Episode 113 – Rain of Ruin, Part 6

In the final episode of our series on the atomic bomb, we’ll talk a bit about some other theories related to the bomb before closing with some general thoughts about the bomb and what it says about how we approach and write history.

Listen to the episode here.

Sources

See the source list for episode 111.

Images

One of the film posters for The Beginning or the End.
One of the film posters for The Beginning or the End.
Another poster for the movie.
Another poster for the movie.
Harry S. Truman announces the unconditional surrender of Japan, August 15, 1945. His views on the bomb appear somewhat conflicted; while he always defended its use in public in private he expressed some reservations about its power and after August 10, 1945 he called a halt to all further uses of the weapon. According to witnesses, he said he didn't feel comfortable "killing all those kids."
Harry S. Truman announces the unconditional surrender of Japan, August 15, 1945. His views on the bomb appear somewhat conflicted; while he always defended its use in public in private he expressed some reservations about its power and after August 10, 1945 he called a halt to all further uses of the weapon. According to witnesses, he said he didn’t feel comfortable “killing all those kids.”
In this scene from The Beginning or the End, planners determine the nature of the attack on Hiroshima. The movie contained several substantial historical "embellishments".
In this scene from The Beginning or the End, planners determine the nature of the attack on Hiroshima. The movie contained several substantial historical “embellishments”.
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2 thoughts on “Episode 113 – Rain of Ruin, Part 6

  1. Gwen Moscoe

    Very, very good review. I am deeply impressed by your ability to remain both adamant about the clear facts (boy were you adamant!) yet also totally objective about any conclusions where absolutely clear facts are not in evidence. You are quite a scholar and I hope to someday have the honor of reading your completed dissertation. 🙂

    I am curious, though. I have a question that you may wish to demure to answer given it is clearly baiting, but at the same time I think very relevant. You bring up the question whether demanding of Japan unconditional surrender was justified and you did so without any mention of the ethics of offering such a compromise in light of Japanese atrocities in Korea, China, and elsewhere. We have to keep in mind that for the allies this was a war against BOTH Germany and Japan. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor yet we engaged the war with Europe First as our motto once Hitler obliged by (foolishly) declaring war against us. You suggest it might have been possible to offer terms with the Japanese keeping the Showa Emperor in power as part of the terms. Although it is highly doubtful Hitler would have accepted Allied terms (and impossible to imagine Stalin agreeing) even if they permitted him to remain as President of Germany within its pre-Anschluss borders, should we have offered such terms?

  2. This is a great question. I would not have offered the same terms to Hitler due to the substantial structural and historical differences between the Japanese and German governments (and also because as a Jew it’s a bit harder for me to be objective when it comes to the Nazis).

    To simplify things a bit, Hitler sat atop a fairly impressive party and state bureaucracy, and controlled it and the army pretty thoroughly — arguably as thoroughly as it is possible for a single man to control the levers of power in any system, though I know there are specialists on Nazi Germany who would debate that point. Still, Hitler is pretty clearly responsible for the course of the Nazi war effort; Hirohito, because he was a head of state but not of government, can arguably be said not to be. In addition, Hirohito represents a tradition — the Imperial Throne — antedating Japanese aggression, which Hitler again does not — the position of Fuhrer was a fusion of the Weimar titles of Reichschancellor and Reichspresident that didn’t exist before he came to power. In the Japanese case you can (and we did) construct a convincing narrative that lays the blame primarily on the military, not the civilian government or the imperial house. That’s not really possible in the case of Hitler; only the kookiest of the kooky wingnuts could argue that Hitler is somehow not responsible for how the war started.

    So the simple version is that I think there is an argument to be made that it’s morally justifiable to divorce Hirohito from at least some of the responsibility for the war in a way that is not true of Hitler. Still, were I the one running the show in the Occupation, I would draw upon my knowledge of Japanese history to note that while executing emperors was uncommon, forcing them to abdicate was not. I personally would have favored making it clear to Hirohito that he would be abdicating at the end of the US occupation to allow a clean break with the past while guaranteeing that his son would succeed him. Since Akihito was also in his minority at the time, that would have the added benefit of a regency, which could have been offered to Hirohito’s liberal and generally pro American brother Nobuhito (sometimes called Prince Takamatsu).

    I try to steer clear of ethical issues on the show because it’s so personal how you choose to weigh them, but again I think a case can at least be made that ending the war sooner would do a lot to save Korean and Taiwanese lives in addition to Japanese ones — after all, tens of thousands of both were deployed with the Imperial Military, and in the Korean case a surrender negotiated in July might have kept Korea intact. That’s not to say this little plan of mine is totally free of ethical issues — letting Hirohito walk totally for the things done in his name is a big one. It all comes down to how you weigh the different parts of the equation, which again is an intensely personal decision.

    That’s also not to say that this little idea would definitely have worked — I think it would have had a shot, but that’s not a guarantee. That’s particularly true since it would have required some pretty secret diplomacy in order to not publically deviate from unconditional surrender; maintaining that line while giving the Japanese assurances under the table would be tricky to say the least.

    So, that’s my novel on the subject. Good question!

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