For the first time, an American diplomatic representative was present in Hiroshima at this year’s remembrance of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on that city. It was said that this was intended to reflect a common United States / Japanese commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. The American representative did not apologise for the event, although the United States is regularly urged to do so and the question is still live in the context of a projected visit by President Obama to Japan next year and the possibility that he may visit Hiroshima.
I have already written on the practicality and desirability of the so-called ‘Global Zero’ project for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons (19 April and 6 May of this year). On this occasion, I propose to deal with matter of an apology. Broadly, my view is that no such apology should be offered. What happened to the several hundred thousand Japanese citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the sixth and ninth of August 1954, many of whom were civilians, was, in the way of so many war deaths, regrettable. But no more regrettable than the thirty, or so, million civilians that died in a variety of ways over the ten years of war that preceded it. More specifically, they are no more regrettable than the comparable number of Chinese civilians who died at the hands of Japanese troops at the fall of Nanking at the end of 1938. In this case they were not killed by a pair of very large bombs. Rather they were bayoneted, used for sword practice, fed to dogs, raped… (see Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking for details).
But the principle reason for making no apology is that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified in its own terms. The action over three days brought an immediate and final end to the Pacific War, which by August of 1945 had already devoured millions of lives, and, at that date, was continuing to devour them at a rate of several tens of thousands a week. The only other way the war was going to end was through an invasion of the Japanese mainland, scheduled for November of 1945, or the spring of 1946. Nobody is in any doubt as to what the human cost of this would have been. Here the estimates go into the millions.
Particularly, it would not be appropriate for America to apologise for the nuclear bombing of Japan. In 1945 the Americans were inevitably going to play a lead role in the invasion to come, had the bombs not been used. As is the way of these things, US staff officers had envisaged scenarios and computed the level of likely losses. A quarter of a century later, marine officer Paul Fussell recalled the content of a briefing based on this work, in a memoire called ‘Thank God for the Bomb’:
“due to strong beach defences … suicide torpedo boats, manned mines … few marines in the first five assault waves would get ashore alive …” (emphasis added)
The issue for the American leadership (and, particularly, President Truman) was that they now had the possibility of avoiding this outcome and all that went with it. How could they have explained to the mothers and fathers, wives and children, of the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of their armed forces that otherwise would have been killed, that they could have saved them but they had nonetheless chosen not to do so? It seems to me that they could not have defended such a decision, either morally or politically. This is especially so since the US armed forces were overwhelmingly citizens who had been conscripted by that same government. Political leaders in war certainly have obligations to what is sometimes called the ‘common law of humanity’ but they also have particular obligations to their own citizens.
At the level of legality, the crucial test under humanitarian law is whether the harm (of whatever kind) may be justified by military necessity. If there ever was a case of military necessity this surely was it, notwithstanding the claim that is sometimes made that Japan was going to surrender anyway. At some point down the track, this might have been so but it may be doubted that that would have come soon. After all, the decision to surrender of 10 August, after the two bombs, was really only carried by the intervention of the Emperor.
There is a footnote concerning Japanese interests. Apart from the enormous saving of Japanese lives through the abrupt ending of the Pacific War (and this would have been in the millions), there is the matter of how the war might have ended in political terms. Between the two nuclear detonations (on August 8) the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and immediately attacked in Manchuria, with every intention of following that up by attacking Japan itself. What are the chances that this would have resulted in the occupation of the northern part of the Japanese mainland by Soviet forces, followed immediately by the establishment of a Communist puppet administration and (as in the case of Korea) indefinite division of the state? Perhaps the Japanese themselves should stop demanding an apology and, maybe, count themselves lucky!