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Bomb Scare

Ten days ago the Japanese Defence Minister, Fumio Kyuma, made a notable statement. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been, he said, an inevitable way for the United States to end the Pacific War: "I understand that the bombing ended the war, and I think that it couldn't be helped."

Kyuma's political fate was sealed. The opposition parties demanded his dismissal. The mayor of Hiroshima accused him of trampling on the sentiments of the survivors. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, publicly rebuked him. Kyuma apologized while claiming he had been misunderstood. When the apology failed to quell criticism, he resigned.

Kyuma's mistake, however, was not in the content of his remarks but in breaking a taboo. Engrained in Japan's political culture is the notion that in 1945 the country was a victim rather than an aggressor. Japan has never offered the equivalent of, say, German Chancellor Willy Brandt's symbolic act of contrition before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1994, Ian Buruma wrote a remarkable work of reportage, Wages of Guilt, contrasting attitudes in Germany and Japan to memories of World War II. He noted that the Japanese have two days of remembrance: August 6, marking the bombing of Hiroshima, and August 15, the date of surrender.

Japan's pacifist constitution and alliance with the United States have obscured the tenacity of this myth of victimhood. But, while Japan's culpability in starting the war is a fact that public figures can scarcely escape, it is far from being the salient issue in civic observance. Last year, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi provoked Korean and Chinese protests by paying respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the souls of Japan's war dead. Among those venerated are 14 Class-A war criminals, including the wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo. The Asahi newspaper last week cursorily acknowledged that Japan had caused "huge damage to many other countries" in World War II. It then got into its editorial stride. "Utterly appalled" by Kyuma's remarks, the newspaper declared them "tantamount to forgetting history and subserviently accepting the US justification of the attacks." The creeping historical revisionism in Japanese schools is also a standing concern. The Ministry of Education's annual screening of textbooks resulted this year in a particularly egregious softening of references to the Imperial Army's conduct in the Battle of Okinawa.

If that is the culture through which understanding of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is mediated to new generations, it is hardly surprising that Kyuma's speech should have shocked. Oddly, Kyuma's remarks were widely reported outside Japan too as a "gaffe." (The Times, for which I write, used this term.) Yet they would be regarded by historians of the Pacific War as commonsensical almost to the point of truism.

The notion that President Truman used the atomic bomb primarily to intimidate the Soviet Union was popular on the American New Left in the 1960s, remains influential in Japan, and in a more circumspect form has even begun to creep back into American debate. But it remains unsupported by evidence. An authoritative new book, Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, edited by Robert James Maddox, shows that there is not a single statement in the documentary record made by a U.S. diplomat to a Soviet counterpart in 1945-6 to the effect that "you'd better not cross us, because we have the bomb." Nor was Japan ready to surrender before Hiroshima (or even Nagasaki). A negotiated truce leaving in place autocracy and empire, and presenting a permanent threat of resurgent militarism, was as much as the Allies could have obtained. Japanese government records and memoirs confirm that the atomic bomb was crucial to the decision to surrender, by enabling the "peace party" within Japan's cabinet to prevail.

In short, the bomb was dropped for the reasons its advocates stated at the time. As the historian Wilson Miscamble concludes in another recent book, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima and the Cold War: "[Truman] hoped that the bombs would end the war and secure peace with the fewest American casualties, and so they did. Surely he took the action any American president would have undertaken."

It is impossible for a Japanese public official to expound this thesis against what is close to being an official conspiracy theory of American intentions. But presenting the atomic-bomb decision as an act of gratuitous destructiveness misrepresents history.

It also continues to distort debate over security policy. "New historical research," declares Greenpeace, "has shown that, had the US decided not to base its strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union on the use [of] the atomic bomb in 1945 it might have been possible to build on the wartime cooperation with the Soviets, and to avoid or limit the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and the Korean and Vietnam wars. This should give us pause for thought about the wisdom of current US and UK nuclear weapons developments, strategies, operational policies and deployments." The new research in question is a tendentious repackaging of the old claim that the atomic-bomb decision was redundant to Japan's surrender, but was conceived rather as a way of countering Stalin's regional ambitions.

The Allied powers did terrible things in World War II in order to defeat unmitigated barbarism. Since then, maintaining collective security has required the United States to extend its nuclear guarantee to other democracies--including Japan. As the worst of modern states threaten to acquire and deploy nuclear capabilities, and in the absence of an effective supranational authority to prevent them, that requirement will remain.

It has long been the task of America's friends abroad to convince our compatriots how important--not for America, but for them--is a transatlantic alliance founded on nuclear deterrence. Yet, as memories of the catastrophe wrought by Imperial Japan recede, it would take little mutation in Japan's constitutionally mandated pacifism for it to become anti-American. The current protest over Kyuma's remarks exemplifies this ugly undercurrent.

There are some things--notably the diplomatic ineptitude of the Bush administration--we can do little about. But Japan's wartime myths and their replication in global anti-nuclear protest ought to be countered. "Nuclear weapons are absolute evil," declared one Japanese politician from within the governing coalition this week. No, they are not: It depends who has them. Nuclear weapons have been instrumental in defeating and containing totalitarianism. For the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that civilized states can do without an ally, even an implicit one, who possesses them. The diplomatic posturing and misrepresentations of the last few days could do with a terse American dismissal, for all our sakes.

By Oliver Kamm