Brad posted yesterday about the significance of August 6: the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Jamaican independence, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Bush ignoring warnings that might have prevented the 9/11 tragedy, and this:

In 1945 the United States, in the biggest act of terrorist violence in history, became the first nation to drop a nuclear weapon on, you know, people when they destroyed Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands and probably over 100,000 people. Go USA!

I just wanted to expound on that a bit more, because I don’t think most Americans really appreciate the deep meaning behind the Hiroshima bomb and the mark it left on the US legacy, nor do they know some of the most important facts.

Bear with me here, because I’m about to sound pretty anti-American and that’s not my intent. Stay with me to the end and hopefully, you’ll see where I’m going.

Let’s start with a definition of terrorism, taken from Merriam-Webster:

terrorism (n): the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “terrorist” as:

terrorist (n): a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

Hold those definitions in your head. Let’s start pre-Hiroshima bomb, and point out that during World War II in Japan, the United States employed bombing of civilians as a core tactic. After the Germans had finished their blitzkrieg on England, the Americans were running a systematic bombing of civilian targets all across Japan.

From 1942 to 1945, the Americans mostly used conventional bombs in Japan, which were considered not terribly effective. Then in 1945, someone realized that most Japanese buildings were made of wood and paper, and the firebombings began. Many cities burned to the ground. When Tokyo was firebombed, 16 square miles burned to the ground and 100,000 civilians died. In ten days, from March 9-19, 1945, 31 square miles of Japan’s four most populated cities were obliterated.

Trivia time: it was during this era that the U.S. considered deploying the famous “bat bombs,” literally bats fitted with incendiary devices that would fall out when the bats roosted (upside down) and ignite, hopefully inside Japanese buildings where the bats liked to roost. Modern estimates say that the bat bombs, if ever deployed in Japan, would have been far more destructive than the atomic bombs.

The United States had killed approximately 130,000 Japanese civilians before the atomic bombings, and destroyed in excess of 2 million non-military buildings. More importantly, the Japanese economy was obliterated, the people demoralized, and the military incapacitated. It is worth noting that the Japanese did not have military targets inside urban areas. Separate attacks were carried out to destroy military targets – the firebombing of dense urban areas was meant to destroy infrastructure and damage the Japanese economy.

If it offers some defense, the American forces did drop leaflets on these cities prior to the bombing, warning the citizens to evacuate.

Okay, now with all of that in mind, let’s move on to the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima.

On August 6, 1945, though we remained at war with the Japanese, it was very clear that they had lost. Their forces were disorganized, their country was in ruins, and treaty negotiations were ongoing, though proceeding poorly. Dwight Eisenhower, a general at the time, stated after the fact that when informed about the atomic bomb, he felt and expressed that it was militarily unnecessary. In fact, nearly all of the military leaders who had direct experience in Japan agreed that no further military action – no invasion, no allegiance with Russia, no further bombing – was necessary, and that surrender was only a matter of time. General Douglas MacArthur informed President Truman that the Japanese would surrender immediately if the surrender allowed the Emporer of Japan to retain his title of leadership. Instead, the American proposals for peace all included the removal of the Emporer from power – a deliberate choice, according to many historians.

Prior to arriving at the Potsdam Conference, the second effort at negotiating peace with the Japanese, Harry Truman had already decided to drop the atomic bomb. America had invested over two billion dollars (in 1945 currency!) in developing their mega-weapon, and Truman foresaw the beginnings of the Cold War and wanted to make a statement to Russia, and to the rest of the world, about the extent of American military might.

Remember here that the atomic bomb, as far as anyone knew, didn’t exist. Most nations had not even conceived that such a weapon might be anything but fiction. No one, anywhere outside the Manhattan Project, the President and the military, had any indication that such a thing existed. American discussions of treaties warned that failure to make peace would result in “destruction” of Japan, but carried no warning, elaborated or implied, about anything like the atomic bomb.

On the morning of August 6, Japanese air raid sirens sounded in Hiroshima, and the citizens mobilized to prepare for another firebombing. Soon after, the Japanese radar operator realized it was a very small formation, only a few planes, and canceled the alarm. A small force like that could not carry out a bombing, and the Japanese were short on planes, so they didn’t mobilize any forces to respond. An hour later, Hiroshima evaporated. Japanese in other cities only noticed that Hiroshima had gone to radio silence and that trains from the city were not arriving. The Japanese military was confused – they knew there could not have been a sizable raid on Hiroshima, and that there was no large storage of explosives there. They dispatched scout pilots to fly to Hiroshima and see what was happening there – when they arrived, they found only a crater, a city ablaze, and a tremendous cloud of smoke.

The nation of Japan was in utter chaos, with still no real understanding of what had happened to Hiroshima (except for the announcement from the White House). They were given three days in which to digest this and surrender. When those three days ended, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

The Japanese surrender following the bombing of Nagasaki allowed the Emporer to retain his title. For some reason, America no longer regarded this as an unacceptable term.

Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilian deaths in Japan rose to approximately 330,000. All told, civilian casualties numbered greater than 800,000.

So what’s my point with all this? Is it to smear America and show that we are in fact all terrorists? No. It’s to make a point about tactics, and morals, and how we regard our enemies.

The current fervor in this Nation against Iraq, and really against the Middle East and Islam in general, is the result of terrorist attacks, mostly that on 9/11/2001. Following that attack, anyone who disobeyed any law or expressed any sentiment against America or opposed our military responses risked branding as a “terrorist.” Even today, the “terrorist” label applied to anyone turns them into a demon, devoid of emotion or humanity or rights. But we do a disservice to others, and to ourselves, when we write off our enemies in such a way.

Remember that we have played the role of terrorist, on perhaps a larger (or at least, more stunning and horrifying) scale than any civilization before or since. We have also played the role of guerrilla warriors, during the American revolution when we, in smaller numbers and with less training than the British, won a war by using unconventional tactics like hiding in the bushes – the 18th Century equivalent of planting IEDs.

I am not siding with our opponents, nor am I endorsing their views or their actions. What I am asking Americans to do is to preserve a little humanity. Remember that these are people we are fighting – people who are impoverished, people whose country has been devastated, whose friends and relatives have been killed, whose families have had everything taken from them. Remember all that, when you’re viewing scenes of carnage and death in Iraq, and when the death toll of both Iraqi civilians and American servicemen keeps climbing.

See if you can change your distinction between “wrong” and “right,” “good” and “evil.” See if you think this Country is going in the right direction, if our actions in Iraq are the right course of action, and if you think our servicemen should be giving their lives fighting for God Knows What.

Remember all that, and see if you can let go of just a little bit of your optimistic patriotism, in the interest of preserving your humanity.


  1. Damn, that was good. Great to see a level-headed analysis of what the bombing really was. Once you dig into the history of American intervention in Latin America, these themes become even more clear.

  2. We were not involved in WWII prior to the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. The attack of a powerful and innocent nation was an ignorant mistake on the part of Japan and they paid the ultimate price for it.

    Do not misguide those who do not know history to your humanistic and simplistic ways.

  3. That’s an interesting way to look at it, Sammy. “Uninvolved and innocent?” We were not engaged militarily, but America was certainly involved in WW2 industrially – mainly supporting the infrastructure of the Nazis.

    I may be humanistic, and maybe even a bit simple, but I do not hold that America has any divine right to obliterate an enemy who pokes us with a stick. As citizens we have an obligation to look at the actions of our nation and evaluate them rationally, not justify them with jingoist rhetoric.


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