No rationalization for Nagasaki attack

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — History is written by victors and thus abounds in well-cultivated rationalizations for the winners’ actions, however unjustifiable or gory they might be. Vanquishers are rarely burdened by guilt. Sometimes the rationalization stops with their first major slaughter in a war, as if their willful repeat of similar blood baths were automatically defensible.

This is best illustrated by the United States’ atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the incineration of Hiroshima was justifiable as a means to end the war and save American lives — a thesis that even most liberal Americans accept — what was the justification for the destruction of Nagasaki three days later before Japan had a chance to grasp the message from the first nuclear attack?

The U.S. actions arose not from any rage but from cool, calculated thinking. The intent was to deliver a crippling psychological blow to Japan by obliterating two of its important cities. No warning was given to the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before unleashing the nuclear holocaust.

When a U.S. Air Force B-29 bomber dropped an untested uranium bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” on a sweltering morning and reduced Hiroshima to ashes, the mass death and destruction set off celebrations in some American cities. The revelers were celebrating America’s newborn technological prowess.

U.S. President Harry Truman, applauding the bomb as “the greatest achievement of organized science in history,” ordered a second surprise atomic attack on a Japanese city three days later. “Fat Boy,” based on the design of an implosion-type plutonium bomb which had been secretly tested in the New Mexico desert more than three weeks earlier, was dropped on Nagasaki.

Picturesque Nagasaki became the second victim of nuclear holocaust by an accident of weather: Kokura, the city chosen for the attack, was under a heavy cloud blanket, so the bomber was diverted to Nagasaki. To U.S. officials, the dropping of the plutonium bomb mattered more than which Japanese city it vaporized.

The political use of a technological discovery to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made possible by a political-military culture in industrial societies that approved civilian massacre as a legitimate tool of warfare. Before the nuclear genie was let loose, mass killings had already become a feature of the war for all sides.

On a single night, for example, nearly 200,000 citizens burned to death when U.S. bombers doused Tokyo with jellied petroleum in March 1945. Indeed, in the months before the nuclear bombings, half a million Japanese had already died and 14 million rendered homeless in U.S. firebombing raids on cities.

The Anglo-American firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 left some 39,000 Germans dead in an air campaign Churchill acknowledged amounted to “terror bombing.” Hitler’s massacres of Jews, and Japanese atrocities in China, reflected a similar disdain for civilian life.

By the time Hiroshima and Nagasaki were reduced to smoldering ruins, 50 million people in the world had already been killed in conflict since 1939.

The culture that made those blood baths possible remains embedded in the strategic doctrines of a number of powerful states today.

Nuclear deterrence, for example, relies on targeting civilian and industrial centers. Conventional military strategies still seek to destroy an adversary’s civilian infrastructure. The world can never be safe as long as Armageddon-ready nations armed with weapons of mass murder pursue military strategies pivoted on first use and on intentional civilian targeting, even if it ended up destroying civilization.

Just as the nuclear problem has persisted, the questions arising from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings still call for answers. Despite the large-scale bloodletting during World War II, couldn’t the U.S. have demonstrated its new technological might by dropping an atomic bomb on an uninhabited island? Or why were nuclear bombs dropped in a way to maximize civilian casualties?

Before Hiroshima was flattened, Hitler had committed suicide in April and a battered Japan was on the brink of defeat, with its military searching for an honorable surrender. More than half of Tokyo and Kobe, a third of Nagoya and a quarter of Osaka had been destroyed.

The military logic of the two nuclear bombings was to establish U.S. primacy in the postwar order. The bombings helped put the stamp of Pax Americana on the globe. Yet, questions relating to the Nagasaki bombing continue to haunt today.

Before dropping the second bomb, shouldn’t the U.S. have given Japan a reasonable and firm deadline to surrender? In rushing into a second nuclear attack before Japan could grasp the strategic significance of the first bombing, Truman achieved little more than showing that a tested implosion-type bomb worked.

The U.S. establishment has shied away from an objective examination of the past use of nuclear weapons primarily because it still remains wedded to nuclear first use. Any reevaluation of the past use would bring into question the present nuclear posture

The past, however, will continue to be a heavy burden on the American conscience — Hiroshima because it was the first atomic attack, and Nagasaki because it was a wanton act, militarily and politically. Even those who still justify Hiroshima offer no rationalization for Nagasaki.