By Howard Zinn • ZCommunications • August 18, 2000
I am surprised that my friend Hans Koning, a stalwart protester against the war in Vietnam, seems to have been taken in by the argument of Richard Frank, in his review of Frank’s Downfall. Yes, we must all be willing to reconsider our most hardened judgements in the light of new evidence. But there is nothing in Frank’s argument — however assiduous his research — to make those of us who see the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an unspeakable atrocity change our minds.

Frank points to the fact that the discussions of a negotiated peace with the Japanese cabinet “led nonetheless to the unanimous rejection, and ‘with contempt’ of the Allied ultimatum issued from Potsdam.” Yes, unanimous rejection, because the Allied ultimatum was for unconditional surrender, and the Japanese were ready to surrender, if one condition could be met — the retention of the Emperor. On July 13, 1945,Foreign Minister Togo wired Ambassador Sato, sent to Moscow precisely to find a negotiated way out of the war: “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace….It is his Majesty’s heart’s desire to see the swift termination of the war.”

The argument has been made before, that the Japanese military were fanatics who would never surrender, and Frank makes it even more dramatic by describing the Japanese military plan, “Ketsu-Go”, to go into effect upon an Allied invasion, as “prepared to sacrifice the lives of twenty million Japanese.” And only after such a massive sacrifice could they, with honor, negotiate a peace.

It is a preposterous argument. If they were such fanatics, requiring twenty million Japanese deaths before they could surrender, why did they, in fact, surrender after hundreds of thousands of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Clearly, as was concluded by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which interviewed the Japanese decision-makers right after the war, Japan was on the verge of surrender, and would have done so even without the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, those bombings speeded things up, but so would a U.S. acceptance of the one condition the Japanese asked, the sanctity of the Emperor — and without that horrendous loss of life and prolonged suffering.

If that condition were accepted, none of the horror scenarios conjured up by Frank would need to occur.

Without the atomic bombs, Frank postulates, the “next non-atomic move” (Koning’s words) would have been a series of bombing raids to destroy Japan’s rail system and cause a famine in the cities. “Would it then,” Koning asks, “have been more humane to bank on famine as leading to a Japanese surrender?”

We are being given the typical multiple-choice test, in which the tester assumes we are too dumb to think outside the given alternatives. In this case, we are confronted with three options: a) drop the bombs; b) invade Japan; c) starve the Japanese population. And so we are hemmed in to the conclusion (because we seek the humanitarian solution) that dropping the bombs is “more humane”. But there is once again, the alternative suggested by Ambassador Joseph Grew, who knew Japan well, that we not insist on “unconditional” surrender, just on “surrender”, and agree to keep the emperor.

Why was this not done, if it was by far the most life-saving of the alternatives? Because, simply put, our leaders did not have the humanitarian concerns which I assume motivate Frank, and which I know motivate Hans Koning. They were not looking for the alternative that would be least costly in human life. Their motives were political and strategic. Yes, as Gar Alperovitz and his team of researchers documented in great detail in THE DECISION TO DROP THE ATOMIC BOMB, there is strong evidence that Truman was listening to his closest advisor, James Byrnes, who saw the bomb as showing off American power to the Russians. Byrnes said the bomb “could let us dictate the terms of ending the war.”

There was another political motive, this time domestic. In his recent book, FREEDOM FROM FEAR, Davfid Kennedy quotes Secdretary of Stae Cordell Hull advfising Byrnes, before the Potsdam Conference which decided on unconditional surrender, that “terrible political repercussions would follow in the U.S.” if the unconditional surrender princiople would be abndoned. The president would be “crucified” if he did that, Byrnes said. Kennedy writes: “Byrnes accordingly repudiated the suggestions of Leahy, McCloy, Grew and Stimson”. (All of whom were willing to relax the “unconditonal surrender” demand just enough to permit the Japanese their face-saving requirement for ending the war — the retention of the emperor.)

Can we believe that our political leaders would consign hundreds of thousands of people to death or lifelong suffering because of “political repercussions” at home? The idea is horrifying, yet we can see in recent history a pattern of presidential ambition considered more important than human life. The tapes of John F. Kennedy reveal him weighing withdrawal from Vietnam against the upcoming election. Transcripts of Lyndon Johnson’sWhite House conversations show him deciding gainst withdrawal from Vietnam, because “They’d impeach a president…wouldn’t they?”

Just before the Gulf War, President Bush’s aide Sununu was reported “telling people that a short sucessful war would be pure political gold for the President and would guarantee his election.” And is not the Clinton-Gore support for the “Star Wars”anti-missile program (against all scientific evidence or common sense) prompted by their desire to be seen by the voters as tough guys, even if it leads to a dangerous arms race?

Frank starts with the premise that either an invasion or famine would be necessary to bring about a Japanese surrender, and adds to those huge numbers of casualties an estimate as to how many Chinese would die in Japanese work camps if a surrender were delayed. Combining a false premise with a guess, he concludes that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was more merciful. He also, according to Koning (and I hope Hans would not go along with this idea, though he reports it without comment) wonders why we would not rather kill Japanese in Hiroshima than Chinese in work camps. The odious implication is that the Japanese civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are “more expendable” than the Chinese prisoners, because, presumably, they bear some degree of guilt for their government’s cruelties.

I would conclude with one question to Richard Frank, to Hans Koning, and to any other American who becomes convinced that droppping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “saved lives”. Imagine a situation in which we were in a brutal war, coming to its end soon but we knew not when, and we were told that by killing 100,000 American children we would “perhaps” or “probably” (none of the evidence produced by Frank can lead us to use the word “certainly”) bring the war to an immediate end and save many more lives than that l00,000. Would we agree to it?

And (okay, more questions) if we would react to that suggestion with horror, as I am supposing, does it not mean that the lives of Japanese children are less valuable to us than the lives of American children? And does not the bombing, not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of any civilian population, anywhere, depend on the same morally unacceptable judgement?

Published by ZCommunications • August 18, 2000


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