Saturday, October 03, 2009

[Travelogue] The time has come for us to say sayonara

We left Japan yesterday. Our last port of call was Nagasaki, which was the target of the second and last (so far) nuclear weapon ever deployed in anger. The evidence of that event is now evident only in museums and monuments. There is no trace of it at ground level. Still, it felt a little creepy to be standing at ground zero thinking, "If I'd been here 65 years ago I would have been instantly vaporized."

I used to think that dropping the bomb was justified on the grounds that Japan was the aggressor in WW2, and there were pretty compelling reasons to believe that more people would have died had the bomb not been dropped than if it had. But recent revelations have made me rethink that. If Japan really was baited into attacking Pearl Harbor by F.D.R. that puts a whole different spin on things. Of course, Truman was not part of F.D.R.'s inner circle and so almost certainly didn't know about the plot (assuming it was a plot).

An interesting tangent: since I'm writing these entries opportunistically as time allows, real events often interleave with my narrative in unexpected ways. Since I wrote the previous paragraph I went to another talk by Dr. Gibbs where he exhibited a fascinating photograph that he took while we were docked in Nagasaki. To understand the significance of this photograph I have to go back in time and give you a little more background: it is commonly believed that the Japanese fleet maintained radio silence as they crossed the Pacific. Radio silence is, of course, crucial to the narrative of a surprise attack. But Gibbs maintains that not only did the Japanese not maintain radio silence, but the whole proposition is absurd on its face. The diesel-powered aircraft carriers of the day did not have the range to cross the Pacific without refueling, and the only way to rendezvous with the tankers was via radio. After talk, Gibbs was challenged by a rather vociferous and apparently well read Australian fellow who insisted that the Japanese did maintain radio silence. The photograph that Gibbs displayed was an array of three tall but otherwise nondescript towers. These were the actual radio towers used to communicate with the fleet as they crossed the Pacific, one of the few pre-bomb structures left standing. It is, says Gibbs, common knowledge among the residents of Nagasaki that the myth of Japanese radio silence is just that. The implications are truly staggering.

Anyhoo... we were very well received in Nagasaki despite having nuked them. The city is vibrant, and but for the monuments, memorials, museums, and myriad folded paper cranes you would never guess that this place was the site of near total annihilation not so long ago. Our visit was mostly uneventful, except for a bit of an adventure trying to find a sushi bar in the maze of charming side streets and alleyways off the main drag.

Despite being out of Japanese radio silence, internet access is still sporadic, as is the availability of free time to write. So I'm going to go ahead and post this. Tomorrow we're in Seoul, our one and only port of call in Korea. I'll try to find time to fill in some of the details about Japan before we get there.


Miles said...

This is the part I don't get. Let's say FDR knew what would happen. Why wouldn't you prepare the base? If Japan attacks, and then the US foils the surprise attack, then 1) we have just as much reason to go to war and 2) we have better materiel to go to war with and 3) we have better morale (possibly negligible, and possibly offset by the rage incited by Pearl Harbor, hard to say).

Why let Pearl Harbor get completely bombed to nothing and let the enemy score a propaganda coup?

Ron said...

Gibbs has several answers to that. First, the fact that the aircraft carriers were ordered out of Pearl Harbor before the attack is one of the facts that Gibbs cites to support his thesis. Gibbs says that all of the ships left at PH were old and expendable. He couldn't order *all* the ships out of PH because he had to leave something there to serve as bait for the Japanese in order to induce them to attack American soil. An attack on the open seas wold not have served FDR's political goal of galvanizing American public opinion for the war. Second, the Japanese attack force was picked up on radar, but the warning was quashed on its way up the chain of command by a new duty officer who didn't believe that such an attack was possible. Gibbs calls this incompetence of the sort that FDR had not reckoned on.

Anonymous said...

Ron, have you checked out the Perl Harbour Advance Knowledge Debate page on Wikipedia? Gibbs appears to be using several arguments that are fairly well debunked.

For the two points you mention here:

1. Carriers were apparently not considered as valuable as battleships up to the beginning of the war; they were not even considered capital ships in the doctrine of the time. This makes perfect sense to me, as there had been no significant carrier battles before WWII, and such a large doctrinal change coming out of nowhere in peacetime seems rather unlikely, given that naval doctrine throughout history (both in the age of sail and in WWI, on both of which I've done a reasonable amount of reading) has a record of major doctrinal switch only after the start of a major conflict.

2. Of course there was a full set of communications going on between the base and the "attack fleet," this being the fake traffic between the base and the decoy "fleet" (the actual fleet's radio operators who had been left behind in Japan) intended to make anybody listening believe that the fleet was still in the far west Pacific doing its usual thing.

I know that a single speaker in a lecture or two can often present a convincing argument for a radical re-interpretation of history. I'd suggest doing some further study before taking Gibbs too seriously, however.