A Lesser Evil or a War Crime?

by Yves Boisvert
La Presse, Montreal, August 6, 2015

Translation of
par Yves Boisvert
La Presse, Montréal, le 06 août 2015

HIROSHIMA -- Mitaki might be the most beautiful place in Hiroshima. The 19th century Buddhist temple is surrounded by a small wood and moistened by nearby waterfalls. The urn buried there contains the ashes of unknown Jewish victims from the Nazi prison camp at Auschwitz.
The strange journey that brought this urn here sums up the misunderstandings and ambiguities related to the victims of the atomic bomb.
The journey took place in 1962. Four young Japanese pacifists undertook a “walk for peace from Hiroshima to Auschwitz.” Their goal was to “unite the victims” of the tragedy of the Second World War.
To the crowds that turned out to follow them they declared, “We Japanese, with our double status as aggressors and victims, have, more than others, a duty to call for peace in the world.”
They arrived at Singapore, but it was at the time when mass graves of the victims of Japanese soldiers had been found. Their welcome was not particularly warm.
They came to Israel at the invitation of the ambassador, but they got a cold reception. Their pacifist and anti-nuclear speeches didn’t have much appeal in a nation that felt threatened on all sides, a nation that had drawn different lessons from the war: a people without military power is at the mercy of assassins. Israel was developing its nuclear program, and they weren’t going to listen to the former allies of the Germans telling them to halt it.
Then they arrived in Poland. This time, their arrival was triumphal. The communist nation found these “victims of Anglo-American nuclear imperialism” to be formidable political symbols. They went to the Nazi prison camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and this is where they were given the urn.
They thought about having it placed in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in order to symbolize the unity of all victims of the war, but they met with opposition from all directions. What right did they have to use these ashes of unknown Jewish victims? The affair became politically untenable and the mayor had to renounce the idea. With nowhere else to go, the urn ended up at Mitaki.
If the victims of the atomic bomb had an ambiguous status after the war, it was because the memories of the aggression by the fanatical Japanese army were more salient. Among the dead at Hiroshima were thousands of “forced laborers”—Koreans conscripted into slavery in factories.
The American version of history is that the atomic bomb was the lesser evil—the only way to end the war in the Pacific. Tokyo and almost seventy other cities had been bombed, but still the Japanese refused to surrender. A report claimed that a land invasion would lead to the deaths of one million American soldiers and 250,000 British soldiers. The destruction of Japan in an invasion would have been worse than the effects of the atomic bombs.


For Robert Jacobs, this version doesn’t hold up. The 55-year-old American historian, born in suburban Chicago, has been at the University of Hiroshima since 2005. We met in an ordinary-looking café, but the walls were the cut-stone façade of a bank, a rare vestige of Hiroshima before August 6, 1945.
Jacobs describes himself as a self-confessed “nuclear obsessive” and concentrates on the effects of nuclear tests that took place throughout the world, and on the fate of nuclear workers like those who work in Fukushima.
“When a woman falls to the bottom of the social ladder, sex work is the last resort. For men it is nuclear work.”
Jacobs added, “I remember the day when I was eight, when they taught us to hide under our desks in case of a Russian nuclear attack. At that instant I became aware of my mortality and the possibility that my entire city could disappear. I went home in a state of terror. Since the age of fourteen I have considered the atomic bombings as war crimes. It is very easy to blame the imperial Japanese government. They launched a ridiculous war and refused to surrender. It is true that the bomb put an end to the war. But the Americans were pursuing other objectives at the time. Stalin’s army was advancing rapidly. They had to show the Russians that the bomb was strategically important.”
General Douglas MacArthur, like many military leaders, was opposed to the use of the bomb, which was a decision made by President Truman. After the war, it was discovered that negotiations for surrender were taking place. The estimates of casualties of a land invasion were contested, and some historians state that an invasion probably wouldn’t have been necessary.


How is it to be living in Hiroshima as an American specializing in nuclear history?
“A small minority expresses its anger against the United States, but in this country with many faces, you cannot always trust appearances. Sometimes forgiving is a way of affirming moral superiority… They say they are happy to have us here.”
The Americans quickly went from being enemies to being occupiers until 1952. During this period, mention of the bomb was banned from the media and works of fiction. Accounts of the hibakusha, or survivors of the bomb, appeared only later, a fact which added to the strangeness of their status.
The United States then became the ally and protector of the country from the communist threat posed by China and the USSR. All of this occurred in a very short time.
“It is interesting to see the reaction of Americans who visit the memorial. Some feel guilty when faced with the destruction of civilian life. Many are disoriented. They are confronted with a new version of history.”
A visit to this sobering memorial does not cover the creation of the bomb. All of a sudden not only the horrifying power of the bomb appears, but also the human disaster that ensued from the only two occasions when it was used.


Ran Zwigenberg, "The Hiroshima-Auschwitz Peace March and the Globalization of the 'Moral Witness'" Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, Volume 27, Issue 3, 195-211, 2013. DOI:10.1080/23256249.2013.852767

Kenzaburo Oe, Hiroshima Notes (Grove Press, 1965).

Translation of:
by Yves Boisvert
La Presse, Montréal, le 06 août 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment