Like me, they were taking photos of “Bockscar,” the B-29 bomber that dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan 67 years ago Thursday.
Unlike me, they are Japanese.
“Bockscar” – named after its pilot, Capt. Frederick C. Bock — is in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Dayton , Ohio. Next to the “Superfortress” is a full-scale replica of “Fat Man,” the A-bomb it dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
I don’t know what I expected the Japanese to do. Maybe they’d stare in numb silence or mutter curses or just walk away in disbelief when they realized the bomber was “Bockscar.”
I don’t speak Japanese. But I didn’t detect anger, or bitterness or even sadness in their conversation. I ended up taking them for fellow aviation buffs.
A few days before, I photographed the “Enola Gay,” the B-29 that bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. It’s at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport .
Controversy, mostly stirred by academics, still surrounds the famous, some say infamous, missions of “Bockscar” and the “Enola Gay.” Seven years ago, the “Enola Gay” itself became part of the often heated debate over whether the atomic bombings were justified.
In 1995, officials at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington planned to feature the fuselage of the “Enola Gay” as part of a special exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Critics, many of them war veterans, charged that the exhibit focused too much on the death and destruction the bombs wrought and not enough on why they were dropped and how they ended the war.
Ultimately, museum officials cancelled the exhibit, though they displayed the fuselage of the “Enola Gay” for a while.
Several defenders of the exhibit were unabashedly left-leaning historians, like me. Some of them said, in so many words, that opponents of the exhibit were just a bunch of reactionary war glorifiers.
I disagreed. So did The Washington Post, supposedly a mainstay of the “liberal media” conservatives so often scorn.
“It is not, as some have it, that benighted advocates of a special interest or right-wing point of view brought historical power to bear to crush and distort the historical truth,” the Post editorialized. “Quite to the contrary. Narrow-minded representatives of a special-interest and revisionist point of view attempted to use their inside track to appropriate and hollow out a historical event that large numbers of Americans alive at that time and engaged in the war had witnessed and understood in a very different — and authentic — way.”
The term “revisionist” is often used as a slam at historians. But all of history is based on interpretation and is therefore not immutable. Everybody who writes history is a revisionist to one extent or another.
Yet don’t get me wrong. I don’t subscribe to the “my-country-right-or-wrong” idea that seems so appealing to conservatives — when politicians of their persuasion are in charge, of course. Nor do I buy the “American exceptionalism” palaver that even President Obama—the guy I will vote for again—is parroting these days.
And Dr. Samuel Johnson was on the money when he famously observed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Okay, I would say “can be the last refuge.”
Anyway, count me among historians who argue that based on what President Harry Truman knew, and when he knew it, he was right to drop the atomic bombs.
Revisionists basically argue that we didn’t need to drop the bombs because Japan had all but lost the war by August, 1945.
Some of them charge that Truman had ulterior, even sinister, motives:
- He atomic-bombed the Japanese because they aren’t white people.
- He really dropped the bomb to scare the Soviets, our allies against Hitler, but soon-to-be our cold war enemies. The Reds didn’t have The Bomb in 1945.
I submit the revisionists are wrong. Here’s what we know for sure Truman knew:
- Top U.S. generals had warned that an invasion of Japan might cost a million American lives, possibly more. British and commonwealth forces were expected to join the attack, too, and suffer as many as 250,000 battle deaths.
The American and British brass based their grisly predictions on how tenaciously the Japanese fought in battle after battle.
Truman became president in April, 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Despite staggering losses in blood and treasure and territory they had conquered, the Japanese were showing no inclination to give up.
Quite the opposite — the closer the Americans got to Japan itself, the harder the Japanese fought to preserve what was left of their shrinking Asian empire. They even turned to suicide tactics, squandering thousands of their men, notably pilots, to no avail.
By August, 1945, we had beaten the Japanese from Midway, Guadalcanal and Tarawa to the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Our losses were approximately 386,000, killed, wounded, missing or captured. Japanese military losses were much greater, reportedly more than two million.
Hence, American and British generals reasoned the invasion of Japan would be a bloodbath because the enemy would be fighting on his own soil.
The fall of Okinawa on June 21, 1945, put our forces on the doorstep of Japan. Still, Gen. Hideki Tojo, Japan’s dictator, refused to surrender.
On July 26, Truman, knowing the bomb had been successfully tested, warned the Japanese to capitulate or face “prompt and utter destruction.” Japan refused to yield. (At the Yalta Conference in February, 1945, the Soviets had pledged to declare war on Japan after Nazi Germany was defeated. They would not do so until August 8.)
So Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima. The atomic blast destroyed the city and killed an estimated 150,000 citizens, perhaps more.
Still, Japan would not give up. Thus on August 9, “Boxcar” and “Fat Man” wiped out much of Nagasaki and 60,000-80,000 more people died. Not until August 15 did Emperor Hirohito announce Japan’s surrender.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki dead are memorialized in special services every August 6 and 9. Clifton Truman Daniel, Truman’s 55-year-old grandson, took part in the Hiroshima services Monday.
“I’m two generations down the line,” Daniel said, according to the Kyodo news service. “It’s now my responsibility to do all I can to make sure we never use nuclear weapons again.”
Doubtless, Truman would agree with his grandson. I suspect Bock and Col. Paul Tibbits, the “Enola Gay” pilot, would as well.
While Daniel demurred, Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime wartime prime minister, defended Truman:
“There are voices which assert that the bomb should have never been used at all. I cannot associate myself with such ideas. Six years of total war have convinced most people that, had the Germans or the Japanese discovered this new weapon, they would have used it upon us to our complete destruction with utmost alacrity. I am surprised that very worthy people, but people who in most case had no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves, should adopt the position that, rather than throw this bomb, we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter million British lives in the desperate battles and massacres of an invasion of Japan. Future generations will judge these dire decisions, and I believe if they find themselves dwelling in a happier world from which war has been banished, and where freedom reigns, they will not condemn those who struggled for their benefits amid the horrors and miseries of this gruesome and ferocious epoch.”
This son of an 88-year-old decorated Navy combat veteran of the Pacific Theater thinks Truman was right to drop the bombs. The American lives saved likely included my dad’s. He almost certainly would have been in the invasion fleet.
But he agrees, as do I, that it fitting and proper that the Japanese–and we Americans–remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki and like Daniel pledge ourselves to do all we can to prevent nuclear war.
But it is an inescapable truth–an inconvenient truth to some revisionist historians–that had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor, no atomic bombs would have fallen on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Japanese military clique that led their people to death, destruction and ultimate defeat in World War II, sowed the wind on December 7, 1941. They reaped the whirlwind on August 6 and 9,1945.
Too, the claim that Truman was racially motivated in bombing Japan doesn’t wash with me either. U.S., British, Soviet and other Allied bombs killed thousands of Germans and destroyed dozens of their cities.
Because they supported, or acquiesced in, Hitler and the Nazis, the German people also reaped the bitter and bloody harvest they sowed.
We–the Japanese and American people–can all be thankful that today’s Japan is not Tojo’s Japan, not by a long shot. Perhaps that’s why the Japanese tourists reacted to “Bockscar” the way they did. The old warplane bombed a Japan as utterly alien to them as Hitler’s Germany is to modern Germans.
I’ve never been to Japan. But I’ve traveled a bit in Germany, where, several years ago, I had the same sort of experience I had at the Air Force museum.
My wife and I were visiting the museum at the Dachau concentration camp memorial. In walked a group of young West German Air Force officers.
Nazi influence was strong in the Luftwaffe in World War II. Hermann Goering, its head, was one of the top Nazis. But I was grateful to see, by their words and facial expressions, that these officers were as repelled by the exhibits documenting the murderous inhumanity of Nazism as we were.
Posted: Tuesday, 7 August 2012