127,000 Reasons to Remember Hiroshima
When I was in junior high in the mid 1970s, I spent most summers hanging out with my two closest friends, Mike and Jon. We played basketball, watched Cub games, rode bikes around the neighborhood . . . pretty much anything to escape the boredom that comes from being too antsy to sit around the house and too young to work.
But here’s a funny thing about the three of us. Without our really being aware of it, the Venn diagram of our families’ experiences intersected at a point some thirty years before, during World War II. My dad, the son of immigrants with a German-sounding last name, was a World War II combat veteran, having served in Europe mostly in the area around Cherbourg, France. Mike’s dad, an Italian American, also served in World War II, in the Pacific Theater. And Jon’s parents . . . well, that’s an altogether different story, one I didn’t really know until many years later.
Jon was Japanese-American. His father was the pastor at a local Methodist church that Mike and a lot of our other friends attended. But what I didn’t know was this: Jon’s parents, both of whom were American citizens, met in an internment camp in Colorado during the war. That’s right: his parents were among the 127,000 Americans who were locked up in camps during World War II just because they happened to be Japanese.
In any event, growing up in a really liberal home in the 1960s and ’70s, I took it as an article of faith that the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, which occurred on August 6, 1945, and the bombing of Nagasaki, which occurred three days later, were morally and legally unjustified. They were dark moments in an otherwise justifiable, even noble, war; but they were wrong nonetheless.
My friend Mike saw it differently. The alternative to dropping the bomb was to send ground troops onto the Japanese Islands, or so we were always told, and Mike’s father, who served in the Pacific, might have been a part of that invasion force. Moreover, the conventional wisdom said that if the U.S. had had to invade Japan, it would have incurred about a million casualties in an effort to force the Imperial government to surrender. While it may seem like a cold-blooded calculation, to Mike it was simple: A million Americans shouldn’t have had to die to end a war that began with the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor; so, if the alternative was to kill, say, hundreds of thousands of Japanese, Mike felt that calculus made sense, both morally and practically. And it was hard for me to argue with him, given that his own father had once found himself staring down the barrel of that particular gun.
Mike and I discussed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on more than one occasion when he and Jon and I used to hang out back in the mid-’70s, and it occurs to me now that Jon didn’t have much to say about it. It must have been odd that his two friends would have this discussion around him, in a sense, never really wondering what he thought about it. Here we were, two white kids whose fathers both served in the military while his parents – decent, honest, loyal American citizens – were held captive by their own government, for no reason other than their Japanese ancestry. It might have seemed odder still to Jon, knowing that his Japanese parents were interned while my father and his family, with their Teutonic-sounding last name, and Mike’s father and his Italian American family, were not.
But even more than that, I wonder how it must have seemed to Jon to listen to Mike and me debate the wisdom of killing nearly a quarter million Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese civilians at that, in order to save a hypothetical number of American GIs, especially at a time when Japanese Americans were treated with such indignity. If it was personal to Mike on account of his father’s service in the Pacific and the fact that he might have died on a Honshu beach but for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I wonder how personal it was for Jon to hear the two of us speak in such clinical terms about dropping nuclear weapons on the country of his ancestors?
I wish I’d given some thought to that back then, but I was fourteen years old. Fourteen year olds don’t think about that sort of thing, I suppose.
But I’ll tell you something else that nags at me, especially knowing what Jon’s parents went through during World War II. I understand where Mike was coming from and I get the argument that, if given the choice between the deaths of a million American service men and a quarter million Japanese civilians, who should bear the burden of ending the war Japan started. But the problem isn’t just the ghoulish balancing act that that analysis requires, it’s accepting the underlying premise: That Japan would never have surrendered without either (a) a massive invasion that would have cost the lives of a million Americans or (b) dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing a quarter million innocent civilians. Because in order to accept that basic premise, you have to take the word of the U.S. government, which insisted that those were the only options.
But this is the same U.S. government that was so prejudiced against Americans of Japanese descent that it locked them up in internment camps, even though Americans of German and Italian descent (including, I should point out, my dad with his very German last name and Mike’s dad with his very Italian last name) were not. So how can we conclude that the government’s analysis of whether and under what circumstances Japan would surrender wasn’t motivated, or at the very least, influenced, by that same sort of anti-Japanese bigotry? And doesn’t that undermine the credibility of the argument itself?
It’s a scary thought: That when it came to making what might have been the most difficult decision of the war, our leaders’ judgment was clouded by racial prejudice. And yet, there it is.