On the morning of August 6, 1945, as the first atomic bomb detonated 2,000ft above the city of Hiroshima, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army was still busily going about its work, murdering civilians and captured enemy soldiers through the most bestial, almost unimaginable, “medical experiments”. These included live vivisections, drilling through prisoners’ skulls, gassing, injecting with pathogens and using flame-throwers on women tied to stakes.
An estimated 580,000 people — mainly Chinese and Korean, but also Russians and Americans — were killed in such ways. The dedicated workers of Unit 731 referred to their victims as “logs”, or, when writing up their reports in scientific journals, “Manchurian monkeys”. Their activities ceased after Nagasaki was obliterated by the second atomic bomb three days later and the Japanese emperor, Hirohito, finally agreed — despite continued opposition from within the military — that his country should surrender.
Japan had previously shown no inclination to surrender. With the ruthlessness, cruelty, derangement and monomania typical of a fascist state, it intended to continue fighting until everyone was dead. Even the Russian invasion of Manchuria did not convince Japan’s top brass that defeat was inevitable. Okinawa may have fallen, but the Japanese were still torturing British and American prisoners of war, murdering civilians and preparing to sacrifice every last citizen for the sake of pride.
The death toll from Nagasaki and Hiroshima was approximately 200,000 (to use one of the higher estimates). Multiply that by 20 and you might begin to approach the Japanese and American death toll if those bombs had not been used.
Last week we commemorated the dead of those two Japanese cities. Quite rightly so. My argument is not that nuclear weapons are “nice”, even if the residents of Japanese-held Manchuria, and our prisoners of war, might have regarded them as wholly benevolent. It is simply that with every year that goes by our grip on the realities of history seems to diminish and the Second World War is reduced, in the imaginations of the truly ignorant, to a square-up between two blocs of equal malignance.
This process is encouraged in a climate that is relentless in its prosecution of the West, and especially America and the UK, for real or imagined crimes. Sure enough, it is no great surprise when Labour’s idiotic former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, refers to those atomic bombings as American “atrocities”. But I would bet that a good proportion of the party he once led, and an even larger number of kids on college campuses, might argue the same, given the non-judgmental rubbish they are fed. As the author and former Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said of the social justice youngsters who denounced Winston Churchill as a racist: “Just wait until they hear about the guy he defeated!”
This view of history, of reality, is so berserk as to be almost beyond belief. And yet it is terribly au courant. History is stripped of its context and perspective and instead marshalled into an assault on people who were, like it or not, the good guys. For all their manifest failings and their own misdemeanours, unequivocally the good guys.
Which is why it rankles when the BBC’s coverage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki mentions the how and the what, but forgets entirely about the why. It presents an endless parade of understandably quite upset Japanese people, but no survivors from the Unit 731 camps or the prison camps.
America won the race to construct an atomic bomb because it was a liberal democracy to which the best scientists in the world fled, such as the Italian Enrico Fermi and the Hungarian Leo Szilard. It had the flexibility within government (as well as the cash) to pursue the project, even if many politicians and militarists doubted its efficacy.
Germany and Japan were also pursuing the atomic bomb. Both failed. In Germany’s case it was at least partly because of the victimisation of brilliant Jewish physicists, the repellent nature of the Nazi regime deterring scientists such as Niels Bohr from co-operating, and an inflexibility among the Nazi high command.
Fascism is not merely repulsive, it is also ineffective, when push comes to shove. That seems to me a slightly more cheering lesson to be gained from the Hiroshima commemorations.