Today is the 67th anniversary of the US’s bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. As with each anniversary, many Japanese hold a ceremony designed to promote peace and prevent the use of nuclear weapons. It is hard to judge these people, as the bombing is of course regrettable, but like the Austrians and Italians, these people have a convenient lapse in memory regarding their culpability in WWII. Most regrettable, however is the attendance of Pres. Truman’s grandson at the event. While Clifton Daniel stopped short of decrying his grandfather’s leadership in the decision to end the war, his presence was a blithe insult to the seriousness of the war against Japan.
Japan, like the other nations the US defeated in WWII, is now a peaceful and stable nation whose government cannot pursue war without the consent of its people. It is easy to condemn an atomic attack against today’s Japan, but 67 years ago Japan was a vicious and intractable enemy. While the Japanese considered their emperor a walking god, Japan was also controlled by a military-industrial complex that was every bit as brutal as was Germany’s. Before the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had been a blatant aggressor in its region. Japan’s treatment of the Chinese and Malays was inhuman, and the Rape of Nanking will be remembered as one of history’s worst crimes. It is beyond rational dispute that the Japanese would have defended Honshu to the last man, including civilians. In short, Truman did not have the option of not killing many Japanese.
Another angle of attack against Truman is that the atomic bombs killed mostly civilians. Apart from the fact that there were no real civilians in Japan, this criticism again misrepresents the nature of war at the time. Targeting individual buildings while avoiding civilian casualties is a luxury of modern technology that Truman did not enjoy. Even at the end of WWII, bombs were inaccurate. Because of this, it was necessary to use incendiary bombs in places like Dresden and Tokyo. While fire bombs sound less scary than atomic bombs, these raids were devastating to the civilians. The atomic bomb was an extension of this strategy. Long before WWII, the doctrine of total war required the destruction of civilian capabilities used to support industrialized war.
Misguided revisionists, of which Clifton Daniel appears to be one, will never rest until the US apologizes for its atomic bombs. A WikiLeaks document suggests that Pres. Obama may have been ready to issue such an apology in 2009, or at least diplomats had discussed an apology. Such a move might appeal to those who need to see the US as the perennial villain and aggressor, but it would not serve the truth. Truman was faced with a choice of unleashing a powerful weapon or authorizing a land invasion. The Japanese alone forced such a terrible choice. Viewed from a reasonable historical perspective, Truman made the only choice that ended the war quickly and likely saved more lives that it cost. Clifton Daniel should not allow himself to be a political pawn to those who would rewrite the truth of Truman’s call 67 years ago.