Another August 6, the dilemma remains

Today is the sixty-second anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, an event that has perhaps more political significance than usual given the recent resignation of former Defense Minister Kyuma Fumio over comments in which he referred to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “inevitable,” as well as last autumn’s debate (or non-debate, since it was one-sided) over having a debate on the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

As usual, the anniversary is being marked with a ceremony in Hiroshima and calls for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

I find Yomiuri‘s editorial marking the occasion particularly useful, because it cuts to the heart of the nuclear “dilemma” for Japan. “We cannot approve the atomic bombings,” says Yomiuri. “On the other, Japan has no choice but to depend on US nuclear deterrent power for our national security. This is the ‘dilemma’ that postwar Japan continues to shoulder.” It is for this reason that it is not entirely appropriate for Japan to ask for an apology from the US. While it is not unreasonable for the US to express its remorse for its actions, however necessary they were or seemed at the time, it is inappropriate for Japan to demand an apology from the US at the same time that its security rests on US extended deterrence.

Raymond Aron’s comments on this question are useful to consult. In The Imperial Republic (included in this recent anthology), Aron began from the recognition that “the decision to use both atomic bombs arose almost inevitably out of the circumstances.” But he continues,

But that does not mean to say that American diplomacy was exemplary or rational. Five years later, the United States was asking Japan to take up again the arms it had made its vanquished enemy renounce forever. The United States had itself created the circumstances in which recourse to atomic bombs was almost inevitable: the demand for unconditional surrender; the decision to ‘reform,’ ‘regenerate,’ and democratize Japan; the timidity of some leaders, far-sighted though they might have been; the crusading language that made even secret negotiations no longer possible; and the hasty judgment of some of the government’s military advisers who, thinking invasion was the only way of achieving US political purposes, had persuaded Roosevelt to ask for Soviet support and to pay for it with concessions made at China’s expense.

This is an important reminder that even if the bombings were inevitable to save US and Japanese lives, even if they ended the war, Americans cannot, must not approach the bombings with a clean conscience. The Second World War will forever be a stain upon human history, and every nation that participated — Axis and Allies alike — emerged from the war with bloody hands. That is not to excuse the horrendous crimes of the Axis powers. Rather, it should serve as a cautionary lesson for those who believe that they are acting with the best of intentions: do good intentions (the defeat of Imperial Japan) justify any and all means (the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Japan, the fire bombings of Tokyo and other cities)? If so, where does that reasoning end? And who is the arbiter of good intentions? I don’t think there are simple answers to these questions, and as the history becomes increasingly distant, the only appropriate stance should be humility and an emphasis on the constant need to remember.

Indeed, perhaps an appropriate step for the US to have taken after passing H.Res. 121 would be to send a representative to Hiroshima, suggesting that even the US has some thinking to do about the war.

Meanwhile, the persistence of Japan’s nuclear dilemma points to an important reality of foreign policy change in Japan. The reason for the dilemma in the first place is that Japanese foreign policy has, since the Meiji Restoration, been driven by pragmatic conservative elites formulating Japanese foreign policy often in opposition to idealists of the conservative, liberal, or pacifist persuasion. Japan’s reliance on the US nuclear umbrella is a product of the Yoshida doctrine, despite the pacifist left’s outright rejection of nuclear arms and the ultra-nationalist right’s desire for an independent nuclear deterrent, the latter two positions, of course, presenting solutions to Japan’s nuclear cognitive dissonance.

But here we are, in 2007, and Japan still depends on the US nuclear deterrent — as reiterated by Condoleeza Rice on her visit to Tokyo last autumn. And, as convincingly argued by Llewelyn Hughes in the spring issue of International Security, there is little reason to think that Japan will choose to develop an independent deterrent anytime soon; in the absence of such a decision, it is wholly unlikely that Japan will reject the US umbrella with a nuclear or semi-nuclear North Korea next door.

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