Last Friday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, earning praise from some Japanese survivors and criticism from his detractors.
At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Obama did not issue any apologies for then-President Harry Truman’s order to use the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; instead, he used the venue to push for a nuclear-free world.
“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright, cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. The flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself,” Obama said.
The visit, and his speech, reopened a historical debate regarding one of the most controversial decisions ever made by an American president. Can the utilization of the most devastating weapon ever invented by man, causing the death of so many civilians, be justified?
With American military experts fearing that a Normandy-type invasion of the Japanese mainland by Allied forces could cost up to a million lives, Truman felt at the time that dropping the bomb would frighten the Japanese into giving up, and would actually save many lives on both sides of the conflict. Many historians wholly agree with that assessment.
Some, however, have argued that demonstrating the power of the atomic bomb in an uninhabited area of Japan would have sufficed to frighten the Japanese into surrendering, though at the time, U.S. officials were unsure whether it would work, and feared that a failed demonstration would actually backfire.
Others claim it was the fact that the U.S.S.R. entered the war against Japan — an event that occurred two days after the attack on Hiroshima — that really convinced Japan to surrender, and not, as is generally assumed, use of the atomic bombs.
Ultimately, from a moral perspective, whether or not the bomb should have been dropped is dependent on whether it really saved lives — a question that no mortal can answer with certainty.
What is certain is that “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem; wherever He wishes, so He directs it” (Mishlei 21:1). The decision that a bomb was to be dropped was first made in Shamayim.
Furthermore, on a temporal plane, there is every indication that the American president had good intentions when he made the fateful decision to use atomic weapons.
In an entry in his diary, written only days earlier, Truman wrote: “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world… I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the [Japanese] are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. …The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement.”
Indeed, Hiroshima was a key military target. It was home to the 2nd Army Headquarters, which oversaw the defense of southern Japan. The city was also a communications center and assembly area for troops. Yet, while they were not the intended targets, the overwhelming majority of the victims were actually civilians.
On August 9, 1945, three days after the attack on Hiroshima, and hours after the attack on Nagasaki, Truman wrote a letter to Senator Richard Russell, who had urged that America use more atomic bombs against Japan.
“I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner,” the president wrote.
A day later, after receiving detailed reports and photographs of the effects of the Hiroshima bomb, Truman ordered a halt to further atomic bombings.
As it turned out, no more were necessary. Five days later, on August 15, Japan unconditionally surrendered.
It is highly improbable that President Obama’s visit will actually have any influence on the goal of reducing nuclear weapons. Nor is it likely to change in any way the distinctively different ways the United States and Japan consider the same set of facts.
Though seven decades have passed, and Japan is now a close U.S. ally and trading partner, the American and Japanese people have starkly different views of how the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima is to be perceived, and will likely feel that way for generations to come. While opinion polls in Japan showed that a majority of citizens, including a majority of atomic bomb survivors, welcomed Obama’s visit to the city and said an apology was not necessary, a great many Japanese still see themselves as the victims of a war they started.
The Japanese prime minister has declined to visit Pearl Harbor, the site of the infamous Japanese attack that led to the United States entering World Ware II, and in the eyes of many Japanese, the evils committed by their country during the war have been overshadowed by the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nations can seek to decide the terms of international trade agreements and bilateral peace accords, but the feelings of its citizens cannot be dictated. This is a fact that both sides of the Pacific — as well as both sides of any other conflict — must recognize and respect. n