On Dec. 7, 1964, the Japanese government conferred the First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun upon Gen. Curtis LeMay — yes, the same general who, less than 20 years earlier, had incinerated “well over half a million Japanese civilians, perhaps nearly a million.”
In May 1964, the general, now the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, had declaimed: “Tell the Vietnamese they’ve got to draw in their horns or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.”
I was reminded of the Japanese government’s bizarre act when I read the responses of several readers of The Atlantic Monthly to the news that a museum had finally been created in Tokyo to memorialize the Great Tokyo Air Raid. In the wee hours of March 10, 1945, 300 B-29s dropped 2,000 tons of incendiaries on one section of Tokyo — a space seven-tenths the size of Manhattan — and in 2 1/2 hours “scorched and boiled and baked to death” 100,000 people. The quoted words are LeMay’s.
No, “news” is not the right word. For his July-August column in the monthly, Jonathan Rauch mentioned the opening of a “small museum” and spoke of what lay behind it: an “obscure” air raid. “Few Americans have even heard of it,” he wrote, “and few Japanese like to dwell on it.”
Rauch met a survivor of the firebombing, a Japanese friend’s mother, back in 1990. He admired her for her “matter-of-fact, detached manner.” Her attitude was: “What happened happened, and war is always bad, and 1945 is ancient history.” Still, “the Tokyo attack deserves the most introspection of all,” Rauch decided, “even as it receives the least.”
In sheer magnitude, the calamity brought by the firebombing surpassed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least according to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted shortly after the war. But the devastation of Tokyo, along with that of Hamburg and Dresden, was laid aside the moment an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki. With the advent of a weapon capable of snuffing out a large city in a flash, the sense suddenly took root that “the continuity of life was, for the first time, put into question,” as Mary McCarthy put it.
In fact, one Japanese writer reported, in 1968, that “in the 22 years since the war the Asahi Shimbun has written only four times about March 10,” while taking up Hiroshima 100 times more often. At about that time, Katsumoto Saotome, who survived the firestorm as a 12-year-old boy, resolved to do something about it. It took him over three decades to create his modest archival center.
Was the raid justified? Rauch asked in his column. As with the dropping of the second atomic bomb, the question is legitimate.
First, before and during World War II there were people who thought indiscriminate slaughter of civilians had to be avoided. Tacticians in the U.S. Army Air Forces themselves were split between those who believed in “precision-bombing” and those who were “area bombers.”
Brigadier Gen. Haywood Hansell, who was assigned to execute the first serious bombings against Japan, was of the former group. But he was duly relieved of his duty as ineffectual and replaced by LeMay. And LeMay, switching from high explosives to incendiaries, went on to carry out what Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s aide, Brigadier Gen. Bonner Fellers, called “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of noncombatants in all history.”
Equally important, the victors of World War II did not just expand the definition of “war crimes,” but introduced the new concepts of “crimes against peace” and “crimes against humanity.” And these ideas have gained support in recent years. Probably with the latter development in mind, Rauch wrote: “I believe the firebombing of Tokyo should be considered a war crime.”
Some readers did not like this. And the five responses The Atlantic has chosen to print in its October issue are yet another reminder: When it comes to Japan and World War II, some Americans are incapable of accommodating different viewpoints.
Blaine Browne, in Lighthouse Point, Fla., begins by taking Rauch to task for following “a convoluted path toward his goal of elevating the March 1945 U.S. firebomb raid on Tokyo to the historical prominence he feels it deserves,” so you can guess the tenor of his letter. But in his determination to dismiss the importance of “an event that, as Rauch complains, has gone largely unremarked since its occurrence,” Browne makes one point he may not have intended.
“By early 1945 the American public’s willingness to support operations that might produce any significant casualties was increasingly strained,” he tells us, and concludes: “The Truman administration’s decision to use the atomic bomb must be considered in this context.”
I know Stanford historian Barton Bernstein has taken a somewhat different tack and argued President Harry Truman used atomic bombs because American taxpayers would have revolted if they learned their government had expended $2 billion on the Manhattan Project but had not used what it produced. The amount was sizable at the time; the creation and maintenance of the large fleet of B-29s cost $3 billion.
But I don’t know if Bernstein would go as far as to suggest what Browne does. By Browne’s logic, Japan’s invasion of China, for example, must be considered all right — in the context of the public’s support.
Michael Franzblau, in San Rafael, Calif., writes: “Concern that Curtis LeMay’s Army Air Corps committed war crimes in the firebombing of Tokyo has to be balanced by awareness of the despicable activities of the Imperial Japanese Army in China.”
In other words, you murdered relatives of someone I know, so I murdered some of yours. This argument may have worked in the age of gunfighters in the American west. But it evidently wouldn’t have worked in the military tribunals convened after the war. In any event, the countries that sat to judge Germany and Japan were careful to exclude their own deeds from consideration.
The shortest letter cited in The Atlantic comes from Devin Croft, in Littleton, Col. It reads in its entirety: “If the United States owed any debt to the dead of Tokyo, it was long since repaid through the reconstruction of Japan in the postwar years.”
That is one conclusion some Japanese may accept, however ambivalently. But Croft, too, evades Rauch’s point. Any deliberate mass slaughter of civilians is a war crime. And what happened in the early hours of March 10, 1945, was the greatest slaughter a single air raid produced in world history.
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