The “Journey of Repentance” to be staged in Japan this summer by a handful of Tacoma-area anti-nuclear folks seems little more than moral preening.
But the big, angry response it’s gotten from this newspaper’s readers (see opposite page) shows that American feelings about World War II remain raw 64 years after the war ended. What’s mostly overlooked in this latest dispute over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the wartime context of the nuclear strikes on those cities.
Each time someone condemns the atomic bombings, someone else snarls back about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Bataan death march. But the issue is more complex than Pearl Harbor vs. Hiroshima. The bombs reflected the industrial nature of the conflict – a “total war” that drove attacks not only on enemy forces but also on enemy homelands.
Opponents of the nuclear bombings tend to see them as unique moral horrors. But in terms of their killing power – far less than later nuclear warheads – the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were simply more efficient ways of visiting death on cities and factories. Conventional bombers had already killed vast numbers of noncombatants before the atom bombs fell.
A single American bombing raid on Tokyo, in March 1945, burned much of the city and killed at least 100,000 people – probably more than the bombing of Nagasaki. The main difference was it took 334 bombers to incinerate Tokyo and one bomber to incinerate Nagasaki. Yet the noncombatants in Tokyo were just as dead.
The atomic bomb dramatically shifted war-making from the U.S. military to the U.S. workers who created the weapon – at Hanford, among other places. But factories had long before become the mainstay of mechanized armies. That reality persuaded German, British and American leaders to order strategic bombing campaigns against industrial targets.
Then there was “terror bombing” – air strikes on urban populations designed to break the enemy’s will to fight. The American attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki – and Tokyo – fit the description. But the practice was begun by the Japanese themselves in Canton and Nanking in 1937 and by the Germans in Poland in 1939.
Massive bombing and civilian death were built into the murderous logic of World War II. Ultimate responsibility for all the hell unleashed in that war ultimately falls on the people who started it. Historians will argue forever about whether the atomic bombs were needed to force Japan’s surrender – but there’s no argument about the conventional fire-bombings. Not a single American bomb would have fallen on Japan had that country’s dictatorship not launched a terrifying, atrocity-ridden rampage of conquest.
If anyone’s going to start “repenting” this long after the fact, the apologies shouldn’t stop at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.