Rewriting the Past In Asia Use and Abuse of History

July 24, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

Tokyo -- "Bombs Fell to Justify Outlays,'' read one of many front-page headlines in Japanese newspapers leading up to the 50th anniversaries of the United States' use of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II.

The story under the headline argues that the dropping of the atomic bomb had little to do with the war: It was done for domestic political reasons, to prevent postwar congressional investigation of the $2 billion Manhattan Project to develop the bomb before Germany or Japan.

The argument is made in a 67-page paper by an American historian named Stanley Goldberg, a document that will be printed in full by at least one national magazine here on August 6, the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.

Mr. Goldberg, interpreting National Archives papers in Washington, wrote: ''The use of the atomic bomb against Japan had at least as much to do with politics internal to the United States and with politics internal to the American military bureaucracy as it did with the beginnings of our international competition with the Soviet Union or with the war against Japan.''

The history of that event is always a big story here, but it is even bigger now because of Japanese anger at President Clinton -- not because of trade wars and such, but because of his statement this spring that he would not apologize for President Truman's use of the bomb. In fact, Mr. Clinton said he thought Truman made the right decision given information he had that historic summer 50 years ago.

The Japanese themselves, of course, refuse to apologize for anything that happened during the Pacific War. I happened to be seated directly in front of Mr. Clinton when he said that in Dallas at the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and I thought it was one of his finest moments. He was asked a significant historical question, and he made no attempt to shape an answer pleasing to the Japanese or anyone else. Truman did what a president had to do, said his successor.

Winners write history, it is said. But smart losers try to rewrite it, and the Japanese are very smart. Their line is that the American use of the bomb was so horrible that it balances, even excuses, the history of atrocities that began with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.

This is the summer of history for an American traveling across Asia Pacific. I was on Taiwan, which the Japanese occupied for 50 years up to 1945, on July 7 when the government -- the descendant government of the Nationalist Chinese fighting the communists on the mainland 50 years ago -- argued the case that the communists did not participate in the crucial Chinese battle against the Japanese invaders.

I was also in Indonesia, which will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence on August 17, during a national conference called ''Fifty Years of National Revolution. Examination, Remembrance and Reflection.''

In that part of East Asia, the Japanese try to make the argument that the reasons they invaded and occupied the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), British Malaya and Singapore, and French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) was to liberate their Asian brothers from the oppression of the European colonial powers.

There is a certain plausibility, though little truth, in that argument because one of the unintended consequences of Japanese aggression was the collapse of Asian colonialism. No matter how they were brutalized by the Japanese, other Asians saw something most never believed possible: Men who looked something like them were crushing the giant Europeans. President Suharto of Indonesia, for one, who seized power as a general, was trained as a soldier by the Japanese occupying his country.

All of this remembrance (and distortion, too) is critical now. A struggle for the control of history was inevitable with the end of the Cold War. Many, many Asians see the United States' withdrawal or indecision now in the Pacific, and they sense (or know) that will lead to a new confrontation between China and Japan. Smaller Asian nations will once again have to take sides, which means they must try to understand where they stood the last time.

A European said that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. That may not always be true, but Asians have to worry that it may be true for them right now.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.