Hiroshima: the ‘White Man’s Bomb’ revisited
Dropping the Bomb on Japan was the final act of a bitter race war in the Pacific.
Ten years ago, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I wrote an essay for Living Marxism magazine arguing that the Americans dropped the Bomb on the Japanese rather than Nazi Germany as the final act of a bitter race war in the Pacific. To mark the sixtieth anniversary, we reprint a slightly edited version below.
Much has changed in the past decade, but it is worth revisiting the hidden history of Hiroshima for a couple of reasons. First, in our increasingly Nazi-obsessed age, it is useful to remind everybody that Hitler did not have a monopoly on the politics of racial supremacy in the first half of the twentieth century. And secondly, it demonstrates how much matters have altered over those intervening 60 years.
In the shrill language of scaremongering that too often passes for political analysis today, we are often warned that political race hate is on the rise to new heights, or that the American and British governments are fighting a ruthless war of hate against the Muslim world. The story of the White Man’s Bomb and the real race war in the Pacific exposes those claims in revealing historical perspective.
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‘The only language [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.’ US President Harry S Truman, 11 August 1945, in a letter justifying his decision to drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
‘President Clinton said today that the United States owed Japan no apology for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two, and that President Harry S Truman had made the right decision to use the bombs.’ Reuters, 7 April 1995
Why did the US government drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945? Throughout the past 50 years, the official Anglo-American line has remained more or less the same: that the bombings were justified because they ended the war early, and so saved countless American and Japanese lives that could have been lost if Allied forces had been forced to launch a costly invasion of Japan.
The notion that the Allies vaporised two cities as a humanitarian act was perverse even by the standards of wartime propaganda. That such a notion should have been so widely and uncritically accepted for half a century is even more remarkable – especially given the evidence to the contrary.
The argument that the Bomb significantly shortened the Pacific conflict and made a bloody invasion of the Japanese mainland unnecessary was first rubbished almost immediately after the war, when the American government’s own Strategic Bombing Survey reported that Japan had been on the point of surrender anyway:
‘Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.’
But did President Truman and his advisers know that Japan was already nearing the point of surrender at the time they decided to drop the Bomb? If they did not, they must surely have been ignoring their own intelligence reports.
In 1993 the author Gar Alperovitz obtained hundreds of pages of US National Security Agency intercepts of secret enemy wartime communications. These revealed that US intelligence knew top Japanese army officers were willing to surrender more than three months before the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. For instance, one document intercepted by the NSA quotes a German diplomat reporting back to Berlin on the state of Japan on 5 May 1945: ‘since the situation is clearly recognised to be hopeless, large sections of the Japanese armed forces would not regard with disfavour an American request for capitulation even if the terms were hard’ (see New York Times, 11 August 1993). Alperovitz has noted that the president’s rediscovered diary ‘leaves no doubt that Truman knew the war would end “a year sooner now” and without an invasion’ (Nation, 10 May 1993).
Despite the evidence that they knew of an impending Japanese collapse, the US authorities not only blasted Hiroshima, they also dropped another bomb on Nagasaki three days later, before the Japanese had a chance to assess the Hiroshima damage and surrender. Even Dwight D Eisenhower, the wartime Supreme Allied Commander in Europe who went on to become US president, later admitted that ‘the Japanese were ready to surrender and we didn’t have to hit them with that awful thing’ (quoted in Newsweek, 11 November 1963). All of which begs the question, why did they do it?
The decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki clearly rested on something more than battlefield calculations about the specific state of the military campaign in August 1945. Two broader political considerations made up Truman’s mind. First, the politics of international power dictated that the USA would definitely drop the Bomb somewhere, regardless of the state of the war. And second, the politics of racial superiority determined that that somewhere would definitely be Japan.
Having developed the Bomb, the US administration was always going to use it. Truman and his predecessor as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had invested $2 billion in the Manhattan Project to develop the Bomb, a massive sum at that time. The government was under considerable pressure from Congress to show some bang for its megabucks expenditure. That was one reason why Truman’s Secretary of State, James F Byrnes, demanded that the atom bomb be dropped as soon as possible in order to ‘show results’. And international considerations proved even more influential in the Truman administration’s decision to use its new atomic weapon.
By the end of the Second World War, the USA stood head and shoulders above every other nation as the leading economic, political and military global force. America’s new standing was perfectly symbolised by its massive nuclear bomb programme, which gave Washington a unique power to destroy the world it dominated. To be effective as a tool of international politics, however, that power had to be demonstrated in practice. Detonating an atomic device at a time when no other state could come close to building one would be the ultimate demonstration of American supremacy on Earth – a demonstration to be aimed not merely at the Japanese regime, but at Stalin’s Soviet Union, the other Allies, the whole of Asia and indeed the world.
A detailed study by the Japanese Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki puts the attacks in something like their proper international perspective:
‘the A-Bomb attacks were needed not so much against Japan – already on the brink of surrender and no longer capable of mounting an effective counter-offensive – as to establish clearly America’s postwar international position and strategic supremacy in the anticipated Cold War setting. One tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that this historically unprecedented devastation of human society stemmed from essentially experimental and political aims.’
In this sense, America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was motivated less by a need to end the war than a determination to shape the postwar era in international politics.
If the US authorities always intended to drop the Bomb, it is equally certain that they always intended to drop it on the Japanese. There was no high-level discussion about using the Bomb in Europe against Nazi Germany. Only the Japanese were ever in the Allies’ nuclear bombsights. Here we come to the hidden history of Hiroshima: the story of the Allied powers’ race war against the Japanese, which culminated in the explosion of the White Man’s Bomb.
On 23 April 1945, General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, sent a memo to Henry L Stimson, the American Secretary of War, on plans for using the Bomb. It included the striking observation that ‘[t]he target is and was always expected to be Japan’ (emphasis added).
When he unearthed this memo during research in the 1990s, Arjun Makhijani discussed its implications with leading scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. He reports that they were ‘amazed’ to learn of Groves’ attitude, 50 years after the event. Most leading members of the Manhattan project team were east European emigres, who had agreed to work on the Bomb only on the understanding that the Nazis were both the target and their competitors. Joseph Rotblat, the Polish scientist, told Makhijani that ‘there was never any idea [among the scientists] that [the Bomb] would be used against Japan. We never worried that the Japanese would have the Bomb. We always worried what Heisenberg and the other German scientists were doing. All of our concentration was on Germany’ (see A Makhijani, ‘Always the target’, Bulletin of AtomicScientists, May/June 1995). All of the concentration of the political and military strategists, however, was on using the Bomb against the Japanese.
The first American discussion about possible targets for an atomic attack took place in May 1943, at a meeting of the high-powered Military Policy Committee. At that time, a year before the D-Day invasion and two years before VE-Day, Hitler’s Germany was still very much a player in the war. Yet the committee’s automatic assumption was that Japan would be the target. General Groves’ summary of the meeting records how ‘[t]he point of use of the first bomb was discussed and the general view appeared to be that its best point of use would be on a Japanese fleet concentration in the Harbour of Truk. General Styer suggested Tokyo…’.
That Japan was already assumed to be the target was confirmed later in 1943, when the B-29 was chosen as the plane the USA would use to drop the Bomb. The distance the B-29 could fly made it the only bomber suitable for use in the Pacific. As one study has observed, ‘had Germany been the primary target, the choice would hardly have fallen on an aircraft never intended for the European theatre’ (RG Hewlett and OE Anderson, The New World, 1962, p253). The targeting of Japan was affirmed during a September 1944 meeting between British prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Roosevelt. The official summary of the meeting makes no mention of any possible use against Germany, but reports the Allied leaders’ view that the Bomb ‘might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese, who should be warned that this bombardment will be repeated until they surrender’.
The fact that Japan was always the target, and that Nazi Germany was not considered, demonstrates a potent double standard in Anglo-American foreign policy. And the basis of that double standard was the issue of race. To the Allies, Germany was a fellow white power which they had temporarily fallen out with; but Japan was an enemy alien, a nation apart. That was why the architects of the Holocaust in Europe were never mentioned as candidates for a ‘humanitarian’ bombing such as Hiroshima. Instead, the atomic bomb was aimed solely at the Japanese. They were considered legitimate targets because the Western powers considered them to be a lower race; as president Truman put it in the letter quoted above, the Japanese were no better than ‘beasts’, and to be treated accordingly.
Japan had been seen as a problem by the Western elites ever since its victory over Russia in 1905 catapulted it on to the world stage. Japan had emerged as a major capitalist power, but was never quite one of the club; it was not, in short, a white man. The notion of racial supremacy and the ‘White Man’s burden’ lay at the heart of the ideology and self-image of the Western imperialists. An Asian nation could not be allowed to sit freely at the top table of world affairs.
The racial double standard in imperial politics was clearly demonstrated back at the Versailles conference which followed the First World War in 1919. While the Americans and the British affirmed their commitment to the new movements for national self-determination in Europe, they rebutted Japan’s attempt to include a clause on racial equality in the covenant of the new League of Nations (forerunner of the UN). As one account puts it, the rejected Japanese amendment was ‘palpably a challenge to the theory of the superiority of the white race on which rested so many of Great Britain’s imperial pretensions’ (AW Griswold, The Far Eastern Policy of the United States, 1966, p247).
The run-up to the Second World War was marked by escalating tensions between Japan, the USA and Britain over spheres of influence and trade in Asia and the Pacific. And always, the Western elites interpreted these conflicts through the prism of race. In 1938, three years before the Pacific War with Japan began, Antony Eden (later a Tory foreign secretary and prime minister) was already emphasising the importance of ‘effectively asserting white-race authority in the Far East’. In 1939 Sir Frederick Maze, a top British official in China, described the coming conflict as ‘not merely Japan against Great Britain’ but also ‘the Orient against the Occident – the Yellow race against the White race’.
The view of the Japanese as a less advanced race was so powerful, however, that many members of the Western elites – including Churchill – believed that Japan would not dare to fight the white powers, or would be quickly crushed if it did. Peering into Japanese-occupied China through the barbed-wire fences around British-occupied Hong Kong in 1940, the British commander-in-chief of the Far East described seeing ‘various subhuman species dressed in dirty grey uniform, which I was informed were Japanese soldiers…I cannot believe they would form an intelligent fighting force’. The strength of this prejudice was such that, when war did break out and the British garrison at Hong Kong was strafed by enemy aircraft, many initially believed that German pilots must have been imported to do it, since the Japanese would not have been capable.
Against this background, the string of military successes which Japan achieved against the Americans and the British, Dutch and French colonialists between December 1941 and 1943 traumatised the Allied powers. The white imperialists had been beaten and humiliated by an Asian power, before the eyes of their colonial subjects. The effect, as one perceptive commentator notes, was to free the peoples of India and the rest of Asia from ‘the spell of European invincibility’ (see C Thorne, ‘Racial aspects of the Far Eastern war of 194145’, Proceedings of the British Council, 80, 1980).
‘Japan’s attack’, wrote Dr Margery Perham at the time, ‘has produced a very real revolution in race relationships’ (Times, 13 March 1942). The abject British surrender to Japan in Singapore and Malaya was particularly damaging to the image of the old empires in Asia, as the president of Singapore’s India Association was to reflect in 1945: ‘the running away action of the Empire, both officers and non-officers, created a very deep impression in the minds of the people throughout Malaya [and] brought great disgrace on the white race generally.’
Reading through the Allied leaders’ discussion of these events, the major concern which they voiced time and again was not so much about the loss of territory to Japan, but about the loss of prestige suffered by the white powers in the process. Islands and colonial outposts could always be won back; but the image of invincible racial superiority which the imperialists had built up over a century was lost forever. That is why, for the British authorities, the real impact of the loss of Singapore was ‘not a strategic one, but a moral one’ (L Allen, Singapore 1941-42, 1977, p259).
The fears over a loss of racial prestige also help to explain why the Allies were (and indeed remain) so sensitive about Japan’s mistreatment of their prisoners of war. Allied POWs held by the Japanese suffered terribly, but most fared no worse than many other wartime prisoners. One in four Western POWs died in Japanese captivity; only the same proportion of Russians held in German camps survived.
What made Japan’s mistreatment of Allied prisoners so uniquely controversial was the inversion of racial roles that it involved. In effect, the Japanese were treating white POWs in the way that white colonialists had treated entire Asian peoples – like coolies. General Thomas Blamey of Australia let the cat out of the bag when reporting on the mood of POWs released in 1945. ‘The thing that has hurt our fellows more than harsh treatment’, said Blamey, ‘has been the loss of prestige amongst the natives by British personnel due to the ignominious treatment they have received at the hands of the Japs in the sight of the natives’. Fears over the loss of racial prestige in the Pacific War were so widespread in the West that even Hitler was reported to be ambivalent about the victories of his Japanese ally, complaining that with ‘the loss of a whole continent….the white race [is] the loser’.
The Allies were acutely sensitive to the way that Japan’s wartime propaganda played upon their weak spots of racial and national oppression. ‘And everywhere’, wrote one American observer, ‘Tokyo makes good use of our greatest weaknesses – our past imperialism and our present racial discrimination’ (SC Menefee, ‘Japan’s psychological warfare’, Social Forces, May 1943). Under the slogan ‘Asia for the Asiatics’, Tokyo attacked Britain’s bloody colonial record and presented Japan as the champion of Indian freedom. After the surrender of Singapore, 45 000 captured Indian troops were addressed by a Japanese major. ‘Japan is fighting for the liberation of the Asiatic nations which have been for so long trodden under the cruel heels of British imperialism. Japan is the liberator and the friend of Asiatics.’ Around 25 000 Indian soldiers eventually changed sides, and joined the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army to fight against the British.
When they came to attack America, Japanese propagandists concentrated on the treatment of racial minorities within the USA. They made great play of the immigration laws which barred Chinese and Indians from entering the USA. And the systematic segregation employed against blacks in America proved even richer pickings. In the article quoted above, Selden Menefee noted that ‘the Deep South is our India’, and quoted this Tokyo radio broadcast of August 1942:
‘How is the United States transmitting her ideas of the four freedoms into her living, into her labour and racial problems? What about her ever-present negro problem? Her notorious lynchings [are] a rare practice even among savages….The Americans prove and advertise to the whole world by their actions that they have completely forgotten that negroes are just as much a part of humanity as they are themselves.’
The Allies had no effective answer to this kind of propaganda. It touched on the raw nerves of Western imperialists who claimed to be fighting a war for freedom and against fascism, while practising racial and national oppression themselves. As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out to Roosevelt in 1942, ‘the Allied declaration that [they] are fighting to make the world safe for freedom of the individual sounds hollow, so long as India, and for that matter Africa, are exploited by Great Britain, and America has the negro problem in her own home’. Indeed the Western elites had become so insecure on these issues that their fears of racial and colonial unrest being stirred up by the Japanese during the war often outweighed any real immediate threat. So there was a constant debate about the growing threat of Pan-Asian unity, even though that ‘movement’ was largely a myth. There was even a serious discussion among the fearful US authorities about the possibility that American blacks might actively side with Japan.
The racial dimension made the Japanese a very different enemy from the Germans. The Japanese posed not just a military threat to the old imperial order, but a political challenge to white power that could spark the fires of Asian nationalism. The leaders of the Allied powers saw the Pacific War as a life-and-death struggle to salvage the prestige of the Western elites. They had been humiliated by ‘Asiatics’. As a consequence they were fighting a race war, in which the enemy had to be not just contained, but crushed if the white powers were to retain any authority in Asia. The extent to which they saw the Japanese as different was reflected in the ruthless attitudes and actions adopted by Allied governments and forces during the Pacific War, culminating in the decision to drop the White Man’s Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Throughout the conflict, the Japanese were depicted and treated as a lower race. These attitudes predated Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. America’s president Roosevelt, the leader of Western liberalism, seriously considered the proposition that the Japanese were evil because their skulls were 2000 years less developed than the white man’s civilised cranium, and that the solution might be to encourage some cross-breeding to create a new ‘Euroindoasian’ race that could isolate the Japanese. On the British side, Churchill was always noted for espousing the blunt racial attitudes of his Edwardian background, disparaging Asian peoples as ‘dirty baboos’ and ‘chinks’ in need of a good thrashing with ‘the sjambok’. And Churchill was far from the exception. In the months before the Pacific War began, the diary of Sir Alexander Cadogan of the British Foreign Office records Cadogan’s own views of the Japanese as ‘beastly little monkeys’ and ‘yellow dwarf slaves’.
Once the war with Japan had begun, these prejudices were no longer confined to the private diaries and dinner party conversations of the Western elite. Instead, the politics of racial superiority were made public by Allied propagandists, and put into practice by the US and British military.
The American press branded Japan ‘a racial menace’, and routinely depicted the Japanese as monkeys, mad dogs, rats and vermin. Hollywood war movies emphasised the sadistic character of Japanese soldiers, who seemed to break the rules of ‘civilised’ warfare in every film. Allied propagandists made a clear distinction between their two major enemies. They showed the problem in Europe not as the whole German nation, but as Hitler and the Nazis. In Asia, by contrast, the enemy was ‘the Japs’ – an entire malignant race. As one of the best studies of the race war in the Pacific points out, ‘Western film-makers and publicists found a place for the “good German” in their propaganda, but no comparable counterpart for the Japanese’ (J Dower, War Without Mercy, 1986, p322n).
The racial denigration of the Japanese did not only happen in the movies. In America, the only German immigrants interned were those with suspected Nazi connections. Meanwhile, 120 000 Japanese-Americans, many of them born US citizens, were indiscriminately rounded up in camps. Asked to justify this treatment, General De Witt announced bluntly that ‘a Jap is a Jap’. Meanwhile in the Pacific war zone, working on the assumption that the only good Jap was a dead one, Admiral William Halsey of the US Navy urged his men to make ‘monkey meat’ out of the Japanese, and demanded that any Japanese survivors of the war should be rendered impotent.
The lower ranks took their lead from above. The US Marine Monthly “Leatherneck” counselled the extermination of the ‘Louseous Japanicus’, depicted as a vicious Asiatic cockroach. One US marine explained the racial outlook which made it easy for his comrades to slaughter the Japanese and mutilate their bodies on the battlefield:
‘The Japanese made the perfect enemy. They had many characteristics that an American marine could hate. Physically they were small, a strange colour and, by some standards, unattractive….Marines did not consider that they were killing men. They were wiping out dirty animals.’ (Quoted in J Weingartner, ‘Trophies of war: US troops and the mutilation of Japanese war dead, 1941-45’, Pacific Historical Review, February 1992)
If the Americans were happy ‘wiping out dirty animals’ with bayonets and flame-throwers on the beaches of Pacific islands, why should they worry about wiping out two whole cities of ‘beasts’ with the atom bomb?
At the same time as they were fighting a ruthless race war against the Japanese, the US authorities understood that there could be no return to old colonial arrangements in Asia after the war. The ‘revolution in race relationships’ triggered by Japan’s victories, and the rise of nationalist sentiment, saw to that. Washington’s concern was to reach an accommodation with the anti-colonial movements which would leave intact as much of the past power relations as possible, and so preserve the authority of the West. To that end, in 1942 the US government declared that the European powers’ Far Eastern colonies should be ‘liberated after the war, and such possessions should be placed under an international trusteeship to assist the peoples to attain political maturity’. The dual emphasis on reforming the colonial system while leaving the former colonies under ‘international’ (that is, Western) supervision reflected America’s ‘welldefined commitment to maintaining the prewar structure of Asian politics…not a concern with abstract rights and freedoms for Asians’ (A Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War 1941-45, 1981, p81). In Washington’s vision of a new Asian order, the white powers led by America would still hold the whip hand over the ‘immature’ native peoples.
The Allied powers understood that crushing the Japanese remained the precondition for reaching such an accommodation with the new Asian nationalism. Japan had acted as the catalyst for change in the colonial world, and its victories over the white powers had revolutionised race relations in Asia. That humiliation had to be avenged and that threat extinguished before the Western powers could re-establish their dominance.
Admiral Leahy, Roosevelt’s close adviser, expressed the widely held fear that ‘unless we administer a defeat to Japan in the near future, that nation will succeed in combining most of the Asiatic people against the whites’. In May 1943, when a top US government committee first discussed the question of how to treat Japan after the war, the navy’s representative, Captain HL Pence, was in no doubt that ‘Japan should be bombed…so that the country could not begin to recuperate for 50 years’. The war was ‘a question of which race was to survive….we should kill them before they kill us’. The Japanese ‘should not be dealt with as civilised human beings. The only thing they would respect was force applied for a long time’. Two years later, in May 1945, a US official in China named Robert Ward warned that Japan had exposed the peoples of the East to ‘a virus that may yet poison the whole soul of Asia and ultimately commit the world to racial war that would destroy the white man and decimate the Asiatic’.
The myth that the bombing of Hiroshima was intended to save lives turns the truth completely on its head; the planning meetings which preceded the attack seemed to conclude that the intention was to kill as many people as possible, in order that the American bomb might make the most dramatic impact on the world.
On 31 May 1945, the Interim Committee (formed to advise the president on the use of the Bomb), met to discuss using atomic weapons against the Japanese. The committee comprised the leading political, military and scientific figures involved in the Manhattan Project. The two key players at this meeting were the top chemist and former president of Harvard University, James B Conant, and the Secretary of War, Henry L Stimson. The minutes record their conclusions:
‘At the suggestion of Dr Conant, the secretary agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.’
Hiroshima fitted the bomb sights. On 6 August it was destroyed, followed by Nagasaki on 9 August. The racial aspects of the fearful bombing were not lost on either side. Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was one of many to express his private relief that the Bomb had not been dropped on the ‘white races’ in Europe (see Times, 3 January 1976). In Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, the angry reaction of Kip, the Sikh soldier, on hearing of Hiroshima captures the mood of many in the colonial world: “All those speeches of civilisation from kings and queens and presidents…. American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman“. For some reason that passage did not appear in the Hollywood film of the book.