Atom bombs destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki end the Hollywood version of WW2. It’s stunning cinema: a fireball, a cloud, and the curtain drops.
That rendition, however, misses the post-Nagasaki political intrigue in Tokyo. Japan could not respond to the atomic attacks. The inability to respond spurred more sober Japanese leaders in the “peace” faction to risk assassination, confront the “war” faction’s hard-core fanatics and convince the emperor to seek peace.
The fanatics still wanted to fight. Obsessed fanatics, be their obsession bushido or lebensraum or workers paradise or the Caliphate, don’t drop the sword.
This 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings and the end of the war (August 15) is generating the usual pro and con commentary over President Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons. Paul Fussell’s classic essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” more than answers the wails, kvetches and anti-American accusations of the con crowd. Fussell noted that when the bombs were dropped the Allies were suffering 7,000 casualties per week in the Pacific. In the days after Nagasaki, as Tokyo’s peace and war factions intrigued, “captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the U.S. submarine Bonefish was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down … and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost.”
The “heads chopped off” echoes contemporary fanatics. The Islamic State in the Levant chops off the heads of 12-year-old kids.
The anniversary of WW2’s end, however, strikes me as an opportune time to quickly survey how the war began. The final act does connect to the first acts.
The war was an immense tragedy. It killed somewhere between 50 million and 85 million people (civilian and military). The 85-million figure may be low. No one really knows how many people died in China and Southeast Asia.
In the late summer of 1945, historians Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager reflected on the war’s origins. In a short history (edited by Commager) published in November 1945, they wrote, “The explanation (for WW2) was to be found in the breakdown in the system of collective security and the growth of international anarchy, moral and political, in the post-war years.” Post-war meant post-WW1, the war to end all wars.
Collective insecurity sounds poli-sci, and so I’ll translate: The more sober and more good failed to stand up to the fanatics. The historians briefly catalog the fanatics’ outrages in a section entitled “Rise of the Dictators.” They conclude the major Western powers failed to protect the international system. The French and British failure to respond to Adolf Hitler’s violations of the Treaty of Versailles encouraged the National Socialist’s fanaticism.
After discussing Morison and Commager’s assessment with award-winning naval historian Dr. A.A. Nofi, I asked him for his short list of the war’s roots. “Historical grievance. For example, the Germans felt mistreated by the Treaty of Versailles. That was their perception,” Nofi said. “The global depression — economic disaster. And U.S. isolationism, though it was a relative kind of isolationism. The U.S. engaged on some issues.”
Hitler leveraged the Great Depression, moving from a beer hall putsch in 1923 to chancellor in 1933. Authoritarian and totalitarian charismatic leaders still thrive on economic desperation. Note Greece in 2015.
American isolationism compounded French and British reluctance, and so fanatic dictators got away with it. Despite august League of Nation condemnations, Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Then the communist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany used the Spanish Civil War to test new weapons.
As Nazi power grew, reluctance became appeasement. The 1938 Munich Agreement gave Hitler permission to absorb a slice of Czechoslovakia in exchange for what Neville Chamberlain called “peace for our time.” Yes, it does sound a bit like giving Iran permission to build nuclear weapons.
This takes us back to Asia, but not to Tokyo 1945, but rather to Mukden (Shenyang), China. On Sept. 19, 1931, Japanese soldiers attacked the Chinese Mukden garrison and then invaded Manchuria. Many Chinese argue that WW2 began that day. A cadre of fanatic militarists, convinced of Japanese racial and cultural superiority, believed Japan should rule Asia. Their own fanaticism guaranteed victory.
It took 14 years of bloodshed — and two atom bombs — to prove the fanatics wrong.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.