The Bombs Kept Falling in the Wake of Hiroshima

In a Saturday essay for the Yorkshire Post, a very fine newspaper based in Leeds, I argue that there is more continuity than rupture in the historical legacy of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima:

On the 70th anniversary of the US bombing of Hiroshima, it bears recalling that it was the atomic method of devastation, and not the devastation itself, that shocked observers in 1945. The United States and the Allies had threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction” at the Potsdam Conference, but by then the inferno in Japan was already well under way via regular conventional bombing runs across the archipelago.

Most of Japan’s cities had been pulverised or torched with similar result since the island battles of 1944 allowed it; millions of wooden homes were wiped out and the statistics for civilian deaths in any given city could reach into the tens of thousands, in spite of intense air raid drills and firefighting efforts.

Having reminded readers of the firebombing of Tokyo, the essay moves into observations on triumphalism in China’s state-managed war memory. While the viewpoint expressed here is perhaps cynical and unjustly compresses a very complicated set of arguments, I do think it is important to note how entwined and essentially competitive the national discourses of victimization and postwar liberation are in the region:

 If the international Press strikes a remorseful note today about the bombings, around East Asia, Japan’s unique traumas emerging out of the Second World War elicits relatively little sympathy. The Chinese state media are decidedly triumphalist. In the heavy-handed and ponderously-choreographed attitude put forth through the millions of organs of Chinese Communist Party information channels, the emphasis will be on China’s great victory in the “Anti-Fascist Global War”, a new locution that is meant to legitimise the country’s [sic, should read “Chinese Communist Party’s”] relatively minor role in the war, appeal to compatriots across the Taiwan Strait, and use foreign opinion to bludgeon Japan as often as possible.

Readers inclined to see the above paragraph as gratuitous “China bashing” are encouraged to read the whole piece, and to take some small solace in the fact that a section of text dealing with Abe Shinzo’s equally evident revisionism was cut for reasons of length and clarity.

The essay then makes good on its title by concluding with a look at the intense bombing of North Korea, as seen through documents in the National Archives in London:

When Emperor Hirohito surrendered unconditionally to the Allies in September 1945 it did not end his country’s implication in further violence. In the National Archives in Kew Gardens, one can find dozens of memoranda with respect to the use of airpower in the Korean War from Cecil Bouchier, who went to Japan in 1950 as the principal British adviser to General Douglas MacArthur.

Confronted with a Chinese invasion of the peninsula which neither he nor his superiors predicted, MacArthur’s staff began bombing “anything that moved” in North Korea. Every weapon short of the atomic one was used, but both the President and MacArthur were vocal and atomic in their threats.

Most of the bombing missions over North Korea took off from bases in Japan, and would never have been possible without Japanese labour. Bouchier wrote in his reports of various cities “being wiped off the map”, but larger goals, we have to assume, were being served. The men who went through the Second World War turned out to have yet more fighting to do.

The full essay is available via the Yorkshire Post (with no paywalls, surveys, or pop-ups, mercifully).  Readers are also encouraged to check out a meditation on a similar theme by Max Fisher over at Vox.

Image: ‘Lt. Col. Marle M. Jones, of Riverside, Calif., new commanding officer of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, gets a final O.K. from the crew chief of his B-29 “Superfort” photo plane before leaving on a mission into Communist Korea, ca. 9/1952.’ Image via US National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

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