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Beckman: Didn’t Asian Lives Matter?

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By Hank Beckman –

If it’s August, three things are inevitable. It will be miserably hot in most of the country, the Chicago Cubs will wilt in the heat and part of the national conversation will focus on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

We tend to focus on anniversaries that end in “5” or “0.” This year being the 75th will probably bring more of the the usual amount of Hiroshima column inches and pontificating from talking heads about whether the bombing was really necessary.

(Oddly enough, no one seems terribly concerned about the lives lost at Nagasaki; apparently about 70,000 people being incinerated in one fell swoop loses its newsworthiness if it happens only a few days after the original show.)

If you’re a regular consumer of news and are at all interested in history, you have undoubtedly heard all the arguments about what was, after all, the most significant single event of the Twentieth Century.

While many see the bombing as a necessary horror to save both American and Japanese lives, others maintain that the Japanese were on their last legs and it was only a matter of time before they surrendered.

Others argue that while the Japanese were still dangerous, there were other ways to bring them to their knees; some think that strangulation by submarine and blockades or the entry of the Soviet Union into the war would do the trick.

You might have heard it said that the bombing was unbecoming of a great nation. As an undergraduate I was exposed to the idea that the bombing was a stain on our nation’s character because we had professional soldiers to fight other professional soldiers instead of murdering innocent men, women and children.

This sounds at least somewhat reasonable, until you realize that American “professional” soldiers were mostly civilians that were drafted into the service by the government. And it assumes that all the Japanese killed at Hiroshima were innocent.

The children were innocent, of course, but most historians note that the Japanese civilian population was strongly in support of the war effort.

Moreover, some worked in war-related industries. A thorny question for anyone studying war in the modern age is whether civilians who produce weapons of war are really innocent. How innocent were the people that produced weapons to kill not only Americans, but other Asians? Many of those Asians slaughtered were children also.

And it’s long been an article of faith on the left that the bombing was a racist act that America would have never inflicted on the Germans because they were white. This argument is somewhat problematic since the Germans surrendered before the bomb was tested, but don’t expect that to sway the average leftist. To most of them, everything is racist. What else do they have?

What is seldom remarked on is the number of Asians lives spared because Harry Truman made the decision to use the atomic bomb.

To borrow a currently popular phrase, the question that begs to be asked is whether or not Asian lives mattered.

Richard Frank, a lawyer and military historian, gives an idea of the devastation caused in Asia by the Japanese in the war in his epic Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.  

Drawing on sources from the late historian Robert Newman, Frank lists 17,222,500 deaths attributable to the Japanese in the years 1931 to 1945. The vast majority of these deaths were in Asia; China, the Dutch Indies, Vietnam and the Philippines were hard hit.

In Truman and the Hiroshima Cult, Newman estimated that the death toll for every month the war continued would be “upwards of 250,000 people, mostly Asians, but some Westerners.”

As Frank points out, “any moral assessment of how the Pacific war did or could have ended must consider the fate of these Asian noncombatants and the POWs.”

It’s anyone’s guess as to how long the carnage would have dragged on without using the bomb; estimates then available ranged from a few weeks all the way to the end of the year or possibly beyond.

The Japanese still had a significant, if weakened army to deploy to Japan’s main island, Honshu, where the invasion would take place. The Japanese civilian population, women and teenagers included, was preparing to defend the nation to the death. And the fierce fighting in the capture of Okinawa that ended only in June of 1945 couldn’t have made the prospect of invading the big island very tempting.

It’s easy to question the wisdom of using the bomb from the safety of 2020; there’s no penalty for the critic being wrong or judging President Truman’s decision as one that was misguided, unnecessary or racist in nature. The goal posts are always easier to find on Monday morning.

But in considering estimates of lives lost with or without using the bomb, the president’s decision was not as simple as calculating the number of casualties of only the two main combatants. Other nations and their peoples would be affected by the decision Truman made and for practical and moral reasons, he had to think of them.

As cold-blooded as it might sound, it came down to killing about 200,000 people at Hiroshima/Nagasaki—many innocent—to save an almost certainly greater number of other Asian lives, most of whom were certainly innocent. And keep in mind that an enormous number of Japanese civilians would have perished in any invasion of Honshu.

No one with a heart can fail to be moved at the loss of life suffered by the citizens of these two cities. The only possible comfort to those immediately killed is they went instantly, with a minimum of suffering.

The stories of those who miraculously survived the attacks, often suffering horrible injuries and losing loved ones and all their possessions, tug at the heartstrings. The gruesome photographs alone are enough to make one reflect on the morality  of war, to say nothing of what it does to ordinary human beings.

But let’s not forget that the Japanese people largely supported their government’s effort to become the regional hegemon.

Dr. Newman’s figures also put the total losses of one country alone, China, at least 10 million fatalities, most of them non-combatants. And that estimate is on the low end; some place it much higher.

To fully grasp the savagery of Japanese actions toward Chinese nationals during the war, Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” is a good place to start. At the end of Ms. Chang’s narrative, the reader will be left stunned that the behavior was that of fellow humans.

It’s not hard to imagine that if the Chinese had the resources and our Army Air Corp’s capabilities in the Summer of 1945, they would have laid on a Hiroshima-style raid every week until New Year’s day 1945.

Let’s estimate that total average death toll from the immediate blast and those who died later from radiation poisoning or cancer would be around 100,000 per attack, including the cities and the surrounding areas. And let’s further suppose that the Chinese did pull off one atomic attack per week until 1946, or approximately 25 weeks.

That would have killed about 2.5 million Japanese citizens, most non-combatants—or about one quarter of the Chinese killed by the Imperial Japanese Army.

I’ll leave it to others to debate the morality involved in any war, whether this one satisfied the “just war” doctrine or if the atomic bombings were a  proportional use of force. Honorable people can disagree about these things.

But as a practical matter, I wouldn’t suggest trying to convince the average Chinese national that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was anything but richly deserved.

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