70 years on from Hiroshima

Today we remember one of the most horrific incidents in modern history: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Much will be said about the necessity of the action to bring about the end of the war. Little concern will be shown for the 200,000 people instantly vaporised into oblivion. Or the hundred and the thousands of Japanese survivors affected by radiation sickness for decades after.

To me it stands out a one of the greatest race attacks in history. I say this not to be sensationalist but simply to look at the incident from the perspective of the allied nations and the non-western allies who supported the war effort but drew completely different conclusion to the official view of war ending necessity  

American government’s own Strategic Bombing Survey reported that Japan had been on the point of surrender anyway:

‘Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.’

Having developed the Bomb, the US administration was always going to use it. Truman and his predecessor as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, spent $2 billion in the Manhattan Project to create the Bomb, a huge sum at that time. Secondly, the politics of racial superiority determined that that somewhere would definitely be Japan. And here is that point where irony and post war racial thinking collide. On 23 April 1945, General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, sent a memo to Henry L Stimson, the American Secretary of War, on plans for using the Bomb. It included the striking observation that ‘[t]he target is and was always expected to be Japan’ (emphasis added).

When he unearthed this memo during research in the 1990s, Arjun Makhijani talked about its implications with leading scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. He states they were ‘amazed’ to learn of Groves’ attitude, 50 years on. Most leading members of the Manhattan project team were east European emigres, who had agreed to work on the Bomb only on the understanding that the Nazis were both the target and their competitors. Joseph Rotblat, the Polish scientist, told Makhijani that ‘there was never any idea [among the scientists] that it would be used against Japan. We never worried that the Japanese would have the Bomb. We always worried what Heisenberg and the other German scientists were doing. All of our concentration was on Germany.’

However the scientist saw things one way, and the military and politicians saw it another. The targeting of Japan was affirmed during a September 1944 meeting between British prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Roosevelt. The official summary of the meeting makes no mention of any possible use of the bomb against Germany.

The issue here was the issue of race. To the Allies, Germany was a fellow white power which they had temporarily fallen out with; but Japan was an enemy alien, part of the other. That was why the initiators of the Holocaust in Europe were never mentioned as candidates for a ‘humanitarian’ bombing such as Hiroshima. The Japanese were considered legitimate targets because the Western powers considered them to be a lower race; as president Truman put it , the Japanese were no better than ‘beasts’, and to be treated accordingly.

Japan itself was acutely aware of the racial dimension to the war. Under the slogan ‘Asia for the Asiatics’, Tokyo attacked Britain’s bloody colonial record and presented Japan as the champion of Indian freedom. After the surrender of Singapore, 45 000 captured Indian troops were addressed by a Japanese major. ‘Japan is fighting for the liberation of the Asiatic nations which have been for so long trodden under the cruel heels of British imperialism. Japan is the liberator and the friend of Asiatics.’ Around 25 000 Indian soldiers eventually changed sides, and joined the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army to fight against the British.

Mahatma Gandhi pointed out to Roosevelt in 1942, ‘the Allied declaration that [they] are fighting to make the world safe for freedom of the individual sounds hollow, so long as India, and for that matter Africa, are exploited by Great Britain, and America has the negro problem in her own home’. Meanwhile, 120 000 Japanese-Americans, many of them born US citizens, were indiscriminately rounded up in camps.

In short the version that the bombing of Japan was to save lives turns the truth on its head. The dropping of the bomb was viewed as a racial attack from Lagos to Deli and that response seems over the years to have been lost in the official narrative. Underlined by this passage In Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, the angry reaction of Kip, the Sikh soldier, on hearing of Hiroshima captures the mood of many in the colonial world: “All those speeches of civilisation from kings and queens and presidents…. American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman”. This important passage never appears in the script of the film.