US authorities. At Lancaster's request, Tracy visits him briefly in his cell . . . a man condemned to life in prison for his judicial service to the Nazi cause. Before the trial had begun, all Tracy ever knew of the Lancaster-character was his scholarly reputation as a distinguished jurist, some of whose famous law books he had studied back in Vermont over the years. At first, then, Tracy had separated Lancaster in his mind from the other three distasteful German judges on trial; try as he may, he couldn't believe a man of Lancaster's intelligence and character could serve the Nazis the way he was charged. Only as the evidence gathers, heaps of it, does he begin to see that Lancaster was in many ways the worst of the 4 judges on trial, the others either fanatical Nazis or clamoring careerists or timid men afraid to say No. They're pitiful men, corrupt morally to the core. Yes, Tracy now seemingly thinks, Lancaster was the worst: he wasn't morally debauched from the start, just the opposite, and should have known better.

In his cell, Lancaster rises when Tracy enters. He thanks him for coming --- Tracy clearly not at ease being there, uncertain why the request to see him has been made --- and tells Tracy right off that he had done the right thing in reaching the verdict he had.

"I know, Your Honor," Lancaster says, full of conviction, "what political pressures you have been subjected to the last few weeks, just as I had been in the Nazi era. You did the right thing, you served justice, and you have the respect of at least one of the men you condemned."

Tracy stares, nodding silently. His eyes have been opened by the trial. A decent man who believes in justice and withstood the pressures from his own government, he doesn't --- can't --- understand how a legal mind like Lancaster's allowed himself to become a legal instrument of monstrous injustice. After several more moments of silence, he nods again and thanks Lancaster in a scratchy voice.

Then, still ill-at ease, Tracy begins turning toward the cell door. Lancaster urges him to wait a minute more. Clearly burdened, he has something more to say --- something important. It turns out to be an effort to explain himself : "I want you to know something, your Honor. All those millions of people, all those slaughtered by the Nazis," he says with emotion: "I never knew it would come to that. Never! You have to believe me! I never knew it would come to that!"

Tracy reflects a moment. Then his head shakes slightly from side to side. "Herr L. . ., it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."


The camera still on Tracy, he turns swiftly, bangs on the cell door, and walks out into the prison corridor where hundreds of Nazi war criminals are incarcerated, an MP in front of each cell. Just before he exits the cell, the camera focuses over his shoulder, and you see the stunned look suddenly left on Lancaster's face . . . the man shattered by Tracy's pithy reply, the full rippling realization of his evil complicity in Nazi genocide and other monstrous crimes overwhelming the last of his mental defenses.

The film continues about 10 20 seconds more before the end credits come on. As Tracy moves slowly down the prison corridor to the distant exit --- the return trip to Vermont and retirement ahead of him, his duty on behalf of justice completed --- the camera shifts to a long shot of the prison interior, hundreds of MPs standing before each cell, the doors slammed shut on convicted war criminals . . . the once mighty politicians, military men, Gestapo agents, SS-criminals, top bureaucrats, and judges like Lancaster locked up for years or for life or awaiting the hangmen. All at once, a Nazi marching song begins to play. Loudly. Vigorously. With irony. Its triumphant bravura jars with the historical reality of the prison interior and the shattered look we have just witnessed left on Lancaster's face back in his cell: the Nazis, we see, have irrevocably lost, their grotesquely evil 1000-Year Reich destroyed after a mere 12 years, Germany itself bombed and divided and occupied by the allies and the major Nazi war criminals --- most of them anyway --- now meeting justice.


If the worth of a film is in part a matter of how many times you can see it over your lifetime --- and never cease being struck by its depths, intelligence, drama, humor, acting, and directing --- then Judgment at Nuremberg , like Casablanca, is one of them. I've seen the latter maybe a dozen times over 50 years now, always left wondrous by its stupendous impact. As for Judgment, maybe 7 or 8 times, and left with the same dumbstruck feeling. Both are in black-and-white and have no special digital effects, just stunning scripts, crisp direction of unusually talented actors, a remarkable sense of dramatic pacing, and the treatment of major historical themes without ever degenerating into soapbox didactics.