During the early ’90s, when he was an undergraduate at Sacramento State, Kenji Taguma drew a particularly challenging assignment.
His history class was debating Hiroshima and the final stages World War II and his job was to argue that the world’s first nuclear bombing, an event carried out by American military forces that claimed more than 100,000 Japanese lives, was unjustified and unnecessary.
Taguma’s audience was a room full of students who had grown up learning that a 9,700-pound bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945, to save American lives. Conventional wisdom says that Japan would not have surrendered otherwise and World War II would have dragged on without the lethal power of nuclear weaponry.
The real story is far more complicated, as Taguma would learn. Still, it’s not easy to question the force used in Hiroshima and then in Nagasaki three days later. Both events are steeped in the history of the so-called Greatest Generation and in the last American war to enjoy enduring public support.
Even Jon Stewart couldn’t pull it off. While hosting “The Daily Show” in 2009, Stewart offhandedly called former President Harry Truman a “war criminal” for ordering the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The remark caused a stir and Stewart later apologized for it on the air.
Approximately 200,000 people were killed by both bombs. Many were women and children. Some victims were incinerated in mere seconds, their shadows burned into the ground by the heat and light of atomic power unleashed.
Rep. Doris Matsui, who was born in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, said her family never talked about Hiroshima as she was growing up. Japanese American families like Matsui’s always wanted to display allegiance to the U.S.
Matsui was part of an American delegation that traveled to Japan during President Bill Clinton’s four-day state visit in July of 1993. That group steered clear of Hiroshima. But a decade before that, Matsui visited Japan with her late husband, former Sacramento Rep. Bob Matsui. Other members of Congress were on the trip as well, and a handful of congressional wives veered off to Hiroshima for an unofficial visit.
Matsui laughs at the thought of that visit now – and of the well-meaning but slightly naive congressional spouses who just wanted to lay wreaths as a gesture for nuclear disarmament. They were instead confronted by the real toll of nuclear destruction, by the sight of devastated structures and haunting memorials bearing the names of the victims who had died from the bombing or the subsequent radiation.
“You realize the bomb was dropped right there,” Matsui said by phone. “It’s very sobering.”
President Barack Obama, an ardent and vocal advocate for constraints on nuclear weapons, recently announced that he will become the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima. His trip has ignited debate over whether the U.S. should apologize to Japan.
While Obama may lay a wreath there, “he will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said in a post on Medium. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision on our shared future.”
In other words, there will be no apologies, and both countries have worked to avoid any appearance that Obama’s May 27 visit would be an act of contrition. But Obama’s presence will nonetheless force Americans to look in the mirror, to review the historical record and to consider the event with the benefit of hindsight.
It’s been more than 70 years since the bombing of Hiroshima. Nuclear war remains a threat to humankind, and yet American public opinion often resists introspection about being the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons.
Taguma was up against this when he addressed his fellow students in his American history class in 1993. He was an ethnic studies major who had done his homework for this assignment. Part of Taguma’s arguments were gleaned from the historical record.
The other part he learned the hard way. Taguma had been a West Sacramento kid whose father had been incarcerated during World War II for refusing to serve in the U.S. military.
Now deceased, Noboru Taguma’s resistance was based on a principled objection: He would not serve in the armed forces of a nation that was rounding up Japanese Americans like himself and sending them to internment camps.
Through his dad, Taguma learned that unchecked nationalism can compel governments to single out individuals for suspicion and violate their rights, all with the support of public opinion. He learned that remnants of that nationalism can linger for decades and create hostilities that span generations.
Coming of age in the 1980s, Taguma remembers being called a “Jap” and “Chink” by schoolmates in West Sacramento.
“I was only one of four or five Asian students in those years in my classes,” said Taguma, 46, and now the San Francisco-based editor of Nichi Bei Weekly, one of the oldest ethnic publications in Northern California. “Kids would say, ‘You got us at Pearl Harbor, but we got you back at Hiroshima.’ I had nothing to do with either.”
He annually endured racial and ethnic taunts on Dec. 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, because of his ethnic features. “These things contribute to feelings of self-hate,” he said.
By the time he was a Sac State undergrad, Taguma was finding solace in works such as “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which inspired him to educate himself and stand by his convictions.
As he prepared to speak to his history class, Taguma found – to his surprise – that many American military leaders were ambivalent or opposed to using nuclear weapons.
Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Forces during World War II and president for most of the 1950s, wrote in his memoir that, “Japan was already defeated and ... dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”
Eisenhower lamented that it was Americans who introduced “something as horrible and destructive as this new weapon.”
Eisenhower wasn’t alone. Adm. William D. Leahy has said: “(The) use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender ...”
Taguma presented this information to his fellow students and persuaded them to do what all Americans should do. We should question why our government dropped the bomb, if only because nationalism and fear could lead to another nuclear attack.
Taguma said he understands why the U.S. won’t apologize. Japan committed atrocities across Asia before attacking American forces at Pearl Harbor. It was a brutal war. Before the U.S. dropped its bombs, the Japanese refused the Allies’ calls for unconditional surrender.
But in Obama’s upcoming visit, he sees not only a solemn acknowledgment that former enemies later can become the closest of allies, but a broader message as well.
“If there is anything that we can learn … it’s the urgent need for peace,” Taguma said. “In these uncertain times with tension arising throughout the world, and racial scapegoating once again hitting home, like when Japanese Americans were targeted for looking like ‘the enemy,’ we need to learn from the past to avoid by all means the destruction of human life and dignity.”