The Purloined Leaflets

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter,” tells of a hidden letter that police detectives are searching for but can’t find because it’s not hidden. Readers who think I’ve been exaggerating the paradox that the remarkable existence of the Hiroshima leaflets is in plain sight, yet not known at all, should read this e-mail from Mark Jaws:

I am the guy at work who periodically sends out military history quizzes on Friday mornings to test people’s knowledge on such vital military trivia. I have read military history encyclopedias through and did not know that the US dropped leaflets on the Japanese prior to the big one going off. I wonder why this is not common knowledge.

This is what’s incredible. A fair number of people do know about the leaflet dropping over Hiroshima. It’s been told about not just in books written in the immediate postwar years, but in books published in ‘91 and ‘99. And yet Mark, a military veteran and close student of military affairs, never heard of it until now. This is the heart of the mystery that we’ve been exploring in this thread and this. The closest I’ve gotten to an answer is here.

- end of initial entry -

M. Jose writes:

(1) I think that the real reason that people are ignorant of the fact that the U.S. leafleted Hiroshima prior to the bombing as much as it is that they don’t really care. The question of the morality of Hiroshima has almost always been about the use of nuclear weapons, particularly if it is moral to use them in a way that is guaranteed to cause much civilian destruction (even with an evacuation, a lot of people would have become homeless). I don’t think that anyone important has ever claimed that Hiroshima or Nagasaki were “sneak attacks,” so proving that we gave warning beforehand does not really affect most of the arguments on either side.

(2) The question of the morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings rests, I think, on two questions: Could we have negotiated a surrender without them if we were willing to negotiate instead of demanding that the surrender be unconditional, and if so, was it still appropriate to demand that the surrender be unconditional?

We always hear that the Japanese would not have surrendered without the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but is it that they would not have surrendered under any circumstances, or just that they would not have surrendered unconditionally? That is, was the Japanese determination to fight to the last man, and therefore the need to use the nuclear weapons created by our refusal to accept anything other than unconditional surrender? If this is the case, then the moral argument for the bombings becomes murkier. At least, you would need to argue that unconditional surrender (as opposed to negotiated surrender) was necessary.

Definitely the bombing was the right thing to do if it was the only way to end the war, or if the only alternatives involved invasion and/or a massively destructive blockade. But did our policies contribute to these being the options available to us.

(3) I don’t exactly buy that the only target here were the military targets and that the destruction of the city was mere collateral damage. It seems to me that if you use a weapon that is designed to destroy a city, the intention is obviously to destroy the entire city. Not that it might not be justified to do so, but I think that the military bases were more of a fig leaf than the actual target.

LA replies:

M. Jose writes: “I don’t think that anyone important has ever claimed that Hiroshima or Nagasaki were ‘sneak attacks,’ so proving that we gave warning beforehand does not really affect most of the arguments on either side.”

Not true, by a country mile. Look at the volumes of debate over the decades over whether the bomb should have been dropped first in an area with no people in it; obviously the trade off is between dropping a bomb where there are no people, and dropping a bomb where there are lots of people. Delivering the leaflets was—or rather would have been if the Japanese had heeded them—the moral equivalent of dropping the bomb in an empty place. The leaflets thus move the Hiroshima bombing closer, at least theoretically, to the vary scenario that bomb critics have insisted all along should have been followed. That’s their significance.

As to whether anything short of unconditional surrender would have been acceptable, it’s absurd. “Conditional” surrender would have meant that the same military regime with its ideology of unlimited aggressiveness, the regime that invaded China and slaughtered the Chinese, that bombed Pearl Harbor, that invaded the Philippines, that treated prisoners throughout East Asia and the Pacific like sub-humans—remain in power in Japan. No, for real peace to prevail, that regime had to be removed, and the Japanese had to come under the authority of the Americans, as President Truman said in his “unconditional surrender” message from Potsdam. To think that anything else would have worked—meaning, would have brought peace—is another liberal pacifist fantasy.

A basic fact that many people don’t get is that not all enemies, whether persons or countries, are the same. Some enemies are so virulent and dangerous and aggressive that it’s not enough to drive them off the battlefield and get them to stop fighting for a while. They must be crushed, losing all hope of victory, losing all will and ability to resume the fight. With such enemies, a battlefield victory over their armies, leaving them in charge of their own country, is not enough to bring peace. This was the reality of the war against Japan. I think the American leaders understood this reality and acted correctly.

As to whether Hiroshima was purely a military location, while people must have lived there who were not directly engaged in military related activities, it was a military city with many legitimate military targets. But the main object was not to destroy specific military items; the object was to produce a shock that would make the Japanese surrender. And it worked. The first bomb was dropped on the sixth, the second on the ninth, and at 3 a.m. on the morning of the tenth the emperor made the decision to surrender.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 21, 2007 05:19 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):