by John Wilson
Certain events continue to happen long after they are over, altering our sense of the past that led up to them and the future that continues to flow from them. Osama bin Laden wasn't the only one to invoke the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as relevant to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Innocent civilians? The chickens are coming home to roost, suggested Vinoth Ramachandra, the Sri Lanka-based regional secretary for South Asia for the International Fellowship of Christian Students in a post-September 11 commentary that was posted on InterVarsity's website.
Today, August 6, is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima; August 9 marks the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. The story of those days and the aftermath, especially for the survivors, the hibakusha, has been told many times. Some of the best tellings are the most modest. In City of Silence: Listening to Hiroshima, published by Orbis in 1995, Rachelle Linner allows us to listen too. "The strangest thing was the silence," one survivor recalls:
It was one of the most unforgettable impressions I have. You'd think that people would be panic-stricken, running, yelling. Not at Hiroshima. They moved in slow motion, like figures in a silent movie, shuffling through the dust and smoke. I heard thousands of people breathing the words, "Water, give me water." Many simply dropped to the ground and died.
And despite its subtitle, Linner's book deals with Nagasaki as well. One of her most moving, and troubling, chapters centers on Takashi Nagai, a physician and a convert to Catholicism whose writings after the bombing—most notably his book, The Bells of Nagasaki—were once famous but have long since been almost entirely forgotten, in no small part because he interpreted the suffering and destruction in explicitly Christian terms: divine judgment, sacrifice, redemption.
If the first step in remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to absorb, even at this comfortable remove, something of the reality of the immediate events, hardly the blink of an eye separates that retrieval from some kind of interpretation, some claim on the present. "Hiroshima" may be shorthand for the bleakest nihilism; it may underwrite a passionately idealistic campaign against nuclear weapons in particular or against "war" and "violence" in general.
In recent years, most of the public discussion and debate about Hiroshima and Nagasaki has focused on the justification, or lack of same, for the bombings, with an emphasis on a revisionist account of America's role as a world power. The collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the United States for the time being as the sole "superpower," added fuel to the revisionist fires. The decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was clearly racist, some historians have alleged (though the victims of the Dresden firebombing might wonder at the distinction). It wasn't militarily necessary at all, others have said; it was done chiefly as a warning to Stalin. And so on.
Readers who are interested in sorting through these charges and others, if not resolving all the questions they raise, should pick up a copy of Tim Maga's book, America Attacks Japan: The Invasion That Never Was, just published by University Press of Kentucky. Maga is an unpretentious scholar who has clearly done an enormous amount of research. He also possesses a down-to-earth quality—a humane, commonsense wisdom—that gets selected against in the Darwinian world of academe.
Drawing on newly opened archives as well as interviews both with American policymakers and with ordinary citizens in Japan, Maga provides an extraordinary behind-the-scenes view of the intensive planning for the invasion of Japan that seemed the only way to bring the war to an end. He also sheds light on Japanese preparations for the invasion, including the stockpiling of little bombs made to look like small ceramic pots. The idea was that Japanese children would "offer unsuspecting American GIs these particular gifts, and then trigger the detonator as they accepted. Both the child and the American invader would be killed together."
Within the Truman Administration, Maga shows, there was considerable debate as to how the invasion should be conducted and how it should be related to diplomatic initiatives—all this quite apart from the possibility of using the newly developed atomic bomb, which was so secret that Truman himself didn't learn about it until after Roosevelt's death. Much of the debate revolved around speculation about the Japanese response, the level of casualties that could be expected, and the postwar rebuilding of Japan. And among the allies of the United States there was even a greater range of opinion. All of this Maga vividly brings to life.
Nothing that Maga reports is sufficient to settle the fundamental moral questions. Certainly his book will leave untouched the convictions of those who believe that the attack on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was objectively evil. But those who are concerned with the weight of the revisionist historical arguments will find this book invaluable.
One caveat: the book is full of typographic errors, misspellings, and so on, of a kind that would have been caught by even cursory editing. It is really scandalous that a university press should put out a book so carelessly produced. It does a terrible disservice to the author and indeed to all the authors who publish with Kentucky, and it isn't exactly an advertisement for the press itself. I hope this will not keep many scholars and general readers from appreciating what the book has to offer.
Indeed, some readers may be inspired to pick up Maga's previous book as well, Judgment at Tokyo, on the Japanese war crime trials (also published by Kentucky, and not so poorly edited). It's very compelling—and it has even greater resonance than it did when it was published a year or two ago, thanks to the growing debate over "military tribunals" and other matters related to the war on terrorism. I have read only glancing accounts of the Japanese trials in the past—passing references, really, for the most part—and I learned a lot from Judgment at Tokyo.
Maga doesn't dwell gratuitously on the horrors, but neither does he minimize the awful reality of Japanese brutality. He's not a politically correct cultural relativist, but neither does he demonize the Japanese. Maybe the single most extraordinary facet of the whole story is the length to which the American defense lawyers went to plead the cases of their "clients." This value—or the constellation of values embodied in the American legal system, even in this military context—trumped all others.