An article in The Nation today by Robert Scheer made the outstanding claim that “August 6 marks 68 years since the United States committed what is arguably the single gravest act of terrorism that the world has ever known.” The act, of course, is the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and (three days later) Nagasaki. To Scheer’s credit, he included the modifier “arguably,” which seems insufficient to capture the magnitude of the statement. Yet it is not enough.
From the start, even the definition of terrorism is problematic. Hoffman traces the term’s origins to the French Revolution. Since then, it has described Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Ku Klux Klan, Gerry Adams and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and countless other armed groups. Not all those labeled as terrorists fit the popular conception: for leading the armed wing of the African National Congress against apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. The State Department only lifted his designation as a terrorist after the revered statesman had already won the Nobel Peace Prize and successfully won South Africa’s first multiracial presidential election. “Terrorism means the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, and targeted [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] were,” Scheer states. If only it were that simple.
Despite the thousands of man-hours put into the subject by political scientists and legal scholars around the world, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism. Unlike other forms of political violence like war and rebellion, what constitutes terrorism is not a fixed constant but an emotionally-charged, subjective, and imprecise term at best. Almost all scholars, however, agree on one characteristic: that it is caused by non-state actors against civilian populations. While tens of thousands of Japanese civilians died in the atomic bombings, they died in the course of a declared armed conflict between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan. Examining it under the laws of war is the more appropriate framework framework. Neither an international tribunal nor an American court has addressed the atomic bombings in this war, although a post-war Japanese court ruled the atomic bombings to be war crimes. War crimes and terrorism, however, are two different things.
Scheer also reveals a fundamental shift in Western political thought, in which “terrorism” is increasingly applied to all manner of violent actions that do not strictly (or even loosely) meet the political science definition. Culturally, it is no longer simply armed violence by non-state actors against civilian populations for political reasons, or any other semantic permutation. Terrorism has become a super-crime, elevated beyond the mere misdemeanors and felonies composing it into an existential societal burden. Only into this darkest of categories can the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fall, according to Scheer, and we must all bear some collective guilt for it. “As a nation,” Scheer writes, wagging a finger to an audience overwhelmingly born after August 6, 1945, “we excel at obliterating reminders of our own failings.”
But context also matters. As U.S. forces drew closer to the Japanese archipelago, enemy garrisons in Peleliu, Tarawa, Luzon, and Iwo Jima only demonstrated increasing resilience. 100,000 Japanese soldiers dug into the mountainsides at Okinawa, the last stronghold before the Home Islands, and traded their lives for 60,000 American casualties. American war planners extrapolated from those losses when estimating the human cost of Operation Downfall, the codename for the planned Allied invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Had it been executed, it would have been the largest amphibious military operation of all time, dwarfing even the Normandy landings in size, scope, and scale. 900,000 Japanese soldiers stood ready to defend their home, along with millions of civilians conscripted into the reserves and armed with often nothing more than farm implements.
The war planners’ estimates varied from branch to branch, but few foresaw fewer than 100,000 fatalities and a quarter-million casualties for the Allies in the first stage alone. Estimates that factored in the mass mobilization of the Japanese people as guerrillas and the widespread usage of airplanes, boats, and midget submarines as kamikazes (at least 10,000 planes had been prepared) had dramatically higher casualties for both the Allies and for Japan. The latter were estimated to suffer almost-unconscionable losses: between five and ten million civilian casualties were not unexpected in even the most conservative projections.
(None of this was idle speculation, either. In 1945 the War Department manufactured 500,000 Purple Heart medals in anticipation of the vast casualties Downfall would bring. That stock has yet to be depleted today, even after every battle and every war the United States has fought since 1945.)
With the country’s industrial base and population already devastated by relentless Allied air raids — more Japanese citizens died in the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or in Nagasaki — Downfall presented a truly existential threat to the Japanese nation. With so many millions of lives in the balance, American and Japanese alike, we can see the calculus that led Harry Truman to authorize the atomic bombing, even if we disagree with it.
None of this precludes the idea that there are dark, shameful chapters in American history. White settlers and soldiers presided over the forced relocation of Native American tribes, warring with those who resisted. A slaver aristocracy in the South plunged the United States into civil war because the nation had elected a president who thought the enslavement of four million black men, women, and children was not moral. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II by order of Franklin D. Roosevelt, forsaken by Congress and even the courts of law. The United States of America was founded on great ideals, but its people and leaders have frequently failed to live up to them.
But to single out Hiroshima above all others, to point at it and say, “Yes, this is the worst that humanity has ever done” seems hollow. What does such a sweeping statement say about the other blood-soaked chapters of World War II? Shall we compare the tens of thousands who died at Hiroshima to the quarter-million who died at the Rape of Nanking, where Japanese soldiers raped, tortured, and murdered Chinese civilians for three days, or the tens of thousands who perished in flames at Dresden? Shall we then stack those corpses against those from the forced starvation of millions of Soviet citizens by Germany on the Eastern Front, or against the Wehrmacht’s horrific multi-year sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad? Must we rank atrocities and tragedies like some sinister Olympics, duly awarding medals of shame to those whose nations have most thoroughly and efficiently brutalized their fellow human beings?
Historians will never cease debating the atom bomb’s role in ending the worst war humanity ever fought, nor should they. Future generations may find Truman’s decision to be justified and necessary, to be unwarranted and unforgivable, or perhaps even something more complex than that. We can only hope that they learn from the horrors their forefathers faced. May they never take for granted the indelible luxury that allows them to set one tragedy above another for transitory argumentative gain.