Debating Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Reviewed by Kai Bird
Sunday, April 20, 2008


The Battle for Japan, 1944-45

By Max Hastings

Knopf. 615 pp. $35

The British military historian Max Hastings is best known for volumes that insist on recounting World War II from the bottom up. Hastings wants his readers to learn history from the perspective of the army grunts, sailors and airmen who endured the tedium and barbarity of war. His is military history as told from the foxhole -- or, in the case of this narrative of the last year of the Pacific war, as told from the decks of aircraft carriers.

Too often the little actors in history are forgotten in the shadows of the kings, presidents and generals who send them into battle. In Retribution, Hastings does not leave out the big actors, but what is new and original are the personal stories he has extracted from oral histories and his own interviews with veterans of the American, Japanese, Russian, Australian and even Chinese armies. A fine writer, Hastings conveys many heartrending testimonies. He quotes a sailor describing his friend's decapitation during a kamikaze raid: "His head fell off at my feet. I looked down . . . and I believe his mouth was still trying to tell me something." A Japanese soldier observes his starving men cooking the remains of a dead officer. A Marine on Iwo Jima comes across "piles of dead Marines, waiting to be collected."

Hastings's veterans recount numerous firefights, ambushes, massacres and rapes. War crimes are committed by all sides -- but most methodically by the Japanese. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur refuses to bombard Manila's old Spanish district, one of his officers complains: "War is never pretty. I am frank to say I would sacrifice Philipino [ sic] lives under such circumstances to save the lives of my men. I feel quite bitter about this tonight."

Hastings draws an array of lessons from these stories. He concludes, unarguably, that war is chaotic, arbitrary and brutal for the people on the frontlines, and that generals often make decisions that needlessly sacrifice their soldiers. He is very tough on MacArthur, criticizing many of the Pacific commander's strategic moves, particularly his decision to waste lives and resources in seizing Manila. Describing the U.S. loss of 8,140 men on Luzon, Hastings observes that "Japanese barbarism rendered the battle for Manila a human catastrophe, but MacArthur's obsession with seizing the city created the circumstances for it. . . . MacArthur presided over the largest ground campaign of America's war in the Pacific in a fashion which satisfied his own ambitions more convincingly than the national purpose of his country."

But when it comes to Retribution's central theme -- that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wholly justified and necessary to persuade a recalcitrant enemy to surrender -- Hastings abandons his critical faculties. He is not content simply to argue that "the fate which befell Japan in 1945" was "retributive justice" for that country's misdeeds. In language reminiscent of the patriotically correct criticism of the Smithsonian's attempt in 1995 to mount an exhibit about the Enola Gay, Hastings asserts, "The myth that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence." He calls these unnamed writers "peddlers of fantasies."

Of course, the American Legion agrees with him. But it is an assertion rather than an argument, and the evidence of ongoing, robust debate is abundant. Numerous historians continue to question one aspect or another of the standard defense of President Harry Truman's decision to use the bomb, in the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "against an enemy that was essentially defeated." Three years ago, the Japanese scholar Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a widely praised book, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan, revealing evidence from Japanese and Russian archives that it was the Soviet entry into the war -- and not the atomic bombings -- that induced surrender. But Hastings does not alert his readers to this new evidence.

Let's clear the deck here: Few, if any, critics of the atomic bombings believe that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have been preferable to the use of weapons of mass destruction. But the critics -- and Hastings -- know that this was not the real choice; Hastings admits that an invasion "would almost certainly have been unnecessary." The real question is whether lives could have been saved by following the advice of War Secretary Henry Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, the State Department's Joseph Grew, Gen. George Marshall and numerous other advisers to the president. They -- and by the way, The Washington Post at the time -- urged Truman to clarify the terms of unconditional surrender by stipulating that the United States would allow Japan to retain its emperor as a constitutional monarch. There is good evidence -- even in Hastings's book -- that this might have led to an earlier surrender.

But while Hastings devotes two full chapters to these issues, he can't find the space to note that Truman, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and Adm. William D. Leahy, the president's chief of staff, all reportedly agreed on Aug. 3, 1945 -- three days before 140,000 civilians were killed in Hiroshima -- that Japan was "looking for peace." Similarly, Hastings says Byrnes advised Truman that Americans would not stand for a clarification of the terms of surrender that appeared to coddle Japan. But Hastings does not tell his readers that the Senate Republican leadership was publicly attacking Truman for prolonging the war by not giving the Japanese what the State Department knew they wanted: a guarantee of the continuation of the emperorship. Rather, Hastings has this to say about Byrnes's judgments: "If there was a strand of triumphalism in American conduct, why should there not have been?"

In the end, I don't quarrel with many of the facts in this book. But I am appalled by the critical evidence left out. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary because Hastings's narrative is fully compatible with a more nuanced interpretation of how the Pacific war ended. He amply demonstrates, for instance, that the Japanese were essentially defeated before the atomic bombs fell. But the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain a hot-button issue, something that can make otherwise responsible historians nose-dive into polemics. ยท

Kai Bird is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer." He lives in Kathmandu.

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