Obama Rewrites World War Two

by Rafael Medoff

Barack Obama appears to be rewriting the history of World War Two.

Speaking last week in Hiroshima, one of the two Japanese cities decimated by American atomic bombs in August 1945, President Obama presented a description of the war that was rather different from the version to which most of us are accustomed.

He did not mention the Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbor, which launched Japan’s war against the United States. He made no reference to the Japanese massacre and mass rape of several hundred thousand Chinese civilians in Nanking in 1937, nor the thousands of Filipinos and Americans who died from starvation and exhaustion during Japan’s infamous Bataan Death March in 1942.

In Mr. Obama’s version of World War Two, the Japanese were victims just like everybody else. “We come [to Hiroshima] to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children,” he declared. Speaking to a group of American and Japanese soldiers at a nearby military base, the president said his intention was “to honor the memory of all who were lost during World War Two.”

More than 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed in the attack on Hiroshima, and another 80,000 in Nagasaki. “Death fell from the sky, and the world was changed,” President Obama said. “A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”

That’s obviously true–as far as it goes. The destructive power of nuclear weapons casts a shadow over the future of mankind. But in terms of understanding what happened in World War Two, there is much more to the story than Mr. Obama suggested.

To begin with, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the first incidents of mass casualties in a single attack. Far from it. Just five months earlier, in fact, American bombers killed an estimated 100,000 civilians in the mass firebombing of Tokyo.

There were mass war casualties on a similar scale in Germany. In July 1943, for example, American and British bombers targeted Hamburg in what they called “Operation Gomorrah,” a reference to the destruction of that city in ancient times. The Hamburg attack left an estimated 45,000 German civilians dead.

And Britain’s mass firebombing of the German city of Dresden in 1945 killed approximately 25,000 civilians. Many Germans, like the Japanese, perished when “death fell from the sky.” Would President Obama consider visiting Dresden, to “honor the memory of all who were lost during World War Two,” as he did in Japan?

Not likely. Since the Germans were killed by conventional bombs rather than atomic weapons, their experience does not as strongly resonate with a president who says his goal is to “eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons,” as Mr. Obama put it last week.

Moreover, it’s harder to speak about “honoring the memory of all who were lost during World War Two” when it involves the Germans. The American public is far better acquainted with German atrocities than with Nanking or Bataan; as a result, German deaths generate less sympathy than images of children in Hiroshima.

Ronald Reagan learned that lesson the hard way.

In 1985, President Reagan decided to pay a visit to West Germany, where –very much like Mr. Obama in Japan– he wanted to emphasize that former enemies in World War Two have become close friends today. His itinerary included the Kolmeshohe cemetery in Bitburg, where nearly 2,000 German war veterans are buried, including –he was belatedly informed– the graves of 49 members of the SS.

The Bitburg visited ignited a storm of protests. Reagan defended his decision by resorting to a kind of moral equivalency. Since the SS men were “drafted into service,” they were “victims of Nazism just as surely as the victims of the concentration camps,” the president insisted. “We can mourn the German war dead today as human beings, crushed by a vicious ideology.” Not surprisingly, that remark was widely, and justifiably, criticized.

Hiroshima is not Obama’s Bitburg. Obviously there is a vast difference between SS veterans and civilian victims of the atomic bomb.

But what President Obama  –like Reagan before him– seems to be sidestepping is the vast moral difference between those who served in the Allied armies and those who served the Axis. It is too simplistic to declare that “all who were lost during World War Two” were the same. It was likewise misleading to say that the “German war dead” were the same as the American war dead. Those who served in the military of a brutal fascist aggressor –whether Japan or Germany– were not the same as those who fought for freedom and democracy.

Likewise, not all civilian casualties are the same. The fact that the vast majority of Germans and Japanese supported their governments must be taken into consideration in any analysis of the war. Moreover, even as we are instinctively saddened by the loss of all human lives, the fact remains that a nation which is victimized by aggression has a moral right to strike back at its attacker–even when doing so necessitates harming the enemy’s civilians. The Allied bombings of Japanese and German civilian centers in World War Two were undertaken in self-defense. That must not be forgotten.

Ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and maintaining friendly relations with former enemies, are of course worthy goals–but must the historical record, and basic moral distinctions, be mangled in order to advance those aims?

May 2016