Column: Revisiting Hiroshima (Letters from Japan, Part 4)

News Abroad

Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia. His most recent book is: Parables from a Not Quite Paradise, Nv 89154: The History News Network Essays . He is a columnist for HNN.

This spring Mr. Thompson is a visiting professor at Osaka University of Commerce. This is the fourth of his"Letters from Japan."

I tell people here that all Americans should visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not to feel overwhelming guilt or overwhelming remorse, but simply to kick the jag of "We're number one." And also to get off this "Bosnia Game" of pretending that war can be easy, and that we can have wars without people being hurt…and, that if we ever vote in favor of war--either in elections or in the United States Senate--we should be considered STUPID if we believe the war will not hurt people--good people and bad people alike.

After my first visit to Hiroshima in 1997, I was prompted to read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After immersing myself in "the literature" I did write an HNN essay reflecting my feelings and my insights or "take" on the matter. My conclusion--war is hell, bad things happen in war, it is the nature of the game, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were certainly among the worse things that have ever happened in war, they were terrible things, very, very bad things. They were part and parcel of war. We should feel remorse, some guilt--as Americans, but mostly as human beings. We should be very somber as we contemplate what happened. The guilt for war is a human guilt, maybe it is a part of original sin, maybe not. But specific guilt for specific incidents should not be placed upon children and generations that are yet unborn. But that being said, we as Americans seem not to have taken any sense of responsibility or guilt, as it were, for what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That bothers me, but what I truly regret about our nation's posture OFFICIAL and unofficial is the notion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were events that WE CAN CELEBRATE! That by some perverse way of thinking, we have converted these terrible events into GOOD THINGS. (Ergo the Truman-and Truman hero worshipers'-- Mantra that we "saved a million lives.") THAT bothers me.

So what would I see the second time--my second visit to Hiroshima in 2004, seven years after my first visit. I knew where the monuments were, but I did notice some changes. There was a monument to Korean Victims that was new. I was told that for several years the monument was not allowed in the memorial park--figure that one out! The walk through the museum was pretty much like before. But one thing which I know I saw before really struck me hard this time.

I saw two large wall sized maps--perhaps 8 feet by 6 feet wide. One showed the city before the bombing, the other after the bombing--a day or two later. It appeared that each was taken from the same exact spot in the sky. The maps had incredible detail. Individual houses and other structures were quite distinct and visible (of course, there were more structures in the "before" shot). This time I had a sinking feeling. The Japanese were probably not in the business of photographing all their cities from the air in 1945. They probably did not take the "before shot." But it couldn't have been taken by Americans. Tell me NO I said to myself. NO! But then I read at the bottom--from the archives of the U.S. Department of War. WE HAD TAKEN THE BEFORE PHOTOGRAPH. Did we know, who knew, when did we know, when did HE know? Did our president have this intelligence. The photograph did not speak lies. It was SO GRAPHIC. What conclusion can I make other than the one I make. Our president KNEW the bomb was going to fall on houses of civilians. That is what is in the before photograph-thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of civilian homes. Our intelligence had to know that in those homes were women and children and old men. We knew there were no young men, no samurai, no modern warriors there--they were all off at war. Our intelligence can be faulty, but our intelligence is not totally without brains (though I still wonder about the Chinese Embassy thing). We knew that the victims of the bomb would be women, children, and old men. Oh yes! There were also factories in the picture. So the numbers of victims included factory workers too--thousands of Koreans, and old men, and women, and maybe children, and Chinese prisoners of war, and AMERICAN prisoners of war. War is hell. But WE have found a way to make this thing we did an occasion of celebration.

One other thing was not visible in the photograph. There was no evidence shown that the Japanese possessed any weapons of mass destruction.

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William Livingston - 4/10/2004

And one wonders if these Bleed'n Heart types weeping over Hiroshima & Nagasaki have ever visted Nanking, site of that Japanese cultural program called "The Rape of Nanking?"

Had I been a G.I. in 1945 I would have dreaded the forthcoming campaign to invade and conquer the Home Islands and there is little doubt in my mind that I would have been relieved the bombins of Hiroshima & Nagasaki precluded the necessity for that closing campaign of WWII, with ita projected quarter of a million U.S. casualities. Those of us who've been on a battlefield appreciate more, I suspect, than those who haven't had the honor, the blessing of not once again going to see the Elephant. But this is said with some reluctance especially in regard to Nagasaki, where Ground Zero was the Catholic cathedral & the loss of a quarter of Japan's Christian population.

Anyway, will those weeping over our use of the bomb explain to me what's so terrible about having been killed by it rather than by the fire bombing we were inflicting upon Japan with conventional bombs? IMHO dead is dead, whether one has been killed by a bomb or has been stabbed by a bayonet. So you're whing over the innocents killed by the bonb? Innocents were also killed at Dresden, London, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Warsaw, etc. On the other hand, one reason I chose to submit a 1049, request for transfer back to Viet-Nam, when assigned to a nuclear, Pershing I, missile unit in Germany whose targets evidently were in Poland. I dreded the thought of the balloon going up when it was my turn to work in the battalion, 1st Battalion, 81st Artillery Group, warroom. It was O.K. with me to shoot someone, but it was terribly dreadful to perhaps need to pull the trigger on nuclear weapons, perhaps destroying Warsaw, because it was a major rail traffic node for the Warsaw Pac. Nah, I don't claim to be consistent in all things.

John H. Morgan, you were having difficulties in spelling? Bueno! Misery loves company. That, bad spelling, is a frequent problem of mine on HNN. :)

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/9/2004

"There was a monument to Korean Victims that was new. I was told that for several years the monument was not allowed in the memorial park--figure that one out!"

Not hard to figure out once you understand the general Japanese prejudice towards all things Korean, including the all-time hit leader in Japanese pro baseball, Isao Harimoto. In fact, the Japanese government shut down the archeological site which demonstrated the ancient Japanes connection to Korean culture.

Grant W Jones - 4/9/2004

Not to forget the terror bombing of Chinese cities, which is why the Flying Tigers were formed.

Steve Brody - 4/8/2004

By the way, Bill, WMD have changed over the years. In the 30’s and 40’s WMD consisted of aircraft carriers, battleships, tanks, bombers, and large armies.

Japan not only possessed these weapons, despite your statement to the contrary, they used them on millions of innocent Chinese, Koreans and Philippinos.

Steve Brody - 4/8/2004

By the way, Bill, WMD have changed over the years. In the 30’s and 40’s WMD consisted of aircraft carriers, battleships, tanks, bombers, and large armies.

Japan not only possessed these weapons, despite your statement to the contrary, they used them on millions of innocent Chinese, Koreans and Philippinos.

Steve Brody - 4/8/2004

Here we go again with the “Japanese as victims in WWII”.

Bill, you started your series with a posting suggesting that it was America that started WWII by sinking a Japanese mini-sub that was attempting to sneak into Pearl Harbor in order to sink our ships.

Next, you suggested that it was somehow unfair to make the Emperor renounce his “divinity” and admit he was not infallible. I didn’t respond, even though I think your objections are somewhat overwrought. I mean, the Germans after all, were forced to confront the fact that they weren’t the “master race” that Hitler had preached. If Hitler had not committed suicide, do you really doubt that he would have been treated much more harshly than Hirohito? Maybe Hirohito got a pretty good deal after all. All he really had to do was admit what most of the world already knew.

Now you claim that Hiroshima had no value as a military target. My thanks to Dr. Dresner for refuting that.

You also express wonder that the Japanese have a memorial to the Korean factory workers who were victims of the Hiroshima bombing. Have you ask yourself what the Koreans were doing working in factories in Hiroshima? Let me help you out with that one. The Japanese, who had brutally occupied Korea for years, brought them there as slave labor. Did the memorial take note of that fact, Bill?

While you’re pouring out sympathy for the victims of the atomic bombings, save a little for all the innocent victims of Japanese atrocities during WWII. I can assure you that there were far more innocent Chinese, Burmese, Indonesian, Philippino, Korean… (Etc.) victims killed by the Japanese than innocent Japanese killed by the United States during the 30’s and 40’s. Have you noticed the Japanese building many memorials to those innocent victims? Actually, what the Japanese have done, for the most part, is ignore their own atrocities.

What I have concluded is that the use of the A bomb to end WWII was an intensely tragic and sad necessity which undoubtedly cost far fewer American and Japanese lives than would an invasion. I suppose that puts me in the minority here, but I believe the evidence supporting my position is overwhelming.

Bill since you have an interest in History and are in Japan, why don’t you look up Sadao Asada, an historian at Doshisha University in Kyoto, and ask him about the bombings. I’ll tell you what he has written about the subject: leading members of the Japanese peace movement during WWII viewed the bombings as salvation, for it strengthen their hand against the militarists immeasurably and allowed them to win over the Emperor.

Grant W Jones - 4/8/2004

All Americans should come to Hawaii and stand on the Arizona Memorial.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 4/7/2004

Having visited Hiroshima in November 1966, I still have memories of that awful waste of innocent human life. But I speak now, much more so because I lost my friend Fr. Francis of Assissi Tadashi Hasegawa as a result of that bomb. Going to see the last living victims of that bomb at the the Atomic Bomb Hospital also stirred. I consider war a destruction of common sense and crime against humanity. And I ask myself, how can man who aspires to reach the moon, wreak such destruction upon mankind?

Hirshima taught me a lesson, both in humility and in forgiveness. Fr. Hasegawa suffered but never complained, but I understood his suffering in thr thee days that I spent in Hiroshima. Let there never be a time, when man loses his common sense and legs his savagery take over, no matter what the occasion..

Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2004

Actually, the new historical wing of the Peace Park museum (it was new in 1995, when we visited on the 50th anniversary) makes it very clear that Hiroshima was a strategic target of some value. Not so much for industrial production, though that was present and substantial, but because Hiroshima was the Command-and-Control center for Japan's continental forces, as it had been for every war of the previous half-century.

I don't believe that justifies the use of the atomic bombs: as Thompson points out, the indiscriminate power of those weapons is horrific (I'm one of the two "jurors" who voted 'guilty' in the Truman War Crimes Mock Trial: http://historynewsnetwork.org/articles/190.html). But there's no sentimentality in the museum's description of Hiroshima as a legitimate target. Yes, there were a lot of civilian structures in those pictures. But there were also central command posts, officer's barracks, lots of modern warriors who were directing the war. And we knew that.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/7/2004

I see to be having trouble spelling plague, and trouble proofreading.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/7/2004

Before making their escape, Unit 731 (the Japanese biological warfare unit in China) released thousands of plague-infested rats into the Chinese population, costing tens of thousands of lives. This unit also dispatched, in Nov. 1941, a palne to Hunan province to spread bubonic plague. Just a month before the end of the war, Japan attempted to dispatch a submarine, with a suicide plane and palgue bombs, for an attack on San Diego. Over two hundred ballon bombs (none with biological material) were dispatched to the US -- though they might have been so adopted had not the US government hid the fact that the balloon bombs had reached their target.

I can't agree with dropping the bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki (or the firebombing of Tokyo, which was worse in many respects), but I would point out that a significant portion of the defense industry was a cottage industry, with armaments produced in "civilian homes" -- just look at the badly produced Japanese pistols, for instance.

I've yet to encounter the celebratory mood you decry, though it might be out there for all I know.