TOKYO – August 9 – the date, in 1945, that the city of Nagasaki fell victim to the second, and last, atomic weapon ever used in war – is always a somber anniversary. And every year, on the August anniversaries of the terrible fates suffered by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, debate recommences on the merits and morality of the bombings.
For many, there is a sense that while horrific in and of themselves, the ends justified the means. The losses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an acceptable price to pay for a more expedient end to the Asia-Pacific War, the reasoning goes, and the subsequent reforms that occurred within Japan during the US-led occupation.
Others view the atomic attacks in greater isolation, rejecting the means-to-an-end rationale out of hand on the basis of humanitarianism.
“Anyone who thinks that in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ends justify the means,” one recently commented within the confines of social media, “should visit the Peace Memorials at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See for yourself the tattered clothing hanging off the tricycle left by the child who was burned alive.”
Assertions of the above variety, however, change few minds. For those who agree, they provide affirmation. For those who do not, a squaring of the ledger will promptly be undertaken – often in the form of the long, long list of the crimes committed by Imperial Japan. The atomic attacks of August 1945 must be viewed within the full context of the years that preceded them, they will say.
True enough. But what was the broader context?
For many, especially Americans, it begins with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, widely touted as a treacherous stab in the back from which an isolationist US responded with its “righteous might,” and ends on the deck of the USS Missouri, with General Douglas MacArthur accepting the Japanese surrender.
The Asia-Pacific War, they believe, was a fight to the finish primarily between the sovereign states of the USA and Japan: a clear-cut case of the forces of good triumphing over the evil of naked aggression.
But at the same time that Japan attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, it was also attacking the Western powers in their colonies in Southeast Asia. There – after Tokyo’s earlier establishment of imperial power over Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria – it established itself as the pre-eminent imperial overseer within Asia. Its forces then moved to isolate Australia, the likeliest base for a US counterattack.
These hugely ambitious, integrated operations covered vast geographies and hugely expanded the scope of World War II. But they were hardly the acts of a nation that had designs on the United States of America itself.
All this points to an analysis that many in the West may resist: that the Asia-Pacific War was an imperial war fought over imperial possessions by combatants devoid of clean hands.
Eastern Imperium vs Western Imperiums
There was no good and evil, on the combatant side at least. As one colonial master was as virtuous as another, precious little changed in the day-to-day lives of the only “good guys” within this narrative – the long-suffering people of Asia.
Appropriately, at the surrender of Japan, General MacArthur announced that with the signing of the “solemn agreement” of surrender, peace “may” be restored. The ambiguities contained within the word “may” made it a wise choice. The Asian region experienced precious little peace in the decades that followed. Western powers attempted to reinstate their colonies in defiance of Asian independence movements, and with force of arms.
These dynamics, combined with the advent of the Cold War in the region, meant that for much of Asia, the worst was yet to come.
The nominal aim of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to terrorize the Japanese leadership into unconditional surrender. The rationale was laid out at the Casablanca Conference in 1943 when US president Franklin Roosevelt demanded the complete “destruction of the philosophies” that had led to “conquest and the subjugation of other people.”
The Japanese philosophy of militarism was indeed deconstructed during the US-led occupation. It has not been missed. Few within Japan regret its passing.
But what of the philosophies of the Western combatants during the Asia-Pacific War? The Western imperial presence – of conquest and subjugation – within Asia was buttressed on a diligently maintained myth of white superiority, a philosophy every bit as repugnant as that maintained by Imperial Japan.
The demolition of white supremacy
It was known by several aliases – “The White Man’s Burden,” the “Civilizing Mission” or “Manifest Destiny.” But the principles were always the same: the right to rule on the basis of white skin.
For all of their misdeeds during the Asia-Pacific War, the Japanese were nonetheless successful in destroying the white-superiority creed in Southeast Asia. Consequently, the attempts of the West to reinstate imperial control after the surrender of Japan were doomed to fail. The spell had been broken. The inherent superiority of white skin was a myth in which the people of Asia no longer believed.
As with contemporary Japanese, few in the present-day West genuinely mourn the loss of their Asian empires, but what of the means through which the philosophy that sustained the Western empires was destroyed?
The Japanese routed colonial armies. They forced Western prisoners of war to perform tasks that were previously the preserve of Asian laborers. They conducted humiliation marches, in which Japanese commanders paraded Western colonialists to their internment camps in full view of local populations. These tactics were tremendously successful in breaking the spell the West had cast over Asia.
Does the same rationale hold? Can these acts, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, be seen as the justifiable means through which an end was achieved?
To many within the West, the answer to these questions – that is, if they would even ask them – would be a resounding “No!”
The humiliation and mistreatment of their ancestors being interpreted as a “necessary evil” for the destruction of the myth of white superiority and the greater good of a more expeditious Asian independence might be considered odious. That can be understood.
One might hope, however, in the future, that the West will give ground. A willingness to review the Asia-Pacific War through this prism of imperial philosophies might bring the West closer to a true understanding of what that war was actually about.
It might also bring the West nearer to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Paul de Vries is an Australian writer and educator based in Japan. His book Remembering Santayana: the Lessons Unlearnt from the War against Japan is available from Amazon.