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Every year, it comes around again, and again...
I saw Oppenheimer…review at bottom.
Readers expect everyone who writes about modern military history to write about Hiroshima on or around 6 August. Well, this guy’s writing around it. Yes, we can recite the facts of the first atomic bombings, and we can all argue ad infinitum whether it was "justified" based on the state of the war and all that. But today I'm going to write about the official Japanese response to it...not something anyone likes to talk about a great deal. That's because, other than the shock and horror of a city going up in flames in an instant, the official Japanese reaction to the first atomic bombing amounted to...
By August 1945, two months after Japan's military government acknowledged the fall of Okinawa, a cloud of fatalism shrouded Japanese policy completely. Even as they prepared for the ultimate battles for the empire, the prevailing samurai attitudes about these terrible new weapons were that they were just a faster way to die. They realized that most of Japan's population was not warriors who shared their ethos, but they didn't care. Japan's fate was in the hands of the gods; the logical consequence for Japan's failure to become resource-independent was its annihilation.
Their view of a state’s duty to the people hadn't grown since the last shoguns were in charge.
While there had been an undercurrent of making the war seem too costly in blood and treasure for the Americans, after Pelelu (September-November 1944) that policy/attitude collapsed. There were vestiges of it as late as the Ten-Go death ride of the IJN in April 1945, and in the early stages of the Tokko/kamikaze offensive off Okinawa, but by June fatalism had sunk in. Japan would continue to fight...but the samurai leadership and the true believers in the Imperial Army and Navy had no hope of defeating the coming invasions, making the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings little more than tragic, ghastly punctuations.
It wasn’t like the Allies didn’t offer to stop fighting before Hiroshima.
For weeks before the atomic attacks, several broadcasters, some of whom were familiar with the imperial family, made broadcasts to Japan, saying that all they had to do was stop fighting. Japan’s response was…not much at all. Official statements added up to “you stop fighting first, then we’ll talk.” But the Allies—the nascent United Nations—weren’t in a mood to talk. The policy had been unconditional surrender since 1942, not because of sheer cussedness or desire for revenge, but because of memory. The Versailles peace had lasted just over twenty years, after the German Army marched home nearly intact. There were still large numbers of Japanese troops in the Dutch East Indies, Indochina, and China, as well as on the Home Islands. “Terms” that meant Japan would not depart from Allied soil—that included China, and the colonies of the Netherlands and France—were unacceptable, even if Japan offered them, which they did not…officially. Japan had to stop fighting, disarm, and return all their troops to the Home Islands, as outlined in the Potsdam Declaration. Period. It was like the peace they had already dictated to Germany and Italy. The Japanese overtures to the Soviets were distractions, nothing more, and even Stalin knew it.
Delays—Japan was good at them—would be costly for everyone.
The Allies were losing over a thousand lives a week from non-combat causes, primarily sickness and accidents caused by worn-out equipment. The war-weary home populations, particularly in the US, demanded the return of consumer goods to the shelves and showrooms and were eager to end the war. And the Allies were not unaware of conditions in Japan and its occupied territories. Famine was rampant in Asia, and incipient in Japan itself. The American blockades by submarine and sea mine worked…but Japan’s leaders would rather see their country starve than admit defeat. Japan may have been near collapse, but their leaders would watch their country wither before giving up.
In this atmosphere, the atomic bombs fell, and the Showa Emperor instructed his government to accept Potsdam.
The Emperor of Japan had little statutory authority, even though the military always acted in his name and sought his approval for major actions after they were well underway. However, the Showa Emperor Hirohito used his moral authority for the first—and probably the last—time for any emperor, publicly announcing his instructions to the remnant of his civil government, which still ran foreign affairs. He thus outflanked the military bosses who had run Japan like a fief for centuries. It was the only way, probably, that Japan could have survived at all. We can argue that the atomic bombs were the deciding factor…or not. But they certainly mattered to the Showa, and he was the only person who mattered.
My co-author and I detailed all this in our book Why the Samurai Lost Japan.
As many of you know, Why The Samurai Lost Japan is a failure analysis. Japan before 1945 may have had democratic-sounding institutions, but it was anything but a functioning democracy. They decided on war and peace with no regard for public input. The public did not elect the decision-makers. That, Lee and I argue, was part of the problem.
Oppenheimer: A Worthy Effort.
This is a bio-epic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a troubled and promiscuous man who not only introduced quantum physics to the United States but also had a good relationship with nearly every other physicist in the world. That was why he was chosen to be the civilian director of the Manhattan Engineer District, the military/civilian cooperation that built the first nuclear weapons: the diverse collection of madmen, drunkards, geniuses and the like that made up the world physics community would work for him, not against him, as they might have others. The film is based on Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s 2005 book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. At three hours, it seems to drag in parts. In other parts, it’s confusing. I saw some issues with the timeline, but overall, Christopher Nolan did a credible job. My biggest issue was with the film’s presentation of how Oppie—what everyone called him—was selected for Manhattan. It was quite a process of elimination that, admittedly, isn’t emphasised in American Prometheus, and perhaps just didn’t contribute to the film’s story.
The film is about Oppie, not just the bomb…
The harshest critics center on the fact of the weapons themselves, ignoring the message the film is sending: Oppenheimer had security issues, yes, but they weren’t as bad as all that…in retrospect. In the atmosphere of the ‘50s, they were dangerous. The non-professional reviewers—most of the pros found it well worthwhile—insist that the film was about the bombs and that they were evil, should have been used as a demonstration, murdered innocent children, Japan was about to surrender…and on and on. This reaction is symptomatic, regrettably, of the popular emphasis on tying Oppenheimer to that quote—I am become death, destroyer of worlds—like he was the only person on the project…
The Model T Reconsidered
Myths and Legends of Shiloh I
On 5 August:
1953: Operation BIG SWITCH began in Korea, after the July armistice that ended—sort of—the conflict that started in June 1953. Operation LITTLE SWITCH the previous April involved returning the sick and injured UN prisoners held by North Korea and China. BIG SWITCH involved asking all PWs held by everyone if they wished repatriation, and sending them back if they wanted repatriation.
1963: The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in Moscow. The signatories agreed not to test nuclear weapons in Earth’s atmosphere, under water or in outer space. It did not bind non-signatories; France continued testing, and China, India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club with surface tests.
And today is NATIONAL UNDERWEAR DAY, because an underwear maker who shall remain nameless wanted us to “embrace our underwear” while it embraces us. Yes, it’s all marketing; we know that.