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Monday, November 16

"Hell to Pay" - the shattering vindication of Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb

On Friday Rush Limbaugh and some other denizens of the American Right expressed outrage that during his visit to Japan President Barack Obama ducked the question, when a Japanese reporter asked whether he thought the decision to use nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was correct.

Newsbusters, a conservative website, lectured, "Defending the decision of the United States to drop nuclear weapons ... is not a comfortable thing to do when you're in Japan. But if you're President of the United States, you must do it. Diplomatically, yes. With sympathy for the civilian victims, yes. But you must do it."

Rush snapped that every American president who'd visited Japan had been asked the same question and managed to defend the U.S. decision.

Well, no other American president has arrived in post-war Japan at a time when the Japanese are giving evidence that they're rethinking their special relationship with the USA, and on the heels of Japanese actions that could be read as hostile to U.S. interests or not very helpful, depending on how you read the tea leaves.(1)

Somehow I doubt Rush Limbaugh has mentioned any of those developments to his audience. But while Obama didn't exactly arrive in Japan to shouts of "Yankee go home" -- the latest demonstration against the U.S. presence in Okinawa was held the day before his arrival -- he arrived in the face of a new reality. Whether this represents a sea change in U.S.-Japan relations or simply an incoming political party throwing red meat at Japan's right wing remains to be seen.

Obama's bow to Emperor Akihito was a bit much but against the new reality, Friday the 13th of November, at a joint press conference with Japan's new prime minister, in front of Japan's press corps, was not the time or place for America's president to remind his hosts that their military commanders under Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) had themselves to blame for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But on the chance -- just the chance, mind you -- that our President of Pretty Words (as the Chinese have pegged him) is laboring under the impression that the decision to use nuclear weapons against the Japanese was a crime against humanity:

Last night John Batchelor interviewed D. M. Giangreco, whose latest book Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947, was published last month. (See the WABC podcast, 11-12 PM segment).

The discussion was a revelation for me, as surely it was for anyone who's never delved deeply into the reasoning, on both sides of the Pacific War, that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even John Batchelor, who's very knowledgeable about World War Two, observed after reading Hell to Pay, "I will never again be dubious about the decision to use the atomic bombs."

Giangreco, a military historian, has spent more than 15 years sifting through every conceivable aspect of the decision-making processes that led to the cataclysmic use of the atomic bomb against Japan. As I learned from this bibliography of his works Hell to Pay is not Giangreco's first book on the subject, but I'm going to assume it's his fullest reply to the question every American of conscience has asked: Was it really necessary to unleash hell?

The first part of the answer, I learned from the discussion, is that hell had already been unleashed. Contrary to the theory advanced by what Victor Fic calls in his review of Giangreco's book "Truman's left-wing revisionist critics," the Japanese command had no intention of surrendering after Okinawa. Fic writes:
In mid-1944, U.S. war planners projected half a million GI deaths to subdue Japan's 3.5 million military defenders during Operation Downfall, slated for 1945 and 1946. Then the harrowing battle of Okinawa in spring 1945 chastened them. By July 1945, American analysts realized that Tokyo had mobilized 5 million soldiers and stationed them exactly on Downfall's designated landing beaches. These factors foreshadowed 1 million GI deaths.

Mr. Giangreco observes that the cornered revisionists insist that Truman never saw these ghoulish numbers. The author counters that documents he discovered at the Truman library in the late 1990s prove Truman did.
In his own review of the book for his blog, Batchelor observes:
The Navy prepared half a million Purple Hearts. The US built hospitals to prepare to receive 700 thousand wounded back in the States during the projected two year campaign,'45-'47.
That's not the half of it. Vic writes:
Why didn't Washington soften its unconditional surrender terms to preserve Japan's emperor, the revisionists ask? Mr. Giangreco explains that Americans had learned that the partial defeat of Germany in 1919 had precipitated a worse war in 1939. [...]

Mr Giangreco then examines neglected documents about Downfall and Ketsu-Go, Japan's defense plan. No, Tokyo was not surrendering. He cites naval strategist Takejiro Onishi as claiming 20 million Japanese would die in a gyokusei campaign, meaning "crushing of the beautiful jewel" -- or mass, heroic death -- against any invasion. The bloodied Americans would then negotiate to preserve much of the empire.

Yes, Tokyo was still very strong, Mr. Giangreco argues. Its regimented civilians held 28,000 knee mortars, and its wrongly creative kamikaze strategy could have launched 18,000 missions in 1945.

Mr. Giangreco concedes that many planes were made of wood. However, he claims to offer the best analysis of them: Given their wooden airframe, U.S. radar failed to track them, and the proximity fuses of Japanese bombs were known to malfunction. As for aviation fuel, Tokyo had copious underground stocks. Mr. Giangreco points out that in July 1945, a single wooden kamikaze biplane sank the destroyer Callaghan.[...]
That's still not the half of it, I learned from the transcript of a lecture Giangreco gave in 1998, during which he skewers several wrong assumptions about Japan's ability to continue the war:

  • A U.S. barricade of Japan could have starved the Japanese into conceding. Nonsense: The Japanese didn't need to depend on food imports because more than half their population lived on productive farms: "Back then the system of price supports that has encouraged Japanese farmers today to convert practically every square foot of their land to rice cultivation did not exist. Large vegetable gardens were a standard feature of a family's land and wheat was also widely grown."


  • The U.S. could have pulverized the defensive positions on Kyushu and Honshu islands (the planned landing sites of the Downfall operation). Duh: Combat operations in the Philippines and Okinawa had taught the Japanese about the vulnerability of their cave and bunker defenses and they arranged their defensive positions against Downfall accordingly; this having to do with the fact that the Japanese command had shrewdly deduced exactly where and when the Americans would land during their next wave of attacks. Were there alternate choices for the location of the initial U.S. invasions during Downfall? Not any good ones.


  • The Japanese guns were no use against the Sherman tank. Double Duh: "In fact, the Japanese, through hard experience, were becoming quite adept at tank killing. During two actions in particular on Okinawa, they managed to knock out 22 and 30 Shermans respectively. In one of these fights, Fujio Takeda managed to stop four tanks with six 400-yard shots from his supposedly worthless 47mm. As for the 37mm, it was not intended to actually destroy tanks during the invasions but to immobilize them at very short ranges so that they would become easier prey for the infantry tank-killing teams that had proven so effective on Okinawa."


  • There's more, much more, to be learned from Giangreco's lecture. Clearly, the distance of time addled several brains when they looked back across the decades and theorized that Operation Downfall, if carried out, would have been a walk in the park for U.S. forces -- thus averting the need to use nuclear weapons. Although the subject is not funny one can squeeze a bit of trench humor from Giangreco's patient correction of the misunderstandings supporting the theory.

    Yet all that is still not the half of it. Giangreco explained to Batchelor that the answer the U.S. received from the Japanese command about the nuking of Hiroshima was silence.

    Why? a rational person asks. Why, after the Armageddon-like devastation wreaked on the city and its inhabitants, didn't the Japanese concede that the atomic bomb was the game-changer?

    The question is made more difficult when one realizes that the Japanese command was not comprised of a bunch of nuts. Giangreco's lecture makes clear that these were sane and smart war planners; for all the crazy rhetoric of Japanese propaganda they knew the truth as much as the U.S. command: The Pacific theater of war wasn't the European one. They'd forced the Americans into taking unacceptably high losses for the victories on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and now the United States was fast running out of young men to send into the kind of battles the U.S. had seen only twice in Europe against the Nazis.

    Thus, the Japanese planners were reasonably assured they could fight the United States to a standoff in the Pacific. Then along came the bombing of Hiroshima. It was completely off the grid, although the U.S. had warned that they'd developed a superweapon and were willing to use it.

    Surely there are explanations from the Japanese side about why they didn't concede after Hiroshima, although Giangreco didn't explore these during his 20 minute discussion with Batchelor. Yet the silence in the wake of the Hiroshima bombing suggests the Japanese command thought the U.S. side was bluffing: that they'd shot their full load of the infernal new weapon. If that's how the Japanese were thinking, three days later they learned they were wrong.

    Perhaps, when a third A-bomb didn't fall, Japan's war planners again put themselves in the place of their U.S. counterparts and gauged what the Americans would do if they had more than two nuclear weapons: they would save the rest for Kyushu and Honshu to use as a clearing operation for the U.S. assault. In that event it really would be game over, and the Japanese would have nothing to show for it except the very inglorious spectacle of being roasted alive.

    If that's indeed how they thought, they guessed right that time. The U.S. had at least seven more A-bombs, which were intended to clear the way for Operation Downfall.

    In any event, after Nagasaki the Japanese knew it was open to question as to how many A-bombs the U.S. had in its arsenal. Five days later the Japanese surrendered unconditionally.

    If American readers blanch at the thought that the U.S. command would have sent American ground forces into the radioactive zones of Kyushu and Honshu in the wake of nuclear attack -- the book is not titled Hell to Pay for nothing. Yes, that's exactly what they were going to do.

    And still, that's not the half of it. There were eight to ten million Japanese civilians living on Kyushu and Honshu when Japanese forces suddenly overran the islands in preparation for Operation Downfall. While many of those civilians would surely have resisted the American invasion in any way they could, there weren't enough caves and bunkers to hold the civilians. And such refuges from the initial radiation blasts would have been reserved for the Japanese commanders and most critical ground forces.

    So even if the Japanese could have had known the exact time the U.S. would start dropping nuclear bombs on them, which is doubtful, the vast majority of Japanese civilians would have died along with the vast majority of Japanese soldiers massed on the islands.

    John Batchelor sums the hellish equation:
    The choice for Truman and his advisers was either to murder 200 thousand -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- or to take the risk to lose 500 thousand American [lives] and up to 8 million Japanese.
    That was just the estimated casualties for the initial assaults in Operation Downfall. And again, it needn't have been as many as 200,000 casualties if the Japanese had shown a willingness to negotiate surrender after the Hiroshima bombing.

    Yet there you have it: behind every door marked "Exit from Hell" the American war planners saw apocalypse, except for the door marked "Long shot if you're willing to pay the price."

    The price would have been 200,000 Japanese civilians in addition to the ones slated to die on Kyushu and Honshu if the Japanese hadn't surrendered when they did.

    President Harry Truman took up the devil's challenge; in doing so he saved millions of lives, ended the war, and left enough of Japan intact so that post-war Japanese could redeem themselves with honor.

    That's the full answer to the question of whether there was any way the USA could have avoided unleashing nuclear war.

    For the conscientious objectors who aver that even a U.S. defeat would have been preferable to nuclear war -- that's looking at history from the world of today, in which the greatest concern is nuclear proliferation.

    The objectors need to ask the Chinese what kind of occupiers the Japanese made. Or they can ponder D. M. Giangreco's explanation of why civilians leaped from cliffs during the 1994 battle on the island of Saipan. The Wikipedia version has it that
    Many hundreds of Japanese civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle, some jumping from "Suicide Cliff" and "Banzai Cliff". Efforts by U.S. troops to persuade them to surrender instead were mostly futile. Widespread propaganda in Japan portraying Americans and British as "devils" who would treat POWs barbarically, deterred surrender.
    That might have been the case at the end. But according to Giangreco, Japanese troops forced thousands of Japanese civilians to leap off cliffs into the waters so that the floating corpses blocked the progress of U.S. Navy vessels.

    Any way you cut it, I think it can be fairly argued that the Japanese commanders did things to their own people, and to those civilians and soldiers in their capture, that the German military under Hitler wouldn't have done to captured Allied troops.

    If the use of nuclear weapons was a crime against humanity, the only escape from damnation would have been for the United States to surrender to an army that held to the code of san ko: "Kill all, burn all, loot all."

    The Japanese Tea master Sen no Rikyū, who lived in the 16th century, is one of my favorite historical figures. Yet given his Zen training I've always been haunted by the peculiar violence of his decision to uproot thousands of morning glories just to make a point about Tea to the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

    If the Japanese wish to go more their own way, I see this as a natural development and I wish them well. Yet I would ask them to look into their hearts as they contemplate a new way forward and ponder whether they've forsworn san ko forevermore.

    1) To wit:
    The Okinawa issue has become what assemblyman Shinzato called a ‘touchstone' of future relations between Japan and the US, but it is not the only one. [Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's] decision not to renew Japan's refuelling mission for US vessels in the Indian Ocean and to modify Japan's Afghanistan mission are other examples of his desire for a changed Japanese diplomacy.

    The [outgoing] LDP wanted Japan to exert more independence by having its Self Defence Forces play a more active role around the world instead of relying upon “aid diplomacy” — financial or otherwise. But there was an assumption under the LDP that the US remained Japan's key ally, while China and North Korea as well as Russia remained potential enemies.

    The Hatoyama administration seems to be making a bolder assumption, which is that if Japan stretches out the hand of friendship to China and other East Asian neighbours, these can become key allies too and that Japan will therefore not require to shelter under the US nuclear umbrella, with all the consequences that has for wider dependence upon the US.[...]
    None of that speaks to the issue of a missile defense shield, which Japan was developing jointly with the USA:
    "Missile defense is almost totally useless," said Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, a Lower House lawmaker who served as the party's deputy defense spokesman prior to its Aug. 30 election victory. "Only one or two out of 100 are ever effective. Even in shooting down a normal bomber, the odds are maybe 20 percent or 30 percent." ... "We'll probably cut" the defense budget, said Yamaguchi, who holds a Ph.D. in international politics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "There's so much else we have to do, such as child care allowance, education, health care and pensions."
    Such frank and public displeasure with a joint U.S. defense project is another sign that the special relationship could be fraying.
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