avatar
Downfall


Howard Zinn

I

am surprised that my friend Hans Koning, a stalwart protester against the war in

Vietnam, seems to have been taken in by the argument of Richard Frank, in his

review of Frank’s DOWNFALL. Yes, we must all be willing to reconsider our most

hardened judgements in the light of new evidence. But there is nothing in

Frank’s argument — however assiduous his research — to make those of us who

see the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an unspeakable atrocity

change our minds.

Frank

points to the fact that the discussions of a negotiated peace with the Japanese

cabinet "led nonetheless to the unanimous rejection, and ‘with contempt’ of

the Allied ultimatum issued from Potsdam." Yes, unanimous rejection,

because the Allied ultimatum was for unconditional surrender, and the Japanese

were ready to surrender, if one condition could be met — the retention of the

Emperor. On July 13, 1945,Foreign Minister Togo wired Ambassador Sato, sent to

Moscow precisely to find a negotiated way out of the war: "Unconditional

surrender is the only obstacle to peace….It is his Majesty’s heart’s desire to

see the swift termination of the war."

The

argument has been made before, that the Japanese military were fanatics who

would never surrender, and Frank makes it even more dramatic by describing the

Japanese military plan, "Ketsu-Go", to go into effect upon an Allied

invasion, as "prepared to sacrifice the lives of twenty million

Japanese." And only after such a massive sacrifice could they, with honor,

negotiate a peace.

It

is a preposterous argument. If they were such fanatics, requiring twenty million

Japanese deaths before they could surrender, why did they, in fact, surrender

after hundreds of thousands of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Clearly, as was

concluded by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which interviewed the Japanese

decision-makers right after the war, Japan was on the verge of surrender, and

would have done so even without the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes,

those bombings speeded things up, but so would a U.S. acceptance of the one

condition the Japanese asked, the sanctity of the Emperor — and without that

horrendous loss of life and prolonged suffering.

If

that condition were accepted, none of the horror scenarios conjured up by Frank

would need to occur.

Without

the atomic bombs, Frank postulates, the "next non-atomic move" (Koning’s

words) would have been a series of bombing raids to destroy Japan’s rail system

and cause a famine in the cities. "Would it then," Koning asks,

"have been more humane to bank on famine as leading to a Japanese

surrender?"

We

are being given the typical multiple-choice test, in which the tester assumes we

are too dumb to think outside the given alternatives. In this case, we are

confronted with three options: a) drop the bombs; b) invade Japan; c) starve the

Japanese population. And so we are hemmed in to the conclusion (because we seek

the humanitarian solution) that dropping the bombs is "more humane".

But there is once again, the alternative suggested by Ambassador Joseph Grew,

who knew Japan well, that we not insist on "unconditional" surrender,

just on "surrender", and agree to keep the emperor.

Why

was this not done, if it was by far the most life-saving of the alternatives?

Because, simply put, our leaders did not have the humanitarian concerns which I

assume motivate Frank, and which I know motivate Hans Koning. They were not

looking for the alternative that would be least costly in human life. Their

motives were political and strategic. Yes, as Gar Alperovitz and his team of

researchers documented in great detail in THE DECISION TO DROP THE ATOMIC BOMB,

there is strong evidence that Truman was listening to his closest advisor, James

Byrnes, who saw the bomb as showing off American power to the Russians. Byrnes

said the bomb "could let us dictate the terms of ending the war."

There

was another political motive, this time domestic. In his recent book, FREEDOM

FROM FEAR, Davfid Kennedy quotes Secdretary of Stae Cordell Hull advfising

Byrnes, before the Potsdam Conference which decided on unconditional surrender,

that "terrible political repercussions would follow in the U.S." if

the unconditional surrender princiople would be abndoned. The president would be

"crucified" if he did that, Byrnes said. Kennedy writes: "Byrnes

accordingly repudiated the suggestions of Leahy, McCloy, Grew and Stimson".

(All of whom were willing to relax the "unconditonal surrender" demand

just enough to permit the Japanese their face-saving requirement for ending the

war — the retention of the emperor.)

Can

we believe that our political leaders would consign hundreds of thousands of

people to death or lifelong suffering because of "political

repercussions" at home? The idea is horrifying, yet we can see in recent

history a pattern of presidential ambition considered more important than human

life. The tapes of John F. Kennedy reveal him weighing withdrawal from Vietnam

against the upcoming election. Transcripts of Lyndon Johnson’sWhite House

conversations show him deciding gainst withdrawal from Vietnam, because

"They’d impeach a president…wouldn’t they?"

Just

before the Gulf War, President Bush’s aide Sununu was reported "telling

people that a short sucessful war would be pure political gold for the President

and would guarantee his election." And is not the Clinton-Gore support for

the "Star Wars"anti-missile program (against all scientific evidence

or common sense) prompted by their desire to be seen by the voters as tough

guys, even if it leads to a dangerous arms race?

Frank

starts with the premise that either an invasion or famine would be necessary to

bring about a Japanese surrender, and adds to those huge numbers of casualties

an estimate as to how many Chinese would die in Japanese work camps if a

surrender were delayed. Combining a false premise with a guess, he concludes

that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was more merciful. He also, according

to Koning (and I hope Hans would not go along with this idea, though he reports

it without comment) wonders why we would not rather kill Japanese in Hiroshima

than Chinese in work camps. The odious implication is that the Japanese

civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are "more expendable" than the

Chinese prisoners, because, presumably, they bear some degree of guilt for their

government’s cruelties.

I

would conclude with one question to Richard Frank, to Hans Koning, and to any

other American who becomes convinced that droppping the atomic bombs on

Hiroshima and Nagasaki "saved lives". Imagine a situation in which we

were in a brutal war, coming to its end soon but we knew not when, and we were

told that by killing 100,000 American children we would "perhaps" or

"probably" (none of the evidence produced by Frank can lead us to use

the word "certainly") bring the war to an immediate end and save many

more lives than that l00,000. Would we agree to it?

And

(okay, more questions) if we would react to that suggestion with horror, as I am

supposing, does it not mean that the lives of Japanese children are less

valuable to us than the lives of American children? And does not the bombing,

not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of any civilian population, anywhere,

depend on the same morally unacceptable judgement?