August 6, 2012
Sixty-seven years ago today, the United States government undertook one of the largest terrorist attacks in human history.
Hiroshima, one of the few Japanese cities left untouched by conventional firebombing, was leveled by an atom bomb. Seventy thousand people died immediately; tens of thousands more died over the next few months due to radiation. Three days later, another atom bomb struck Nagasaki.
At least one hundred and fifty thousand died from the two bombings, most of them civilians.
That the bombings were necessary to bring about Japanese surrender is doubtful. Many of the most respected commanders of the Second World War, including Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas McArthur, Chester Nimitz, and William D. Leahy, argued that the bombings were unnecessary and morally wrong. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey argues that Japan would have surrendered by the end of the year “even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
Even if the bombings were necessary, however, it is perfectly appropriate to call them terrorism. Terrorism, according to Webster’s, is the use of intense fear to coerce. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings certainly produced intense fear in the Japanese population, and they were launched to coerce the Japan into surrendering more quickly and without conditions.
Other than the use of atomic weaponry, there is nothing unique about these bombings in American history. American hegemony has been accompanied by mass murder and terrorism from its very beginning. When conquering the Philippines, Uncle Sam killed between 200,000 and 1.5 million civilians (reliable records do not exist). Millions died in the Korean and Vietnam wars, many as a result of American carpet bombings.
Even more horrific are the actions of American client states. The Suharto regime in Indonesia exterminated a quarter of the population of East Timor with American weapons and funding. The Mobutu regime in Zaire, consistently backed by the United States, generated the Congo Wars, an ongoing conflict that has killed over five million people. The U.S. also backed Saddam Hussein, Anastazio Somoza, the Shah of Iran, Augusto Pinochet, and Hosni Mubarak, to name just a few.
This is not to say that the U.S. is particularly evil. She is far better than her predecessors—the British Empire, for example, killed sixty million people in India alone. Nor would the world be better under any American rivals: would China really be a better superpower? The past few decades have seen a massive expansion in democracy and prosperity all over the world. While the U.S. hasn’t actively encouraged this, she hasn’t obstructed it the way China almost certainly would. In this sense, American hegemony could be seen as a force for good in the world: it holds off far worse alternatives.
But contemplating how things could be worse never makes progress. American hegemony may be better than many of its alternatives, but it is still seriously flawed. Progress requires that we fight not to keep the current system, however much of an improvement it may be, but rather for something even better.
The crimes of the United States are the inevitable result of global hegemony. Even if the U.S. wanted to spread liberty and prosperity (and it isn’t at all clear she does), it simply wouldn’t be possible. No empire can amass the social, economic, and political knowledge necessary to improve each country. Without such knowledge, there is enormous potential to make things worse: military force, if not very carefully applied, almost always reduces stability and liberty.
We must seek not a benevolent superpower, but no superpower at all. Multilateralism, in which the nations of the world work together to promote liberty, stability and democracy, would avoid the problems of imperialism. Individual countries could design policies based on their specific needs, and would thus be far more likely to make improvements.
So how do we establish multilateralism? This requires a global effort. It isn’t enough for the American public to demand their government abandon its hegemony; that by itself would open the door to Chinese influence. Populations all over the world, in both rich and poor countries, must demand a greater voice in global affairs. If enough governments, swayed by their populations, demand a say in global policy, multilateralism will be a reality; no hegemon has ever been powerful enough to resist all other governments in unison.
Constructing an international mass movement will not be easy; it’s hard enough to build such movements in one country. But if we want to stop the tyranny and killing that inevitably follows imperialism, it is absolutely necessary.