Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dower on the atomic bombings

We've been talking about, among other things, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and here's a passage from John W. Dower's Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq (Norton/New Press, pb, 2011) in which he lists a number of (to use an inappropriately antiseptic word) factors:
It is possible to see a terrible logic in the use of the bombs that is unique to the circumstances of that moment and at the same time not peculiar at all. This logic still begins with (1) ending the war and saving American lives. It no longer ends there, however, but extends to additional considerations, including the following: (2) fixation on deploying overwhelming force, as opposed to diplomatic or other less destructive alternatives including, most controversially, an unwillingness to back off from demanding Japan's unconditional surrender; (3) power politics in the emerging Cold War, notably playing the new weapon as a "master card," as Stimson put it, to intimidate the Soviet Union in eastern Europe as well as Asia; (4) domestic political considerations, in which using the bomb was deemed necessary to prevent partisan post-hostilities attacks on Truman...for wasting taxpayers' money on a useless project -- and simultaneously to build support for postwar nuclear and military projects; (5) scientific "sweetness" and technological imperatives -- coupled with (6) the technocratic kinetics of an enormous machinery of war -- which combined to give both developing and deploying new weaponry a vigorous life of its own; (7) the sheer exhilaration and aestheticism of unrestrained violence, phenomena not peculiar to modern times but peculiarly compelling in an age of spectacular destructiveness; (8) revenge, in this instance exacted collectively on an entire population in retaliation for Pearl Harbor and Japan's wartime atrocities; and (9) "idealistic annihilation," whereby demonstrating the appalling destructiveness of an atomic bomb on real, human targets was rationalized as essential to preventing future war, or at the very least future nuclear war. (p.223)    

13 comments:

thusbloggedanderson said...

Oh, you don't want to get me started.

One thing to note re: guaranteeing the Imperial form of rule, is that the Americans believed Hirohito was an instigator and supporter of Japan's wars of conquest. This was probably true, tho the retention of his dynasty made it necessary to construct the oft-refuted myth of the peaceful Emperor hijacked by his subordinates.

Had Germany offered to surrender provided the Nazi Party was left in control of postwar Germany, or that the Hohenzollerns were restored to the throne, that would not have flown, I suspect.

LFC said...

Of course nothing would have flown w/r/t Nazi Germany other than unconditional surrender. Whether Japan was, or more precisely shd have been, exactly an analogous case seems to be a matter of some controversy. (Which gets back to the previous thread here.)

I put up the Dower quote b/c someone I know gave me the bk quite some time ago and I remembered it was on the shelf and in browsing thru it briefly I found what seemed to be a nice summing up of all the considerations re the a-bomb whose relative weight, needless to say, can be debated (and was being debated in that CT thread).

hank_F_M said...

LFC

Interesting.

The only special case argument I have heard made for the Atomic bombings is that it was a surprise first use.

While I appreciate his wish that they had not been used, we should remember a decision not to do one thing is a decision to do another.

What were the real options available. Roosevelt and Churchill had made unconditional surrender a "sine qua non". The other two choices were invasion and continuing the blockade/strategic bombing until Japan surrendered or was sent back in the stone age. Both had strong proponents.

An atomic weapon is a weapon, subject to international law rule of weapons (proportionality) like any other weapon, The proper approach is to consider the consequences of all three courses of action. Just looking for reasons to say one should not have been used while not looking at the results of the other two is actually defeating the intent on the proportionality doctrine as to how wars are fought, - trying to minimize human suffering, especially non-combatants.



Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

Hank --

Roosevelt and Churchill had made unconditional surrender a "sine qua non". The other two choices were invasion and continuing the blockade/strategic bombing until Japan surrendered

One key question is whether unconditional surrender should have been demanded of Japan or whether another approach should have been taken. Walzer's view, as I noted in the previous thread, is that unconditional surrender should not have been demanded of Japan. Others disagree, obvs.

If you assume the unconditional surrender demand as a given, it's still very far from clear that use of the a-bomb, esp. without a prior demonstration strike, was the better choice from a moral/legal/proportionality standpoint.

Is the a-bomb/h-bomb "just another weapon"? If there is nothing special about atomic weapons, why has a taboo on their use developed (see Nina Tannenwald's work on this)?

Again, from a proportionality standpoint and minimizing civilian loss of life, blockade and/or invasion might well have caused less loss of civilian life. But that avoids the more basic question of whether one actually needed to get to that choice or whether the choice could have been avoided by a different set of strategic and diplomatic choices. (And I don't know the answer to that b/c, as I said earlier, I don't know enough about the diplomatic maneuvering in the last months of the war.)

hank_F_M said...

Well you certainly ask a better set of questions than Dower.

hank_F_M said...

LFC


The invasion option

http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/arens/

It is a little long and more detailed than your interest. Check the preface and the conclusion, which I suspect is optimistic. The marines were one fourth of the planned invasion.

If Operation Olympic had been executed, as planned, on 1 November 1945, it would have been the largest bloodbath in American history. Japenese military and civialn casuties would have been at least heavy.



Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

Hank,
Thanks, I'll look at the link.

P.s. I understand you don't much like the particular passage I put up in the post; worth noting for the record though that Dower is a v. distinguished historian -- his book Embracing Defeat (which I haven't read), about Japan after the war, won various awards. A previous bk War Without Mercy, about the Pacific war and the sources of its brutality etc., is much cited.

thusbloggedanderson said...

Just as a reminder, Japan was actually given some guarantees at Potsdam - it wasn't "unconditional surrender" in the sense imposed on the Germans.

Not great terms, sure, but given Japan's record of aggression and downright barbarism ("as perceived by the Allies," if you wish), they could have been worse.

thusbloggedanderson said...

And there's the perceived lesson of 1918, that anything *other* than unconditional surrender left open the possibility of doing it all over again in 20 years.

LFC said...

Anderson,
Points noted.
I also note, for the benefit of any readers just coming in, that you quoted some of the relevant sections of the Potsdam Dec. in one of the previous threads.

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