This is an excerpt of the first chapter of historian Howard Zinn’s last book “The bomb”.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Dangerous righteousness
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, turned into powder and ash, in a few moments, the flesh and bones of 140,000 men, women, and children. Three days later, a second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed perhaps 70,000 instantly. In the next five years, another 130,000 inhabitants of those two cities died of radiation poisoning.
The sociologist Kai Erikson wrote on this that
“the question is: What kind of mood does a fundamentally decent people have to be in, before it is willing to annihilate as many as a quarter of a million human beings for the sake of making a point.”
This question is enormously important precisely because it does not permit us to dismiss horrors as acts inevitably committed by horrible people. Also, it is a question not just about some past and irretrievable event involving someone else, but about all of us, living today in the midst of outrages different in detail but morally equivalent, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is about the continued accumulation by nations of atomic weapons a thousand times more deadly, ten thousand times more numerous, than those first bombs. It is about the expenditure each year of a trillion dollars for these and what are soberly called “conventional” weapons.
The climate of World War II was one of unquestioned moral righteousness. The enemy was Fascism. The brutalities of Fascism were undisguised by pretense: the concentration camps, the total control of information, the roving gangs of thugs in the streets, the designation of “inferior” races deserving extermination, the mass hysteria, the glorification of war, the invasion of other countries, the bombing of civilians. There was, indeed, no reason to question that the enemy in World War II was monstrous and had to be stopped before it enveloped more victims.
But it is precisely that situation—where the enemy is un-debatably evil—that produces a righteousness dangerous not only to the enemy but to ourselves, to countless innocent bystanders, and to future generations.
First of all, can we accept the idea that England, France, the United States, with their long history of imperial domination in Asia, in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, were fighting against international aggression? Against German, Italian, Japanese aggression certainly. But against their own?
Indeed, although the desperate need for support in the war brought forth the idealistic language of the Atlantic Charter with its promise of self-determination, when the war ended, the colonized people of Indochina had to fight against the French, the Indonesians against the Dutch, the Malaysians against the British, the Africans against the European powers, and the Filipinos against the United States in order to fulfil that promise.
Racism in the United States
Hitler’s racism was brutally clear. The racism of the Allies, with their long history of the subjugation of coloured people around the world, seemed forgotten, except by the people themselves. Many of them, like India’s Gandhi, had difficulty being enthusiastic about a war fought by the white imperial powers they knew so well.
In the United States, despite powerful attempts to mobilize the African American population for the war, there was distinct resistance. Racial segregation was not just a Southern fact, but also a national policy.
A student at a black college told his teacher:
“The Navy lets us serve only as mess-men. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labour unions shut us out. Lynching continues. What more could Hitler do than that?”
There was another test of the proposition that the war against the Axis powers was in good part a war against racism. That came in the treatment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. There was contempt for the Nazis, but with the Japanese there was a special factor, that of race. After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt empowered the army, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese American on the West Coast, most of them born in the United States—120,000 men, women, and children—to take them from their homes, and transport them to “detention camps,” which were really concentration camps.
No one seemed conscious of the irony—that one of the reasons for general indignation against the Fascist powers was their history of indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations. Franklin D. Roosevelt described these bombings as “inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.” But very soon, the United States and Britain were doing the same thing, and on a far larger scale. The Allied leaders met in Casablanca in January 1943 and agreed on massive air attacks to achieve
“the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”
This euphemism —“undermining of the morale” — was another way of saying that the mass killing of ordinary civilians by carpet-bombing was now an important strategy of the war. Once used in World War II, it would become American policy in Korea, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
One month after the Dresden bombing, on March 10, 1945, three hundred B-29’s flew over Tokyo at low altitude, with cylinders of napalm and 500-pound clusters of magnesium incendiaries. Fire swept with incredible speed through the flimsy dwellings of the poor. The atmosphere became superheated to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. People jumped into the river for protection and were boiled alive. The estimates were of 85,000 to 100,000 dead.
This was accompanied in the press by continued dehumanization of the enemy. LIFE magazine showed a picture of a Japanese person burning to death and commented: “This is the only way.”
Their side was vicious beyond description. Therefore, whatever we did was morally right. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo became indistinguishable from German civilians, or Japanese school children. The U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay asserted: “There is no such thing as an innocent civilian.”
There has been endless discussion about how many American lives would be lost in an invasion of Japan. A pointless discussion, based on the premise that there would have to be an American invasion of Japan in order to end the war. But the evidence is clear that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender, that a simple declaration on keeping the position of the Emperor would have brought the war to an end, and no invasion was necessary.
Indeed, much of the argument defending the atomic bombings has been based on a mood of retaliation, as if the children of Hiroshima had bombed Pearl Harbor, as if the civilian refugees crowding into Dresden had been in charge of the gas chambers. Did American children deserve to die because of the massacre of Vietnamese children at My Lai?
Down to the present day, the massive bombing of civilians is justified, by intellectuals putting into respectable words the crude and brutish argument: “Sure we committed mass murder. But they started it. Our conscience is clear.”
That argument aims the slogan “Never Again” only at them, never at ourselves. It is a prescription for the endless cycle of violence and counter violence, terrorism and counterterrorism, that has plagued our times, for which the only response is: “No more wars or bombings, of retaliation. Someone, no, we, must stop that cycle, now.”