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Hiroshima, My Father, and the Lie of U.S. Innocence

Why Washington hid Japan’s crimes, and its own, in the reckoning of justice after World War II.


Sixty-eight years ago, when I was in high school, my family moved to Tokyo. The city was a colossal phoenix, rising battered and scraggy from the ashes of war. I was an adolescent arriving from the small town of Polson, Montana, with a world outlook that did not extend beyond Kalispell to the north and Missoula to the south.

Sixty-eight years ago, when I was in high school, my family moved to Tokyo. The city was a colossal phoenix, rising battered and scraggy from the ashes of war. I was an adolescent arriving from the small town of Polson, Montana, with a world outlook that did not extend beyond Kalispell to the north and Missoula to the south.

My mother, five siblings, and I were installed in a lovely residence that came with five servants and a backyard complete with a Japanese garden and — oddly enough — a basketball hoop. The house was located in the neighborhood of Ochanamizu, where the wealthy and powerful elite responsible for the war lived. Ochanamizu went unscathed by the horrendous bombing that the U.S. military, near the end of World War II, visited on the neighborhoods where the poor and more innocent majority lived. At 16, however, the irony did not occur to me.

We moved to Tokyo because my father got a job as a prosecutor for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which had begun May 3, 1946, after the Japanese formally surrendered in September 1945. The purpose of the trial was, in effect, to punish the leaders of Japan for causing the war and to establish a cornerstone principle that wars of aggression were illegal under international law — an effort to deter future conflict. My father had compiled a record percentage of convictions as a county attorney in Lake County, Montana, and in 1946 had run again for the same position on a Democratic ticket that included Mike Mansfield. But he lost to a returning veteran, while Mansfield won a seat in Congress. So my father applied for a position on the war crimes trials, and Mansfield recommended him for the job in Tokyo.

My father didn’t talk much about the Tokyo Trial when it was happening. After it ended in November 1948, I never heard another word from him about it during the remaining 42 years of his life, much of which he spent as a foreign service officer in the State Department.

I didn’t give this much thought at the time, but over the last decade his silence came to nag at me. Why was he mute? The trial was the crown jewel in his life’s work. And my dad was never one to suppress an opinion. He was widely known to be a merciless truth-teller – and, like most of this breed, he had few friends. Instead, he had faith. He was an Irish Catholic authoritarian father of the old school who was unafraid of being unpopular with his children and undaunted by the slings and arrows of hostile opinion. Although I eventually acquired a love and respect for the man, I never really liked him.

Still, his silence was perplexing. In just the past few years, my adult daughters began to ask embarrassing questions about my father’s moral complicity in the trial. They rattled the cage, letting loose in me what the French writer Albert Camus called “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”

So I spent the past two years reading, researching, and reflecting on the Tokyo war crimes trial. In that arduous but fruitful enterprise, I clarified to my satisfaction why my father remained silent. At the same time, I discovered the flagrant one-sidedness and manifest unfairness of the trial itself — the omission of certain atrocious crimes, the failure to call pertinent witnesses, and the refusal to discuss issues relating to U.S. wrongdoing.

Original sin

The one-sidedness began with Chief Prosecutor Joseph Keenan’s opening statement: He charged that Japanese leaders were guilty of concocting an evil master plan of conquest dating back to 1928, with the aim of dominating East Asia and ultimately the world. Keenan, in other words, reduced the complexity and nuances of Japanese history to a morality play. The pre-eminent American historian of this period, John Dower, called the argument “fatuous,” writing that, “No serious historian … would endorse this argument.”

This did not mean the Japanese leaders were innocent; on the contrary, they had fought a war of aggression. They had annexed Manchuria in 1931, begun a war against China in 1937, invaded the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, and the Philippines, among other crimes. And yet to my amazement the U.S. prosecution, after their opening salvo, did not cast a wide enough net, failed to bring to light many horrendous war crimes, and refused to hear the testimony of certain key witnesses.

For example, no charges were brought against Japanese leaders for unmistakable violations of human rights among colonial subjects in Korea or Taiwan, or for crimes committed against civilians in occupied territories like the Philippines or Burma. No charges were brought against the indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilian noncombatants in the 1937-1938 rape of the Chinese city of Nanjing. Why not?

The answer is tricky. Although President Harry S. Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill jointly authorized the tribunal during the July 1945 Potsdam Conference, it quickly became a wholly U.S.-owned enterprise. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in cooperation with Keenan, dictated which crimes would be brought before the court and which would not. In other words, they omitted crimes that might allow the defense to raise countercharges of war crimes committed by the United States or its allies.

Perhaps the most chilling example was the crimes committed by the infamous Unit 731 of the Japanese military in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin. This Japanese unit experimented with bacteriological agents on some 3,000 human subjects, chiefly prisoners of war, in seeking to develop biological weapons. Human subjects were inoculated with deadly anthrax pathogens or cyanide compounds to test for efficacy and dosages. Some subjects died from the tests, while others survived but suffered horrible aftereffects. Even those who survived were sometimes killed in order to study the effects of those chemicals on inner organs and tissues.

And yet, the commander of Unit 731, Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii, received immunity in exchange for the technical and scientific information acquired from the experiments. This helped protect the prosecution from countercharges of U.S. war crimes. The most respected of the trial’s justices, Bert Roling of the Netherlands, wrote in 1994 that his opinion of Unit 731 and its place in the courtroom changed when he “learned that the prosecution in Tokyo, purposely and for very sinister reasons, had withheld important evidence from the court.”

The best-known atrocity not brought before the court referred to the victims euphemistically called “comfort women.” The Japanese military captured thousands of Korean and Chinese women and girls and cast them into degrading brothels in a systematic program of sexual enslavement. “I felt like a living corpse,” one survivor said. “When soldiers came to my room and did it to me one after another, it was done to a lifeless body. Again. And again. And again. All these years I have lived in secret, in shame, and in pain.” As the scholar Nicola Henry of La Trobe University in Melbourne wrote, “The silence surrounding the wartime rape must now be remembered as part of the legacy of the trial, and the silent witnesses of WWII must be recognized as the victims of this silence.”

The most revealing omission from the trial — and the one that most obviously protected the United States — was the failure to indict Japan’s leaders for the indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians in China: clearly a war crime as established by the Hague conventions. By not charging the Japanese, the prosecution prevented the defense from successfully introducing evidence making the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and 64 other Japanese cities an issue in the trial.

A prime example of this, according to Dower in his 2010 book, Cultures of War, was the devastating raid on Tokyo in March 1945, when 334 U.S. B-29 bombers dropped 2,000 tons of bombs on about 4 square miles in the heart of Tokyo’s congested residential neighborhoods. Flames swept through the flimsy dry wood and rice paper houses like a prairie fire, so hot that pilots flying at 6,000 feet gasped for air; pilots could see the flames from 150 miles away. The bombings destroyed more than 267,000 buildings, killed over 100,000 people, and left 1 million people homeless. It took 25 days for the Tokyo police to remove the burnt corpses from the ashes and rubble.

The rivers were boiling

At 19 years old, I was a university student in Tokyo. I had a lovely Japanese girlfriend named Takako. One night, Takako told me about her older sister who had been trapped in the firestorm created by that March 1945 raid. The roaring flames drove her sister to leap into one of the canals that flow through Tokyo — only to be scalded to death in water brought to a boil by the heat. Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers, MacArthur’s chief advisor on psychological warfare, wrote in a June 17, 1945, internal memorandum that the air war on Japan was “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of noncombatants in all of history.” And Gen. Curtis Le May callously described the victims of the March air raid as being “scorched and boiled and baked to death.”

Consider a few more statistics. The total number of U.S. military deaths in the Pacific war was slightly more than 106,000. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone killed roughly three times that number of civilian noncombatants. In his 1997 book, Japan’s Postwar History, historian Gary D. Allinson writes that a single night-long air raid on Toyama left a mere 4 percent of that city standing. The large city of Yokohama was 58 percent destroyed. And according to Dower, an estimated 1 million civilians were killed in the 66 cities bombed.

It seems we must now concede with a kind of grim equanimity that one of the most astounding accomplishments of World War II, and the Tokyo Trial that followed, was to make morally acceptable the premeditated incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent nonmilitary women, children, and men.

Another critical omission from the trial was Emperor Hirohito himself, which MacArthur exempted from the proceedings, claiming he was only a figurehead. The facts tell a different story.

Japan’s 1889 Meiji Constitution created the first parliamentary government in Asia, but it also invested supreme power in the emperor. It dictated that the military forces report directly to the emperor, not to the cabinet, which meant that Hirohito ratified nearly every major military decision, including the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of the cabinet members, it turned out, didn’t have the courage to say no to war, leaving it in the hands of the military and an assenting emperor. In one of the most bizarre statements made in the lead-up to war, then-Prime Minister Hideki Tojo said, “Sometimes people have to shut their eyes and take the plunge.”

But MacArthur’s declaration of the emperor’s innocence was by extension an exoneration of the entire authoritarian system he represented. The writer Ian Buruma points out in his 2005 book, Inventing Japan, that absolving Hirohito was in effect absolving the Japanese people. They were now free to develop a kind of historical amnesia for their own passionate support for military adventures abroad. As a result, the Japanese were able to disregard the ugly impulses that gave birth to the culture of war they had embraced: the deadly jingoism, racial superiority, exceptional virtuousness, and religious nationalism. They saw only the sanctity of their motives.

Of course, that’s not to say the trial found the defendants innocent. Of the 25 men tried, seven were hanged, 15 sent to prison for varying lengths of time (two others died during the trial, and a third was sent to a psychiatric hospital).

Victors’ justice

But the big lie of the Tokyo trial was that of U.S. innocence. It certified a culture in which the purity of intentions masks the savage effects of military actions, a culture that nourishes those toxic strains of exceptionalism and righteousness that run deep in U.S. history. It is, at heart, a vigilante culture: Innocence gives rise to righteousness, and righteousness to arrogance, and arrogance to ruthlessness. It remains the United States’ present-day culture of war.

What has this to do with my father? He was trapped in the jaws of a monstrous dilemma. On the one hand, he was an unswervingly truthful man who believed deeply that if international law was to be respected and effective as a deterrent of future wars, the law had to be applied impartially. Human life had equal value under the law regardless of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. He was a stunningly unselfish and generous man who believed deeply in helping those who were poorer than himself.

But were he to have spoken out and declared that the defense was deprived of the basic rights of a fair trial, he would undoubtedly have drawn savage fire from all quarters. Did he want that? He was also a loyal servant of his country, a patriot, a devout New Dealer, a bureaucratic survivor, a respecter of authority, with a devout Catholic’s aversion to scandal.

So he did not seek to make flower arrangements of the facts, tuck the ugly stems out of sight, or regale us with the usual pap and piety. He chose silence.

Image Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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