Orwell (and the President) Come to Hiroshima

Published on

Orwell (and the President) Come to Hiroshima

(Photo: Freedom II Andres/flickr/cc)

How to you hide a trillion dollars or spending $66,000 a minute for thirty years building a new nuclear arsenal? Put another way, how to you hide 7,000 nuclear warheads capable of ending human life many times over or?

For that matter, how does a nation whose constitution vows to reject war and forswears maintaining military forces pretend that it’s not the world’s sixth greatest military spender with a navy more powerful than China’s?  And how does that government divert hijack the political process to adopt “war laws” and rewrite its constitution?

It’s easy. The leaders of the two nations make a pilgrimage to Hiroshima, lay flowers at the Cenotaph memorializing the hundreds of thousands of nuclear war victims and promulgate a “Hiroshima Oath.”

War is peace. Black is white.  Once again we stand in awe of George Orwell’s understandings of “doublespeak.”  We can look forward to this propaganda extravaganza when the leaders of the G-7 nations gather in Japan in late May. Secretary of State Kerry travels next week to prepare for the summit and the propaganda show.

For those whose high school and college teachers skipped the lessons about the what and whys of Hiroshima, a quick review:  On August 6, 1945 the U.S. dropped a 14 kiloton atomic bomb on the city. Detonated over the Shima hospital, its fireball brought the heat of the sun to earth. Those in the immediate vicinity of the unprecedented explosion were vaporized, their remains drawn into a giant mushroom cloud along with the searing detritus of what had been homes, commercial building, roads, trees and flowers.  In the first second, a radioactive wave raced across a two-mile radius, poisoning tens of thousands of people who would die sooner or later of radiation poisoning. Then came the blast and heat waves, over much of the same radius, leaving a charred moonscape of shattered and charred homes, shops and what were once hospitals, mangled and singed corpses and injured bodies.  Black rain followed, spreading radiation over a still more communities.

Much the same was inflicted on Nagasaki three days later.

Use of these weapons was opposed by Admiral Leahy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Truman’s lead military advisor; by General Eisenhower; and even by General “bomb them back into the Stone Age” LeMay. They understood that Japan’s surrender was only a matter of time. During the decision making process, Secretary of War Stimson worried that using the A-bombs could leave the U.S. with “the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”

To stanch public revulsion over what the U.S. had wrought, Truman, aided among others by Jacob Lawrence of the New York Times, launched the myth that the A-bombs saved the lives of half a million U.S. troops.  In truth, the military’s  Strategic Bombing Survey's Summary Report on the Pacific War concluded that the casualty estimate for an invasion of Japan's main islands was 46,000,  lives that should not have been lost,  but certainly not Truman's half a million. 

To hide the atrocities, journalists were barred from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Film and photographs taken by those who initially eluded the censors was seized and in some cases locked away in Pentagon vaults until 1975, lest they be used as “communist propaganda.”

Why these crimes?  A generation ago Samuel Walker, the official historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote “The consensus among scholars is that the a-bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan....It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it." Before the A-bombings, Stimson wrote that the A-bomb was "the master card," which as Truman wrote would give him a "hammer over those boys" (the Soviets).  In 1944, when it was known that Germany would not get the bomb in time for the war and that Japan's defeat was inevitable, General Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project,  told Manhattan Project senior scientist Joseph Rotblat that their work was about the Soviet Union, not Germany or Japan. And Secretary of State Byrnes later conceded that his goal was to end the war with Japan before the USSR intervened.

Numerous forces contributed to the decision to drop the A-bombs. They included bureaucratic momentum, racism, revenge and Truman's fear that if it were learned that the U.S. had spent $2 billion on the Manhattan Project and then not used the A-bombs, it could cost him the 1948 presidential election. BUT the "determinative reason" was the Soviet Union:  to bring the war to an immediate end to ensure the U.S., not the U.S.S.R. dominated northern China, Manchuria and Korea and to intimidate Stalin and his circle with the terrorizing power of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has yet to apologize for this unprecedented crime against humanity.

What’s the problem with Japan?

As William Faulkner observed, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” During the 1930’s, Japan’s political and military elites fought bitter battles in a struggle over whether they should expand their empire within and under the umbrella of the British and U.S. empires, or whether they should go for the “whole melon” of Asia – especially China - and much of the Pacific. Whole melon imperialists won out, fought a catastrophic war that many of its leaders understood was doomed from the start, and left much of Asia, including Japan, in ruins.

The formal U.S. military occupation of Japan lasted until 1952, except in Okinawa where it continued to 1972. Informally it lingers in the form of more than 100 U.S. military bases and installations across Japan and the U.S.-Japanese military alliance. After initially pressing for the creation of a more democratic and demilitarized Japanese state, including the promulgation of Japan’s war-renouncing peace constitution, the U.S. reversed course. It restored many of Japan’s wartime leaders and institutions to serve as a Cold War bastion against the Soviet Union and China. Among them was Nobusuke Kishi, earlier charged as a class A war criminal for his wartime role as Tojo’s vice- minister of munitions. The CIA facilitated Kishi’s rise to prime minister, where with fist fights and other physical force on the floor of the Diet (Japan’s Congress) he undemocratically rammed through the extension of the U.S. imposed military alliance in 1960.

Shinzō Abe, Kishi’s grandson and Japan’s current Prime Minister, refuses to fully acknowledge his country’s wartime aggressions and its military’s role in sexual slavery. His cabinet has unilaterally revised and further mangled the government’s interpretation of its constitution to facilitate passage of “war laws” to enable Japan to fight foreign wars. And he is working not only to revise the constitution, but to replace it with one that restores the Emperor as Japan’s sovereign and paves the way for Japan to again be a great military power.

How could such a thing happen in the 21st century? Think about the struggle over the Confederate flag and current U.S. presidential election. In some elite Japanese circles and their mass constituencies, much like in our Old South, ambitions and values die hard. Resentments stew. And distorted memories of a glorious if failed war endure.  Four years ago I witnessed an election rally parade for the ruling LDP Party. Its beating drums and the field of rising sun flags brought back memories of militarist newsreels from the 1940s.  Reminiscent of the political coups of the 1930’s, in 2012 Japan’s rightwing provoked the continuing and very dangerous confrontation with China over the uninhabited Senkaku/Daioyu Islands, which have brought the two nations – and the United States – to the brink of war.

There is more and worse. Twenty years ago the lead author of Japan’s military doctrine repeated to me that for thirty years its military had understood that Japan’s constitution permits the military to possess tactical (Hiroshima-size) nuclear weapons. It was, he said, simply a right that they had yet to exercise. Last week, Abe’s cabinet reasserted this right. In the wake of President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit, the Abe Cabinet reaffirmed that right to possess – and thus use – nuclear weapons.

The Show in Hiroshima

Back in 2010, before President Obama’s pledge in Prague to work for a nuclear weapons-free world was transformed into a trillion dollar program to develop a new generation of “more usable” nuclear warheads and their delivery systems, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Hiroshima’s Mayor Tad Akiba conspired to lure the new American Nobel Laureate to Hiroshima. With the APEC summit scheduled to be held in Tokyo, and with hopes of reinforcing Obama’s disarmament efforts, they arranged for the annual gathering of Peace Laureates to be held in in Hiroshima. It was an inspiring gathering, but the president’s political calculations were such that he didn’t travel beyond Tokyo.

Now come the reports that President Obama is likely to travel to Hiroshima when he returns to Japan for the G-7 summit.  Many in Japan will welcome him with mixed feelings: appreciation that a U.S. president is finally making the pilgrimage to Hiroshima, but outraged by his support for the trillion dollar triad upgrade that increases the dangers of nuclear annihilation. They understand, as former Secretary of Defense Perry explained earlier this month, that Obama will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph and participate in the diplomatic rituals, but there will be no apology, even as A-bomb inflicted cancers and radiation diseases continue their deadly harvest.

Not wanting to complicate U.S.-Japan relations, the president will not point to the hypocrisy of Japan’s foreign minister announcing his plans for a “Hiroshima Declaration” in the same week that his cabinet reaffirmed Japan’s right to possess nuclear weapons and as plans move forward for Japan to increase its already massive stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. He won’t give a favorable nod to Japanese civil society’s drive to gather 20 million petition signatures opposing the war laws. And even as he worries that Abe’s agenda and actions could spark conflict with China, Obama will celebrate the steadfast U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Similarly, Obama is unlikely to upend Democratic Party election strategies with a major disarmament announcement. But, as Commander in Chief, he could draw on the legacy of George H.W. Bush, using his presidential power to reduce the dangers of nuclear war. Recall that at the end of the Cold War, in a series of unilateral and reciprocal actions, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev slashed the sizes of their massive nuclear arsenals, including the removal of all nuclear weapons from U.S. surface warships.

With political courage, Obama could restore the burnish to his nuclear weapons-free pledge and to his legacy.  He could use the Hiroshima Oath ceremony to finally apologize for the devastation our government inflicted on the people and cities of Hiroshima. He could announce the end of the U.S. hair-trigger nuclear alert, thus reducing the dangers of miscalculation and accidental nuclear catastrophe.  He could announce the reduction of the deployed U.S. nuclear arsenal from the New START Treaty’s limit of 1,550 to the 1,000 suggested by the Pentagon, or even to 100. One hundred strategic nuclear weapons, enough to inflict nuclear winter on the planet, are certainly sufficient to implement the MAD (mutual assured destruction) and ostensible doctrine of deterrence.  

Were he still more bold, and respectful of U.S. treaty commitments and other international law, President Obama could announce that he is moving to fulfill our Article VI Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligation. Where better than Hiroshima to invite Presidents Putin, Hollande and Xi, and Prime Minister Cameron to join in beginning the “good faith negotiations” required by the Treaty for the complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals?

Joseph Gerson

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. His previous books include The Sun Never Sets and With Hiroshima Eyes.

Share This Article