“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”
President Barack Obama
Amidst the shrill media coverage of the presidential election, including the buffoonery and bigotry of Donald J. Trump, a rather more somber and understated occasion of great import passed largely unnoticed: President Obama’s May 27th visit to Hiroshima, Japan. It was the first trip by a U.S. president to Hiroshima since August 6th, 1945, a date with an indelible mark on world history.
In Hiroshima, mired in a delicate balance, President Obama struck the right tone. He laid a wreath and embraced survivors. His speech, which affectingly depicted the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons, called for a “moral revolution” in order to live with the technology of death we have devised. Notably, President Obama did not apologize for President Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs, nicknamed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. His decision not to apologize was crucially correct.
From the standpoint of utilitarian ethics, President Truman made the right decision among a bevy of bad options. Casualty estimates from Hiroshima and Nagasaki range from 130,000 to 250,000. While there were thousands of Japanese soldiers among the dead, the overwhelming majority were innocent civilians. Women. Children. The infirm. The old. All obliterated.
Yet, the suffering introduced by the atomic age was a difference of degree, not of kind. The ghastly reality of World War II was such that the Royal Air Force inflicted similar carnage upon the people of Dresden, Germany via conventional firebombing. So, too, did the United States Army Air Forces upon Tokyo. The question then becomes, to what extent does such mass killing cease to be a moral outrage and instead become a necessary evil, when the ultimate aim is the termination of the costliest war in human history?
By August 1945, there were several factors that could not be overlooked in the decision to use atomic weapons. The fighting in the Pacific had devolved into some of the most gruesome close-quarters combat in the entire war; torture and execution of prisoners of war (POWs) had become common practice. Americans and Japanese were cutting off the hands of their dead enemies and keeping them as souvenirs. Racism directed toward one another was rampant.
Consequently, adversaries were perceived by one another as sub-human, and the bounds of permissible cruelty were enlarged. The Japanese adopted a principle of success or suicide, known as kamikaze, and they fiercely defended every last inch of territory. From afar, President Truman, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Admiral William Leahy had to dread the urban warfare and extensive civilian death that would likely result from even fiercer fighting during an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Such an invasion would constitute the largest amphibious operation in history.
During this period, an invasion of Japan had already been planned, codenamed Operation Olympic. The first U.S. units were set to deploy in November and commence by attempting to capture the island of Kyushu. U.S. officials anticipated the invasion to take a full year with one million U.S. casualties before the Japanese were sufficiently worn down to surrender. Millions of Japanese, including civilians, were expected to perish during the military campaign.
Finally, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 9th. Stalin had pledged at the Tehran Conference two years prior that the Soviet Union would do so once Nazi Germany had been defeated. While the Cold War did not begin in earnest until 1946, if the United States had permitted the war against Japan to prolong, the likely result would have been a partitioned Japan, much as there was a divided Germany until 1989.
The wrenching legacy of August 1945, fraught with moral ambiguity, delivered a long peace in the Far East. Thus, as a true statesman, President Obama was right to visit Hiroshima, reflect on the enduring sorrow of the Japanese people, note how nuclear weapons require all our lives to perpetually hang in the balance, and comment no further.
Image: U.S. President Barack Obama walks with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and her husband Edwin Arthur Schlossberg from Marine One to board Air Force One at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Iwakuni, Japan, Friday, May 27, 2016, after visiting Hiroshima, Japan. (U.S. Embassy Tokyo/Carolyn Kaster for AP, Creative Commons)
Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review. A native Californian, he spent his formative years in Madrid, Spain.