Many of my friends think Hiroshima was an unjustifiable atrocity. My usual course in atom-bomb disputes is to refer the belligerent to Donald Kagan’s brilliant 1995 piece in Commentary, “Why America Dropped the Bomb.” The reaction is consistent, and surprising: My friends do not challenge any of Kagan’s assertions as inaccurate, but they remain unswayed. The idea that atom-bombing a city could ever be necessary is too far outside their frame of reference. It is a concept from a different world, beyond believing.
During the war, my grandmother walked to school along Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, and she saw gold stars in people’s windows. She was a young girl, but she knew what they meant—each marked a home to which a young man would never return. “You can talk about war theoretically,” she told me, “but seeing a gold star in the window . . .” she let the thought complete itself. I have never seen a gold star hanging in a window, and none of my friends even knew what one was. We are fantastically lucky: we have never had to worry about the draft. War, for most of us—even post-9/11—remains a distant and academic unreality. We owe it to those gold stars to understand how we got here.
My generation knows a little about the European war—we know about Hitler and the Nazis and the Holocaust. At least in general terms. But we are utterly in the dark about the war with Japan. The course of the war and the battles we fought are a mystery. The only thing that most of us know about the Pacific War is that America dropped an atom bomb on Japan. And there is absolutely no reason that should make sense to us except as an inexcusable atrocity when we don’t know why it was dropped.
Japan was the first Asian power to appreciate the military implications of the industrial revolution. She organized her Imperial Army in the late 19th century and in short order acquired the Kurile Islands, the Ryukyus, China’s Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, Korea, the Marianas, the Carolines, the Marshalls, and Palau. The latter four island groups were all won from Germany in the First World War and represent the center squares of the South Pacific chessboard.
Up to the end of the First Word War there was nothing particularly unusual about Japan’s empire except for the speed with which it had been achieved. But great changes were in the offing. In 1920, an intellectual named Ikki Kita published his innocuously titled Reconstruction Program for Japan, which Samuel Eliot Morison called “the Japanese Mein Kampf”—a volume that laid the philosophical foundation for Japanese world hegemony on the unlikely twin-pillars of hatred of the wealthy and hatred of “the white man.” The deepest convictions of the Japanese militarists, primarily younger middle-class officers, were here expressed in what was eventually termed Kodoha, “The Imperial Way.” Spurred by the economic unrest of the early 1920s, the Imperial Army employed a combination of treachery, mendacity, and outright murder to gain control of government. In 1928, the Imperial Army assassinated Manchurian ruler Chang Tso-lin. They murdered Japanese Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi in 1930. They murdered Japanese Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932. In between, they invaded Manchuria.
Though nominally parliamentary, the government of Japan was a military dictatorship, exercising “thought control” through the Kempeitai (the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo) and presided over by a mysterious emperor, who, as Herbert Bix writes, “whenever confronted with the option of peace, chose war.”
In 1933, the League of Nations condemned Japan’s brutalization of Manchuria and demanded a Japanese withdrawal. Japan responded by withdrawing—from the League of Nations. The Covenant of the League authorized (in fact demanded) economic and military action be taken against Japan, but the League did nothing. (This collective failure was noted by Germany’s newly-minted chancellor, Adolf Hitler, who followed Japan out of the League just seven months later.)
The Imperial Army grew with its rapacious appetite—17 divisions in 1931 became 34 divisions in 1938, 51 divisions by 1941. In 1937, having digested Manchuria, the Imperial Army invaded China proper, launching a new war in the course of which Japan would murder 17 million Chinese civilians, the “forgotten holocaust.”