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The terror that ended World War II


Hiroshima headline Kevin Rudd visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on his first prime ministerial visit to Japan this month, the first serving Western leader to do so.

His critics were outraged. Herald-Sun columnist Andrew Bolt subscribed to the theory that 'to visit is to encourage the offensive notion that the Japanese were victims of a western crime, and not of their own insane militarism'.

The time has come to admit the Japanese were the victims of both. The US response to Japan's insane militarism was, to quote the Second Vatican Council, 'a crime against God and man himself'.

The US objective in dropping the bomb was to end the war without needing to stage a bloody invasion of a nation whose leadership was implacably opposed to unconditional surrender. Without the bomb, war was expected to last another year. One million Allied troops were being moved into place for the invasion of Japan.

President Truman's military advice was that a land invasion of Japan 'would cost at a minimum a quarter of a million American casualties'. After the war, he observed that 'a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are'.

While some scientists urged that the bomb not be used until the enemy be first warned of its existence and prospective use, other scientists asked, 'Are not the men of the fighting forces ... who are risking their lives for the nation, entitled to the weapons which have been designed?'

They further asked, 'Are we to go on shedding American blood when we have available means to a steady victory? No! If we can save even a handful of American lives, then let us use this weapon — now!'

On the day he authorised the military to go ahead with preparations to use the bomb, Truman wrote in his diary: 'I have told the Sec of War, Mr Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children ... The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives.'

After the dropping of the second bomb, the Emperor decided to 'bear the unbearable' and surrender.

Three years later, at a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the custody of the atomic bomb, Truman insisted that it remain under civilian control.

'I don't think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to,' he said. 'It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had ... [T]his isn't a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that.'

I daresay most Australians still think President Truman did right in authorising the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities, regardless of whether such bombs are classed as military weapons, and regardless of whether dropping them entailed an immoral attack on the rights of the innocent with a direct intent to do them injury.

They thought, and still do, that the obliteration of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was morally excused because this, and only this, helped to end the war, without the need for hundreds of thousands of Allied Forces having to face annihilation invading Japan with its citizenry blindingly committed to the Emperor's honour.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church declared: 'Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.' There is no other church moral teaching which has been so solemnly declared.

Many democratic leaders, if placed in Truman's shoes, would, in good conscience and with a heavy heart, invoke an exception and do exactly the same again, no matter what any church leader said.

The American philosopher Michael Walzer has been a long time critic of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Just and Unjust Wars he states 'Our purpose, then, was not to avert a 'butchery' that someone else was threatening, but one that we were threatening, and had already begun to carry out.'

He rightly distinguishes Japan from Germany and argues that there was no need to demand unconditional surrender. '[A]ll that was morally required was that they be defeated, not that they be conquered and totally overthrown.' Walzer claims, 'In the summer of 1945, the victorious Americans owed the Japanese people an experiment in negotiation.'

In the essay 'Terrorism and Just War', from his recent book of essays Thinking Politically, he says 'the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945 ... was surely an act of terrorism; innocent men and women were killed in order to spread fear across a nation and force the surrender of its government.

'And this action went along with a demand for unconditional surrender, which is one of the forms that tyranny takes in wartime ... There can't be any doubt that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki implied ... a radical devaluation of Japanese lives and a generalised threat to the Japanese people.'

Walzer is not one of those thinkers who yields to popular sentiment in recasting the balance between principle and pragmatism. Rudd's visit to Hiroshima is an uncomfortable call for the nation to examine its conscience on war and obliteration bombing.

This is an edited extract from Frank Brennan's Annual Cardinal Newman Address.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University and Professorial Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of NSW.

Topic tags: frank brennan, kevin rudd, hiroshima, nagasaki, andrew bolt, second vatican council, world war II



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Existing comments

I would like to know more about how Michael Walzer distinguishes Japan from Germany. Japanese behaviour in the conquered lands of east Asia was not less horrifying than what the Germans were doing in Europe and, in some instances, seems to have reached a greater level of ferocity. In the light of what Japan had done, the demand of the Allies for unconditional surrender was not unreasonable.

How this could be achieved involved a terrible dilemma: an invasion of Japan would have cost incalculable death, suffering and destruction and yet, as Fr Brennan points out, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fell under the absolute moral prohibition of waging war directly on civilians.

Might the Japanese military machine have been disabled by a total blockade of the islands? Or would this have been nullified by fanatical loyalty to the Emperor who refused to bear the unbearable?

Sylvester | 24 June 2008  

I too would need to be convinced that Japan needn't have been forced to unconditional surrender. But two things: first, can someone tell me how Truman's intention to direct that the bomb be used only against a military target changed so terribly? And second, isn't it also time to recognise Howard's use of cruel, indeed destructive detention facilities to deter asylum seekers as an act of terrorism.

Joe Castley | 24 June 2008  

I have never ever heard a justification for dropping a second bomb on Nagasaki.

Has anyone?

The arguments for dropping a bomb on Hiroshima without testing a prior warning first were bad enough -
but Nagasaki!

Who visits Nagasaki to lay a wreath?

I have been to Hiroshima in 1950, and one of the Americans who took us said - in the hearing of the Japanese driver who knew English - 'I'm afraid they've been clearing up much of the devastation so you won't be able to see so much now.'

valerie yule | 24 June 2008  

What would any of us in Truman's C.i.C position have done with those two only A-bombs & risk of either/both B29s being shot down? The best contra-argument is failure to find a dominantly military target or blowing the top off Mt Fuji first. Geopolitically there was a race to occupy Japan before Stalin.

Ian Maguire | 24 June 2008  

I was 14 when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and can still recall what a nightmare it was.

Our Archbishop, Daniel Mannix, was one of the first Churchmen in the world to condemn what was done. He was simply applying clear Catholic moral teaching.

In some ways I found Harry Truman the most likeable US President in my lifetime, but what happened that year on his watch cannot easily be forgiven.

Of course, the power of the bomb could have been demonstrated to the Japanese without dropping it on inhabited cities. The summit of Mount Fuji? Well, that would have been one alternative. An uninhabited island in or near Japan would have been another.

(Of course, there were other horrendous crimes committed against humanity by both sides in World War II, as there have been in subsequent wars. Dresden? Tokyo? Coventry? The list could go on and on.)

Michael Costigan | 24 June 2008  

Dropping these bombs was the greatest war crime ever committed and Kevin Rudd was absolutely right to visit Hiroshima.

I have just read one of the ugliest and most disquieting books ever written about the so-called gentle allies after VE Day.

Anyone with the stomach should get hold of After the Reich by Giles MacDonogh who has used the archives and years of research to describe the murder of about 3 million Germans in one of the most appalling acts of barbarism after a war ever heard of.

Max Hastings rightly says there is no redeeming virtue to be found as we read about 60,000 old people dying of cold in the winter of 46/47 while the US watched, or the deaths of 200 people per day in the camps while the US took photos for propoganda and the raping of every woman and girl who got in their way.

None of the allies is off the hook for these atrocities and I commend this book.

Strangely no-one in Australia seems to want to review it, it sets the scene for the ethnic cleaning of Palestine as described by Ilan Pappe.

Marilyn | 29 June 2008  

General Curtis Le May said in 1945 that the US Air Force had bombed flat every strategic target in the Japanese home islands. Leonard Chesire whose memory has now been despicably sequestered, both approved and attended the dropping of the A bomb.

Claude Rigney | 09 July 2008  

Dear Frank, Thak you for your courage in speaking the truth about war and civilians. I have recently made a CD of family photos of Robert Francis Lyons father of Bob, Betty, Gwen Eillen, Marjorie, Mary ... Perry my father and Leon; killed in Flanders. Keep on.

Ruth Kapernick/Lyons | 09 August 2008  

Michael Walzer has no idea what he is talking about. The fact is that the Japanese were planning to completely eliminate up to 15,000 Australian POWs, not to mention the thousands more Americans in custody. Coincidentally, the date was set for 9 August, 1945.

The top secret order was issued by Field Marshal Terauchi. The order directed POW camp commanders to build special machine gun emplacements around the parade grounds. The prisoners were to be assembled as usual, and then gunned to death. Failing this, the camp commanders were to make every effort to completely eliminate the prisoners so that there was no evidence they had ever existed. Only the atomic bomb stopped the massacre.

As well, the Emperor had ordered all Japanese, not just troops, to fight to the death. The ONLY way to get the Japs to see any sense was to show them such overwhelming strength that even the Emperor was forced to accept total capitulation.

Dr Ian Duncan, one of the POW leaders at the Omuta camp about 50 kilometers east of Nagasaki was read the order by the camp interpreter "Riverside" Yamaguchi, who was later executed for war crimes. Dr Duncan reported that Yamaguchi was a "callous man who had seemed to take perverse pleasure in reading the execution order to the camp doctors."

If Allied troops had been forced to fight on Japanese soil, at least half a million men would have died. And for what?

It was far better to drop the atom bombs than to suffer the useless murder of so many young men. Imagine what our lives would have been like if we had lost so many men who later went on to rebuild our countries? Perhaps the inventors of many of the machines and technology we take for granted now would have perished.

Yes, the bombs killed many civilians. But they supported the Emperor and their war mongering military without reservation. They were just as culpable as the most vicious soldier.

As for our Australian PM visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, he was just doing what he does best: playing the politician to curry favor, without any regard for reality, or the feelings of most Australians. He has lost my vote.

Mike Holt | 17 December 2009  

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