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Nuclear past divides Japan, U.S.

Sixty years ago, a new era of warfare dawned. Debate over the bomb's use goes on, but its lesson is unifying: never again.

By Associated Press
Published August 6, 2005

HIROSHIMA, Japan - Minoru Hataguchi gently opens a box in his office and pulls out a corroded belt buckle - the one his father wore the day he died with tens of thousands of others in the American atomic blast that wiped out Hiroshima.

For Hataguchi, who was still in his mother's womb at the time of the Aug. 6, 1945, attack, the context of the A-bomb - Tokyo's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, America's reluctance to invade Japan by land - takes a back seat to the human suffering it caused.

"Of course, America used a huge amount of money to build the nuclear bomb, so they thought they should use it. I understand that," said Hataguchi, now director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. "But when I look at the victims, as far as the regular people are concerned, it just wasn't necessary to drop the bomb."

Across the Pacific Ocean, James Rose of Dayton, Ohio, represents a vastly different view.

The 79-year-old former paratrooper says he would have been in the invasion of Japan had the bombings not forced Tokyo's surrender. For him, the devastation of Hiroshima, and of Nagasaki three days later, meant life rather than death.

"I think it was necessary to use the bomb, it saved a lot of lives," said Rose, a veteran of the 11th Airborne, as he toured the World War II monument in Washington, D.C. "I believe hundreds of thousands more American troops would have been killed." Hiroshima was a pivotal and horrifying moment in history. With the blinding flash centered over ground just 100 yards from where Hataguchi's office stands today, an awesome power was unleashed that has threatened mankind with extinction ever since.

The people of Hiroshima that day witnessed the apocalypse: Dropped from a B-29 named Enola Gay, the bomb flashed above the city, then consumed it with power equal to 12,500 tons of TNT. The center of the blast burned at 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit - double what it takes to melt iron.

The blast obliterated the city center, igniting infernos. Survivors suffered agonizing deaths from burns and radiation poisoning; many who appeared unscathed later succumbed to cancer and other ailments. The death toll in Hiroshima was 140,000; in Nagasaki, which was bombed three days later, about 80,000 died.

While the bombings became a terrifying symbol for the world, the experience has been even more complex for the former belligerents: the United States as the only country to have used a nuclear weapon, and Japan as the only country to have suffered one.

As Minoru Hataguchi and James Rose illustrate, Japan and the United States come from very different sides of the debate. Those deep divisions persist even today, as the world observes the 60th anniversary of the attack.

For Americans, the bombings are widely seen as a weapon of last resort against an enemy that was determined to fight to the death but instead surrendered unconditionally on Aug. 15, 1945, six days after Nagasaki was hit.

Critics - among them many Japanese and also some Americans - believe President Truman's government had other motives: a wish to test out a terrifying weapon, the desire to defeat Japan before the Soviets arrived, and the need to strengthen Washington's hand against Moscow in what would become the Cold War.

A recent joint poll by the Associated Press and Kyodo News agency found widely diverging views: 68 percent of Americans but only 20 percent of Japanese believed nuclear weapons were needed to end the war quickly.

The poll, conducted by Ipsos in the United States and the Public Opinion Research Center in Japan, questioned 1,000 Americans and 1,045 Japanese and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

On both sides of the Pacific, older respondents were more likely to believe the bomb was unavoidable, while younger people tended to be more questioning.

The historical debate has focused on several questions: How many would have died in a U.S. land invasion? Might the Japanese have surrendered if offered better terms? Was Tokyo already too exhausted to fight on for long? Should the bomb have been demonstrated over an uninhabited area before it was dropped on a city?

Supporters of the decision to bomb tend to credit the higher estimates of 500,000 U.S. battle deaths in an invasion of Japan, as well as possibly millions of Japanese deaths. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in 1946 that U.S. casualties could have been more than 1-million.

But there was also a U.S. government projection in June 1945 of 43,500 American deaths. Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army and Navy, opposed the bombings and in his memoirs considered them on par with "the ethical standard common to barbarians of the Dark Ages."

In 1999, American historian Richard B. Frank published a well-researched argument in favor of the bombings in Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.

Frank's book concluded that there was no credible evidence of a Japanese willingness to accept anything close to unconditional surrender, and that Tokyo instead was preparing to fight to the death.

Even without the bombs or a U.S. invasion, Japan would have faced blockade-induced mass starvation, the prospect of a savage assault by Soviet troops closing in from the northeast and possibly much greater destruction and death than what Hiroshima and Nagasaki endured, he argued.

"Had American leaders in 1945 been assured that Japan and the United States would pass two generations in tranquillity . . . they would have believed their hard choices had been vindicated - and so should we," Frank wrote.

But the passage of time plays its part. After Hiroshima, the world lived through more than 40 years of nuclear-tipped Cold War, and then the fear of a terrorist with a nuclear backpack became a global nightmare. In an era in which the targeting of civilians is considered the work of terrorists, the annihilation of a city - along with its civilian populace - for many is morally indefensible.

Although Hiroshima is often portrayed as a purely civilian target, it had a long history as an army city and was home to tens of thousands of soldiers as well as the headquarters of the Fifth Division and the Second General Army.

But it had no munitions factories, and the fact that it had never been bombed with conventional weapons suggests it was low on the list of Allied military targets. Nagasaki, meanwhile, was only bombed after cloud cover made the preferred choice, Kokura, too difficult to hit accurately.

For the Japanese, the human suffering is the central legacy, rather than a more dispassionate debate over whether the bomb was necessary. It's the core of the belief in a pacifist, internationalist Japan that would never again resort to war.

For many in Japan, any attempt to justify the bombing is regarded as callous.

"They could have dropped it on an island or a military base, I don't know, but they chose an untouched city," said Hataguchi. "Why did they choose in that way? It's hard to say it was an experiment, but it wasn't necessary."

As on the American side, Japanese opinion also varies.

Sadae Kasaoka, 72, lost both her parents in the Hiroshima attack. While she calls the bombing an act of savagery, she believes the Japanese wartime regime shares the blame.

"The Japanese government should have done something to end the war, before it was too late," Kasaoka said.

That, she said, is why it's important for people like her to spread the word about what happened here - so that it never happens again.

[Last modified August 6, 2005, 01:43:02]


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