David Pilling: Hiroshima Still Clouds a Postwar Friendship

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Pilling became the Financial Times' Asia Editor, based in Hong Kong, in September 2008.]

As peace doves fluttered across the ghostly skeleton of Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome last Friday and a sombre Buddhist temple bell tolled, the presence of one man added to the poignancy of what is always a bitter and beautiful ceremony. That man was John Roos, US ambassador to Japan and the first representative of the US government to attend the memorial in the 65 years since the atomic bomb was dropped.

In one sense, President Barack Obama’s decision to send the ambassador was straightforward. Despite the risk of creating a backlash in the US, where some critics thought Mr Roos’s presence could be misinterpreted as an apology, Hiroshima is a potent symbol for the nuclear disarmament that the US president has championed. Ever since Mr Obama’s Prague speech calling for a nuclear-free world last year, officials from Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been pressing him to visit their cities, an invitation he has not yet accepted.

There may also have been a more emotional motive still. Certainly, one can make a case, though not a definitive one, that dropping the two bombs shortened the war and actually saved lives. Yet, it is hard to read accounts of the bombings and their aftermath – in which civilians were burnt alive or vaporised, or died over months as maggots fed on their festering wounds – without some sense that the use of such terrible weapons is wrong.

Something else was at stake. It is hard to overstate how important the US-Japan alliance has been for both countries over the past six decades. Yet it is an irony not often confronted that the relationship was founded, if not exactly on a lie, then on a carefully constructed ambiguity.

That ambiguity lies at the heart of what John Dower, a brilliant historian of the postwar relationship, calls the “embrace” in which the US victors and Japanese vanquished have since been locked. After the bombing, Harry Truman, US president, could not bring himself to tell the American people the truth. “The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base,” he said. “That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians.” It was only when The New Yorker devoted its entire August 1946 issue to John Hersey’s searing accounts of the bombing’s impact that the true horror of what had occurred became widely known.

For its part, Japan began its enduring friendship with America after a scratchy radio broadcast in which Emperor Hirohito, hitherto considered a living god, entreated his subjects to “endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable”. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of what lay ahead...

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