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The Atomic Bomb

LAURENCE REES: To what extent must we see the atomic bomb in the context of the earlier fire-bomb raids that have already obliterated large parts of Japan?

AKIRA IRIYE: Well, other cities have been bombed too. The Japanese had bombed Nanking, the old Chinese capital, and some German cities have been bombed, and Russian cities have been bombed, so I think by some time in the 1940s they must have been thinking that this is a total war. I mean not yet an atomic bomb kind of war, but a total war situation in which anything can happen. In 1938 President Roosevelt had condemned Japanese bombing of civilian cities and even the bombing of cities by Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Roosevelt said that this barbaric act of bombing cities and killing civilians would never be committed by the United States. But then he changed his mind and I think when war comes I guess you just do whatever is necessary to defeat the enemy and so pretty soon that is forgotten by Roosevelt himself, I guess, and he says that, well, the enemy is being so brutal that we’re going to retaliate the same way and so I don’t think there’s much hesitation about dropping bombs on Tokyo.

Kyoto is separate because it’s supposed to be a cultural centre or something of the kind. There are more people that were killed in the Tokyo bombing, and the Japanese today still think of the air raids in Tokyo and other Japanese cities when they think about the war, as well as about the atomic bombing. What is probably qualitatively different between normal bombing and atomic bombing is the nuclear radiation and the impact on your genes. There’s a fear that once you are radio activate in this way then your offspring might also be born with all kinds of problems - and the radioactive part is quite true as we know from Chernobyl and other nuclear fallouts. So I think whereas in the Tokyo bombing hundreds of thousands of people were killed and houses were destroyed, there’s no radioactivity, so that may make some difference in terms of thinking about the horrors of nuclear war at the time.

LAURENCE REES: Was the decision to drop the nuclear bombs legitimate then?
AKIRA IRIYE: In terms of American military strategic thinking I think it was legitimate if you accept the premise that the United States really did not want inland war on the Japanese mainland because of what had happened in Okinawa - they had had huge casualties. The United States wasn’t ready for that and they’d just fought a war in Europe and many US forces were still in Europe and a huge number of those forces would have to be shifted to Japan to prepare for the invasion. The Americans were also aware that some of Japan’s best troops had been sent back to the mainland from Manchuria. Okinawa was a difficult battle and the mainland would be just horrendous. So from this kind of perspective Truman and his advisors thought that if one bomb would do it, and we would not have to send in hundreds of thousands of troops to fight in Japan itself, it would be better. This is the rationale, this is the justification that most Americans would accept, most military research would accept and what the Japanese would not still accept, because the Japanese argument is not so much a military strategic argument as a moral one.

LAURENCE REES: One Japanese person I met said to me when I was in Japan, that there were 'two immense crimes of World War Two - the Holocaust and Hiroshima'. Is that a legitimate argument?

AKIRA IRIYE: The Holocaust was a crime against humanity because particular groups of people were singled out and they tried to exterminate them. Atomic bombing would not be a crime against humanity in the sense of singling out the Japanese. If there had been the wholesale massacring of the Japanese people, and atomic bombs were used as a means for that, that might become that, but I still think it was a morally reprehensible strategy and that other alternatives could have been pursued. But I’m not sure if I’d be willing to say that you could equate that with the Holocaust in terms of magnitude.

LAURENCE REES: Would you think if the Japanese had done it, it would be called a war crime?

AKIRA IRIYE: Probably yes, if the Japanese had done it then it probably would have been a war crime. Maybe you could say it was a war crime, I think there was nothing in terms of a treaty which prohibited the use of atomic bombing, so it was not a violation against the law because no law had prohibited that, the same with the poison gas and things like that which were violated. But I do think it was morally unacceptable because people who used it could not quite tell the terribleness of nuclear radiation. Even Oppenheimer was not arguably aware the extent to which this would produce such effects.

LAURENCE REES: So you think that the bombing of Tokyo was not morally reprehensible because that was conventional bombing, but the bombing of Hiroshima was morally reprehensible because of the radiation?

AKIRA IRIYE: Yes, I mean of course I could argue any war is morally reprehensible but if you go a step beyond that and say, well, the war had begun and both sides are trying to win by all means short of nuclear weapons, it is less unjustifiable, than all means including nuclear warheads. The Americans have recognised that because they have not used nuclear weapons since that time. They’ve got a nuclear arsenal but they’re not in use anywhere, because they are aware of these questions. So there is a question, and this leads to the question that some people will ask: whether Americans would have used the bomb against Germans. I think the Japanese probably would have used them against the Chinese. The Japanese would have used them against Europeans in Asia. I mean these are all kind of ‘iffy’ questions. Would the Americans have used them against the Germans if they had not surrendered by August 1945?  It’s a big question isn’t it?  At that time the US have only 2 or 3 bombs and I think they might have thought of using them against Germany but…

LAURENCE REES: I suppose because if Hitler had concentrated Jews in one city and dropped a nuclear bomb on them this would be consdiered one of the most horrendous war crime ever…

AKIRA IRIYE: Right. Another thing is crime against humanity, crime against nature, radioactivity…… as well, the Americans didn’t even think of the impact on the environment. I think nowadays we have become much more aware of environmental hazards and things like that and when you talk about nuclear weapons we all say, well, what did that do to other living beings not just humans. It’s not simply a crime against humanity it’s a crime against all species, against nature.  So I think we live in a much more sensitive age concerning those kind of things. Now [take] the huge fire bombing of Tokyo. I remember that my grandparents were living there and although they were not killed their house was burnt and things like that, so it's not something that I base my thinking on just bookish knowledge. I think most people would tend not to accuse the Americans for doing it; they tend to accuse the Japanese Government, as they were the ones, the Japanese Government and Military, who started the war to begin with, and then look what happened as a result of this awful war, the Americans retaliated and dropped bombs on Tokyo and so on. I think there’s little sense of blaming the Americans for those casualties but, in sharp contrast, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there they do blame the Americans for being the country that dropped the bomb.