Every year, debate recommences on the merits and morality of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on their August 6 and 9 anniversaries, respectively. For those who have moved beyond “Remember Pearl Harbor,” the most popular justification is that they were the best of the available two options — that inducing the unconditional surrender of Japan via the employment of the atomic bombs was preferable to the alternative of a full-scale invasion with even greater loss of life.
The failure of this argument is that there were never two options. There were three. The third was to end the war in the same manner as the vast majority of conflicts have been concluded throughout history: with a negotiated peace.
The standard two-pronged rejoinder is that the Japanese regime was so abhorrent that unconditional surrender was the only acceptable option. And that moreover, in retrospect, the ends justify the means, that the structural changes to Japan, made possible by its unconditional surrender, have proven to be in the best interests of all concerned, the Japanese included.
There is certainly a measure of truth to this view. The Japan of today enjoys a high degree of social justice and an associated sense of inclusion. This has translated into a lack of random crime and a lifestyle of which most within Japan feel proud.
The foundation of this cohesion can be found in the Allied Occupation, which included reforms to the imperial system, enhancement of workers’ rights, and a policy of land redistribution. Without unconditional surrender, many of these reforms would have occurred at a considerably slower rate or not at all.
The Relative Moral Standings
Questions arise, however, as to who has the moral right to trade off the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the virtues that arguably resulted from the unconditional surrender of Japan. If made by an atomic attack survivor, a relative of a victim, or even a present-day resident of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the tradeoff would be forwarded from a firm moral standing.
Of a less solid but still substantial moral position would be that of a Japanese national, but one without geographic familial association with the atomic attacks. As Japan was extensively bombed by conventional means, the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are less than unique. Nearly all of Japan shared in the terror bombing campaign designed to facilitate unconditional surrender.
When it comes to non-Japanese, however, especially Americans or other members of the Western alliance, issues of partiality arise. It is all very well to state that the ends justify the means when the means are endured by others. But does the same reasoning hold when the means are sustained by one’s own?
The Destruction of Philosophies
In calling for the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers at the Casablanca conference of 1943, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt defined that policy’s ultimate aim as the “destruction of the philosophies” which have led to “conquest and the subjugation of other people.”
As reasonable as this may sound, it ignores that the Japanese were not the only imperial combatants of the Asia-Pacific War. The Western imperial presence — one of conquest and subjugation within Asia ー was buttressed on a diligently maintained myth of white superiority, a philosophy every bit as repugnant as that maintained by the Japanese.
The rationale behind the employment and cultivation of the white superiority myth was the demographic realities which the Western colonialists were confronting. Some of the excuses were that Asia was a densely populated region. There were simply too many people for the colonial soldiers to intimidate and control by military might alone. The region could not be held unless the people of Asia accepted the notion of Western rule as the natural order of things.
The following two examples, one from near the start of the war and one soon after its end, illustrate how conscious colonial administrators were of the myth’s vulnerability, and the extent of their efforts to preserve it.
In late 1941, Lady Diana Cooper, the wife of a resident cabinet member, removed her shoes before entering the Shwedagon pagoda in British Burma. She was reprimanded by Governor Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, who claimed she “had dealt such a blow to white prestige” that Burma might be lost.
In postwar Singapore, following reoccupation after Japan’s defeat, the Western internees were left in their camps for several weeks, without even fresh linen. The newly arrived administrators, frequenting the best clubs and hotels, did not want them around. “The civilians carried with them the stench of failure of 1942,” state Bayley and Harper in Forgotten Wars, Freedom and revolution in Southeast Asia (Harvard University Press, 2010), adding that “their physical dilapidation impeded the restoration of white prestige.”
Destruction of the White Superiority Creed
For all of their misdeeds during the Asia-Pacific War, the Japanese were nonetheless successful in destroying the white superiority creed.
The initial breach was the ease with which the Japanese military routed the colonial armies. There were few significant defensive stands during the initial Japanese advance. The colonial forces were largely swept aside.
The second was the conduct of the colonial armies as the Japanese advance progressed. They engaged in scorched earth tactics while retreating, showing little regard for the populations they were leaving behind. Moreover, large numbers of the colonial soldiers rampaged and rioted within civilian zones when the reality of defeat had become clear.
The third was the sight of the colonial troops and administrators being marched to their internment camps. The Japanese were aware of the extent to which the white superiority myth had been employed by the Western powers to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the Asian masses. Japanese commanders paraded the white interlopers down the most public avenues and streets: humiliation marches, for all to see.
These fundamental changes in the relationship between Asia and the West notwithstanding, at war’s end, the imperial Western administrations had every expectation of being welcomed back into their colonies as liberators. They could not have been more wrong.
The genie was out of the bottle. It could not be put back in.
In the postwar years, the nations of Asia were able to leverage their numerical strength to wear the colonial powers down. They had all obtained independence before the passing of 30 years.
How long would it have taken if not for the Japanese destruction of the white superiority myth? As with the reforms within postwar Japan: at a considerably slower rate, or not at all.
Which Ends and Which Means?
The humiliation of their ancestors being viewed as a “necessary evil” for the destruction of the myth of white superiority and the greater good of a more expeditious Asian independence, is something that many within the West will find odious in the extreme. That can be understood. But do they concurrently feel that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more than justified under the same means-to-an-ends rationale?
They may also decry “whataboutism!” — the default response whenever Western misdeeds within Asia are made plain. But that would miss the point.
The essential purpose of historical examination is for the errors of the past to not be remade. To that end, residual evidence of the philosophy that buttressed the Japanese imperial drive is very light on the ground. The Western doctrine, however, in the form of white nationalism, still looms disturbingly large.
A selection of other articles on this topic:
- EDITORIAL｜Fight Efforts By China, Russia to Rewrite WWII History Against Japan
- How Students Are Keeping Maizuru City History of Japanese WW2 Returnees Alive
- [Bookmark] Placing the Awa Maru Incident in the History of Maritime Disasters
- Daughter of the ‘Enemy’ Speaks of Reconciliation 75 Years After the End of WWII
- Do Japanese Art Swords Surrendered after WWII Constitute War Loot?
- Finally, a Statue for General Higuchi who Saved Thousands of Jews from Nazi Persecution
Author: Paul de Vries