Kerry, Obama and Hiroshima

Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hiroshima on May 11th and laid a wreath at the Hiroshima memorial.  He announced to Americans and the rest of the world: “Everyone should visit Hiroshima, and everyone means everyone….”   The next VIP guest to visit the site will be President Obama himself.  The White House announced he will go there in late May on one of his farewell trips.  It is hard to figure what he will add to Kerry’s visit.Kerry, Obama and Hiroshima Kerry, Obama and Hiroshima,

The truth is that if US leaders are going to make visits to places where America and its allies caused large slaughters, why not Dresden?  Or, for that matter, Tokyo where more than 100,000 died as a result of American bombings and incendiary raids that devastated much of that city?
While some think we can separate the moral results of carpet bombing from the devastation of an atomic attack, the actual results make clear that neither was more, or less, moral than the other.  And while Hiroshima and Nagasaki are somehow excused on the ground that the use of atomic bombing brought an end to the war in the Pacific, and Japan’s surrender, how do you explain firebombing Tokyo or Dresden, neither of which forced an end either to the conflict in Europe or the Pacific?
Nor is it clear that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had so much to do with US casualties, although an invasion of the mainland was planned and surely Americans would have been killed in any invasion.  How many?  That is very hard to say.
On the whole, American losses in the Pacific were less than in Europe and North Africa, with overall dead at 213,407 in Europe (not counting naval losses), and 162,525 in the Pacific (not counting naval losses).  By comparison, Russian military losses were staggering: overall dead and missing at 8,668,400 and another 22,325,905 wounded or sick.
Russia, it is said, played a role in Japan’s decision to surrender, and history bears this out.  Japanese envoys were in Moscow looking for a peace deal and talking to Russia’s leaders while Stalin, secretly, prepared to declare war on Japan and invade Mongolia and Korea, then under Japanese occupation.
Many scholars have contended that the US determined to rapidly bring an end to the war before the Russian attack on Japan and that was one of the motivating reasons to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was certainly a topic of conversation, as was considerable unhappiness with the Russians immediately after Potsdam, as the Russians began exerting their will in Eastern Europe.  On the other hand, American leaders certainly understood what was happening and acquiesced in it.
Kerry, Obama and Hiroshima
There is also the fact that some important military leaders, including Eisenhower, who was asked to support the forthcoming atomic bombings and refused to do so.  Eisenhower’s objection to the use of atomic weapons against an adversary he considered all but defeated, appears to have been a shock to Washington.  MacArthur, who was the leading general in the Pacific, was not even asked for his opinion and knew nothing about it.  This is astonishing when one considers the implications of not telling the man on the spot what to expect, or to seek his counsel.
By the time running up to Hiroshima many of the atomic scientists, especially those with “leftist” backgrounds or those sympathetic to Russia and communism, opposed the use of the atomic bomb in Japan.  In fact, Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented a critical step in the hounding of many of these scientists including even Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein (the latter not at all involved in the atomic program) who had urged through a 1939 Einstein-signed letter (composed mostly by Szilard) to President Roosevelt to take steps to develop atomic weapons before Nazi Germany had them.  And Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian head of the Manhattan Project, initially supported the atomic bombing of Japan, probably to demonstrate his reliability rather than for any other reason.  He would later lose his security clearances and be humiliated in Washington after he clearly opposed developing a hydrogen bomb as a follow up to the atomic bomb (technically a fusion bomb to replace fission-type weapons).
There clearly was a Rubicon in the atomic age that was crossed when Nazi Germany was defeated and the US entered an atomic competition with Russia.  That Rubicon was political and ideological and its implications still bear on us heavily.
But there was more than that.  One of the problems in interpreting Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the widespread belief that these were not military targets and, for that reason, had not been bombed prior to the atomic bomb attacks.  As “clean” targets the scientists and military experts could assess just how effective the A-bomb was, since  there was no prior destruction influencing the assessment.  While there certainly is evidence of a desire to target such a place, it is nearly impossible to believe that the target would be selected solely on this basis.  Indeed, it would have to be the most cynical decision in history, and the result would have to be considered a form of war crime.

Now a military target has different shades of meaning,  but until now no one had demonstrated that there were any important military units deployed in or around Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

In fact, important parts of Japan’s wartime supplies were being produced in Korea.  In those days, the northern part of Korea (the peninsula was not divided and it was entirely under Japan’s occupation, having been occupied by Japan in 1905 and annexed to Japan in 1910, an annexation that the US had, it seems, accepted), was the industrial powerhouse supplying war materiel to Japan.  Rich in minerals and hydro power, and with millions of conscripted workers, there were large industrial complexes that were never attacked by the United States.  One of them was at Konan (now Hamhung).  Here Japan was working on atomic weapons and, possibly, had tested one.   It is likely the United States was aware of this activity –indeed, Japan’s famous Purple code and other ciphers had been broken long before 1945.  In addition, the German Enigma and other codes were also intercepted and decrypted, and these revealed Japanese and Nazi cooperation on atomic weapons.  In fact, the US tracked down Nazi, Japanese and Italian submarines shipping uranium and other materials (including heavy water) from Germany to Japan thanks largely to these intercepts.
New research is underway by Bill Streifer that is going to tell us even more about Japan’s atomic program during the Second World War.
Konan was never a target for US B-29’s during World War II, even though supplies that would end up in Konan ‘s atomic program certainly were a very high priority.  In fact, we would not get around to destroying Konan, by then well in Russian hands, until 1950 and the outbreak of the Korean war.  Then we flattened a large part of the industrial complex, especially the units that were producing Thorium.
But is it possible that Hiroshima was connected with Japan’s atomic program?  It is entirely possible that Japan’s security was better around its navy-run program in Korea than its army-run program centered in Tokyo.  It is known that Hiroshima port was where Japanese submarines were hauling atomic materials from Germany.  Could this have been known in
Washington and did this make Hiroshima, as President Truman insisted, a military target in the clearest sense of the term?  If yes, then much of the moral fog that surrounds Hiroshima is lifted and the atomic attack becomes more understandable.
The recent high level US visits to Hiroshima seem to be based on a penchant for apologizing for American actions without actually saying so directly (thus keeping us off the hook of retrospective war crimes or genocide).  But the visits are uncomfortable to the Japanese who are still suffering the bad effects of the Fukushima disaster, and who have accumulated a lot of plutonium.  Japan could, as they say, build nuclear weapons of their own very quickly; and they already have a competent rocket program that could be part of a deterrent against threats against them. Their neighborhood is getting more and more precarious, what with China becoming more assertive and North Korea building even submarine-launched missiles that could be used against Japan. From this point of view, neither Kerry or Obama are really helping Japan.Kerry, Obama and Hiroshima,


Most of all, the history we think we know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is far from complete and probably deeply misleading.  Let’s hope that new research can help uncover answers to the difficult questions that still haunt us.

*This essay is based on my new book, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers).

Add Comment