Sunday, November 15, 2009

History: On Defeating Japan in World War II, the Answer Is "Yes."

Look at this mess. Maybe I should have a new blog tag called "flunking history." FOR PETE'S SAKE, PEOPLE. (Buckle in -- a history nerd rant is coming.)

President Truman made an unbelievably tough call in unbelievably tough circumstances, and I remain convinced that it was the right call. (You can see some related documents, courtesy of the Truman Presidential Library, including the warning letter dropped on Japan.)

The answer was and is "yes" in order to end the Pacific war once and for all against an implacable foe willing to fight tooth and claw to the bitter end and beyond, a fiercely aggressive enemy that struck first (lest we all forget) at Pearl Harbor. Hello, "date which shall live in infamy"? How easily some people gloss over that inconvenient fact.

The alternative to the bomb was a full-scale invasion of Japan that would have cost countless American/Allied (and Japanese too, let's not forget, both military and civilian) lives. A common speculative guess is half a million lives, a number that I think is much too conservative. Double it. You only have to look at the appalling carnage at Okinawa (an amphibious invasion that had a butcher's bill of some 150,000 dead and wounded on both sides, plus another 100,000 civilian casualties) for a hint of what would have happened in Japan proper. Alternatively, you can look at the liberation of the Philippines.

OK, for my unpopular stance on the atomic option against imperial Japan, you can now have fun calling me all kinds of nasty names. But facts are stubborn things, and the fact remains that Truman's call ended the war. Do I wish the war had ended another way? Absolutely. Do I as a historian see some other possible option to force Japan's capitulation? No. (Aside from the invasion option, which would have been even more cringe-inducing in its human cost.) There were no "good" choices open to Truman, only "bad" and "worse." Often I think that today's armchair historians and pie-eyed ignorant young utopia-dreamers just don't realize this. Half the time they're busy making the US the "bad guy" and Japan the "victim" and rewriting history into unrecognizable tripe.

And for the record: I have no animus against contemporary Japan (in fact, I long to go visit if I ever have the money). But it is not the same as imperial Japan, and it's foolish to blur the two in discussions of history. And it's completely foolish to make moral equivalence between the Allies and imperial Japan. In the light of history, the good guys won in the Pacific. If you have more doubts, ask me about Japanese POW camps, "comfort women," the invasion of Manchuria, the treatment of Nanking, the rape of the Philippines, the Bataan Death March, and so on. (I'm not even going to open the misery-filled can of worms about WW II-era, Japanese-held Taiwan.) There's your history-nerd advice of the day, plus this: in the same vein, I don't believe in tarring modern Japan with the brush of "yellow guilt" of its history, just as I don't believe in tarring modern Germany with "Nazi guilt." At the same time, it's perilous to refuse to look at history with a clear and critical (even self-critical) eye.


Quite Rightly said...

From the "let's put that in a different light" department:

The conversation can get very interesting when you ask an American who condemns Truman's decision to reflect on whether he or she would have been born without the dropping of the A-bombs. (And that goes for a huge number of Japanese too.) If a million or so future fathers would have died, that's millions of baby boomers who wouldn't have been born, and, of course, many millions of children and grandchildren of boomers. It doesn't hurt to point out that the Americans who would have died were not only those serving in the Pacific theater of war, but, as you know, also those who had survived the European theater and would have been sent to the Pacific. In other words, relatively few Americans descended from WWII veterans could assure you that they would even have been born without Truman's decision.

Minerva, if you do put that history blog together, let me know--I'd love to contribute. I've been thinking about adding a weekly history post to my blog, and would have already, if the Obama administration were not distributing at least one incomprehensible "fresh hell" every day!

Mad Minerva said...

I had not thought along those lines -- an interesting "what if"!

And adding a weekly history post to your blog would be a great idea!

Michael Turton said...

On Nov 1 1945 Japan had but three days of rice left. Dougout Doug, in what surely was his finest moment and one of our greatest as a nation, had the US import rice to stave off starvation.

Had we not dropped the bomb, the death toll would have been in the millions from starvation and fighting. We proposed invading the most heavily urbanized nation in Asia, densely population. Let's recall that in similar savage fighting in Russia, nearly every citizen of Stalingrad was killed, and similar events occurred in Leningrad. Japan would have been even more brutal. Typical death rates among Japanese soldiers were in the high 90 percents in most of our island landings, and there were 800,000 Japanese boys in Kyushu, almost all of whom would have been killed.

This does not even begin to touch on the widespread starvation elsewhere in Asia -- but revisionism never discusses that, because it is a Japanese invention and has inherited Japanese prejudices against non-Japanese, and it would have been brown people dying. Starvation was averted in many places only because the fighting ended. Ending the war also gave us the opportunity, which we blew, to save China from Communism and millions of lost lives too.

Dropping the Bomb sucked, but what sucked was that we had to incinerate two cities to get the Emperor's attention so he would quit the war. By dropping the bomb, we adumbrated the imperial strategy of making the invasion so costly that the US would quit the war and leave Japan at least some of its empire in Asia and the Pacific. The Bomb did so by showing that we could destroy Japan without loss to ourselves.

I could go on. Revisionism makes me ill, from both its ethical blindness and its vast ignorance of history.


Mad Minerva said...

Good points, Michael, and ditto on the revisionism.