On the 70th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima, it bears recalling that it was the atomic method of devastation, and not the devastation itself, that shocked observers in 1945.
The United States and the Allies had threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction” at the Potsdam Conference, but by then the inferno in Japan was already well under way via regular conventional bombing runs across the archipelago.
American bombers loaded with jellied gasoline had used firebombs to destroy Tokyo, one of the world’s great capital cities, on March 10, 1945.
Most of Japan’s cities had been pulverised or torched with similar result since the island battles of 1944 allowed it; millions of wooden homes were wiped out and the statistics for civilian deaths in any given city could reach into the tens of thousands, in spite of intense air raid drills and firefighting efforts.
Survivors of the bombing became known in Japan as hibakusha. They were emblems of Japan’s defeat, its war scars, and the country’s unenviably unique position as the only state to have ever borne the brunt of a nuclear attack.
Anniversaries are, in a sense, unnecessary in order to find the hibakusha. A few years ago in the US National Archives, while working on a project about the post-war reconstruction of Japan, I reached into a box and found an unlabelled booklet fashioned crudely out of black construction paper.
It was pasted full of large glossy black and white photographs of the wounded Hiroshima survivors. Each and every single photograph of the victims in the booklet was stamped with large red letters: TOP SECRET, mirroring the strict censorship about the subject in post-war Japan.
The photographer – surely an American working amid the very urban rubble his countrymen had been so diligently trying to create but months before – had seemed especially interested in the burns on the victims’ skin.
Military planners in Washington wanted to see the results of the bombing, but they did not want the public – in the US, Japan, or anywhere else – to be unduly horrified at what their decisions had wrought.
In Japan, the blue pencils of the censors in Tokyo managed to efface most overt printed discussion of Hiroshima for seven years. Documents from the US Strategic Bombing Survey convey the impact of the bombing in a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone, outlining how well the atomic bomb had done its job and how, by implication, things could be done even more effectively the next time around.
Perhaps it is wise for anyone whose work depends upon killing large numbers of civilians to maintain at least a veneer of outer objectivity, and demonstrate a deep trust in the bureaucracy that builds the bombs.
If the international Press strikes a remorseful note today about the bombings, around East Asia, Japan’s unique traumas emerging out of the Second World War elicits relatively little sympathy. The Chinese state media are decidedly triumphalist. In the heavy-handed and ponderously-choreographed attitude put forth through the millions of organs of Chinese Communist Party information channels, the emphasis will be on China’s great victory in the “Anti-Fascist Global War”, a new locution that is meant to legitimise the country’s relatively minor role in the war, appeal to compatriots across the Taiwan Strait, and use foreign opinion to bludgeon Japan as often as possible.
When Emperor Hirohito surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in September 1945 it did not end his country’s implication in further violence. In the National Archives in Kew Gardens, one can find dozens of memoranda with respect to the use of airpower in the Korean War from Cecil Bouchier, who went to Japan in 1950 as the principal British adviser to General Douglas MacArthur.
Confronted with a Chinese invasion of the peninsula which neither he nor his superiors predicted, MacArthur’s staff began bombing “anything that moved” in North Korea. Every weapon short of the atomic one was used, but both the President and MacArthur were vocal and atomic in their threats.
Most of the bombing missions over North Korea took off from bases in Japan, and would never have been possible without Japanese labour. Bouchier wrote in his reports of various cities “being wiped off the map”, but larger goals, we have to assume, were being served. The men who went through the Second World War turned out to have yet more fighting to do.
Today Japan has to talk openly about contingency operations with the US in the event of a nuclear attack on its islands by North Korea, a country that did not exist in 1945 and which clings to an ideology that refused to end with the Cold War, a battle of wills sparked by the events of this day 70 years ago.
The destruction of the city of Hiroshima retains its power to shock those who can fight through the haze of everyday life in our present time and grasp the enormity of such an event.
The capacity of policymakers to place an almost unbridled faith in aerial bombing as an instrument of national policy also remains undimmed.
• Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds.