I wrote a piece a couple of months ago for The New Republic about the implications of a fierce political controversy in Japan. (My article, for the online edition of the magazine, is here but is behind a subscription barrier.)
Last July, the Japanese Defence Minister, Fumio Kyuma, maintained in a broadcast speech that the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been an inevitable way for the US to end the Pacific War. "I understand that the bombing ended the war, and I think that it couldn't be helped," he declared. The statement caused such outrage that Kyuma apologised profusely and resigned. Yet his judgement was plainly right. Historians of the Pacific War - Japanese scholars as well as American ones - would and do regard it as a statement of the obvious. I maintained in my article:
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.
In fairness, and especially as the continuing controversy over the content of Japanese school textbooks was one of the concerns I raised, I should point to this story from the BBC yesterday:
More than 100,000 people in Japan have rallied against changes to school books detailing Japanese military involvement in mass suicides during World War II. The protest, in Okinawa, was against moves to modify and tone down passages that say the army ordered Okinawans to kill themselves rather than surrender.
Okinawa's governor told crowds they could not ignore army involvement.
Some conservatives in Japan have in recent years questioned accounts of the country's brutal wartime past.
Saturday's rally was the biggest staged on the southern island since it was returned to Japan by the United States in 1972, according to the Kyodo News agency.
More power and much credit to the protestors. Recalling the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa is crucial to understanding correctly the later Hiroshima decision. One of my correspondents, the historian D.M. Giangreco, has written the definitive treatment of the importance of Okinawa in Truman's decision-making. This research was published as "'A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan", in Pacific Historical Review, Feb 2003, and is reprinted in Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, ed. Robert J. Maddox, 2007, pp. 76-115.
Dennis states, on recounting the discussions within the administration: "Truman's multiple references to Okinawa - specifically his comment of the invasion operations representing 'an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other' - indicate clearly what he believed would be the magnitude of the fighting [in a conventional invasion of Japan]." In conclusion, he quotes the judgement of George F. Kennan, the most significant figure in US diplomacy in the past century, writing in 1997 (in communication with Dennis): "I have no doubt that our leaders, General Marshall among them, had good reason to anticipate a casualty rate of dreadful and sickening proportions in any invasion of Japan."
These considerations do not resolve, though in my view ought powerfully to inform, ethical debates over the use of the A-bomb. They do undermine unwarranted historical assertions to the effect that the Pacific War would have swiftly ended without recourse to the Bomb, and that Truman was aware of this. Okinawa demonstrated both the unmitigated brutality of Japan's rulers and the immense costs that the United States bore in order to secure the defeat of an aggressive totalitarianism.