64 years ago “Enola Gay” dropped 8,900 lbs of uranium on Hiroshima, marking a watershed moment in history.  64 years later opinions have shuffled around in two major camps; the first feels using the atom bomb was fully justified and the second condemns the action. Those that justify the destruction of Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki defend Truman’s decision citing Japan’s role as the aggressor and express the utilitarian belief that “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” saved more lives than they ended, but to be accurate, the argument goes that they saved American lives, and are thereby justified. Those that oppose martial use of nuclear power are convinced that particular American action represents a crime against humanity, citing the massive civilian casualties and the instantaneous, wholesale destruction of two cities.  These people are inclined to consider the firebombing of Tokyo—that resulted in many more civilian casualties—repulsive as well, however the tremendous destructive power of nuclear weapons render their use immoral.

64 years after that historic morning 61% of Americans felt that it was the “right thing” to do (22% disagreed, and 16% were undecided according to an Aug. 4th Quinnipiac University poll). On this 64th birthday of the nuclear age the mayor of Hiroshima, Mr. Akiba, pronounced in very good English “we can abolish nuclear weapons. Yes, we can,” throwing his support behind President Obama’s nuclear non-proliferation ambitions. But history is an ambivalent animal, and Japan holds a peculiar distinction as both villain and victim of the Second World War.

The spirit of George Santayana’s famous words about those who cannot remember the past being condemned to repeat it (The Life of Reason, Vol. 1) are often used to further the aims of nuclear disarmament. “Never forget,” “no one should ever have to experience this again” the sentiment goes.  And yet many people suffer the affliction of selective memory. Many people, especially in Japan, forget the military exploits of the Empire of the Rising Sun. Surely few among the former Japanese colonies shed tears over the calamity that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those in China, Korea, and the Philippines had lost civilians, too, but at the hands of the Chrysanthemum throne. Nearly 200,000 women in Asia had been forced into sexual slavery to “comfort” the soldiers of the Imperial Army (according to the Korean Council).

The Nanking Massacre, the “comfort women” issue, none of these crimes against humanity have elicited an official apology from the Japanese government. The Japanese ambassador to the US finally delivered an apology for the Bataan Death March earlier this year that addressed the mistreatment of American POW as requested by The American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor in 2007. A 1995 apology by ex-P.M. Tomiichi Murayama failed to address that issue. The unspeakable cruelty of the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific was summarized by the IMTFE:

Ruthless killing of prisoners by shooting, decapitation, drowning, and other methods; death marches in which prisoners, including the sick, were forced to march long distances under conditions which not even well-conditioned troops could stand, many of those dropping out being shot or bayonetted by the guards; forced labor in tropical heat without protection from the sun; complete lack of housing and medical supplies, in many cases resulting in thousands of deaths from disease; beatings and torture of all kinds to extract information or confessions or for minor offences; killing without trial of recaptured prisoners after escape and for attempt to escape; killing without trial of captured aviators; and even cannibalism: these are some of the atrocities of which proof was made before the Tribunal. (Chapter VIII, sec. 1002).

Many people thought, and still think (as the poll cited earlier might indicate), that Japan reaped what it sowed.

Consider the words of Ooka Shohei, a Japanese POW captured by Americans in the Philippines, upon learning of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima:

“A hundred thousand human lives had been snuffed out in a single flash…It was a horror of unprecedented proportions. On further contemplation, though, except for a difference in degree, the medievals who first witnessed the carnage made possible by the cannon mist have felt this same horror…Every new form of slaughter leaves witnesses shaken with horror, but for the victims, the ones who actually lose their lives, forms of slaughter would seem to be six of one and half a dozen of another…

“The tragedy of war lies in the simple fact that so many must die unwillingly; precisely how they are killed is of no importance.

Furthermore, the majority of those who die are people who happily accepted the benefits bestowed by their governments during the war or during preparations for war. In truth, they are merely reaping what they have sown.

I had without a doubt reaped what I had sown, and now the citizens of Hiroshima had done the same. Since becoming a soldier, I had lost all sympathy for those who dies for the same reason I expected to die.”  (Taken Captive, p. 226-7)

Ooka reserves a “fierce hatred” for the General Staff, the leaders behind Japan’s militarist ambitions. Upon learning of the Hiroshima bombing Ooka characterized the military leadership as “madmen,” and supposed:

“No matter how many atomic strikes the general population suffered, they would sit tightly in the safety of their underground bunkers dreaming of Oda Nobunaga’s victory against impossible odds at Okehazama.” (225)

But here is the great irony of the endeavor. Upon learning of the successful nuclear strike on Hiroshima, Ooka, the Japanese POW, expresses a less than sympathetic attitude towards his own country, rather a visceral hatred for the leadership of the military machine and a tacit culpability of the Japanese population. It is an American GI, Wally, who responds bleakly when asked about his thoughts on the atomic bomb:

“Its too damn destructive. I think we will come to regret that we used it” (225)

Wally may well be the voice of reason on the issue. The bomb was too destructive, and the bombs we have now are many times more destructive. But so far, at least in America, the majority still believes the strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are fully justified. Sadly there is no easy answer here; even difficult answers are hard to come by. Violence in war is generally a matter of proportion. Thus we can say that just because many people die does not make an action wrong in the context of war. Nor can we confidently assert that Japanese cruelty in the Pacific merited the obliteration of two cities in a nuclear flash. But let us not turn a blind eye to both sides of the historical narrative. Lest we forget.


We will be reminded again of atomic warfare in 3 days, but if reminders are needed, look at the collection of Hiroshima images at the Big Picture blog.