Justifications and Racism: Hiroshima Day - August 2, 2004

by Paul Hamel

It is encouraging that we continue to gather to remember the atrocity that occurred 59 years ago today. In the next couple of minutes I would like to have us think about the destruction of the thousands of people in Hiroshima and, three days later in Nagasaki as one of many premeditated crimes against humanity which occurred during WWII. Indeed, I was thinking about Hiroshima in this context since recently I was confronted by an excellent US scientist who, even in 2003, continued to assert the falsehood that the use of the atomic weapons was justified on the grounds that they precipitated the surrender of Japan in WWII and prevented the deaths of up to half a million US soldiers.

This myth of the “lives saved” has been, of course, thoroughly discredited. Documents from the US government, for example, as well as from the diaries of the Chiefs of staff of the US War Department clearly showed that this justification for the use of atomic weapons was not relevant. Rufus Miles in a 1985 analysis published in International Security, entitled “The Strange Myth of Half a Million Lives Saved” concludes:

For nearly four decades, the belief that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs averted hundreds of thousands of American deaths-far more than those bombs inflicted on the Japanese-has been a part of accepted history. It was this judgment, more than any other factor, that seemed to give legitimacy to the American use of nuclear weapons. Discovering that this premise was false should help to stimulate a hard rethinking of other premises of U.S. nuclear weapons policies.

The historian Gar Alperovitz in 1995 published a paper entitled “Hiroshima: Historians Reassess” quoting Samuel Walker of the US Nuclear regulatory Commission he states:

Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.

All of these detailed analyses revealed that Japan had collapsed and that they were actively seeking surrender to the US. Furthermore, as was known in August of 1945, the targets for these bombs were, in fact, undefended, civilian populations.

Alperovitz concludes by saying “To raise questions about Hiroshima is to raise doubts about the moral integrity of the country and its leaders. It is also to raise the most profound questions about the legitimacy of nuclear weapons in general.” This very issue, of the moral integrity of the leaders, that the victors may in fact be war criminals was discussed recently in the film Fog of War where Robert McNamara refers to his discussions with the US General in charge of the bombing campaign in Japan :

If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals…. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

Mr. McNamara, of course leaves the question hanging. But we need to understand that the question is barely relevant. What ought to be the question is why do we not bring our war criminals to justice? When will the war criminals of the west be held accountable for their crimes?

Let me return briefly to Rufus Miles’ assertion that Hiroshima should “…stimulate a hard rethinking of other premises of U.S. nuclear weapons policies,” Here I would like to ask another question pertinent to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. This question was elegantly raised by Michael Ondaatje in his book, The English Patient. Was the act of using this atomic weapon, or as he puts it “This tremor of Western wisdom,” against the people of Japan predicated on a fundamental racism inherent in our western society? Indeed, through his Canadian character, Caravaggio he says: “He knows the young soldier is right. They would have never dropped such a bomb on a white nation.”

So to end, I suggest to you that the profound lessons from the crime that was the atomic destruction of Hiroshima are still relevant in 2004. I fear that when we consider the newest generation of nuclear weapons, their unending proliferation and our habit of killing civilians wholesale in undefended places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Albert Einstein’s prophetic words that “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking” sadly remains as true today as they did 59 years ago.