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War Reflections: World War II, The U.S., Japan, And The Bomb

May 29, 2007

Over this past weekend my local PBS affiliate, Chicago’s WTTW Channel 11, broadcast the American Experience series programs titled Victory in the Pacific. I believe these particular programs first aired in November 2005.

For Memorial Day Weekend programming, I’m not sure WTTW could’ve done better. The Victory in the Pacific (VP) programs not only caused me to remember the consequences of war and the sacrifices of U.S. veterans, but also made me rethink my position on the end game of World War II, particularly the use of the atomic bomb.

In spite of my professed specialties, I’m not unfamiliar with military history. My earliest encounters with history – of any kind – involved World War II reading. In fact, my middle-school reading on the topic was so extensive that I felt little compunction as a graduate student to re-explore the subject. What’s more, my prior hobbyist/amateur knowledge proved to be sufficient background for reading about the pre-war, wartime, and postwar cultural effects of the conflict in the United States.

My recent encounters with military history have been scant. It’s mainly consisted of rereadings of first-year college textbooks on the subject and viewings of the compelling HBO series Band of Brothers. Band of Brothers contains a number of issues, so it’s great for a classroom break on the subject. That series even caused me to buy Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name (it sits on my shelf awaiting its turn).

But Band of Brothers doesn’t cover the Pacific theater. The Victory in the Pacific programs, then, actually excited in me the impulse to read more on that end of things.

The VP series is powerful. I was amazed at the color footage available from the era. Although the Band of Brothers series deals well, in a Capote’esque “non-fiction novel” fashion, with casualties, the VP programs conveys the horror of injury with actual footage.

In typical AE fashion, the VP programs are constructed around the principle of balance. A lot of time is given to trying to understand the Japanese perspective. This does not mean sympathizing with Japanese wartime atrocities, but rather providing true historical understanding of – or empathy with – the historical material available. For instance, interviews with Japanese veterans and brief explorations of Shinto beliefs helped in gaining perspective on the horrific kamikaze attacks. [As an aside, I had no idea, or had forgotten, that the term kamikaze comes from an historical event: a typhoon that mysteriously repelled invaders from the first millennium.]

The VP programs’ intense look at the timeline, intensity, and military tactics of Iwo Jima and Okinawa shed much light on the atomic politics of Truman. Heretofore, as a history instructor I’ve allowed a lot of sympathy in the classroom for the do-not-use position with regard to The Bomb. Generally I’ve pushed the position that one bomb was perhaps necessary, but that a second one was certainly not. My compromise has centered two things: (a) whether unconditional surrender was necessary and (b) the extent of civilian casualties. Because I haven’t been convinced that either was necessary, I’ve not argued against for the the no-use position in spite of my own views.

I think now, however, I’m going to argue more intensely for the one-bomb-necessary-and-second-acceptable position. The horrific casualties and extensiveness of the kamikaze, surrender-is-dishonor spirit of the Japanese have convinced me of the necessity of “atomic shock.”

Ironically, the AE/VP interviews with Japanese veterans and civilians impressed me the most on this point. The kamikaze spirit, no matter whether it was cultural or almost natural to the Japanese people, was such that the line between civilian and military personnel was difficult to distinguish. Only pre-teen children seem to have been uninfected. So the Japanese themselves have convinced me of the need for at least one atomic bomb.

I could go on, but this sums up my immediate feelings and reactions to the Victory in the Pacific programs. I highly recommend the VP programs, especially for use in higher education. The episodes are intelligently put together; they’re almost beyond reproach. And if you’re annoyed with the Hollywood aspects of even a good series like Band of Brothers, then AE/VP is definitely for you.

I’m unsure of the current “viewing permission” situation at the high school level, but I can say with some confidence that the AE/VP material is appropriate for high school seniors. [Aside: I watched Holocaust footage as a high school sophomore (with permission I believe), but I don’t know if that’s allowed today.]

Has anyone else viewed the AE/VP programs? And how have you taught the atomic endgame of World War II? I’m perhaps open to fraternal/professional correction.

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2 Comments
  1. Mike N. permalink

    The Victory in the Pacific program is pretty impressive. Regarding the use of atomic weapons, I give students two possibilities: 1)Both weapons were used to render an invasion of the home islands (with as many as 1 million American combatant, and Japanese civilian and combatant projected casualties) unnecessary 2) Truman did it to intimidate the Soviets: “Don't mess with us, or this will happen to you.” I let students make their own judgement, but I do remind them of how I start my WWII unit: in order to defeat evil, does it become necessary to do evil? The answer to that question is also up to them.

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  2. MikeN,

    I like the rhetorical question, and moral dilemma posed to students. That very issue comes up in a later timeframe when I use Fog of War in the classroom. McNamara leaves the answer vague (of course).

    I admit that I rarely cover the Soviet intimidation question. While I concede that that ~may~ have occurred (historians differ both on far along the Soviets were on their own project, and on how much they knew about the U.S. program), I consider the intimidation scenario only a possible secondary – some might say “happy” – by-product for the Truman administration.

    – TL

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