Thursday, August 06, 2009


Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

64 years ago today, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb ever deployed, on the city of Hiroshima in southern Japan. Three days later, we hit Nagasaki with a second. These bombs, then jocularly named “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, respectively, are still the only atomic bombs ever used against a people.

If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.

— U.S. President Harry Truman, after the bombing of Hiroshima

That bears repeating: despite our rhetoric about who has what in the way of weapons of mass destruction, the United States remains the only nation ever to attack with an atomic bomb. Accounts are that the 13-kiloton “Little Boy” — extremely inefficient by today’s standards — destroyed 70% of the city and killed 70,000 people instantly. Many more, perhaps that many again, died over time from injuries and radiation. And despite our demands for disarmament, the Unites States retains a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons at the ready.

Whether deploying those bombs was ethical or not is an ongoing matter for debate. Some say that deaths and damage from a continued war would have far surpassed what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Others — myself among them — find it unconscionable to level two entire cities and to kill such a large civilian population. In any case, U.S. presidents since, including both the first George Bush and Bill Clinton, have refused to issue a national apology for the bombings.

The Boston Globe’s periodic feature called The Big Picture has posted a photo essay on the Hiroshima bombing.

Today, Hiroshima is a thriving, modern, technological city, rebuilt literally from the ground up. And the next IETF meeting, the 76th, will be held there in November. I’m looking forward to attending the meeting and to visiting the city... and to seeing what the Japanese have built back up from what the U.S. government of my father’s day destroyed.

[Update: See the discussion in the comments, here and following.]

[This post's title comes from composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and the time of the post is the local time of the bomb drop.]


Dawn said...

Thought provoking, Barry. I look forward to when you visit the city and share it with us.

be well...

The Ridger, FCD said...

The Writer's Almanac had a bit on John Hersey's Hiroshima piece today. It ends:

John Hersey's piece appeared a few weeks later, in The New Yorker's last issue of August. Hersey would later say, "What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it's been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima."

Cesc said...

Dear Barry:

I was surfing the web looking for info on Pedereski's beautiful piece "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" when I happened on your site.

What I read was quite shocking to me.

You managed to write that whole entry without mentioning, even in passing the historical context of Hiroshima.

To wit, you ignored the long wars of aggression launched by Japan and its military that culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the military conquest of half of the Pacific Ocean.

There really is no debate about Hiroshima, unless you count a handful of revisionist historians seeking headlines by pseudo-provocative theses.

I can't help but wonder where you got your historical information. Did you not know that Japan had started arming and drilling its civilian population, transforming them into soldiers?

If anyone owes an apology to the victims of Hiroshima, it's the Japanese government, in the name of Emperor Hiro-Hito and his prime minister Tojo.

They're the ones who started the war. They're the ones who could have ended it at any moment. They're the ones who still would not surrender after Hiroshima.

I could not help feeling quite upset at reading you planned to go to Hiroshima and feel guilty about America while there.

Do you not realize that Japan's peace and prosperity flow directly from America's decision not to accept anything but unconditional surrender of the Axis powers? Do you think that modern city you rightly look forward to seeing owes nothing to the amazing work of General McArthur as caretaker of Japan after the war?

Ignoring history the way you did in that post is not only an insult (I assume unwitting) to the brave men and women who fought for the world's freedom from the fascism of Tojo, Mussolini and Hitler, it's also quite dangerous as this complete lack of historical knowledge makes it so that you, and the people that read you, will remain ignorant of the lessons of history, which is the best way to repeat its most tragic hours.

Barry Leiba said...

Cesc, thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate having your opinion here.

A few words of response:

First, I’m glad you’ve given me a chance to say an important thing that I neglected: that I have complete respect and gratitude for all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fought — and fight, today — for their country. Our military men and women have certainly had a great part in making the U.S. what it is today.

Second, one can very well criticize a decision made, an action taken, without its being an insult or matter of disrespect. Harry Truman, along with his advisors, made a decision with which I disagree. It’s part of what we are, in our culture of freedom, that we can make such criticism and still respect and support the leaders who make those decisions. It’s certainly possible that, in the end, it was the best way to end things... and I’m sure that President Truman did not take the decision lightly.

Third, and relating back to the first, it was Harry Truman who was responsible, not the American troops who carried it out. I give no criticism to them for it at all. I note as well, as you do, that it was Emperor Hirohito and General and Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō who were responsible for the various invasions leading up to the war, and for continuing the war — I do know the history.

[And, by the way, Tōjō was no longer in power at the time of the bombings (it was Kantaro Suzuki then), and had nothing to do with the decision not to surrender after Hiroshima, the decision that led to the Nagasaki bombing. Tōjō was later convicted of war crimes, accepted responsibility for them, and was hanged in 1948. General MacArthur made sure that Hirohito and the imperial family were not tried for war crimes, and took no responsibility for them.]

This also means that I don’t blame the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we well know, the people and the leadership are widely separated, and even more so in Japan at that time. And the propaganda machine was running well.

Fourth, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both military targets, so this wasn’t just picking some random residential cities. Still, leveling the entire cities seems extreme to me... with knowledge of the history. As I said, U.S. presidents since Mr Truman have supported his decision. It may well be that President Truman did the best thing with the capabilities, information, and situation of the time.

Finally, I see where you read that I will “feel guilty” while I’m visiting the city. Maybe somewhat, yes, but that’s not primarily it — I can’t accept guilt for something done by those a generation or two before me, any more than I can blame others for what their ancestors did. I’ll go there to enjoy the phoenix that rose from the atomic ashes.

Charles said...

Hi Barry,

I noted your blog entry of August 6, Hiroshima Threnody. I am providing
some items which might be considered when discussing the whys and
wherefores of the horrors of Hiroshima.

The first was extracted from a letter to the editor I read somewhere
and sometime in the past.

My Hiroshima

At the Hiroshima Memorial Museum they do not

Remember Pearl Harbor

or the invasion of Manchuria
or the death march at Bataan
or any other atrocities of the Greater
East Asia Co-Proprosperity Sphere.

Nor do they remember that Hiroshima's horror
ended a war that took millions of lives ---
Japanese, American, British, Chinese,
and many others.

Nor do they consider the alternative,
the inevitable invasion,
with untold thousands more bodies falling
on the beaches, in the mountains, on the plains.

But the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
so stunned the world
that in war no nuclear bombs were dropped
for a half-century or more,
that small wars were contained.

Fear balanced fear;
two world wars in the 50 years before,
none in the next 50.

What is the calculus of war?

Counting the dead? Measuring the pain?

Or estimating what would otherwise have happened?

Did the 66 thousand Hiroshima dead die in vain?

Herbert S. Bailey, Jr.

I don't remember where I found this but I found it compelling enough to

Two fairly recent books about the end of the war in the Pacific cast
some interesting lights on the Japanese psyche at that time. I find
the discussion in these books to be scary, especially since I have a
grandson currently in Japan teaching English to the Japanese.

Downfall by Richard Frank

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944--45 by Sir Max Hastings

One cannot draw conclusions from just two books but the subject has been
covered by thousands of other books over many years by some very
reputable authors.

Charles Young

Barry Leiba said...

Thanks very much, Charles, for adding your thoughts, and giving us more to read and to think about.

Anonymous said...

When the two atomic bombs were dropped, my father was a reporter on Yank, the Army newspaper. If there had been -- as planned and expected -- a D-Day style invasion of Japan, he'd have gone in with invading troops to cover the story. I was raised to believe -- and I believe -- that ending the war quickly saved countless American and Japaneses lives.

Considering how forcefully Japanese soldiers fought for meaningless rocks in the Pacific, they'd have fought that much harder to repel invaders of their home islands. Of course destroying the two cities was tragic. But as has been noted here, it was a consequence of a militaristic Japan starting a world war, not something the US sought to do.

It's profound revisionism to -- 64 years later -- delicately debate the ethics of using weapons which ENDED a war that had already killed almost fifty million people, and surely saved many more -- including Japanese -- from death.

I believe the Japanese have been reluctant to apologize for their militaristic aggression and war crimes. I regret that use of atomic weapons was necessary but see no reason for the US to apologize for using them.

Barry Leiba said...

Thanks for your comment.

You point out something that's always puzzled me — the importance of those "meaningless rocks". I understand, at least a little, the military aspects — using them as stepping stones and bases, a defensive perimeter or a place from which to launch attacks.

Still, it's always amazed me how many people died on these rocks — places like Iwo Jima — in efforts to retain control of them, or to wrest them from the other side.

Cesc said...

Thank you for your kind response, Barry :)

I think I may be able to explain a bit why Pacific islands were an important military target at the time.

It has to do with the range of ships and planes and the need to refuel and resupply them.

While today, our nuclear-powered aircraft carriers can stay at sea for up to five years without refueling (they'd still have to resupply foodstuff and the like), this wasn't the case at the time.

Similarly, we have today planes that can literally fly around the earth with the help of in-air refueling. This wasn't the case back then.

This is the reason why Japan attacked Midway, with the intention of occupying it, in the months after Pearl Harbor. They did not have the wherewithal to invade Pearl Harbor because of impossibly long line of supply. They needed Midway to get closer.

Had they been successful, they may even have been able to land on the West Coast.

Similarly, when the tide of war turned (at Midway actually), the Allies needed bases close to Japan to launch an invasion and provoke the surrender.

Also, strategic bombing required the closest bases possible. For instance, the American 8th Air Force was quite ineffective at first flying off England because they did not have fighter cover.

With the arrival of the Mustang, Thunderbolt and Lightning, the 8th Air Force became a potent weapon in destroying Nazi war-making ability.

There is a tendency in historical writing to forget about historical context to judge actions based on attitudes of our time.

I call this "revisionism", although I'm not sure all would agree with that nomenclature.

This type of analysis is to me entirely a-historical and leads some writers to ridiculous conclusions like condemning Washington because he was a slave-owner, when in reality, Washington is one of the most enlightened leader any country has ever had. He certainly was not perfect, but judging him by modern sensibilities obscures his impact on history and obscures the lessons of history.

My problem with your original piece is that it lacked that context (that you knew, but did not make clear).

To get on a wider stage, it is quite upsetting to me to see so much ink devoted to second-guessing, for instance, the strategic bombing that essentially freed the world of Nazism and Japanese fascism or whether FDR knew about Pearl Harbor, while nary a thought is spent on how the Western powers failed, by inaction and cowardice to stop Hitler when they could have done it at a very low cost in human lives.

There is an important lesson that goes untaught while much time is spent debating whether we used too much force to subdue an enemy intent on our destruction.

A little-known fact about strategic bombing concerns the run-up to D-Day.

In order to make it difficult for German reinforcements to reach the beach front, General Eisenhower wanted to bomb the rail system, Prime Minister Churchill and his War Cabinet were less than enthused by this idea because of the likelihood that the Allies would end up killing a number of the very French people they were trying to free. A hot debate ensued that was ultimately won by Eisenhower. The bombings proceeded and a number of innocent French civilians were killed as a result. The strategic effect, however, was to ensure that D-Day was successful and France was freed.

THAT, to my mind is quite an ethical dilemma.

Whether the populations of a power that had invaded Allied countries, bombed their cities and was still trying to keep control of Europe would suffer was not hotly debated and I think we should all be thankful (including today's German who now live in one of the richest and most peaceful democracies on earth) for this show of fortitude and moral clarity.

Cesc said...

On a side note I wonder if Anonymous is related to the author of First in Nagasaki, which is a compendium of unpublished articles written by an American journalist who ended up in Nagasaki before it was taken over by the Allied administration. It's a very interesting account in that it does reflect accurately contemporary feelings and the true context of the bombings.