The New York Times Gloss on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The New York Times Gloss on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

August 6th and 9th, 2015. Seventy years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The obvious things to say are being said elsewhere, so what follows is an analysis of some American coverage of the dreadful anniversary that has appeared so far.
As this anniversary rolls around each year, the question on everyone’s mind, the aging elephant in the room, is whether an American president will ever visit the bombed cities and admit that, yes, maybe, possibly, WWII could have ended sometime around August 1945 without the atom bomb. And maybe the global existential dread of the following years could have been avoided if America hadn’t scared Stalin into thinking the USSR was the next target. [1] But we may have to wait a long, long time for any words of contrition to be uttered by an American politician. Some officials may visit and go through the usual contortions to show sympathy and express hope that it may never happen again, but it is still impossible for American leaders to describe it as a war crime, or even as a strategic blunder that wasn’t necessary to end the war with Japan. [2][3]
To get an idea of the present limits on American public discourse on this topic, it’s interesting to note who gets to write about it in the perpetrator’s paper of record, The New York Times, one week before the 70th anniversary. The Times could have told the story of its own reporter, William L. Laurence, who was on the payroll of both the Times and the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. He dutifully reported on all the information he had been privy to as soon as the bombs were dropped, then he passed on to the public the military’s lies about the effects of radiation from the bomb blasts in New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Journalists and authors who uncovered this gross breach of journalistic ethics have called for The New York Times to apologize for its role as a state propaganda organ, and for Laurence’s Pulitzer Prize to be revoked, but the issue has been studiously ignored by the Times. [4]
In the past two weeks leading up to August 6, 2015, the Times has run several articles about the 70th anniversary, but they have all been short on historical analysis and long on biographical sketches of survivors or scientists from the Manhattan Project. In the example discussed here, the honor of commemorating the occasion went to Ian Buruma, who in 2010 was ranked by the journal Foreign Policy as one of the “top 100 global thinkers.” [5] He was described therein as a “classical liberal” in the political and economic sense of the term.
Included on the list were several members of the political and business establishment (Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Robert Gates, David Petraeus, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos…) and intellectuals who can be generally described as those who downplay what Western civilization has done to the “developing world” yet hold up Western liberal democracy and economics as the beacon of hope for those who are yet to experience the benefits (Niall Ferguson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Steven Pinker, Malcom Gladwell, Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Friedman, David Cameron…). Conspicuously absent from the list are famous dissidents such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, as well as many others who are too far outside ideological boundaries to be included.
In the July 28th edition of The New York Times, Ian Buruma addressed the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs by reviewing the non-fiction book Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. [6] He paid the obligatory respect to the victims and the peace movement, and he acknowledged the “barbarism” of the atomic bombings and the neglect of the victims during the censorship of the American occupation. The curious omission, however, was the avoidance of the one thing historians have become more certain of over the years: the bombs were not essential for bringing the war to a quick end.
More curious still is the way Buruma accuses the peace movement of being naively manipulated by both rightist and leftist politics. The atom bombs, defeat and the American occupation supplied both left and right in Japan with anti-American grievances, so Buruma asserts, without any explanation, that the peace movement was manipulated by the extreme right, as well as the left.
The problem here is that Buruma confounds two competing views of Japanese history as being one thing called “the peace movement.” Most people who follow Japanese society think of the peace movement as leftist, against all forms of militarization, and very prone to denouncing Japan’s wartime atrocities. In contrast, the views of conservative political parties and right-wing groups are never associated with anything one would call a peace movement. The real peace movement has in fact fought constant battles to portray Japan’s wartime atrocities accurately in textbooks and museum exhibits.
Elsewhere in the review Buruma laments that monuments in Nagasaki Peace Park were donated by the likes of the Soviet Union, Poland, Cuba, the People’s Republic of China and East Germany, and then he drops in the completely irrelevant sentence, “Whether the world would have been a safer place on the terms of the Soviet Union and its satellites is less clear.” There is something strange about the placement of this statement here, and the implication that is attempted. First, was Nagasaki supposed to humbly accept these expressions of sympathy and shared hopes for a peaceful future, or was the city obliged to denounce the givers as insincere hypocrites? It’s not as if the “peace movement” was so politicized that monuments from the USA and other Western countries would have been refused because of their ideology or past deeds. For some strange reason (it’s so hard to imagine what it could be), their contributions are absent. Second, there is the inconvenient fact that the Eastern Bloc and China, for all their flaws, never used atom bombs in an act of war. That’s just something that the cheerleaders of capitalism and liberal democracies have to live with. Finally, it is ridiculous to imply that the acceptance of a few peace monuments meant that “the peace movement” was duped into supporting a world order based on “the terms of the Soviet Union.”
In a similar scaremongering slight directed at the peace movement, he added, “preaching world peace and expressing moral condemnation of nuclear bombs as an absolute evil are not a sufficient response to the dangers facing mankind.” He seems to suggest here that the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have to speak out on every other problem in the world before they should be taken seriously.
The dangers Buruma referred to were actually left unspecified, but it seems the point was made as a deflection to minimize responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Supposedly, nuclear abolitionists are deluded if they are not fighting threats that lurk somewhere outside the influence of liberal democracies. One would normally think that the only other threat that comes close to the danger of nuclear war is ecological collapse, which is certain to come if current trends continue. But since this is a problem that has been created by the industrial revolution that rode along with classical liberalism, it goes unmentioned. It’s better to just refer vaguely to “dangers facing mankind.” By implication perhaps we are supposed to understand that this refers to the common euphemisms found in American discourse: “instability in the Middle East” or “saber-rattling” by Russia and China.
Finally, Buruma discusses Japan’s attitude toward its post-war liberal reforms. He refutes Southard’s claim that these were forced on Japan by an occupying nation, but again, the facts get in the way. Japan was an occupied nation and the new constitution was imposed in the absence of democratic representation. Most Japanese people may have liked the reforms, but it is an undeniable fact that they had no choice in the matter. Buruma wrote, “They didn’t have to be forced, for they cooperated quite willingly with the Americans who helped instigate them [the reforms].” But it depends on what you call “willing cooperation.” People tend to willingly cooperate in many circumstances where there are no alternatives. The fact remains that they were denied pride of ownership of these reforms because they had no voice in creating them.
What is more important here is that Buruma neglects the national pathology that arose from this lack of agency. It can’t be remedied as long as Japan remains saddled with its American-supplied constitution, occupied by American military installations and subordinate to American policy. The right feels the nation has been emasculated, and the left suffers from the delusion that Japan has been a pacifist country during an era in which the occupation never really ended. Japan has hosted American military bases, and colluded in, supported and profited from American wars ever since the Korean conflict in the 1950s. The left, and the new generation of protesters decrying the recent re-interpretation of Article 9 (which forgoes the use of force as a way to settle international disputes) is upset that Japan is parting from its post-war tradition of pacifism, but they seem unaware of how complicit Japan has been in American wars. In one sense, it will be a good thing if Japanese soldiers are asked to join the next one. In that case, military cooperation with America might become less popular than it is now, and politicians will finally be held accountable for aiding and abetting American strategic goals.
For someone who is considered a leading intellectual and a Japan specialist, Buruma’s discussion of Japanese history here is surprisingly facile and evasive. On the surface, the review is what passes these days as a compassionate think piece on one of the greatest atrocities of history, but on further reflection, it becomes apparent that the review actually serves up mostly backhanded compliments to the victims and the millions of people who have worked to eliminate nuclear weapons. This wouldn’t be the case if he had not decided to use this opportunity to deflect blame onto his ideological opponents from a bygone era and to chastise the anti-nuclear movement for being “politicized” and naïve about unspecified “dangers facing mankind.”


[1] Kate Brown, “The Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,” interviewed on TalkingStickTV, January 18, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Ys8ii6r_M As early as September 1945, Soviet spies had found American contingency plans for targeting Soviet cities with atomic bombs, and this shock came on top of the Soviets’ bitter feelings of betrayal and abandonment by America, a wartime ally that suddenly seemed to want to take maximum advantage of the USSRs devastation in the post-war era. See also Kate Brown’s book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, pages 97-98.

[2] Roger Goodman (director), “Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped,” ABC News, August 1995. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-WnLNLe3sk This documentary is an exceptional case in which a report produced for a mainstream American news channel gave comprehensive coverage of the decision to use the bomb. While leaving the question open for viewers to decide, the evidence presented strongly suggests that American motives were based on objectives beyond the war with Japan, which was sure to end soon thanks to the threat of Soviet involvement.

[3] William Burr (editor), “The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II,” National Security Archive, George Washington University, August 5, 2005, updated August 4, 2015. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb525-The-Atomic-Bomb-and-the-End-of-World-War-II/ This resource provides a wide range of primary sources that have been used by researchers to support their interpretations of the way America chose to end WWII.

[5] ahughey, “The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers,” Foreign Policy, November 23, 2010.

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