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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Old School Wednesday: Pearl Harbor vs. Atomic Bomb

Here's one that got a lot of undies in a bunch when it came out.

On the one hand, we have the tragic deaths of 2400+ US soldiers at a military base who were (as we now discover) allowed to be raided in order to give president Roosevelt a reason to enter the war against Germany and Italy. One the other hand we have 200,000+ civilian deaths (men/women/children) over several months resulting from the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two very different events occuring at the beginning and end of the US's involvement in WWII.

Both are horrible tragedies in their own right but as a Japanese American I have very personal and conflicted feelings about them. Is there a difference in "value" between servicemen and civilians? How is it that a military mission that was well broadcast against a military target a sneak attack and the mass bombing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was justified and necessary? We send drones out to take down terrorists all day long and I doubt we send an invite before we do so.

Despite my apparent lack of patriotism please give a thought today to those who lost their lives in Pearl Harbor.


  1. Wow, I can imagine the death threats that this comparison must provoke. Chapeau.

  2. Definitely a lot of hurt feelings. Perhaps it is too emotional a topic to expect objective arguments?

  3. Just to give a little perspective here are president Roosevelt's thoughts on the aerial bombing of civilians from just a few years before the dropping of the atomic bombs:

    Appeal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aerial Bombardment of Civilian Populations, September 1, 1939

    The President of the United States to the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and His Britannic Majesty, September 1, 1939

    "The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.

    If resort is had to this form of inhuman barbarism during the period of the tragic conflagration with which the world is now confronted, hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities which have now broken out, will lose their lives. I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents. I request an immediate reply."


  4. It might be the word cowardly that strikes people as off. I've never heard the attack on Pearl Harbor called cowardly (of course, the people I'm surrounded by aren't the normal run o' the mill 'mericans), nor would I consider the attacks on Nagasaki or Hiroshima necessarily cowardly.

    Barbaric? yes, to both. Obv. one is far more barbaric than the other. But cowardly? Ehhhhh.....

    That's just my opinion.

  5. Like it, or not, the use of the atomic bomb, as horrible as they were, quickly ended the war. The alternative would have been a massive invasion of Japan, which would have resulted in far more death of Japanese soldiers and civilians. It is sad that all too often military leaders enter into wars that are paid for with civilian lives. This was especially true in World War II. At least in Japan, the Emperor did the right thing, and decided to end the war. In Germany, it was not the loss of civilian lives that resulted in surrender, but the simple fact that the military could no longer sustain a military effort.

    1. I ended up writing a response that was far longer than the permitted 4096 characters. If you're interested in reading it, you can find it on my blog:

  6. There is a difference: one happened during a war and was done to end the war, the other happened as an act of aggression to cripple a potential opponent, but just opened a new front.
    There are other comparisons: the 'Buzz' bombing of English towns including London; just imagine if Hitler's scientists had perfected the atomic bomb first and the allied response - the firebombing of Dresden, even more destructive that the atomic attacks. So we see that war is hell (real hell). But I wonder how much remorse the Axis powers would have had 50, 60, 70 years later if they had won.

  7. In my case, I am not only half-Japanese/half-American, but I spent a great deal of my youth growing up on a military base in Japan!

    Like most Japanese-Americans (even the half variety), I get Pearl Harbor thrown in my face quite frequently. And the sad thing is, I still don’t know how to respond without a detailed lecture about how good the Japanese people of today really are.

    I was once taunted on an almost daily basis by someone about it... “Watch out for Rob, he’ll sneak attack you,” “shut up, Rob, or I’ll Nagasaki your ass,”..... stuff like that. After a few weeks of this, I came to find out that this guy was full-blooded German. But he gets a pass because Germans are Caucasian (in general).

    “Cowdardly” is a very strong word to use, and even the implication that the American military committed cowardly acts is not going to fly very well here in the US. And the Japanese military was guilty of unspeakably evil attrocities against civilians in the Far East (ask China or Korea!), so some might make a case that Japan got what it deserved.

    What really bothers me is that the “Jap” perception here in the US does not at all square with the Japanese people of today as I experience(d) it. In my experience in Japan, Americans were treated very courteously, with many friendships arising between American service personnel and Japanese civilians. Heck, my father MARRIED a Japanese woman! Japanese people, in general, LOVE Americans, and are hungry for American culture. It’s hard to believe that these delightfully friendly and fun people were capable of such savagery in WWII.

    But that’s the point. The Japanese people I knew AREN’T capable of those things. War does some twisted things to the human psyche.

    Sorry for the length of this. I could go on and on, but it’s hard to put a lifetime’s worth of thoughts into a few short paragraphs. So many conflicted thoughts.

  8. Froyd - I definitely got a lot of flack for using the word "cowardly." I always thought of sneak attacks as somewhat cowardly. Like the attacker knowing they wouldn't be as successful against a fully prepared opponent. As for the atomic bomb being a cowardly act, I was thinking of how bomber pilots have talked about how easy it is to press a button but f handed a knife they wouldn't be able to stomach taking a life.

    Just Jennifer - that the atomic bomb prevented even more casualties is one of the more popular justifications out there. I see where the logic comes from but I just don't agree with its accuracy. It's anyone's guess what would have happened. And like you stated, Germany was defeated without mass civilian casualties. Why couldn't Japan be defeated in a similar manner? The resources of the US would have long outlasted those of Japan. And why did the US have to engage in sustained fire bombing missions on civilian cities?

    Mark - it's definitely interesting to wonder what would have happened if the Axis won WWII. Some scary stuff.

    Rowdy Rob - thanks for the personal account. I agree about the general attitude of Japanese people: Very polite. Very proper. Although I do feel like there's still a deep scar from the atomic bomb as well as a deep shame of the atrocities committed by the Japanese.

    Thanks guys for your thoughtful feedback.

    1. Remember: a surprise attack that is ultimately successful is not "cowardly", but becomes a "strategic victory":

      * the sacking of Troy (perhaps a legend, perhaps not)
      * the Battle of Trenton (George Washington's surprise Christmas-day attack on Hessian troops garrisoned in Trenton)
      * the Six Day War (Israel's surprise attack against its neighbors and the subsequent capture of the Sini and Palestine)

      These easily - if they turned sour - could have become cowardly acts of the losing side. It is, for example, possible to imagine learning today of the "Trenton Christmas Day Massacre" instead of the "Battle of Trenton".

      I also wrote a lengthy response to Just Jennifer - on my blog, since it was too long to fit in the response section here - that discusses some of the points you raise; these very questions had plagued me growing up and I've tried find the answers to such "What if" questions.

  9. I'm, right now, looking at this article, hoping that I can comment on it, without looking discriminatory or brainless. However, it would probably be the most brainy of me, to refrain from commenting on it at all.
    I'm of the opinion that,in wars, there are no winners. If you've lost, + your nation is then subjugated by another nation, then you've lost in a very big way. I think there are no winners in a war, just that war makes every nation a loser, with some nations losing more people, material possessions and political control, than others.
    I really try not to put my 2011/current feelings of proper human rights + feelings about crime on any past era. Well, maybe I put my own unfair judgements/feelings on people from the 1970s to today, since I was alive in those times. But that is where I'm unfair in past eras.
    I suppose, probably the best solution would be to look at America's WW2 atomic bombings/attacks + The Imperial Japanese military's attacks on Pearl Harbor and say: countries + governments of the world, whatever justification there is, or was, for these attacks in WW2, we people of modern times see these attacks as unacceptable attacks on people, [and we will turn our backs on you, and treat you as hideously inhumane people and outcasts], if you try or do these types of attacks on people, now.
    In my view, the 1930s + 1940s was a far off + different place, where most societies + cultures controlled their people with an iron hand.
    In 1930s/40s America, If I was a husband, and my wife/husband cheated on me, most Americans probably would excuse me for giving her/him a black eye. Ok, I am doing apocryphal stuff. I know that 1940s America wouldn't let me, a man, marry another man. I don't support that punishment of a cheating spouse, giving her a black eye, but 1940s USA would be in full support of that punishment. But I'm off the subject.

    1940s U.S.A. would let me give my wife a black eye if she cheated on me. But, USA would probably recoil in anger + fear if I stabbed her to death, for cheating on me. But, in the 1940s countries, I might get a "not guilty of murder, from a crime of passion" pass from the 1940's USA's courts for killing her, since adultery was a near-killing offense, in most places, in those times.

    Also, in my view, the 1940s USA was very "John Wayne movies" about personal problems. Social problems were solved with brutal tactics like: [If you french-kiss my wife, I will break your jaw...if you cheat on me with my wife, I will kill you]. I think that 99.9% of 2011-era American people + people in Japan/Japanese people, and other people, now choose more peaceful solutions to problems, than the "I will break your jaw" solution and the "I will kill you" solutions to marital problems.
    But the nations of the West, in my opinion, and the Nations of the East, in my opinion, gave themselves almost a free pass to do any horrible thing, in an attempt to stop, or continue, the fighting of army battles in WW2.
    But, WW2, was a different time + place than today, and I guess my best way to handle the brutal war crimes and attacks on civilians of WW2, is to try to [keep myself + my government] from doing things, [things that treat enemy soldiers and foreign civilians], in better ways, than the Allied nations and the Axis nations, [treated enemy soldiers and other people], in World War II.

  10. Darn it, I meant: ...[keep myself + my government] doing things that treat enemy soldiers and foreign civilians]. I didn't mean, [keep myself and my government] FROM doing things, better than people treated people in WWII.

    I meant: do things [better] than people + governments did things, in WWII.

    I was typing while I was tired. That usually messes up my statements.
    Please excuse my mess ups.

    Thank You,

  11. I think that WWII era America had its fair share of problems for sure and so did the rest of the world. Japan being one of the guiltiest for committing heinous acts.

    I'm always struck by people who yearn for these days. A time when America was strong and minorities, gays and women were put in their place. When the middle class exploded, suburban development expanded and the poor and colored were shoved into cramped boxes in run-down urban ghettos (largely due to the Great Migration). Sigh...

    1. But it looked so good in the movies... And those news reels also make it look like such a keen place to live!

  12. Perhaps you're writing as an American and viewing things only from an American perspective, but even then, it is IMO a very parochialistic perspective.

    Cowardly is not an applicable concept in the examples you used.

    If you find yourself in a situation where you have to kill another human being from an opposing side of the war, it makes little difference to him whether he's dead because of a sneak attack or a frontal attack - dead is dead.

    Ask any of the victims (or their surviving kin) of Nanking massacre - does it really matter that the Japanese army lost lives in an "open battle" before they got to kill the civilians? Did their "non-cowardly" attack justify it or make it better?

    Decide first whether you should even go to war.
    If you decided, just do it. Remember this - I am assuming you are going to fight to protect and defend the lives of your families, your countrymen and your allies.

    Does it make any sense to even fight a war where you let more harm come to those from your side in order to spare more from the other side?

    Would I even want you on my side if you're going to let me get killed just so that you kill fewer from the other side?

    (to be continued)

  13. Americans got a lot of issues, and I do find many of them are parochialistic.

    I come from the South East Asia.

    The Japanese forces caused many times more deaths in the countries they invaded or occupied than their own total casualties, including the atomic bombs.

    Dead is dead, whether you're killed by a bayonet, by a bullet, by germ experiments, by starvation because of denial of food, or by the atom bomb.

    I think it is hypocritical to mourn more for victims who died just because they got hit by the atom bomb instead of other means.

    By August 1945, it may seem purely academic to Americans how to end the war against Japan. Even if the Americans did not land ground forces, they might still bomb Japan to submission without too much risk to American lives.

    But unlike Europe where the Axis forces were mostly driven off from occupied countries when they surrendered, Japan still occupied most of all its conquests at the time of their surrender, including North and South East Asia.

    My ancestors in the occupied territories were suffering hunger and lack of medicine. Many more times of their fellow countrymen had lost their lives than Japan's own casualties.

    Food and medical supplies stockpiled by the Japanese forces in occupied territories that saved their lives were only released by the Japanese military after their surrender.

    In other words, an additional delay of a day or two is academic to Americans, but not to us, who were supposed to be allies of the Americans.

    Japan had some 3 million casualties, including civilian and military from the war, Nagasaki and Hiroshima contributed to 10% the total.

    North Asia and South East Asia casualty count reached almost 30 million, all without the atomic bombs.

    Balance the figures yourself.

    Is it right to let the casualty tolls of the victims of Japan continue to rise just to spare the aggressor?

    What makes the lives of the Japanese so much more precious than the lives of others in occupied Asia?

    Are our lives who are from the occupied Asia less valuable than the Japanese that it's okay to let our casualty to go beyond 30 million just so that you keep the Japanese casualty under 3 million?

    I cannot dictate how Americans should think as Americans.

    But I think I am right that it is very parochialistic to think of the war only terms of American vs Japan lives and losses.

    WW2 was a global war, not a conflict limited between Japan and America.

    How and when it ended affect not just Japanese and American lives, but many other lives.

    For those who thought Japan would have surrendered in a day more, just refer to the attempted coup by the diehard faction when the government decided to surrender.
    (to be continued)

  14. SAM - you're an American citizen of Japanese descent, but may I ask if you've stepped out of these 2 identities and see yourself first as a human being?

    The war shouldn't have started, but who started it?

    Yes, of course there're better ways to end it.
    All the countries invaded could have just surrendered and stop resisting and a lot less lives would have been lost. Right?

  15. Point 1 - Japan started it - they don't get to complain about how they were stopped. They could have ended it at any time. SURRENDER.

    Point 2 - Japan invaded many other countries and treated the people like subhuman property. They raped, enslaved, and slaughtered tens of millions - because they were SUPERIOR.

    Point 3 - Unlike European countries, Japan's military industries were cottage industries. The only way to attack their military industries was by bombing or otherwise attacking civilian populations, because the civilians were building a lot of weapons in their homes.

    Point 4 - To the best of my knowledge (admittedly about ten years out of date) the Japanese educational system still refuses to acknowledge that any of the actions of the Japanese army (including raping, enslaving, and starving civilian men, women, and children) were in any way wrong.

    Point 5 - Japanese civilians were committing suicide rather than face life under American rule - even killing their own children - until the actual surrender.

    The atomic bombs were brutal, so were the Japanese at the time. I wasn't born until 1960, but I still think the bombings were the best way of ending the Pacific war as far as anyone at the time knew. Millions of Japanese died, that was tragic - but they caused tens of millions of deaths, and could have dragged it on for years.

    Point 6 - After the first bomb, how could the Japanese government have been so stupid as to continue? They knew what was coming.

    Sorry, this has been a sore point for me since I first read about the actions of the Japanese army in the countries they invaded. It sickened me, and to this day keeps me from feeling much sympathy for the aggressors in that conflict.

  16. I should put this more concisely.

    If Japan wishes America to show remorse, regret, and sympathy for actions taken to end WWII, then Japan should first show remorse, regret, and sympathy for the actions they took in initiating and prosecuting the war.

    Until Japan admits culpability and sincerely apologizes for the atrocities they perpetrated in a war THEY STARTED, they deserve no sympathy and will get none from me.

  17. The Emperor of Japan was warned that the Americans had made a new weapon and in this letter, the Emperor was told to surrender. He refused. Not long after that the first Atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands. The Emperor received another letter ordering him to surrender. Again, refused. That was when a second Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Killing even more people. After that the war between America and Japan was was declared victorious to the Americans. Shortly after that, Union troops stormed the Third Reich and ended the war with the loss of the Nazi capital, and the Suicide of Adolf Hitler. And that is how WWII ended, marking that WWIII will end in the loss of millions and possibly billions.

  18. My main point for this was examining the difference between military casualties vs. civilian casualties. Japanese civilians didn't commit rape across the globe as countless Japanese soldiers brutally did. I'm not sure I can condone the killing of thousands of civilians with an experimental radioactive bomb that would have effects on Japanese citizens for generations to come. If we used the same standards to today's war on terror we'd be fine with carpet bombing densely populated Muslim cities in an attempt to stop terrorism.

  19. To begin, I wonder if there is a way to be as delicate as needed to discuss this debate. Sam, your feelings + loyalties to [some Americans in WW2 + some Japanese people in WW2] are your feelings, + I'm not attempting to take those away, or to say that they are incorrect. But is it possible for you + others + I, to dislike + want to stop: the re-occurrence of deadly attacks, + wounding + causation of sickness by some armies, or some people in some armies, in WW2? There is the philosophy that we can't stop the bad actions, or war crimes, or other crimes, done by others, when we have no influence over them/with them. If you or I could travel back in time to the USA or [WW2 Japan], as an adult in our 20s or 40s, would we even get a government or nation to stop these war attacks? Wouldn't I have to be someone like: a secretary of defense, a top general, or a president to even sway govt.s to stop these attacks? In my memory of history, most armies before 1950s had planes that would drop bombs on their enemies' cities in wars. If we award the [total heartless murderers award] to any army that has killed 100s or 1000s of civilians with bombs, most likely, every army/military that was around before the 1950s would get the [total heartless murderer award]. In 2014, I'm told that I have some German, FR., + other Euro. ancestry. Also US ancestors. Should I try to trace [WWI + WW2]-era relatives + take them + myself to task, for war atrocities + brutal acts that they did not try to stop, or that maybe war crimes that they actually took part in? Is it possible to do that? In WWI, German-allied armies, in France + Belgium killed without trial over 6000 people as possible partisans, + left a million or more without homes/shelter, where many starved to death or died of exposure. Should I try to side with the US + Fr./B side, or the German-allied side in that war? I feel like I'm imposing when I try to put my 2014 morals + laws on decades that hadn't evolved to the 2014 levels of morals that I have now. Casey Stengel was a Yankees manager in the 1930s, I think. Some like him or call him a hero. IMO, Likely, he didn't talk with non-wasp + non-Caucasian people much, out of work. Should I shun him for that? Or can I accept him as a kind of good guy in his time, knowing that I can't change that, IMO, he wasn't friendly to non-wasp people, in his time? Probably best is: accepting that we can't change the crimes + war crimes of the past, and not punish ourselves for people in the past who we couldn't influence, + stop the use of nuke weapons if we desire, + remember the innocents killed + wounded in wars + help their families + friends, as we can. That's my plan, anyway.

    1. I probably have a lot of double negatives in the end of my reply.
      I meant that: If we desire, we can help the innocents attacked in wars, + stop the use of nuke weapons if we desire to do those things.
      Cheers, TR

  20. It's not just because they attacked Pearl Harbor, they also enslaved millions of Chinese, Americans and POW's
    The Japanese also took over some of asia and sent many of them (Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians) to Death/Labor camps.

  21. I struggle with this issue constantly. My allegiance is all American, but I find myself sympathizing, supporting & rooting for Asians in most situations. Little League World Series? I was secretly happy that Japan won! I find this a heartfelt & courageous post & I wish I had discovered you long before today.

    1. Does anyone know if Tak is going to write more articles for this blog? I really like reading them, and learning new things from them.