Sunday, December 28, 2014

After ("Hiroshima Nagasaki" by Paul Ham)

Determining the thesis of Paul Ham's Hiroshima Nagasaki can be accomplished with ease by simply looking at the table of contents--specifically, chapter six, which is entitled "Japan Defeated." This would seem to imply an end to Ham's investigation of the titular events; after all, the surrender of Japan is what history tells us was the ultimate goal--and accomplishment--of the atomic bombings of Japan. And yet, beginning as it does on page 166, chapter six does not even mark the halfway point:  when the chapter ends, there are still 300 pages remaining, almost all of them devastating in their critique of not only the American government but the Japanese one, as well. The story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ham believes, is not at all what we think it is.

For the longest time, we have told ourselves--in anecdotes, on television programs, in textbooks--that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified, that Hirohito's empire was so thoroughly invested in complete victory that it was willing to fight until the last man, woman, and child had shed their blood. Defeat, we have been repeatedly told, was not part of the Japanese vocabulary, and to force their hands, we had to demonstrate the utter destructive abilities of our own military--a clear and unequivocal sign that Japan would not survive if it continued to resist surrender. Part of the reason this story has survived as long as it has is because of our national hubris--a belief that, because of our victory and the speed with which we developed such destructive weapons, we were the deciding factor--and part of the reason is because we, as victors, were in the position to write the history ourselves. (As the saying goes, history isn't written by the losers.) But the overriding reason is that, for decades after the actual bombings, most of the pertinent information related to the decision and its aftermath was classified or unpublished by the U.S. government, including communications between members of the Japanese government that was intercepted and decoded by the MAGIC program.

Even today, those intercepted communications--which should be readily available on websites and in government publications--can only be accessed in bits and pieces across the internet, if at all. (The diplomatic cables between members of the Japanese government, which Ham uses to great effect throughout much of his book, are available in full only on 15 reels of microfilm that exist in a handful of college libraries across the country.) The reasons for this odd hesitancy to publicize more about our own history has never been explained, though theories might abound. What matters, however, is that the lack of awareness over what these documents reveal distorts our own understanding of history--our knowledge of what was done in our names and with our tacit permission, if not our unchallenged approval--and keeps us from making sure the tragedies of the past don't become tragedies of the future.

For example, the belief that Japan's government was unified behind its last-man-standing mentality is easily disproven by the MAGIC intercepts, in which many of the top men in Hirohito's government pushed vociferously for their country's surrender to the Allies, only to be refuted by more ardent and nationalistic colleagues. Perhaps the most vocal of these figures is Naotake Sato, a diplomat whose awareness of the situation transformed him into one of the few honest men in all of Japan's government, and he spoke his mind with careless abandon--a decision that could easily have cost him both his position and his life. The bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki play a minimal role in the back-and-forth between those voices advocating for continued hostilities against the Allied forces and those demanding a quick but honorable surrender; in fact, when notified of the bombing of Nagasaki during an hours-long meeting meant to plan out the terms of their surrender, the top Japanese officials are recorded as demonstrating little reaction or concern, a fact that our own country has steadfastly refused to acknowledge.*

The main reason the Japanese government was unmoved by the dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on their own people is that their empire was already suffering immensely at the hands of the Allies. Their country was prevented from importing any food or necessary supplies by an Allied navy blockade, and their closest neighbors--China, the Soviet Union--were also against them, removing any chance for humanitarian aid. Towards the end of the war, they hoped the latter of these nations, under the leadership of Josef Stalin, would at least serve as the arbitrator in negotiations with the Allied Powers; when the Soviet Union instead declared war on them, it marked the disappearance of the last possible hope of the Japanese government and its people. Millions were starving and homeless due to Allied air-raids and fire-bombings, and hundreds of thousands were dead; had the Allies simply kept the blockade intact and continued pushing towards the Japanese mainland, it's safe to assume--and General Eisenhower himself agreed after the war--that Japan would have been forced to declare surrender before the year's end anyway.

Likewise, the American government's decision to drop both bombs is called into question by Ham's research. Much like Japan, the American government experienced its own tumultuous split over how. when, and where to use the atomic bombs. Truman seemed determined to utilize the weapon as soon as possible, refusing to proffer a warning to the Japanese government about what would happen to their cities. (There were some in the government who said a warning would persuade the Japanese to surrender before the bomb was even used, an idea that is difficult to prove.) And, much like Japan, there were those who attempted to secure a peaceful resolution, or at least a resolution that did not involve the use of cataclysmic weapons. Included among these voices was Joseph Grew, the former ambassador to Japan who understood, after a decade of firsthand experience, that demanding Japan give up its emperor as part of an "unconditional surrender" would force the country to continue hostilities, even when all hope seemed lost. Grew, who had been interned by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, was soundly ignored.

In the end, Ham argues that it wasn't the atomic bombs that forced Japan to finally surrender, nor was it the naval blockade--which, he argues, had a much greater effect on the Japanese government's decision than the actual bombs--but the Soviet Union's refusal to act as an intermediate and its subsequent declaration of war against Japan. Only then, according to the correspondences of those in power, did the government of Japan finally give in to what the rest of the world had seen as inevitable for some time. What followed was an ocean surrender and, as Ham writes, an occupation by the Allies that was shameful, with the American government steadfastly denying the true legacy of the atomic bombs:  radiation poisoning, illness, and death, all spread across generations. Journalists who gained access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki wrote about and photographed the aftermath; much of this evidence was soon confiscated or censored by the American military. Not until John Hersey's Hiroshima, published in 1946, did the American public come to understand the true extent of the devastation.

And yet history continued to tell us that, had it not been for these two bombs, the war would have become even bloodier, lasted even longer, cost even more American lives. The atomic bombs, we are told, actually helped save lives and end the war. This postulation isn't entirely false--an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have certainly resulted in the deaths of Allied soldiers, as the mainland forces were surprisingly strong--but to offer those options as the only two we could have taken demonstrates a remarkable unwillingness to reexamine ourselves and our own war-time decisions, especially today. Yes, we didn't know then what we know now, so past generations should not be denounced with retrospective guilt--they were simply embracing what they were told by the very same government that had led them through the largest war in world history, and against some of the most vile dictators we would ever experience, including an empire that attacked us on our own soil. But to look back with so many previously classified and unpublished documents now available--albeit limitedly--for our consumption, and retain the same theory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is ignorant, if not downright dangerous. It allows us to see cataclysmic weapons as a viable--and paradoxically lifesaving--solution, one that values the civilian lives of one nation over the civilian lives of another, without understanding all of the implications and nuances inherent in such a momentous decision.

Yes, the people of Japan held onto their emperor, even as their emperor ignored them, and they had been brainwashed--or threatened--into believing their crusade against the Allied Powers was a noble one. But to use this as an excuse to dismiss hundreds of thousands of lives as justifiably expendable, simply because they were civilians under the other side's government, sets a dangerous precedent where foreign policy and war is concerned. By waving aside these numbers and statistics, and by ignoring the photographs of sick and deformed Japanese civilians--men, women, and children who were guilty of nothing more than being born in a country that warred against our own--we are casting ourselves as something less than the scions of liberty and freedom we so vocally aspire to be.

People will debate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for decades to come, and there will never be a consensus over the efficacy--or even necessity--of Fat Man and Little Boy. Even Ham, for all the positive aspects of his book, leaves much to be desired in terms of writing a comprehensive and accurate history. But there can never be one, at least not yet:  we exist beyond a time and place where one could be written, and our minds are too frequently clouded by ideology, propaganda, and patriotism to see what needs to be seen. Instead, we need to take the bombing of Japan for what it can still teach us, and that requires having all the information available to us, without restrictions or concessions. Unfortunately, as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki grow ever more distant, and those who continue to push a simplistic, winner-take-all history fade into that very same timeline, we will see its legacy spread tendrils and grow. The truly sad part is that, without more books like this one, regardless of its successes or failures, we won't even realize that it is happening until the cycle repeats itself and we're back where we started, having learned nothing.

*There are those who point to Hirohito's 1945 radio broadcast, in which he stated that "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives," as proof of the opposite. But what a government tells itself and what a government tells its people are often completely different.