Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the American firebombing of Tokyo, World War II’s deadliest day. More people died that night from napalm bombs than in the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But few in the United States are aware that the attack even took place. The lack of ceremonies or official state apologies for the firebombing is unsurprising considering that many Americans see World War II as the “just war” fought by the “greatest generation.” These labels leave the war and the atrocities Americans committed during it largely untouched by critique. The little that is available to study on the firebombing, at least here in the US, is told from the perspective of American crewmen and brass, through usually biased American military historians. Those seeking better understanding of the March 9 tragedy must wade through reams of history primarily devoted to strategy; the heroics of American soldiers; the awesome power behind the bombs unleashed that day; and a cult-like devotion to the B-29 Superfortress, the plane that dropped the napalm over Tokyo and the atomic bombs, and was the inspiration for George Lucas’s Millennium Falcon. The overriding narrative surrounding the events of March 9, 1945 is that the American pilots and military strategists such as Gen. Curtis LeMay, the architect of the firebombing, had no other option but to carry out the mission. The Americans had “no choice” but to burn to death nearly one hundred thousand Japanese civilians. . World War II was carried out with brutality on all fronts. The Japanese military murdered nearly six million Chinese, Korean, and Filipino civilians by the end of it. However, to argue that Japanese civilians deserved to die — that children deserved to die — at the hands of the US military because their government killed civilians in other Asian countries is an indefensible position, in any moral or ethical framework. LeMay claimed that the Japanese government relied on residential “cottage” war production, thus making the civilians living in Tokyo a legitimate military target. However, by 1944 the Japanese had essentially terminated its home war production. A full 97 percent of the country’s military supplies were protected underground in facilities not vulnerable to air attack the day of the bombing. The Americans knew this. The United States had broken Japan’s Red and Purple cipher machines well before 1945, allowing them access to the most classified enemy intelligence. American generals understood the war would soon be materially impossible for the Japanese. The US Naval blockade had also prevented oil, metal, and other essential goods from entering Japan long before March 9. Japan was so cut off from basic supplies that it was constructing its planes partially out of wood. The Japanese population at this point in the war was most concerned with starvation. The 1945 rice harvest was the worst since 1909. Surveys commissioned by Japan’s government in April 1945 reported the population was “too preoccupied with the problems of food” to worry about fighting a war. Victory for the Allies was guaranteed by the start of the year. The most damning evidence against the firebombing can be traced to August 19, 1945, when Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune finally published a piece gracefully titled “Roosevelt Ignored M’Arthur Report on Nip Proposals” that he had been sitting on for seven months. Trohan wrote:Release of all censorship restrictions in the United States makes it possible to report that the first Japanese peace bid was relayed to the White House seven months ago…. The Jap offer, based on five separate overtures, was relayed to the White House by Gen. MacArthur in a 40-page communication, [who] urged negotiations on the basis of the Jap overtures…. The offer, as relayed by MacArthur, contemplated abject surrender of everything but the person of the Emperor. President Roosevelt dismissed the general’s communication, which was studded with solemn references to the deity, after a casual reading with the remark, “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”The MacArthur report was not even taken to Yalta. In January 1945 — two days before Franklin Roosevelt was to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Yalta — the Japanese were offering surrender terms almost identical to what was accepted by the Americans on the USS Missouri in the Japan Bay on September 2, 1945. The Japanese population was famished, the country’s war machine was out of gas, and the government had capitulated. The Americans were unmoved. The firebombing and the nuclear attacks were heartlessly carried out. If anyone is guilty of disregarding the “context” of the firebombing of Tokyo, it’s the sycophantic and biased American historians who deride these critical facts. So why did the Americans continue to raid and terrorize the Japanese civilian population knowing the war could have been over? Many argue that the Americans were flexing their muscles for Russia in anticipation of the ensuing Cold War. Countless pages have been written about this. But what is too often overlooked is the racism of the day. It is America’s racism that best explains the extent of the firebombing and the nuclear attacks. The racist mindset that all too many Americans were comfortable with in the Jim Crow era easily bled onto the Japanese. The horror stories of the almost two hundred thousand Japanese Americans who lost their livelihoods as a result of Roosevelt’s internment camps are just one example of how Americans saw not only the Japanese but Japanese-Americans. The firebombing of Japan was about testing new technologies on a civilian population. Significant funds had gone into the development of American military technology — 36 billion in 2015 dollars funded the creation of the atomic bomb. Napalm was new as well. The firebombing of Tokyo marked the first time it was used on a dense civilian population. The Americans wanted to assay their new inventions on a group of people who they thought were less than human. LeMay famously remarked, “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.” LeMay later leveraged his war credentials and racism to earn a spot on segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s 1968 presidential ticket. Terms like “greatest generation” betray Americans by keeping them willfully disconnected from their past. These labels flatten complex legacies, and prevent a thorough questioning of power. Why did no one from the greatest generation stop these needless bombings? How can a country whose leaders constantly invoke its “exceptionalism” regularly fall back on the platitude “All sides were committing atrocities so why focus on the Americans?” These are the questions our high school textbooks need to be asking. .
Monday, March 09, 2015
The Firebombing of Tokyo
The Firebombing of Tokyo Seventy years ago today, the United States needlessly killed almost 100,000 people in a single air raid over Tokyo. by Rory Fanning