The Lessons of Hiroshima

by | Aug 30, 2005

Those who claim that the use of atomic bombs in Japan was not necessary often point to Japan’s weakened military condition, and the possibility that the war could have been ended without Japan’s unconditional surrender. Such an attitude fails utterly to grasp the meaning of Hiroshima. That a negotiated surrender was forthcoming is not a […]

Those who claim that the use of atomic bombs in Japan was not necessary often point to Japan’s weakened military condition, and the possibility that the war could have been ended without Japan’s unconditional surrender. Such an attitude fails utterly to grasp the meaning of Hiroshima.

That a negotiated surrender was forthcoming is not a given. Over 12,000 Americans died on Okinawa some weeks before, and Japanese troops were still on Asia. Many–especially their officers–had sworn to die rather than surrender. Even after the bombs fell, military leaders in Japan wanted to take over the government and continue the fight. There is no basis for looking back now and claiming that the war could have been ended without a guerilla war afterward.

But even if this were true, the goal of a war must not be “to end it” by accepting terms from a weakened aggressor. This leaves the enemy in place, but claims that he no longer matters, because his capacity to fight us is gone for the moment. The aim must rather be “to win,” which means an unconditional victory over a defeated enemy that permanently destroys his motivations to fight. It is a serious error to focus on capacities and ignore motivations. To do so is to ignore the causes of wars.

Both Germany and Japan had been weakened but not defeated a generation before WWII. Their motivations for revenge and empire led them to rebuild and attack again. Japan violated the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905 by attacking Manchuria in 1931, and Germany renounced Versailles in 1935. Prior to Hiroshima, fanatics in Japan had also not been irreversibly discredited; history suggests that a negotiated peace in 1945 would have left us fighting the Japanese Empire again in 1970. Unconditional defeat reversed three generations of militarism and ended a massive threat permanently.

Surrender does not mean that an aggressor offers terms to stop attacking because he is weak. It means abject surrender, before an utterly overwhelming power, and the repudiation of the very idea of war through a brutal demonstration of what it actually means. Defeat has an existential and an intellectual aspect. Existentially, a nation’s capacity to fight is destroyed; it cannot wage war now. But intellectually the culture gives up. Under the shock of overwhelming defeat a stunned silence results; voices once clamoring for war and the motivations they engender are decimated; and the nation never again arms for attack. Intransigence in the victor is vital; he does not accept terms, he demands surrender, or death, for everyone on the other side if necessary.

A permanent peace after 1945 required a cultural change in Japan: the rejection of the suicide mentality that had murdered millions of others in search of Empire. This is what firebombing Japanese cities accomplished. They worked. The result has been peace for generations–because Truman demanded total surrender rather than accepting terms from a weakened but still defiant enemy.

To force a social change of this magnitude requires a staunch, objective conviction by the defending power that their side is right. A defender that is infected by multiculturalism and thinks “we are bad, too” will not be able to sustain the fight that total victory and permanent peace require. Those who scream that a defending power must attack only military resources while apologizing for civilian deaths make such a victory impossible. They are the true enemies of peace.

Were it true that that total defeat creates tomorrow’s attackers, we would today be fighting Japanese suicide attackers threatening nuclear bombs, while the Middle East and North Korea would be peaceful and prosperous. The facts are otherwise. The need for victory–and the consequences of failing to gain it unconditionally–have never been clearer.

John David Lewis (website) is a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Duke University. He has been a Senior Research Scholar in History and Classics at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, and an Anthem Fellow.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

Have a comment?

Post your response in our Capitalism Community on X.

Related articles

The Young in America Turn Against Capitalism

The Young in America Turn Against Capitalism

If young people worry and wonder about their retirement future, their health care, and medical needs, their chance to afford a place to live, and a reasonable possibility for their lives to be better and more prosperous than their parents, it is precisely because government over the decades has either taken over or heavy- handedly imposed itself over all these and other sectors of the American economy — and brought them to financial crisis and imbalance.

The Justice of an All-Volunteer Military

The Justice of an All-Volunteer Military

The most equitable and just sharing of the burden of America’s military is assured by its all-volunteer nature, and that conscription would be inequitable and unjust.

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest