Japanese Leaders Welcomed Hiroshima Atomic Bombing

My last article titled “Only a Fool Defends His County…” resulted in a veritable blizzard of e-mails – most of them highly praiseworthy – but a few excoriating me for detailing President Madison’s "treasonous" conduct back during the War of 1812. One blogger saluted the Fourth President’s earlier tremendous service rendered to our emerging nation by helping draft the United States Constitution. My critic thus characterized as a "regrettable aberration" Madison’s refusal to embargo normal food shipments to the British in order to avoid angering American farmers and in so doing jeopardizing his reelection. Yeah, go tell that to the judge.

By far the most interesting question came from a blogger who, noting the betrayal of the American boys circa 1812 by their own leaders (a repeated theme of my ambitious project website) and evidently seeking to place Madison's treason in historical perspective, asked me for the single most egregious example of such a betrayal of the people that I could recollect. That’s easy: Japanese leaders in August 1945 were positively relieved – if not elated – by the nuking of their own citizens at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After all, isn’t it a bit odd that Americans hold candlelight vigils on August 6th to commemorate the Atomic Bomb victims all the while consumed with residual guilt, but the Japanese let the events pass in silence? Indeed I recall my own August 1986 pilgrimage to Nagasaki – as a one-time angst-ridden American. Of course, I knew quite well that Nagasaki was by then a completely rebuilt, clean, hustling-bustling modern city. But I had seen enough “Blade Runner/The Day After” movies that I had half expected to encounter mutants walking around town or troglodytes emerging from the sewers.

Meanwhile, near Ground Zero just below the precise spot where the Nagasaki bomb had detonated, I saw several American fast-food restaurants including the smiling face of Colonel Sanders. The Japanese must surely be a forgiving people. I can’t imagine a thriving kabob joint (let alone a mosque) being erected anytime soon near the base of the new Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan.

So what gives? Fasten your seatbelt for the ultimate in cynical, self-serving political treachery.

August 1945 saw the Japanese government desperately searching for a way to end the war without suffering the political consequences for presiding over a horrendous “defeat.” In actuality, historically speaking, it’s a delicate art of shifting the blame. Clearly it’s all about the “spin.”

Napoleon Bonaparte once sought to explain away his decisive defeat at the October 1813 Battle of Leipzig (that soon led to France’s occupation by foreign troops) by spreading the story that the French were winning the battle until they unfortunately ran out of ammunition. Likewise, when the tide of battle turned against Nazi Germany, spinmeister extraordinaire Joseph Goebbels proclaimed that the Reich was not losing – it was merely defending its victories. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took credit for the initial October 1973 success over the Israelis even though within two weeks his army had been crushed. Moreover, Sadat claimed a triumph by virtue of the fact that the Arabs had lost nowhere near as badly as they had lost the time previous when they had tangled with the Jews back in 1967. The Arabs, Sadat crowed, had now reclaimed their manhood!

It may not even be necessary to “win” at all – merely losing with sufficient "style" can sometimes suffice. In 1898 Spanish leaders acquiesced in a war against the United States that Madrid fully expected to lose. But gauging the oftentimes absurd nature of the Spanish character – isn’t Don Quixote some sort of national mascot – Spanish leaders concluded that they stood a better chance of retaining in power by waging a losing but honorably fought struggle than spinelessly submit to Washington's demands that Spain grant its long-suffering colony, Cuba, its independence.

  If you like this site, please help keep it going and growing.    

Curiously enough, this reminds me of a sportswriter during the Magic Johnson–era Los Angeles Lakers who in print damned with faint praise one of the team's malingering supporting players as a potentially superb athlete who regrettably "could look better than anyone else in the league missing a lay up."

If one cannot spin the defeat into something positive, one can always attempt to weasel out of the responsibility by dropping the onus for the defeat into someone else's lap – the proverbial "hot potato." The German military in 1918 snookered the unwitting civilians into signing the odious Armistice Agreement and later the Versailles Treaty. And the McGovern Democrats of 1972 effectively repudiated the Vietnam War that their party had undertaken back in 1965. And the Republicans, who presided over the loss of South Vietnam in 1975, could remind the country that the conflict had not been initiated on their watch but could have been won if the Democrats had followed the correct "Republican" strategy! No wonder, Patrick Buchanan rightly observed that 58,000 American boys ultimately sacrificed their lives down some "Asian rathole" without anyone ever paying the political price.

At any rate, in August 1945 the Japanese people were being pummeled by the Americans. That was self-evident. But here's the rub: The Japanese people did not seem to recognize that they were "losing" the war. For they thought that the Americans were also taking severe punishment. Indeed a famous New Yorker magazine cartoon of that era summed up perfectly this sentiment: A pair of Japanese men riding bicycles survey the smoldering ruins of their city. One remarks to the other something like, "That's war, we bomb Washington, they bomb Tokyo!"

In truth, judging from the generally incredulous response to Emperor Hirohito's surrender message of August 15, 1945, the ordinary Japanese citizens do indeed appear to have been stunned by news of their own nation's defeat. And that's where the atomic bombs enter the picture.

Japanese leaders were justifiably afraid that an admission of total defeat would immediately provoke a public backlash that would topple the Emperor and his dynasty. In truth, such are the fortunes of war. My young daughter, immersed in the Disney princess world of Snow White, Cinderella, Jasmine, Pocahontas, etc., recently asked me if there were still any real-live European kings and queens. I didn't have the heart to tell her that over the past century and a half the royal stable has been drastically reduced by virtue of monarchs presiding over military catastrophes. Beginning in 1870, the Franco-Prussian War cost French Emperor Louis Napoleon his throne. World War One claimed the royal dynasties in Germany, Bavaria, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. The next world war toppled monarchies in Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania. Surely Japanese leaders circa 1945 had serious reason to fear a popular revolt.

Moreover, with reference to the United States, we had long proved to be monarch-busters by sending British King George III packing in 1776, assisting Mexican nationalists to overthrow interloper Emperor Maximilian in 1867, and encouraging peace-hungry Germans to oust Kaiser William II in November, 1918 with President Woodrow Wilson's blessing.

In any event, in August 1945 America presented Japan with one option – the seemingly non-negotiable terms of "Unconditional Surrender." However, only after the Americans had nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki did the United States relent a bit by permitting Japan to capitulate while retaining their Emperor. Who knows if Tokyo would have surrendered so smoothly without this one significant concession.

At noon on August 15th, Emperor Hirohito spoke for the first time to his people via a recorded message that had been prepared the day before. Elsewhere, word of the nuclear attack had spread throughout the island and the Japanese people were not certain what to expect from this broadcast. It appears that some citizens thought that the Emperor might announce that Japan had retaliated against the Americans with its own nuclear device.

But, no. The Emperor announced the immediate Japanese surrender. However his official rationale represented a masterpiece of obfuscation that did manage to befuddle the public.

In a classic non sequitur, Hirohito stated that Japan must surrender in order to preclude the "total extinction of human civilization" on account of the introduction of this terrible new weapon, even though, at that precise moment, the Japanese were the only members of "human civilization" to be so endangered.

Nonetheless the ploy worked smoothly and before the stunned Japanese people could sort out their rage against their own leaders for launching an unwinnable war against the United States back on December 7, 1941 and then stubbornly continuing to prosecute the struggle against hopeless odds, U.S. forces hustled onto the island to make certain there would be no popular uprising – as Japanese leaders themselves had feared.

As we all know, the subsequent American occupation went swimmingly. Nary a peep of rancor was heard from Japanese leaders. Along the way, a handful of Japanese military men went on trial and were summarily dispatched thus allowing the traditional elite (and the rising business class) to remain in power. There was never a general housecleaning. And the elites escaped the wrath of their own people to reemerge in the postwar era to propel firms like Toyota and Mitsubishi into world economic prominence. That's why in Japan, the day August 6th passes in virtual silence.

Finally, even as the U.S. was nuking Japan, perceptive leaders on both sides of the Pacific were beginning to recognize that, with the Soviet-American Cold War looming in Europe and with an increasingly unsettled situation in China, Japan and the United States would inevitably be drawn together out of mutual interest. So what's an atomic bombing between friends?

December 26, 2009