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|Aug. 12, 2001|
The Day Time Stood Still
LOS ANGELES - This past week marked the 56th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Japan, prime minister Junichiro Koizumi led memorial services for the 260,000 dead, wounded and missing victims. Around the globe, the usual collection of lefty protestors demonstrated against the United States.
As usual, this grim anniversary also rekindled the annual debate over the morality of using nuclear weapons against Japan.
At the time, employing newly developed atomic bombs made military and political sense. Japan's soldiers and civilians were prepared to fight to the death against an impending American invasion. US casualties were estimated from a low of 250,000 to one million. Japanese military and civilian casualties could have been from 2 to 5 million. The US invasion of Okinawa in April, 1945, a prelude to the invasion of the Japanese home islands, cost America 48,000 casualties, and Japan at least 400,000 dead and wounded.
But the US should have dropped the first atomic bomb offshore, and if Japan refused to surrender, a second on sparsely populated northern Japan. However, Washington was in a rush to save American lives and knock Japan out of the war before the Soviet Union could launch an invasion.
President Franklin Roosevelt, whose inner cabinet held two Soviet agents of influence, had set in motion a disastrous policy that would have allowed Stalin to seize northern Japan in mid-1945, including Hokkaido and parts of Honshu. This would have produced a divided Japan, like Germany or Korea, with part under Soviet rule. President Harry Truman decided to act decisively before Stalin could attack. His strategy was correct; but his tactics wrong.
While everyone recalls the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, few non-Japanese remember the enormous destruction caused by the massive American fire-bomb raids on Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe and Yokahama. These conventional bomb attacks killed or injured more Japanese civilians than the nuclear attacks on southern Japan. On one night alone, 9-10 March, 1945, US B-29's carpet-bombed Tokyo with incendiary bombs, killing 124,000, burning 75% of the city, and leaving one million homeless.
Why do we commemorate Hiroshima and Nagasaki yet not the fire bombings of Dresden, where 135,000 German civilians were burned alive; or Hamburg and other major German cities whose casualties equaled Hiroshima?
In looking back at the triumphant and tragic days of August 1945, we should also be aware of another fascinating but long-neglected fact. Japan had already been brought to its knees in late 1944 by the US Navy - well before the intensive American bombing campaign against Japan began.
American fleet submarines did to Japan what Germany's U-boats failed to do to Britain: impose a near total blockade of the island nation. By the Fall of 1944, US subs had thrown a ring of steel around Japan's main ports. This blockade cut off all of Japan's imports of oil, rubber, iron ore, copper and other strategic metals, as well as virtually everything else Japan's import-dependant industries required.
In a few months, Japan, one of the world's leading industrial nations, ground to a halt. Her factories shut down, her air force was grounded; her navy immobilized in port. Tanks and army transport vehicles had no fuel. Japan's military was reduced to pre-World War I capability.
The US Navy sank 1,178 Japanese merchant ships - some 5 million tons of shipping - and 214 warships. At war's end, only 12% of Japan's merchant fleet remained afloat. 55% of Japan's maritime losses was due to American submarines, only 2% of US naval assets. Fifty-two US subs with 3,617 men were lost in action, or, as the Navy puts it, remain forever `On Patrol.'
The pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the mighty 18-inch gun battleship `Yamato,' was sent, with just enough fuel for a one-way trip, on a suicide run to attack US invasion forces at Okinawa. She was sunk by American aircraft and submarines.
How Japan hoped to wage war with only two distant sources of oil, Malaya and Indonesia - roughly 2,500 miles from the home islands - remains a mystery. Japan's war leaders failed to understand their island nation's vulnerability, which had no resources other than an extremely brave, fiercely determined people.
President Roosevelt's embargo of scrap iron and threats of an oil embargo in 1941 drove Japan to attack the United States, then the world's largest producer of iron and oil. Ironically, Japan decided to go to war in order to protect its strategic supply lines which, when war came, Japan could not protect.
Equally startling, Adolf Hitler committed the same error. Germany entered World War II with only one source of oil: Ploesti, Romania. Ploesti, and synthetic oil produced from coal, were never able to supply German forces with adequate fuel or artificial rubber. Neither Japan nor Germany understood they were about to wage strategic industrial warfare on an unprecedented scale.
Which leads to the interesting conclusion: what if Hitler had delayed war for five more years, as his generals and admirals urged, until his much expanded U-boat fleet was ready to strangle Britain, just as the US Navy destroyed Imperial Japan in 1944?
Copyright: Eric S. Margolis 2001
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