It defeated great evil and inaugurated a period of peace.
President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe deliver remarks at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Today, the president of the United States spoke at Hiroshima, Japan — the site of the first of two American atomic-bomb attacks on Imperial Japan — and served up a heaping helping of moral equivalence and maudlin sentimentality. To Obama, the real lesson of Hiroshima is that it exposes humanity’s “core contradiction.” I am not making this up:
Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction. How the very spark that marks us as a species, our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.
No, Mr. President, in the image of the mushroom cloud, were are starkly reminded of the horrific evil of Imperial Japan and the ingenuity and resolve of the American people to defeat one of the most genocidal forces the world has ever seen.
Americans have short memories, and to the extent they think about World War II, they tend to think of Hitler and the Holocaust — and justifiably so. His attempt to exterminate an entire race of people was among the worst crimes in world history. But in remembering Hitler, we cannot forget Japan. It killed an estimated 14 million Chinese citizens in its invasion of China. And during the course of that invasion, its forces acted much like Hitler’s SS, conducting mass-scale rapes, grotesque human experimentation, and enslaving countless men, women, and children.
Japan’s rank-and-file military fought with a ferocity matched on the European Theater of Operations only by Hitler’s most dedicated fanatics. Japan’s troops fought to the last man, and when its military plight grew increasingly desperate, it launched a suicide-bombing campaign that dwarfs anything ISIS or al-Qaeda have ever imagined, much less attempted. Even many Japanese civilians demonstrated that they’d rather die than surrender — throwing themselves off cliffs to escape American forces.
As American forces approached the Japanese mainland, the blood flow became a hemorrhage — with the Battle of Okinawa demonstrating the scale of the carnage to come. In slightly less than three months of combat, more than 20,000 Americans died, over 70,000 Japanese troops lost their lives, and up to one-third of Japanese civilians perished. In other words, that one battle was deadlier than the Hiroshima bombing.
Americans today simply can’t imagine the horror that an invasion of Japan would have unleashed. Our country had already lost more than 400,000 men, with hundreds of thousands more grievously injured, and we stood to perhaps match or exceed that total in the great battle for the mainland. Japanese losses would have numbered in the millions. Could we have withstood suffering on that scale? Would the carnage have caused us to relent?
In those circumstances, if there was an opportunity to defeat Japan without causing such immense loss — a loss that would have unpredictable consequences for our own people, much less for Japan — should we not seize it? In deciding to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Harry Truman made perhaps the most critical — and wisest decision — of any American commander-in-chief in our history. He saved lives. He ended the great calamity of World War II. And, ironically enough, he even saved Japan — leaving behind enough of a country and enough of a people to allow them to rebuild and re-imagine themselves as the great nation they are today.
Can anyone say that the same outcome would hold if millions more men and women died? If the Soviet Union ended the war holding vast sections of Japanese territory?
Few things illustrate the moral bankruptcy of modern times more than the fashionable habit of scorning America’s response to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. We were indispensable in extinguishing two great evils, and when it came time to rebuild, we rebuilt nations that have since become beacons of freedom and prosperity. Only fools believe we could have prevailed in a civilizational conflict without resorting to total war.
It is to our moral credit that we are sobered by the scale of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One is reminded of Robert E. Lee’s words, “It is well that war is so terrible — we would grow too fond of it.” Americans have proven that we can fight. We have proven that we can create the world’s most devastating weapons. But we are aware of their horror, and we have restrained ourselves, using our full force only when the cause is most desperate.
Yet there are men who are genuinely fond of war. They lust for it, just as they lust for death. We see them in the ranks of ISIS and al-Qaeda. We confront them daily in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. And in 1945 we confronted them on a scale we can’t comprehend today.
Here is the true message of Hiroshima: So long as America remains a great nation, it will rise to defeat great evil, and it will do so with its full power and deepest conviction. That message has been indispensable to keeping our nation — and the world — out of another global conflict for more than 70 years.
Great evil requires a terrible response. It has ever been the case. The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima represented the beginning of a long peace. We must never be ashamed of our national resolve.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.
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