Apr 09 2009

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Obama’s Apology Tour

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Meet John Coughlin.

In August 1961, as Barack Obama was taking his first breaths of life, Mr. Coughlin – my uncle – was serving as a staffer in an organization that would later be merged and become the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Through the 1960s, he served with USAID in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Later, in the 70s and 80s he worked in Thailand, Niger and Haiti, among other “luxury” destinations.

In an age before satellite TV, computers and the Internet – when long distance calls were novel and expensive – his kind of service represented a hard and challenging life. His visits home over the years were filled with stories of the exotic, but told in the matter-of-fact tone of his generation.

For me, my uncle’s individual efforts were part of a collective American idealism of that time that recognized that helping others wasn’t simply politically expedient, but more importantly, the right thing for America to do. In that way, his efforts broadly represented the very best of America to the world.

More recently, speaking in Prague on April 5th, President Obama said:

“And as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”

It seems impossible not to see President Obama’s statement as an indirect indictment of the United States for Hiroshima and Nagasaki; an American “Original Sin” for which we must bear an extra burden.

But this intellectual reasoning is deeply flawed; a relativist view, freely unencumbered by facts, but based in an ingrained ideological suspiciousness of American power.

It is insidious and unworthy of an American president.

History records that on August 6th and August 8th the United States attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons, killing and wounding hundreds of thousands of Japanese, and destroying the two cities. Japan sued for peace on August 14th, the formal surrender ceremony was later held on the battleship Missouri on September 2nd.

What is lesser known is that without the use of nuclear weapons, the United States had created detailed plans for the next stage to bring the Pacific war to an end, a conventional  invasion of Japan.

Operation Downfall, the US strategic plan for the invasion of Japan in 1945-46, represented, on paper, the greatest massing of US military power in history; 43 divisions, 650,000 soldiers, 2,500 ships, 6,000 aircraft. The total included troops and planes that had won the war in Europe. New recruits training in the United States were slated as reinforcements. All totaled, 4.5 million military personnel, including the entire United States Marine Corps, would be part of the operation.1

To meet them Japan had amassed 900,000 soldiers as well as citizen militia. They also had over 9,000 kamikaze aircraft. Many of the Japanese troops had been brought home from China with extensive combat experience.2 Moreover, the Japanese had correctly calculated the American strategic plan for the invasion and had prepared the coming battlefields in detail.

The consequences of the invasion, had it been necessary, are frightening even in theory.

In March 1945, US military planners assumed 100,000 US casualties in the first three months. After the war ended, the US commissioned several studies which included previously unknown information regarding Japanese preparations for the invasion. These studies estimated US losses at between 250,000-750,000 casualties. Others estimated more than 1,000,000. While abstract casualty debate continues, it is a fact that the US military manufactured 500,000 Purple Hearts in advance of the proposed invasion of Japan.4

Considering the US statistical estimates, the cost to Japan in life and material would have been staggering, orders of magnitude worse that the destruction and death caused by the US air campaign that at that time, had reduced large Japanese cities to rubble.

It is a useful reference point to consider that 416,000 Americans actually died fighting WWII.  Japan lost 2,100,000 fighting men and suffered 580,000 civilian deaths from American bombings.4 An invasion could easily have doubled these numbers.

Thus, an inescapable conclusion is that as destructive as the atomic attacks were on Japan, they prevented an invasion that would have been exponentially more catastrophic, both to Japanese society, and in its sheer destruction of lives and material to both combatants.

And from this we can posit that the United States did not use nuclear weapons against Japan as a function of whimsical convenience, or worse, as an act of moral turpitude. In fact, it was based on the best available evidence of what would be necessary to bring the war to its earliest conclusion with the lowest cost in lives; a morally justified decision amid the most destructive war in human history.

Consider that despite the horrors Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the quick end of WWII led to the rapid reconstruction of a prosperous and democratic Japan, a global leader and consequential member of the international community, and most importantly, a strong ally of the United States. None of that would have been a given after a brutal invasion and the mass death that would have ensued.

Thus disguised Presidential messages of moral relativity today, advanced to please contemporary ethicists, are a disservice to the United States. In this instance, it adds insult to injury in the sheer frivolousness with which it treats the human dimension in the avoided disaster of an invasion of Japan.

You see, John Coughlin was a Navy sailor in the Pacific in 1945.

He was one of the 4.5 million Americans that would have had to fight that last fight against Japan, but for the atomic attacks.

As an American in Japan after the war ended, he saw first-hand what had been planned by the Japanese. When asked at family gatherings about what he had seen, my uncle dead-panned, “Well, they weren’t going to ask us to tea.”

His life and those of countless other Americans and Japanese were, instead, spared. The good works of my uncle in his professional life after 1945 were made possible in a very real way by the quick end to WWII.

My uncle’s service and the service of countless others who lived America’s idealism on the front lines in the developing world, are a testament to the authentic intentions of American power.

That requires no apology to anyone.

1. Journal of Military History, “Operation Downfall – US Plans & Japanese Counter Measures”, DM Giangreco, 1997

2. Ibid

3. Wikipedia

4. Wikipedia – WWII Causalities


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