“If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” So said Curtis LeMay after America obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with two atomic bombs in August 1945.
LeMay was no bleeding-heart liberal. The US air force chief of staff who had directed the assault over Japan in the final days of the Second World War, he believed in the use of nuclear weapons and thought any action acceptable in the pursuit of victory. Two decades later, he would say of Vietnam that America should “bomb them back into the stone ages”. But he was also honest enough to recognise that the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not regarded as a war crime only because America had won the war.
Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear attacks. And while Hiroshima has become a byword for existential horror, the moral implications of the bombings have increasingly faded into the background. Seventy-five years ago, LeMay was not alone in his verdict. “We had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages,” Fleet Admiral William Leahy, chair of the chiefs of staff under both presidents Roosevelt and Truman, wrote in his autobiography, I Was There. Dwight Eisenhower, too, had, as he observed in the memoir The White House Years, “grave misgivings” about the morality of the bombings.
Almost as soon as the bombs had dropped, however, attempts began to justify the unjustifiable. On 9 August, the day of the Nagasaki bombing, the US president, Harry Truman, broadcast to the nation, claiming that “the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base… because we wished… to avoid the killing of civilians”. In fact, more than 300,000 people lived in Hiroshima, of whom up to 40% were killed, often in the most grotesque fashion.
Many commentators, including Truman, have also argued that without the bombings, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of US troops would have been killed in any invasion of Japan. What the casualty figures may have been is in the realm of speculation and estimates vary widely.
Most Allied military leaders did not, however, see the necessity for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chester W Nimitz, the commander in chief of the US Pacific fleet, insisted that they were “of no material assistance in our war against Japan”. Eisenhower agreed that they were “completely unnecessary” and “no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives”. General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the southwest Pacific area, saw “no military justification for the dropping of the bomb”. The official Strategic Bombing Surveys in 1946 concluded that “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped”.
There is evidence that the Americans had been preparing to use the A-bomb against the Japanese as early as 1943 and that, in the words of General Leslie R Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, the US nuclear weapon programme, “the target… was always expected to be Japan”.
It’s an attitude that may have been driven by the different ways in which the Allies saw their enemy in Europe and in Asia. Germans were depicted as brutal and savage, but the bigotry was restrained to some extent by the fact that they were European and white. The Japanese, however, were particularly despised because they were non-white. As the historian John Dower observes in his pathbreaking book, War Without Mercy, the Pacific war was especially brutal because both sides saw the conflict “as a race war” that was “fuelled by racial pride, arrogance and rage”.
It was common for western diplomats to refer to the Japanese as “monkeys” and “yellow dwarf slaves”. A former marine, Andrew Rooney, observed that US forces “did not consider that they were killing men. They were wiping out dirty animals.” Truman himself wrote: “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”
“The entire population of Japan is a proper military target,” wrote Colonel Harry F Cunningham, an intelligence officer of the US Fifth Air Force. “There are no civilians in Japan.” The deliberate firebombings of Japanese cities are believed to have killed some 350,000 civilians. Against this background, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki become more explicable.
The Japanese too were vicious, cruel and racist. But Japanese attitudes and atrocities are well known; those of the Allies are often forgotten, because they were the “good guys”. So much so that simply to question the morality of the bombings now can be deemed unpatriotic.
When, 25 years ago, Washington’s National Air and Space Museum planned an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of Second World War, part of which put the bombings in historical context, it faced fierce criticism from politicians and veterans. It was forced to rework the exhibition and its director, Martin Harwit, had to resign. He later reflected: “Those who in any way questioned the bomb’s use were, in this emotional framework, the enemies of America.”
At a time when Black Lives Matter protests have thrust the history of slavery and of empire into public debate, it is striking that there remains such historical amnesia about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We seem much less aware today of the sheer inhumanity and moral indefensibility of the bombings than even the military hawks were at the time.
In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, the former US defence secretary who had been LeMay’s military aide during the Second World War, reflected on the question of war crimes: “LeMay recognised that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”
That’s not just a historical question. It’s as relevant today, and to today’s wars, as it is about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History may be written by the victors, but morality should not be defined solely by them.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist