August 12, 2013
Originally published August 9, 2013 at FFF.org
Sixty-eight years ago today a president of the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a city full of innocent Japanese. It was the second time in three days that Harry Truman had done such a thing: He had bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The fatalities in the two cities totaled 150,000–246,000. The victims – mostly children, women, and old men – suffered horrible deaths in the blasts and firestorms. Only shadows remained of those who were vaporized. Many more were injured; others later died from radiation sickness.
Appallingly, history has been kind to Truman, and people who profess a variety of political views claim to admire the “plucky” plain-speaking guy from Independence, Mo. As I see it, however, no condemnation could be harsh enough, for if Truman wasn’t a mass murderer, no one was. (Truman said no to a bombing demonstration on an uninhabited island.) He was a liar too. In announcing the first bombing, he called Hiroshima an “Army base.” But author Greg Mitchell writes, “Hiroshima did contain an important military base, used as a staging area for Southeast Asia, where perhaps 25,000 troops might be quartered. But the bomb had been aimed not at the ‘Army base’ but at the very center of a city of 350,000, with the vast majority women and children and elderly males.”
Nevertheless, in his Aug. 9 radio address to the American people, Truman said, “We wished in the first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians.”
And Nagasaki? It, Mitchell writes, “had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan’s increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents…. Some 35,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 or more fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb’s blast in Hiroshima.”
Nothing can justify what Truman did – neither revenge for the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor nor avoidance of a U.S. invasion of Japan. (Truman first justified the bombings in terms of vengeance.) Top American military leaders – Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Leahy among others – opposed the bombings. The estimate of American casualties in an invasion have been grossly exaggerated, even invented out of whole cloth. While guesses ranging from half a million to millions are bandied about, Truman’s Secretary of State James Byrnes said the death rate would be in the thousands. But even if we accept the high guesses, why was the slaughter of Japanese noncombatants preferable to the deaths of military personnel, even if many on both sides were conscripts? (See Ralph Raico’s “Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Anthony Gregory’s “Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the US Terror State,” David Henderson’s “Remembering Hiroshima,” and Charles W. Johnson’s “11:02 A.M.”)
Why do people today assume an invasion would have been necessary without the bombings? American military leaders did not believe it. Japan had already been defeated; its leaders were suing for peace, though they resisted Truman’s unreasonable demand for unconditional surrender, which appeared to require removal of the emperor. (In the end, the emperor remained.)
In fact, America could have – and should have – simply gone home, neither bombing nor invading. Moving back a step, we should also reject the article of faith that the attack on Pearl Harbor justified the American war against Japan. Even had the attack not been deliberately provoked or in some manner foreseen by the Roosevelt administration, it could not have justified the American state’s taxation, conscription, suppression of dissent, and the foreseeable mass killing of noncombatants . (All wars are double wars: States wage war against the populations they rule as well as against the foreign populations of the opposing countries.) The war against Japan was not inevitable — even after Pearl Harbor (which was a military base). It was a choice. What should the U.S. have done? Sue for peace.