- "...one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings
of noncombatants in all history."
- On Dec. 7, 1964, the Japanese government conferred the
First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun upon Gen.
Curtis LeMay -- yes, the same general who, less than 20 years earlier,
had incinerated "well over half a million Japanese civilians, perhaps
nearly a million."
- In May 1964, the general, now the chief of staff of the
U.S. Air Force, had declaimed: "Tell the Vietnamese they've got to
draw in their horns or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age."
- I was reminded of the Japanese government's bizarre act
when I read the responses of several readers of The Atlantic Monthly to
the news that a museum had finally been created in Tokyo to memorialize
the Great Tokyo Air Raid. In the wee hours of March 10, 1945, 300 B-29s
dropped 2,000 tons of incendiaries on one section of Tokyo -- a space seven-tenths
the size of Manhattan -- and in 2 1/2 hours "scorched and boiled and
baked to death" 100,000 people. The quoted words are LeMay's.
- No, "news" is not the right word. For his July-August
column in the monthly, Jonathan Rauch mentioned the opening of a "small
museum" and spoke of what lay behind it: an "obscure" air
raid. "Few Americans have even heard of it," he wrote, "and
few Japanese like to dwell on it."
- Rauch met a survivor of the firebombing, a Japanese friend's
mother, back in 1990. He admired her for her "matter-of-fact, detached
manner." Her attitude was: "What happened happened, and war is
always bad, and 1945 is ancient history." Still, "the Tokyo attack
deserves the most introspection of all," Rauch decided, "even
as it receives the least."
- In sheer magnitude, the calamity brought by the firebombing
surpassed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least according to the U.S. Strategic
Bombing Survey conducted shortly after the war. But the devastation of
Tokyo, along with that of Hamburg and Dresden, was laid aside the moment
an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki. With the advent
of a weapon capable of snuffing out a large city in a flash, the sense
suddenly took root that "the continuity of life was, for the first
time, put into question," as Mary McCarthy put it.
- In fact, one Japanese writer reported, in 1968, that
"in the 22 years since the war the Asahi Shimbun has written only
four times about March 10," while taking up Hiroshima 100 times more
often. At about that time, Saotome Katsumoto, who survived the firestorm
as a 12-year-old boy, resolved to do something about it. It took him over
three decades to create his modest archival center.
- Was the raid justified? Rauch asked in his column. As
with the dropping of the second atomic bomb, the question is legitimate.
- First, before and during World War II there were people
who thought indiscriminate slaughter of civilians had to be avoided. Tacticians
in the U.S. Army Air Forces themselves were split between those who believed
in "precision-bombing" and those who were "area bombers."
- Brigadier Gen. Haywood Hansell, who was assigned to execute
the first serious bombings against Japan, was of the former group. But
he was duly relieved of his duty as ineffectual and replaced by LeMay.
And LeMay, switching from high explosives to incendiaries, went on to carry
out what Gen. Douglas MacArthur's aide, Brigadier Gen. Bonner Fellers,
called "one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of noncombatants
in all history."
- Equally important, the victors of World War II did not
just expand the definition of "war crimes," but introduced the
new concepts of "crimes against peace" and "crimes against
humanity." And these ideas have gained support in recent years. Probably
with the latter development in mind, Rauch wrote: "I believe the firebombing
of Tokyo should be considered a war crime."
- Some readers did not like this. And the five responses
The Atlantic has chosen to print in its October issue are yet another reminder:
When it comes to Japan and World War II, some Americans are incapable of
accommodating different viewpoints.
- Blaine Browne, in Lighthouse Point, Fla., begins by taking
Rauch to task for following "a convoluted path toward his goal of
elevating the March 1945 U.S. firebomb raid on Tokyo to the historical
prominence he feels it deserves," so you can guess the tenor of his
letter. But in his determination to dismiss the importance of "an
event that, as Rauch complains, has gone largely unremarked since its occurrence,"
Browne makes one point he may not have intended.
- "By early 1945 the American public's willingness
to support operations that might produce any significant casualties was
increasingly strained," he tells us, and concludes: "The Truman
administration's decision to use the atomic bomb must be considered in
- I know Stanford historian Barton Bernstein has taken
a somewhat different tack and argued President Harry Truman used atomic
bombs because American taxpayers would have revolted if they learned their
government had expended $2 billion on the Manhattan Project but had not
used what it produced. The amount was sizable at the time; the creation
and maintenance of the large fleet of B-29s cost $3 billion.
- But I don't know if Bernstein would go as far as to suggest
what Browne does. By Browne's logic, Japan's invasion of China, for example,
must be considered all right -- in the context of the public's support.
- Michael Franzblau, in San Rafael, Calif., writes: "Concern
that Curtis LeMay's Army Air Corps committed war crimes in the firebombing
of Tokyo has to be balanced by awareness of the despicable activities of
the Imperial Japanese Army in China."
- In other words, you murdered relatives of someone I know,
so I murdered some of yours. This argument may have worked in the age of
gunfighters in the American west. But it evidently wouldn't have worked
in the military tribunals convened after the war. In any event, the countries
that sat to judge Germany and Japan were careful to exclude their own deeds
- The shortest letter cited in The Atlantic comes from
Devin Croft, in Littleton, Col. It reads in its entirety: "If the
United States owed any debt to the dead of Tokyo, it was long since repaid
through the reconstruction of Japan in the postwar years."
- That is one conclusion some Japanese may accept, however
ambivalently. But Croft, too, evades Rauch's point. Any deliberate mass
slaughter of civilians is a war crime. And what happened in the early hours
of March 10, 1945, was the greatest slaughter a single air raid produced
in world history.
- Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in
- The Japan Times: Sept. 30, 2002 (C) All rights reserved