Admittedly, we moved long ago from words to images and gestures in American statecraft. So it’s no surprise that President Obama announced plans to appear, symbolically, as the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima. His presence will undoubtedly be taken by many Japanese as a penitential gesture, though the White House said there will be no “apology.”
I am troubled by the president’s good intentions. Hiroshima (and Nagasaki), terrible as they were, were not, for the generations who fought in World War II, a curtain-raiser on the tensions of the atomic age, but the ghastly final act of a ghastly conflict that had already breached most of the conventions of so-called civilized warfare.
The first point to understand about Hiroshima is that aside from being the culminating horror of tons of aerial bombardment of civilian targets, it almost certainly saved hundreds of thousands of lives, Japanese and American, civilian and military. The preceding approach to the Japanese home islands foretold a great cost in lives. The Japanese military tradition of Bushido taught rank and file combatants that surrender, even in the face of great odds, was disgraceful; and the ethic of shame was powerful in Japanese culture. Even after the Emperor made his decision to thwart the militarists and end resistance, fanatical Japanese officers stormed the palace, perhaps intending to assassinate him. For years after the surrender, ordinary Japanese footsoldiers continued to emerge from hiding places. Such were the grim conditions of the ruling ethic: kill or be killed. And naturally, the Pacific, unlike Europe, saw few prisoners of war.
Finally, it is obvious that the Japanese, forgetting much, view Hiroshima as a transgression of the rules of war, if not a war crime under the Nuremberg code – notwithstanding their own evasion of a declaration of war, or warning, before Pearl Harbor.
The point of the foregoing is not to rehearse old grievances, but to recall the circumstances of 1945.
President Obama is highly intelligent, sophisticated and sensitive. But he doesn’t strike me as being historically minded – as was the predecessor whom the conditions of an earlier age burdened with the atomic decision: Harry Truman. Truman had fought in the First World War and would have understood Sherman’s famous words: “War is cruelty; you cannot refine it.” He had been advised that victory could not be won short of the invasion of the Japanese home islands. The estimates of its cost were horrific. Revisionist historians have attempted, with hindsight, to minimize Truman’s decision – have even fished from strange sources the suggestion that the use of the bomb was calculated not to win the war quickly at the lowest foreseeable cost but to intimidate Russia, whom the Allies had been trying to bring into the war.
If at this late stage of history an effort of imagination is warranted, try to imagine the probable result had President Truman and his advisers shrunk from the use of the atomic bomb. Imagine that the U. S. had alternatively sacrificed several hundred thousand young lives in a bloody march into the Japanese homeland. Imagine that months or years later it had become known that a weapon that would have saved many of those lives was available but was withheld. Imagine the sorrow of bereaved parents inflamed by rage at what might have been.
Along with the date of Pearl Harbor, the date of such a decision would surely, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1941, be remembered as “a date which will live in infamy.” And should have been.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr., now of Chapel Hill, is an N.C. native and a former editor and columnist here and in Washington.