Special Report

Recalling Hiroshima and Nagasaki

With every receding year, there's only one bad guy in the Pacific war.

By 8.9.13

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This week marks the anniversaries of the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. The strikes killed 150-250,000, and the war killed 50-60 million, about a third of whom were killed by imperialist Japan's aggression in the Pacific. A recent news release from the World Council of Churches urged: “No more Hiroshimas. No more Nagasakis.”

Absolutely. But also no more aggression, no more genocide, and no more appeasement or fuzzy thinking that denies the reality of regimes that murder and oppress. The WCC news release, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on nuclear weapons. It cites 40,000 Koreans who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time without noting the Koreans were only there as slave laborers for Imperial Japan. It's probably safe to say that very few in Korea after this week in 1945 were any other than relieved that their slavemaster was finally defeated.

The WCC bewails that today North Korea and the USA are "still brandishing nuclear weapons, missiles and bombers over the Korean peninsula," without morally distinguishing between U.S. purposes and the motives of Stalinist North Korea. Instead, the WCC laments the "failure on both sides to learn from Hiroshima and from war itself."

Actually, it's the WCC and other religious voices that share its utopian perspective that seem to have learned little from the last century's calamities, with WWII chief among them. That war, the most avoidable conflict in history according to Winston Churchill, was facilitated partly by utopian and pacifist religious voices of the 1930s that dreamily denied the horrific reality of Nazism and Japanese aggression, while still advocating disarmament and endless accommodation of aggression by the West. The great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, for example, urged Australia to give the Japanese New Guinea as an inducement for Japanese withdrawal from China. He did not consult the people of New Guinea, who for a season were later brutally conquered by the Japanese, until expelled by Douglas MacArthur.

The WCC news release also faults "massive US military deployments in East Asia and the Pacific" and "US arms sales to China's neighbors," amid "disputes over tiny islands," while only reluctantly citing a "military buildup in China." It regrets Japan's possibly pursuing rearmament and even nuclear weapons. That China and North Korea are the causes for these responses, and the U.S. military presence the chief reason for relative regional stability, as well as the primary brake on Japan's developing nukes, is seemingly not considered by the WCC.

In a similar vein, evangelical pacifist activist Shane Claiborne recently advertised the cause of religious people commemorating the atomic strikes in 1945 by performing civil disobedience this week in Washington, D.C. Their statement called for a U.S. apology to Japan, an end to drones, closing Guantanamo, and global U.S. military withdrawal, "in the name of all victims of our warmaking empire, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere," that "the swords of our time are transformed into plowshares."

Beating swords into plowshares is the hope for all believers in the Scriptures and the messianic promises. But in orthodox faith these promises of complete peace and absence of aggression are fulfilled only when God's Kingdom is consummated, not through human exertions, which only can attain an approximate peace, at least for a season. 

This week is an appropriate time to recall both the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, even more so, the exponentially larger horrors of war and atrocities that the U.S. atomic strikes ended. One of the best books on those strikes is The Most Controversial Decision by Wilson Miscamble, an Australian Catholic priest who teaches at Notre Dame. He writes that the ruling Japanese militarists in 1945 believed that the slaughter of invading their nation would compel the U.S. to sue for peace. Only the nuclear attacks enabled the Emperor to counter that such an invasion was no longer a factor and Japan must surrender. Meanwhile, about 250,000 people, mostly Asian, were dying monthly so long as the war continued. Asia was a "charnel house of atrocities" in which 200-300,000 Asians a month had been killed by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. An estimated 17-20 million Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Burmese, and other Asians were killed by the Japanese during the war. (Japan's aggression against China and occupation of Korea began well before Pearl Harbor.)

Miscamble suggests that at Hiroshima/Nagasaki anniversaries, "one might hope for less moralizing condemnation of Truman's decision until the critics specify at least a less immoral and yet still feasible course of action to end the terrible war." Or "they simply might pray, if they be so inclined, that leaders in our own time and in the future are never forced by horrible circumstances to make such decisions." 

Such prayers for peace should modestly remember that complete peace for our currently fallen world will only be delivered by the Prince of Peace, at a time of His choosing.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.