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Wholesale Slaughter of Japanese Civilians in WWII Was Evil

The American demand for unconditional surrender set the stage for a communist takeover of Asia.

Survivors of the explosion of the Atom bomb at Hiroshima 1945 suffering the effects of radiation. ICRC photograph. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Total war is savage barbarism. Americans should make clear today—on the 75th anniversary of the surrender of the Japanese Empire—that the wholesale slaughter of noncombatants by Allied forces at the end of World War II was a grave evil.

This does not mean modern Americans owe an apology to the Japanese. No one living today chose to drop atomic bombs on civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or to annihilate Tokyo with incendiary explosives. The blood guilt used to justify those atrocities does not apply to us now any more than it did to the Japanese then. We do not need forgiveness for the sins of our fathers. 

Instead, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to stop defending barbarism and the foolish policies that made it possible. To take a recent example, on August 6th of this year, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Joshua Lawson, managing editor of The Federalist, endeavored to make the case for these nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

His argument falls apart on moral grounds. If irradiating and incinerating tens of thousands of Japanese noncombatants is justified because it meant the “salvation of millions,” then it would have been equally legitimate to round up those civilians in camps and gas them to death for the same end. 

Changing the means used doesn’t change the moral question involved. Intentionally killing noncombatants is a gross violation of the law of war, the basic tenets of civilization, and the principles of the American Founding. The Declaration of Independence castigates King George III for inciting domestic insurrections between the colonists and the “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

That merciless and undistinguished destruction characterized American aerial bombardment in WWII, to the shame of our founding tradition. 

Such savagery cannot be defended through moral calculus. America at the end of WWII was not “forced” to drop the atomic bombs to avoid a painful ground invasion or starving out the population through seige. It was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the American willingness to accept conditional surrender terms that spurred the Japanese to lay down their arms, not the atomic bombings.

Lawson errs when he writes that the bombings played an “indispensable role in shocking and unmooring the resolve of Japan’s militaristic regime into unconditional surrender and hastening the end of the Second World War.” Paul Ham, in his masterful book Hiroshima Nagasaki reveals why.

When the Japanese cabinet met in the afternoon of August 7th, 1945, the day after the Hiroshima bombing, Foreign Minister Shengori Togo argued that Japan should surrender in line with the unconditional terms contained in the Allies’ Potsdam Declaration. He met fierce resistance from War Minister Korechika Anami who insisted the first atomic bombing was no worse than a typical conventional attack. Japan, in his view, would be better off dying honorably in national suicide than to surrendering the Emperor’s throne and accepting dishonorable spiritual annihilation. Anami’s view won out and the cabinet refused to consider unconditional surrender on the 7th.

In discussions on the 8th between the civilian cabinet and Emperor Hirohito, the emperor continued to express his wish to negotiate a surrender that would leave him on his throne. The hope of the Japanese leadership was that such a negotiation could be mediated through the USSR. On August 8, Foreign Minister Togo cabled the Japanese ambassador in Moscow to see if any progress had been made on that front.

Those deluded hopes were dashed hours later as Soviet troops poured over the Manchurian border. At 7am on August 9th, Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki presented word of the Soviet advance to Emperor Hirohito. It was only after the Soviet invasion that Hirohito agreed to a full cabinet meeting specifically to discuss surrender to the United States. That meeting began three hours later at 10am, an hour before the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. 

 The chronology shows the Japanese decided to make a conditional surrender offer to the United States only after the loss of any chance at a mediated conditional surrender through the Soviet Union. The Japanese leadership never had photo or video evidence of the atomic blast and considered the destruction of Hiroshima to be similar to the dozens of conventional strikes Japan had already suffered. 

An understanding of Japanese internal politics explains the dilemma facing the Japanese government. Both the militarist and peace factions, along with the Emperor himself, were unwilling to end the war if it meant the destruction of the Imperial throne.

In the end, all three interests got what they wanted. The Japanese surrender was not, as Lawson claims, unconditional. The Byrnes Note, issued on August 11th, 1945 after the dropping of the second atomic bomb, clarified for the first time that the United States would allow the Emperor to remain on his throne, “subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers.”

That acceptance of Hirohito’s rule was satisfactory to the Japanese leadership and to Hirohito. But it raises the question—what if this offer had been made months or years earlier? Unconditional surrender was an unnecessary demand. It radicalized and elevated the Japanese militarist faction. American policy makers failed to offer an honorable way out of the conflict to Japanese leadership. The refusal to negotiate dragged out the war’s end until long after Japan was defeated on the field of battle. 

Lawson’s argument rests on the proposition that unconditional surrender was the only proper way for the conflict to end. This binary—unconditional surrender or the endless continuation of war—was utterly ruinous.

The end goal of war is not simply to “kill people and break things” but to secure the rights of the people as quickly as possible with minimal bloodshed. The right to life of American troops, no less than that of noncombatant civilians in the rear, must be preserved. 

The American demand for unconditional surrender until after the atomic bombings was a gross violation of the natural rights of Americans and Japanese alike. It is likely the war could have ended in October of 1944 after the annihilation of the Japanese fleet at Leyte Gulf. Japan had long posed no offensive threat to the U.S. As early as their defeat at Midway in 1942 Japan’s defeat seemed certain. American industrial might simply could not be resisted. By the summer of 1945, the United States Navy had 46,130 ships flying under its flag—more than the world’s entire merchant marine fleet in 1939.

Instead, the insistence on unconditional surrender led American planners to conduct a strategic air campaign against civilian targets, killing hundreds of thousands of noncombatants, all the while preparing an extraordinarily bloody land invasion. To provide staging bases for these forces, American planners demanded that the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima be taken at enormous cost to the lives of the Marines sent ashore, to say nothing of Japanese civilians.

All for what? Insistence on a ground occupation of Japan was insanity. Even worse, by dragging out the war’s end until the Japanese were totally destroyed, the United States paved the way for communist domination of China. On August 8th, the Soviets invaded Manchuria with American help. 500 Sherman tanks and 700,000 tons of American dry goods aided the Communist invaders. That occupation had serious post-war consequences. 

Five years later, American forces fought another painful war on the Korean peninsula against Soviet backed Korean and Chinese forces. Had the United States been willing to negotiate with Japan, they could have acted as a bulwark in the Far East against Communist expansion without any cost in American lives and treasure. By insisting on the total defeat of Japan, however, good American men, including thousands of my fellow Marines, were killed in brutal island hopping campaign battles and again on the Korean peninsula. This slaughter could have been avoided by clear-eyed diplomacy.

One might even go back further. Why did FDR embargo Japan’s oil supply in the summer of 1941 over their occupation of airfields in French Indochina? Why did he refuse to negotiate then when war with Japan could have been averted entirely? Why involve America in the affairs of the Far East at all? The cost of FDR’s insistence,articulated in 1937, that America must “quarantine” supposedly lawless nations like Japan was American involvement in the Pacific War, at enormous spiritual and physical cost.

Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times wrote immediately after the Hiroshima bombing that Americans might yet “reap the whirlwind” from the unrestricted bombing of civilian targets. He was right. The fall of China into communist hands and the expansion of the Soviet empire from Sakhalin Island in the Pacific to the Elbe River in Germany spelled the rise of a grave new threat to civilization. That threat was aided and abetted in its triumph by the shortsighted and brutal policy of unconditional surrender embraced by American planners.

Total war is both immoral and stupid. 75 years later, it is high time we acknowledged as much. 

Josiah Lippincott is a former Marine officer and current Master’s student at the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. 

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