A Message of Peace From a Survivor of Hell: A Hiroshima Survivors Story
June 16, 2015 1:21 AM   Subscribe

Hiroshima bombing survivor Tomiko Matsumoto tells her tale. posted by Admira (72 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

In 1946, US president Harry Truman ordered the establishment of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) in Hiroshima, to monitor the health of the victims. It was built on Hijiyama Hill, the same hill where Tomiko had fled on the day of the bombing. The ABCC was set up for scientific research, not medical care. The researchers studied rather than treated the victims.

How very thoughtful
posted by rolandroland at 1:45 AM on June 16, 2015

How very thoughtful

Well rolandroland the ABCC collected a wealth of information about the biological effects of ionizing (and non-ionizing) radiation about which very little was known at the time. The information collected was useful to understanding the links between radiation exposure and cancer and provided the basis for international standard for permissible levels of exposure, so not very thoughtful, but it was good science.

The military used a nuclear weapon against a population center and science used it as a clinical trial. A pox on both of those houses.
posted by three blind mice at 2:47 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's an horrific story alright. But war is sadly full of them.
posted by wilful at 3:40 AM on June 16, 2015

MeFites in DC should check out the moving Hiroshima-Nagaski Atomic Bomb Exhibition that the American University Museum has put together to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the attacks.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:01 AM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

At a different job years back we had a Japanese client visit our offices, which was pretty routine, a well-dressed older man. He seemed to get a kick out of my bugged eyes and jaw drop after being informed that he was at Hiroshima when the bomb fell.
posted by exogenous at 4:17 AM on June 16, 2015

It must've been awful knowing that an attack was coming. Please, never let this happen again.
posted by DZ-015 at 4:21 AM on June 16, 2015

Well rolandroland the ABCC collected a wealth of information about the biological effects of ionizing (and non-ionizing) radiation about which very little was known at the time.

I'm sure that the Tuskegee experiments were similarly scientifically interesting, but they're equally an ethical abomination.
posted by sukeban at 4:44 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm very sorry, but I've got to take a contrarian view here.

True, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did horrific damage, but you have to judge the actions of August 1946 by August 1946: you can't judge them by what we know now, or even by what we knew a week later; you can only judge them by the knowledge they had then and the situation they were facing at that time.

If those bombs had not been dropped, the conventional war would have continued. Consider how Japanese soldiers were trained and indoctrinated to fight to the death (and Japanese civilians were expected to suicide rather than risk capture) on the outer islands, like the Philipines and Okinawa and Iwo Jima --- then imagine how the situation would have been if those two bombs had not been dropped and we were forced to land an invasion (similar to D-Day in Europe) in the Japanese home islands. The bloodshed would have been far worse, among both the combat troops on both sides as well as the civilian population of those home islands.

The Japanese were warned ahead of time that unless they surrendered, some sort of massive new bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima. They didn't believe, so the bomb was dropped. They were warned again, still didn't believe, and so Nagasaki got bombed. That's when yes, they surrendered. The intention from the start was to force a surrender, and thereby end the years of bloodshed. Yes, the bombs killed and maimed a lot of Japanese citizens, but far more would have died without those two atomic bombs having been used.

And if you consider the monitoring-rather-than-medical-care afterwards to be cold-blooded, think about what the Japanese had done over, say, just the previous few years: the Rape of Nanking in China, the "comfort women" in Korea, the brutal deaths they caused throughout Burma and Mongolia and the Pacific islands they conquered, not to mention that sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. (And by the way, not only was the US not in any way hostile to Japan before that attack on Dec. 7, up through Dec. 6, 1941 the Japanese were still negotiating trade deals in DC --- meanwhile, the invasion force had left Japan and headed for Hawaii by November 26.) And for even more fun, look at the Japanese treatment of POWs in general, as well as the medical experiments they put those POWs through.

So yes, the bombs were terrible, and they caused horrible injuries and deaths; on the other hand, they also saved lives by abruptly ending the war, then and there.
posted by easily confused at 4:50 AM on June 16, 2015 [11 favorites]

The military used a nuclear weapon against a population center and science used it as a clinical trial. A pox on both of those houses.

Until the scientists did their trials, the military did not really know what it meant to use a nuclear weapon. No one did. They should have offered health care too, not to do so was monstrous. But at least they did the trial. At least we know what those bombs do now. If we didn't, we probably would've used them in our other wars.

I can't get behind the "but it ended the war and saved lives" defense. (If that made sense, would it mean nuclear weapons ought to be our opening move in any war against a non-nuclear enemy, to save more lives?) I can only tell myself "We knew not what we did." Now we know. We haven't, thank God, done it again.
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:03 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm very sorry, but I've got to take a contrarian view here.

I'll do you one better - both the convention and the nuclear aspects of the war were utterly insane, and a ghastly betrayal of average working people in all of the countries involved by the political and economic elites responsible.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:22 AM on June 16, 2015 [14 favorites]

The war would have petered out once Okinawa was captured, and the USA and Japan both knew that. The USA's diplomats knew the Japanese were in the process of surrendering, and the bomb was rushed to deployment as a technical demonstration to impress the Russians before they reached Japan. Ironically there was also some pressure from within Japan to surrender before the Russians got there. Japan was locked-up in internal political conflict about how to end the war, and the Russians were moving closer. The bombs broke that logjam. It would have broken eventually without them.

You can argue that this saved lives, and that it avoided a divided Japan mirroring a divided Europe, but it was a political decision forced through by politicians for political reasons, not by diplomats or by the military.

The rationale that it's OK to kill civilians for the greater good because of the actions of a country's politicians and military is the rationale of terrorism, and it stinks.
posted by BinaryApe at 5:43 AM on June 16, 2015 [22 favorites]

the actions of August 1946


However, the contrarian view you posit is actually the conventional one, fairly debunked by scholarship and declassification. In fact at top levels the US was pretty clear that surrender was coming: the A-Bomb strikes were a display of technology and resolve to the Soviet allies we were tooling up to oppose for freedom's sake.

Be that as it may, to respond to a personal account of the horror of life during and after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima by trucking out excuses wrapped in a calculus of savagery is a bit coldhearted, no?

I am grateful for Matsumoto-sama's account. When I first moved here I walked with my wife through our neighborhood to the Enko River, and as we reached its banks I was struck with a memory from Ibuse's Black Rain, the river floating with corpses, a choice between a world ending in fire or drowning. I realized then that as long as I live here I will be passing through a graveyard, a city full of respects to be paid.

Hiroshima thrives. Today was rainy and cool, kids ran wild, the cab drivers made a killing, people fell in love all over the place. I see great-grandmothers walking with their daughters and I think of how many people have been touched by horror and live to pass on their hopes.

This place is a start.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 5:50 AM on June 16, 2015 [30 favorites]

Thanks for the post, Admira, it is a beautiful piece of writing. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.
posted by Dashy at 5:56 AM on June 16, 2015

Easily Confused, I know you're reading from a widely accepted script, but there has been some significant research suggesting it was already understood by the Allies that Japan would surrender before either bomb was dropped.


I'm not suggesting you're wrong, just that there is a different narrative.

Personally, I believe people need to take responsibility for their acts in isolation, without justifiction of the supposed inevitability of their imagined futures. Participants in military action get whats coming to them. Killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians is not and should never be justifiable. Refusing to offer humanitarian aid is not justifiable.
posted by bigZLiLk at 5:59 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm very sorry, but I've got to take a contrarian view here. [...] If those bombs had not been dropped, the conventional war would have continued.

A massacre of civilians is a war crime, even if you have really good reasons for committing it.

And by the way, not only was the US not in any way hostile to Japan before [Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour]

Nonsense. The USA was funding and supporting Japan's enemy, China's Second United Front; the USA closed the Panama Canal to Japanese ships; it embargoed oil and other essential materials; its very motive for positioning the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii was to intimidate japan and threaten its expansion in the Pacific. Japan was mostly wrong and the USA was mostly right, but your assertion that the USA wasn't hostile is absolutely incorrect.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:59 AM on June 16, 2015 [9 favorites]

The idea that this has to be dropped to end the war is just total horse-shit.

It could have been dropped on an island, could have been dropped any number of places to demonstrate what it did - but that really wasn't the point. It was probably two-fold:

1. Send a message to the Russians - we've got these things, and we're prepared to use them.
2. Test it on real people.

So, the idea of the USA being forced to do this is just nonsense. And as for the idea that we can't consider this from a point of perspective - what's the point of history then?

This was mass slaughter. As was the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the destruction of Berlin.
posted by rolandroland at 6:34 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


I just want to point out that, well, this was written by David Irving! As in 'noted Holocaust denier David Irving'. Given that he's written a good number of books about why Hitler wasn't so bad, and that the Western Allies were terrible ... maybe a different source is in order?

The Allies did offer Japan a chance to surrender before dropping the atomic bombs; see the Potsdam declaration. The 'war faction' in the Japanese cabinet, watching the harsh Allied trials at Nuremberg, opposed surrender under these terms, wanting fairly unrealistic terms which included Japanese control over demilitarization and Japanese trials of war criminals. The 'peace faction' lacked any sort of power, and this was a dispute only settled when the Emperor stepped in. Note that the Potsdam terms were, eventually, the terms under which Japan surrendered.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:42 AM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

My understanding is that the Japanese were willing to surrender before the bombs were dropped but not unconditional surrender. The Potsdam declaration was eventually adopted but the terms were modified so that the imperial family would be retained but lack any real authority and could be dismissed at a later time.

The atomic bombs were also supposed to deter the soviets from gaining a stronger foothold in Japan and Asia in general. At the time the bombs were dropped the red army was poised to move on Japanese holdings in China. The allies saw how things were developing with the soviets in Europe at the end of WW2, especially in Poland, and wanted to avoid that political struggle in Japan.
posted by laptolain at 6:57 AM on June 16, 2015

We've discussed the larger issue of dropping the atomic bombs previously, with lots of good discussion and reference to authoritative materials. Let's give the OP a chance to breathe here.
posted by fatbird at 7:03 AM on June 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

A friend of mine is from Nagasaki. Her grandparents survived the bomb. I asked her once whether they hated America after the war and she insisted that no, people in her city felt regret and sadness but not resentment, that holding on to anger was an impediment to lasting peace. It's so hard for me to believe this that I've come to assume she said it because she didn't want to share those things with an outsider. She also told me a friend of her grandmother's was vaporized, leaving only bones and eyes, which I suspect is family legend more than fact, but no less memorable for that.

In my late teens I visited the peace museum in Hiroshima, which is intense to say the least. It includes a life-size diorama of victims stumbling through burning rubble as their skin melts off in tatters, and some dented metal lunch boxes of kids who were mobilized to prepare the city for attack on the day the bomb dropped, with cinders still inside. Near the exit was a display of drawings of the bombing done by child survivors, and I tucked myself into an alcove there, away from my friends, and cried. When I looked up there was a Japanese kid from a field trip group, maybe eight years old, looking pretty shaken himself, watching me. We stared at each other for a long moment. Who knows what he was thinking. I'll never forget it.
posted by milk white peacock at 7:05 AM on June 16, 2015 [18 favorites]

Like milk white peacock, my trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was unforgettable. To be honest I couldn't make it through the entire second floor before I started crying and had to leave. For me, as an American, it was especially intense knowing that my nation was responsible for what had been done there.

If you have the chance, I encourage you to go to Hiroshima and go through the museum. We should never forget the evils of war, and in particular the devastation caused by weapons of mass destruction.

Thanks for this piece, Admira.
posted by dubitable at 7:23 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can't even begin to comprehend the fear and pain she and her family and the people of Hiroshima suffered. Horrific.

posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:34 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think its sad that even with a piece this strong, we have defensive responses about how these bombs had to be dropped, and that the U.S. didn't know what it would do. They knew EXACTLY what it would do, and they were eager to see it. I am astonished this woman harbors so little resentment.
posted by agregoli at 7:47 AM on June 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

I once heard a Hiroshima survivor talking about her experiences. I got to the part about the skin falling off and I stayed but can't remember what she said past then. It's different to read, I was able to read to the end here, but when you see a survivor in person it's just such a horrific experience.

I'm glad this was written - it's important to know and remember.
posted by corb at 9:56 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Devastating story told beautifully. Thanks for posting.
posted by greenish at 10:33 AM on June 16, 2015

They knew EXACTLY what it would do, and they were eager to see it.

Why do you say this? I am asking sincerely -- maybe I just haven't seen the sources that you are thinking of. I'm by no means an expert in this area. But my understanding was that the effects of ionizing radiation on human bodies just were not understood yet.

Marie Curie didn't know she was exposing herself to lethal doses. "The radium girls" didn't know they were killing themselves by licking the tips of the brushes they used to paint watch hands with glow-in-the-dark paint. The shoe salesmen who uses X-rays to measure children's feet didn't know what high doses of X-rays could do. The science fiction writers at the time had no idea that the people zipping between planets would be in trouble unless their spaceships were lined with lead.

And the physicists who built "The Bomb," were worried at first that it might ignite the atmosphere, not that it would cause radiation sickness and cancer and mutations and infertility. They weren't doctors or biologists. Some of them watched test explosions from way too close themselves. The people who stored the radioactive materials which were used in the construction didn't know how to store them safely, either.

If it is true that we knew about the after-effects of detonating an atomic bomb before we did it, the radiation sickness and the cancer and the keloids and the rest -- how did we know? Sincere question, fully expecting you may point me to a clear and unambiguous reference showing me that we did. Which would certainly change my view of the people who made this decision.
posted by OnceUponATime at 10:34 AM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Regardless of the debate about the bomb itself, this was a fascinating, devastating and highly educational story well told. I'm glad she's sharing it, and I'm glad it was posted here.
posted by spilon at 11:15 AM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm very sorry, but I've got to take a contrarian view here.

And I'll take the traditional view: That there is a longstanding concept of a "just war," dating all the way back to the Mahabharata. That as much as war can never be justified, if it is going to happen, there are certain rules you abide by, to remain as just and moral as possible. That these include proportionality, just cause, fair treatment of captives, and that acts of war should be directed toward enemy combatants, not toward civilians.

American has a long history of betraying these standards. But they are still the standards to which we must aspire, just as not torturing prisoners is a standard to which we must apply, because we are supposed to be a just country, and torture is unjust.

Whatever its uncertain benefits, bombing two civilian centers was not just. And we knew it was not just, as we declared them to be military targets, because we needed to tell ourselves and the world the fiction that this was a just act, instead of a monstrous mass extinction of a civilian population. We had done it before in other ways -- carpet bombing Dresden, as an example. But all these should be held up as moments when we betrayed ourselves and failed as a nation.
posted by maxsparber at 11:35 AM on June 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

I've lived in Japan on and off for twenty years, and my wife is Japanese. I've heard it all.

I think to argue whether or not the bombing was justified is to do a real disservice to the victims of the bombing. I'm not arguing the bombing was justified, or that the bombing was unjustified. It's just the scale of the devastation, suffering and sheer violence of the two bombings is unfathomable.

We took a trip to Nagasaki over Easter this year. Our close friend is from Nagasaki, and the town itself is very interesting because of its Chinese and early-modern European influences. There is also a lot of good booze in Nagasaki, and the fish is very good. We also stayed at the hotsprings in Unzen, and the region is going to be the setting of an upcoming Scorsese adaptation of the novel Silence.

So we weren't going to Nagasaki to go to the bombing museum. But we did go.

The Nagasaki atomic bomb museum is one of those particularly Japanese places that leaves me with a sense of frustration and annoyance. The best way to describe the atmosphere of the museum is that of "sanctimonious sentimentality."

The museum reconstructs the destruction. There's lots of burned and charred wreckage. You can see videos of people with the skin burned off of them, as well as facsimiles of the human shadows of people vaporized by the bomb.

I suppose it's important to provide a graphic example of the horrors of nuclear warfare, but the thing that bugged me was that there was no mention of the events that led up to the bombing.

It's as though the bombings were natural calamities, much like a typhoon, earthquake or tsunami.

I'm not talking about "war guilt" (although there are many Japanese people who, quite wrongheadedly, think Roosevelt "railroaded" the knuckleheaded, uniformed martinets who "led" Japan before the war into bombing Pearl Harbor).

It's just that the Pacific War is barely barely mentioned at all in the atomic bombing museum. So what is the real lesson? It seems like a no-brainer that "atomic bombing is bad" but how does a visitor to the museum go about making sure it doesn't ever happen again?

At the same time, from my point of view, the people of Nagasaki were bombed. They suffered terribly. If that's the kind of museum they want to construct, well, that's their prerogative. Who the hell am I to criticize?

There is another memorial hall located next to the atomic bombing museum in Nagasaki. Like the atom bomb museum, the memorial hall is built undergound, in the side of a hill.

Visiting the memorial hall in Nagasaki was a different experience. For one thing, there is very little interpretation. Visitors walk down a staircase to the main level of the museum. It is quiet and dark, and the walls are lined with ceramic brick.

Our friend from Nagasaki's father was an artist as well as a high school teacher, and he actually was in Nagasaki when the bomb was dropped. He had a hibakusha card, and he died in his late 60's well before his time.

Anyway, some of his ceramic artwork is in the subterranean memorial hall. We weren't able to find it.

The memorial hall is dedicated to preserving the memory of the people who died in the bomb blast. The installation includes a subterranean waterfall, and visitors make their way to lower level via cool, dimly lit passages.

In the aftermath of the atomic and firebombings of any city in Japan, there were a lot of burned people. People died of their burns while experiencing terrible thirst. In fact, simply giving water to a burn victim could kill them.

So the coolness of the memorial hall is probably intended to provide some comfort to the dead - there is a feeling in Japan that, Richard Dawkins be damned, the dead *do* return in August each year for the festival of the dead. So the dead are in some ways always present in Japan.

The base of the memorial, rather than featuring the lurid dioramas of the atomic bombing museum next door instead is lined with beautiful glass columns. There is an altar of sorts. It is a column that stretches 30 feet or so to the ceiling. The altar contains sheafs of paper with the names of the thousands of the dead who died as a result of the atomic bombing.

So the memorial hall is a healing space. It's a personal space. It's wordless because how can you really describe the horrors of what happened on that day? You can't with words.
posted by Nevin at 12:45 PM on June 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

The fact remains, no matter how you try to spin it, the Japanese, without provocation, attacked the US, trying to destroy the Pacific fleet. They had physicists who were themselves involved in a nuclear bomb project, so they knew that it was possible to construct such a weapon, though they thought, as late as 1943, that the US could not build one during the war itself, but they had been investigating the possibility since the 1930s. While the mass attacks are horrific, war is horrific, and whether it was the Tokyo firestorms or the nuclear bombings, or massed attacks from a Normandy-style invasion, it was going to suck regardless.

The only way to have prevented the use of nuclear weapons would have been to not build them, and if the US had gone that path, someone else would have, and probably used them against the US, if not during WWII, then afterwards in a hot replacement of the Cold War. Nagasaki and Hiroshima would have been bombed using the firestorm method, resulting in complete destruction and massive civilian casualties long before they were bombed -- those cities had been reserved for the nukes, though they were both major military targets due to their industry and actual military installations in the cities themselves.

We'd all prefer a world where the soldiers didn't kill non-combatants, where there's a clear and ironclad boundry between a military target and a civilian zone, but such a world doesn't exist, even today with smart bombs and precision munitions, and a ban on the use of nukes. Most of us would prefer a world without war, but that's just fantasy.

They believed the US was a weak-willed milquetoast, and ignored their best Admiral when he begged them not to poke the sleeping tiger with a stick. They believed the US was incapable of constructing a weapon their own scientists were working on. They believed that if they resisted hard enough, the US would not succeed in invading and conquering the land of the rising sun.

They were wrong, and paid the price.
posted by Blackanvil at 1:07 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

They were wrong, and paid the price.

I absolutely guarantee that an overwhelming majority in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no say in the decision you describe. They were not even wrong, and paid the price.

In the meanwhile, the number of American civilians killed on US soil by the Japanese numbered about six.
posted by maxsparber at 1:15 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am glad that Tomiko was able to find happiness in her life because pretty much everything from the bombing to when she meets Toshimi seems unbearable. I can totally understand why her father killed himself, and why she would be upset for him not killing her as well.

The part towards the end where it is revealed that her daughters aren't able to have children also brings home the lasting impact of nuclear weapons, even if the doctors don't think it is related. There'll be added questions after any health issue if it was related to the bombing and radiation.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:58 PM on June 16, 2015

In the meanwhile, the number of American civilians killed on US soil by the Japanese numbered about six.

How many Chinese and Koreans and Cambodians and Filipinos died to Japan's bellicosity ? ~15 million or so, and it never gets the press it should,

~15million people died because of Japanese aggression. But they weren't nice white Americans, so why should you care ?

What happened to the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was horrific. But it didn't happen in a vacuum.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:17 PM on June 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

But it didn't happen in a vacuum.

Yes. The Japanese military was responsible for an awful lot of atrocities. The difference, however, is the bomb is our atrocity.
posted by maxsparber at 2:20 PM on June 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

The number of civilians killed by the Japanese during WWII is somewhere between 3,000,000 (what they admit to) and 10,000,000 (everyone else.), with numbers much higher according to partisan sources. They lost about 1,000,000 civilians to military action (that's including famine and disease). Did those other, non-Japanese civilians have a choice? Certainly they had less of one than the workers making the bombs and war material that killed those millions, for which both Nagasaki and Hiroshima were major industrial centers.

And Japan's plan, if it had the capability, would have killed millions more US citizens. Their plan, even at the point that the nukes were dropped, was to have the so-called civilians attack the invaders, American, Russian, British, whoever, with suicide attacks and improvised weapons -- even their own children were trained and indoctrinated to do this, again as per the article's author who says this is what she personally experienced. And someone who is trained and armed against a foreign enemy, no matter how young or how pitifully armed, is a soldier, and can kill you just as dead as a bullet or bomb.

I get you find the US attacks unjustified. I get you think that there was some sort of disproportionate retribution involved. I'm sorry the technology didn't (and doesn't) exist to separate the ~10% of soldiers in the cities in question from the civilian population they mingled with too. But to call it an atrocity is simply to acknowledge that War is an atrocity, and to forget they called it down on themselves is to ignore history. And we really, really don't want history to repeat itself again.
posted by Blackanvil at 2:27 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

And Japan's plan, if it had the capability, would have killed millions more US citizens.

I will not argue hypotheticals, and the point is not what Japan did, or what they might have done. By classical standards of a just war, the bomb could not be justified, because it killed civilians disproportionately. Whatever hypothetical good it did -- and it's all hypothetical, as we don't actually know what would have happened had we pursued other options -- this was a war crime.
posted by maxsparber at 2:30 PM on June 16, 2015

That's not true, conventional bombing(HE) during WW2 was not a single use case. The military distinguished between and debated precision (by 1940s standards) bombing and indiscriminate fire bombing. In fact many officers high up in the US military including General Groves (the military representative most responsible for the atomic bomb project) felt fire bombing was either just as or even more effective than an atomic bomb.

I think it can be reasonably argued that the atomic bomb was as much a psychological weapon as a tactical one. The goal was to get the emperor to agree to unconditional surrender which he refused even after devastating fire bombing. After the atomic bombs he did agree and in his message to the people of Japan he made it clear he was doing it to preserve Japanese culture from being eradicated off the face of the earth. This dramatic new weapon made that scenario a real possibility.
posted by laptolain at 2:50 PM on June 16, 2015

It's wrenching to read the accounts of the horrible suffering of the victims of the atomic bombs. We cannot imagine them. The vast majority of the victims were innocent civilians.

As I have said before, however, those critics of the use atomic bombs are, at best, are guilty of using the what medical practitioners called the "retro-spectoscope" using the perspective (and in my opinion a distorted view) of 70 years of history. Intensifying Japanese resistance as Allied military operations got closer and closer to Japan, particularly over 3500 suicide bombing (kamikaze) attacks made American leaders of 1945 desperate. Civilian losses in fighting in Okinawa were larger than those in the Nagasaki attack and about the same as the losses in Hiroshima. Japanese soldiers had murdered millions of civilians in China, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, and many others died indirectly as a result of Japanese military operations, particularly in China. Killing, rape, and torture on an enormous scale by Japanese soldiers had hardly abated. (maxspaber's figure of American civilians killed on US soil is absolute red herring.) Japan held captured soldiers in appalling conditions. Every day the war continued prolonged the suffering of those that had been captured by Japan or living under its occupation, for example, the Korean women forced to act as prostitutes. While there were factions that supported surrender of Japan, those committing to fighting to the last man, woman, and child still apparently held sway.

Had the atomic bombs not been used, the war would undoubtedly continued for months or longer--many thousands of civilians and Allied soldiers (and quite likely millions of Japanese) would have died. Had Truman not authorized their use, we would be debating he could have withheld the use of weapons that would have ended the war quickly, ending the suffering of so many and saving the lives of civilians and American servicemen.
posted by haiku warrior at 2:57 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Japanese military action in Asia is at best a retroactive/retconning moral justification of the bombing. America did not care in the slightest about those deaths. Even in the 80s/90s when the war was taught in school the Japanese occupation was barely covered and no one pretended to care, the war was always portrayed as being started because of Pearl Harbor (with little attempt to explain why PH happened) and necessary to stop the Japanese threat to America.

It may have had positive side effects for other countries in Asia, but helping civilians in other Asian countries was not in any way a rationale or reason for the actions the US took (maintaining / establishing political/military dominance over Asia _was_, of course).
posted by thefoxgod at 3:05 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

On a subject slightly closer to the article, one thing I've noticed/heard from many Japanese I know is that the war, and the bombings, really did quench their appetite for war. And most of them now have trouble understanding the continue love/fascination Americans have for war, for example. The experience for the average Japanese at the time was so horrible, the scars so deep, that there is very little desire to repeat it. The same thing struck me when I spent time in Germany. The victors in WWII (especially Russia and America) seemed to take it as a validation of a very militaristic view of the world.

Sure, Abe and a few others have wanted to raise the military profile of Japan, but that is deeply unpopular and has recently caused his own popularity to drop despite the relative success of his economic agenda.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:12 PM on June 16, 2015

Apologies for posting a link to David Irving earlier. It was most definitely unintended.
posted by bigZLiLk at 3:14 PM on June 16, 2015

"America did not care in the slightest about those deaths."

You sure about that?
posted by clavdivs at 3:24 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pearl Harbor "happened" because the US had embargoed oil and scrap metal and taken other actions in response to Japanese aggression in China. (Had Japan withdrawn from China, those actions would have been rescinded.) To say that the US did not care about civilian deaths is patently untrue. However, Japanese atrocities and aggression by themselves were not enough to overcome isolationist sentiment in the US.

You will not find any person that lived under Japanese occupation to have any qualms about the use of the atomic bombs.

However, even accepting your thesis, tfg, that the US did not care about civilian deaths in occupied lands (which I do not), the idea that the war had to be brought to an end as quickly as possible still dominated US thinking with respect to soldiers in Japanese captivity and the deaths of American servicemen that occurred every day. It was a war started by a ruthless and fanatical enemy, and the desperation to save American lives was the reason for using this terrible weapon.
posted by haiku warrior at 3:26 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

"America did not care in the slightest about those deaths." You sure about that?

The US government? Every document and discussion I see agrees with that statement, if you have analysis to the contrary I would be interested.

I'm sure some individual people did, but US policymaking was not in any way intended to give humanitarian relief to the people of the other countries of Asia. It was about not letting Japan take away American interests/power in the region.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:56 PM on June 16, 2015

Pearl Harbor "happened" because the US had embargoed oil and scrap metal and taken other actions in response to Japanese aggression in China

Yes, because American / Britain / others did not want Japan upsetting their own influence and interests in China.
posted by thefoxgod at 3:58 PM on June 16, 2015

By all means, link your documents.
posted by clavdivs at 4:17 PM on June 16, 2015

"Despite the intensified clashes between the CPC and KMT, countries such as the US and the Soviet Union attempted to prevent a disastrous civil war. After the New Fourth Army incident, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent special envoy Lauchlin Currie to talk with Chiang Kai-shek and KMT party leaders to express their concern regarding the hostility between the two parties, with Currie stating that the only ones to benefit from a civil war would be the Japanese."

Imagine that, capitalists and communists conspiring to save Chinese lives!

Oh, your heading towards the missionary/ Bircher angle.
Perhaps not.
posted by clavdivs at 4:27 PM on June 16, 2015

I'm sure some scientists of the ABCC may have behaved as indifferently or cruelly as the occupying force right after the war. (Just look at the anti-Japanese propaganda of the time.) But given that the bomb had been dropped, I don't see how studying the effects of radiation exposure constitutes an ethical abomination in itself.

OK, the subject is a bit personal for me, because my grandfather made his career studying the health effects of radiation. (Including the first studies in the 60s showing that the level of Polonium from tobacco smoke was high enough to contribute to lung cancer; later on in the 70s he served on a NAS committee where he forcefully argued against finding there was a "safe" level of radiation exposure, and then participated in followup studies in Hiroshima in the early 80s.)

His interest started when he joined the Air Force fresh out of medical school in 1947, and served as a radiological safety officer for the Operation Sandstone tests in the Marshall Islands. He was disturbed by the total disregard for the safety of the Marshallese, as well as his commanding officers sweeping under the rug any measurements that showed unsafe levels of fallout reaching inhabited areas.

So I have to imagine that like him, many members of the ABCC had positive motives for studying radation effects. (Note that according to Wikipedia, the commission's staff was almost 90% Japanese by 1951.) They certainly didn't decide to drop the bomb, or select any group from whom to withhold any magical treatment that would make radiation poisoning go away, so drawing a parallel with the Tuskegee experiments is just wrong.
posted by mubba at 7:34 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Every time I see one of these discussions on Metafilter, I want to again beg everyone to read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. I won't have the opportunity to visit Hiroshima any time soon, but this book is a responsible attempt to understand and document that event. It's a terrific piece of writing, and fearsome to read.
posted by newdaddy at 8:23 PM on June 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Interesting fact, the U.S. spent more on radar then on the A bomb in WW2.
posted by clavdivs at 8:46 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

And of course, there were plenty of outright unethical and/or immoral radiation experiments in the US around that time. For example, secretly feeding radioactive oatmeal to children with Down Syndrome, or slowly irradiating political prisoners to death.
posted by mubba at 9:10 PM on June 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thank you Pogo_Fuzzybutt, Blackanvil and haiku warrior for giving some voice to those that suffered under the Japanese in WWII.

Regardless of the Americans' intentions in using those bombs, many in Asia were and are grateful that they put a decisive end to years of immense terror and suffering inflicted by the Japanese. The Japanese slaughtered millions ruthlessly and systematically, and the after-effects and consequences of the Japanese Occupation are still felt today.

In the decades after the war, Japan has tended to paint itself as a victim of the war - or, when confronted about the war, to demur with blanket generalizations along the lines of "war is bad for all involved". Japan has had the economic and cultural power to do this, especially in more Western-centric, English-language media. Simultaneously, the other Asian countries have been less successful/strident in having their voices heard in bearing witness to the sheer horror of the Japanese invasion and occupation. The atomic bombs were terrible, but Japan was also a terrible, devastating aggressor to millions of civilians across Asia.

Ending the war for the other countries in Asia was not merely "positive side effects" - not to those who were experiencing the brutality of the Japanese firsthand. For many Americans, it seems that Japan's participation in World War II tends to bring to mind Pearl Harbor, and the atomic bomb - and not much else. This is very, very different for many Asians.

This is why China echoed the sentiments of many (not just Chinese) at a recent UN conference, when it stated that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "bombed for a reason".

I am not trying to diminish the horror of the atomic bombing, but I hope that it can be seen and better understood in the much larger context of the horror and systemic atrocities wreaked by the Japanese throughout their invasion and occupation.

You will not find any person that lived under Japanese occupation to have any qualms about the use of the atomic bombs.

simply, yes.
posted by aielen at 9:39 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

German and ethnic-German civilians suffered great atrocities after WW2. I have a hard time feeling sorry for them, given the circumstances, but I wouldn't want to live in a world where people generally thought it was OK.

The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were mostly civilians; in fact they were mostly women and children. They didn't commit war crimes; they didn't even get a say in approving them. The atomic bombs weren't dropped by people that had suffered from Japanese atrocities; they weren't carried dropped as a preventative measure; they weren't even a punishment for Japanese war crimes. The sentiment that Japan deserved it is generally expressed by Americans, and I can't help feeling that it's a way for people who recognise their collective responsibility to excuse their country's actions. Otherwise, you wouldn't have people simultaneously saying that the atomic bombs were necessary and that they didn't know what the consequences would be and that Japan deserved it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:00 PM on June 16, 2015

"saying that the atomic bombs were necessary and that they didn't know what the consequences would be and that Japan deserved it."

Oh, here's a little secret Joe.

That's your necessary, consequences, and justification. Circa 1947.

At the very least we gave the populace a 24 hour notice. Me, demonstration theory. But I can see why it was used but not twice.
posted by clavdivs at 10:40 PM on June 16, 2015

I can understand thinking it is sometimes justified to incinerate tens of thousands of children for the greater good. But I really can't understand being moved to write at length and repeatedly to defend killing children, as so many Americans do in these threads. I hope the rest of the world can distinguish those Americans who oppose civilian-targeted mass terrorism from "America," just as many of us distinguish the hundreds of thousands of innocents we killed in WWII from the military aggressions of "Japan" and "Germany".

Btw, for yet another good account of the non-necessity of the bombs as understood at the the time, see this book review. But as with torture, the strategic effects are really a secondary issue. And many vets, even those who suffered under the Japanese or Germans, were firmly opposed to the idea that soldiers are allowed to kill children to protect themselves. I had a few in my own family. Liberals did exist, even in 1945, even in the foxholes.
posted by chortly at 11:48 PM on June 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I second newdaddy's recommendation of Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," regardless of their agreement or dissent from my view of the use of those weapons. The first third of the book alone itself is worth a read as an excellent history of nuclear physics from 1895 to about 1939. The next 50% or so covers the war and the Manhattan Project, and remainder covers the aftermath of the war and brief discussion of development of thermonuclear weapons. Delving into the personalities involved, it is one of the few books I have read more than once.

For those concerned that his work is merely reinforcement of my view, that is not the case. The perspective he presents is more that the use of the bombs was more inevitable in the sense of the increasing industrialization and destructiveness of warfare, beginning with the use of machine guns and the use of poison gas in World War I and progressing to bombing of cities and in World War II.

Other works, such as Fiefer's "Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb," and the essay of the same title in Paul Fussell's "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb" support my view. (Fussell was an infantryman in the latter part of World War II, and that experience made him a fierce critic of American sentimentalizing that conflict, a perspective he presents in "Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic." He died in 2012 at age 88.)
posted by haiku warrior at 5:59 AM on June 17, 2015

The sentiment that Japan deserved it is generally expressed by Americans, and I can't help feeling that it's a way for people who recognise their collective responsibility to excuse their country's actions

How is it that Americans have a "collective responsibility" and the Japanese do not ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:27 AM on June 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

How is it that Americans have a "collective responsibility" and the Japanese do not ?

This is an interesting point. I think there are at least two camps of belief:

(1) The Japanese attacked the US and many other countries and did horrible things, and may therefore have deserved what they got in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

(2) Certain factions in Japan attacked the US and many other countries and did horrible things, and while those factions may have deserved terrible retribution, many if not most of the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all of the children, had nothing to do with it and deserved nothing.

The people who think in terms of (1), where "the Japanese" are a homogenous whole who deserve punishment for their militaristic aggression, are arguably also likely to view "America" as a homogenous whole who collectively deserve praise or blame for the bombings. The people who think in terms of (2) are instead more likely to think of America as a heterogeneous mix of factions, and feel less collective responsibility for the terrible killings by LeMay and other US military and civilian leaders.

So while this is not quite in agreement with the original post, I think that those who are mostly likely to view Japan as collectively responsible for their atrocities, are also most likely to view America as collectively responsible for theirs, and perhaps may therefore feel a guilty need to defend "America" for Hiroshima and (especially) Nagasaki. Whereas those who believe in (2), like myself, are less invested in guilt, and more invested in criticizing the insanity of both the Japanese and American military leaderships in WWII.
posted by chortly at 12:37 PM on June 17, 2015

chortly, my parents and many other political liberals that lived through World War II supported the use of the atomic weapons while also supporting civil rights, labor and economic justice; opposing the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq; consistently voting for liberal candidates; and espousing other liberal causes. I am in their camp.
posted by haiku warrior at 1:01 PM on June 17, 2015

I found localroger's excellent essay on atomic weapons helped me clarify my own thinking on the subject of the "necessity" of using them.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:45 PM on June 17, 2015

Under what terms was Japan offering to surrender?
posted by fatbird at 4:58 PM on June 17, 2015

Just to clarify:

Regarding "Americans in the thread", fwiw I actually am from Asia. I have family that was directly affected by the war; some whom were badly tortured by the Japanese for no other reason than looking or being "educated". I also have family that are Japanese, and my SO is Japanese.

What Japan did to the US was barely anything compared to the way it ravaged many other countries in Asia. If you consider whether Japan "deserved" the bombing for merely attacking Pearl Harbor, I think most people would say no. When weighed against the larger scale horror of Japan's invasion and occupation of Asia, and the years of their systematic brutalization of millions of civilians whom they regarded as racially inferior and less than human, the context starts looking very different. Japanese and American voices are not the only ones that should take part in dialogue/narrative on the bombings, but unfortunately this often seems to be the case in American/English-language media.

For years, Japan killed and tortured many more civilians than those who died in the atomic bombings. Someone in this thread raised the question of collective responsibility - and yes, generally in Asia, there seems to be a much larger sense of collectivism compared to Western societies. Governments and militaries were/are regarded more as an extension and embodiment of the people and society rather than a separate entity; citizens saw their own domestic contributions/support of government/military endeavors as part of one unified collective whole. It was not just the Japanese military who saw themselves as racially superior to the rest of Asia (and thus "deserving" to conquer others) - the Japanese people, as a whole, believed this.

Cultural and geographical distance - and the distance of time, combined with the disparities in present-day ability of each country to tell its story globally, tend to blur and skew the Western narrative and perspective of Japan in WWII. And this is understandable, especially for many Americans it seems - the main events (and often the only events they are familiar with) for them are the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But WWII for multitudes of Asians was much, much more than this. Context is important, and I hope that more can look at the wider historical context in which the bombing took place, and hopefully examine the cultural/historical lens through which they view this.
posted by aielen at 7:49 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

In the end, just retention of the emperor.
posted by clavdivs at 7:50 PM on June 17, 2015

In the end, just retention of the emperor.

This was after dropping both bombs, and Russia's declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria. AFAIK, based on the memoirs of Shigenori Togo, the foreign minister of Japan and member of the cabinet during the war, even after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the hawks in the cabinet were still holding out for their originally offered terms (via Sato in Moscow): withdrawal from occupied territories, retention of the Imperial government, no foreign occupation of Japan, and Japan handles its own disarmament and prosecution of war crimes.

I'd welcome cites that contradict this. From everything I've seen so far, every mention of "surrender" is nothing but a rollback to 1935, which was plainly unacceptable at that point.
posted by fatbird at 8:14 PM on June 17, 2015

Would it have been so unacceptable as to be worth burning fifty thousand children alive?

It's not even accurate: in 1935 Japan had been wealthy and undefeated, but in 1945 Japan was impoverished, had lost a generation of young men; and had been beaten on land, on sea, and in the air. Japan no longer had a merchant fleet; its allies were defeated; its neighbour, the Soviet Union, had abrogated its non-aggression treaty. It was stuffed like a turkey.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:36 PM on June 17, 2015

In other words, Japan would be left in the same condition in which Germany was left at the end of WWI--better, even, since the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles were specifically excluded by the Japanese terms.

I cannot imagine telling someone in power in 1945 that they should accept those terms. Not when the millions of Japanese troops remaining in Japan, China and Korea had already murdered hundreds of thousands of children of other nations; not when the government that organized and dispatched those millions was left in place, virtually unsanctioned.
posted by fatbird at 10:08 PM on June 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Look, I don't think anybody is saying that the killing of anybody is a good thing. However, there is a surprising amount of misinformation in this discussion.

* So Japan invades Manchuria and China under manufactured pretexts, terrible things happen, goes as far as to sink an American warship, and the United States ... declares sanctions on the sale of scrap metal and (eventually) oil to Japan. Economic sanctions are now considered some sort of declaration of war?

* Japan was offered terms of surrender. These terms of surrender were given at Potsdam Declaration. Looking at the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, you can immediately see that the Potsdam terms were the terms accepted by the Japanese. The Potsdam declaration, by the way, was issued by the US, the UK, and China, not just the United States, as some people seem to imply. I think it odd to immediately assign all blame to the USA, and not to the Japanese war faction which both started the war with the invasion of China, bombed Pearl Harbor, and refused to surrender.

* 'Japan just wanted to keep the Emperor': As fatbird mentions above, the Japanese Cabinet was deadlocked, with the war faction pushing for the 'three terms', and the peace faction in favor of accepting Potsdam. On August 10, 1945, the Japanese Cabinet agreed to accept the Potsdam terms as long as the Emperor remained. The Allied response was deliberately ambiguous: the authority of the Emperor would be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. Togo viewed this as preserving the Imperial system, Amani's response was to push for the 'homeland battle'. Emperor Hirohito interceded for a second time and the ambiguous Allied response was accepted.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:01 AM on June 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

That's right, Potsdam mentions nothing about retention of the emperor. The Japanese finally accepted "terms as long as the Emperor remained." Which was still debated.

It's an ambiguous point. But thats what happened at the very end. In a way, the emperor surrendered himself.

Just because they asked for it (retain Emperor) which is cited in the Wikipedias' page on Japanese surrender, doesn't mean they would "get it". You welcome to examine the chronology, fatbird.
posted by clavdivs at 4:51 PM on June 18, 2015

I have examined the chronology. The Japanese did not reduce their terms to only "keep the emperor" until after both bombs had been dropped and Russia had entered the war against them. Prior to that, the Japanese terms were the extensive, and (to me) unacceptable, terms that I described above. I'm not sure what's there that you think might contradict what I argued above.
posted by fatbird at 5:43 PM on June 18, 2015

I'm trying to figure out what your arguing about.

"August 10, 1945, the Japanese Cabinet agreed to accept the Potsdam terms as long as the Emperor remained."

Is August 10th not towards the end?
posted by clavdivs at 5:51 PM on June 18, 2015

I'm arguing against the commonly stated argument that the dropping of the bombs was immoral because the Japanese were ready to surrender (most recently stated in localroger's essay linked in the comment just above my question). I'm pointing out that the trivial terms of "keep a figurehead emperor" weren't available until after the bombs were dropped, and beforehand the terms approached nothing like a real surrender. You're correct that Aug. 10th is towards the end. From your initial response to my question, I inferred that you were making this argument. If my inference was mistaken, then I apologize.
posted by fatbird at 6:34 PM on June 18, 2015

After The bombs...I see. Well, your quite right with your data before the bombs. I mis-read your assertion.

I disagree with a moral argument though.
posted by clavdivs at 7:54 PM on June 18, 2015

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