This is the story, complete with moral, of the well-known explorer’s experiences in Japanese prison camps in Java. Considered as literature, it has faults. His narrative may well be true, but its style makes it a prolonged invitation to skepticism. His atrocity stories are no more atrocious than could be matched in my own experience in the Singapore camps and on the Burma railway, or in that of people whose reports I believe; and yet I found myself saying again and again as I read, “Did it really happen just like that?”

This effect is chiefly due to the way in which the whole prison world is made to revolve around the narrator, who conveys an image of himself deficient both in the modesty which can make autobiography (even the autobiography of heroes) palatable and in the sense of humor which kept many of us prisoners sane. And much of it is written in a kind of prose-poetry of which the following is an example:

I thought of all the times I had watched from the tip of the mountain-of-the-arrow, assailed by an immense feeling of doom, the great volcano’s shattered rim wrapped in red-ragged sunsets and the dying light of day outlined beyond like a shadow of foreboding in a magic mirror of scarlet water, the tangled world of the vast island of Sumatra where I had begun my war in Southeast Asia. The feeling of doom was all the more disturbing then because it was not personal so much as cosmic almost, for I remember clearly how the end of day then was always in my mind the end forever of an age of Empire and the night that came down swift as a bat, the fall of shadow implicit between end and re-beginning in the brief and brittle life of man. [Page 93]

On the other hand, the book is commendably free from the recriminations against fellow prisoners which mar some other books in this genre. Van der Post gives generous credit to many of his associates; and his denunciations of the Japanese are not so overdone as his descriptions of the scenery. It is regrettable that the Japanese prison camps did not elicit from their inmates as much good descriptive writing as they deserved; those of us, therefore, who, out of laziness or reticence, have not written anything about our experiences ought not to be critical of those who have.

The book is intended to be read (and is indeed worth reading) as a contribution to the argument about the morality of the use of the two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It starts with an account of how Colonel van der Post met by accident in a television studio a Japanese survivor from Hiroshima who had lost his whole family in the bombing; and of how, after the Japanese had described his experience, van der Post persuaded the producer to allow the program to continue with an impromptu discussion in which he told of his own sufferings as a prisoner and of their part in the whole tragedy of which Hiroshima was another episode. Instead of “tragedy” we should perhaps say “opera,” for the spirit of Wagner is never far absent—the author describes this book as an “orchestration” of what he then said to the Japanese.

The story of his prison experiences is followed by a discussion of the morality of the bombing, in which he argues that, if the bombs had not been dropped, the defeat of the Japanese by conventional means would have been accompanied by a massacre of their prisoners, including himself—if they had not already died, like many of their companions, of malnutrition and disease. There is also implicit in the book a more “cosmic” theme: that the bombing, like the other sufferings of the war, somehow purged or redeemed the souls of the sinful actors in the drama, and made possible a better and more peaceable world thereafter. By contrast with this cosmic setting-to-rights, he condemns the activities of the war crimes tribunals.

This second theme hardly admits of discussion; the first argument has to be judged as history and as morality. I am not competent to assess the truth of his claim that, if the bombs had not been dropped, most of us prisoners would have perished. Van der Post himself offers very little hard evidence. Although he was at the receiving end of the atrocities and the predicted massacre, he was not in a good position to obtain information about Japanese intentions; and he does not say that he has since then done any systematic research into the sources (Allied and Japanese) which are now available. The sources and grounds on which he does rely are, mainly, three. First there is a mysterious Korean at the local Japanese headquarters called (like countless other Koreans) “Kim,” who communicated with van der Post spasmodically and at second or third hand (p. 30) through Chinese civilians outside the camps. He does not seem to have been traced after the war; we are not told that he was even looked for.


Secondly, we are told that Lord Mountbatten’s director of military intelligence, General Penney, assured the author that “among the staff records captured at Terauchi’s headquarters, evidence was found of plans to kill all prisoners and internees when the invasion of Southeast Asia began in earnest” (p. 124). This may be so; but it is never safe to assume that contingency plans will actually be carried out—or, admittedly, that they will not. Massacre was, indeed, for the Japanese an accepted instrument of policy. During the first few days after they had captured Singapore, they massacred thousands of allegedly hostile Chinese by driving them roped together into the sea and machine-gunning them. We heard this being done, and at least one survivor found his way into our camp.

That the Japanese thought of massacring their prisoners is highly likely. But it is perhaps significant that, if my own distant memory of what I myself heard at second or third hand is a reliable source, the Japanese army in Singapore, after the bombs had been dropped, caused to be sent out from Syonan Radio (no doubt to keep the local Chinese quiet for a few days) the most bloodcurdling threats of resistance to the last man, which surely would have involved massacres of prisoners—while what it was actually doing was laying out barbed-wire enclosures, piling most of its arms in one set of these enclosures, and then marching off into another set and waiting for the arrival of the British to hand itself over with safety and decorum. This was perhaps an example of the haragei or double-talk which, at a higher level, kept the American government guessing whether the Japanese were going to surrender or not, and may have been in part responsible for the continuation of the war for those last few days in which the atom bombs were dropped—not that the Allies were any less guilty of failure to make their intentions clear.

This, if true, suggests that mere thoughts of massacre, or even plans, do not amount to massacres. But equally it is no indication of what might have happened if there had been no bombs. When it was reported to us that Operation Zipper, which was to have been the British attempt to reoccupy Malaya and rescue us, involved the landing of the tanks on a beach which proved to be composed of mud deep enough almost to engulf them, we were thankful that there was in fact no Japanese resistance; the medical personnel who parachuted into Changi armed to the teeth and pointed their Sten guns in all directions found nothing but hungry and happy prisoners and not a Japanese in sight. And this may have been due to the bomb.

The third (and we feel, as we read the book, subjectively much the most important) ground for van der Post’s prediction of massacre was his own inner foreboding, nourished on his understanding of the Japanese mind and study of their literature, that thus it must be. In the same way he confidently predicted the Japanese defeat, less on any strategic grounds than because he was certain that

…however glittering the promises of their military day appeared to be in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, underneath in the night of their spirit, a secret unrealized self would be drawing the tide of all their unacknowledged longing produced by thousands of years of the secluded island history which had conditioned their national psychology, to find fulfillment only in utter defeat. It would do this, I felt certain, as irrevocably as the moon drew the waters of the Pacific to those phenomenal neap-tides which so often lapped at the brim of their vibrant land. [Page 74]

I am not in a position to judge whether in fact van der Post, like Belloc’s Captain Blood, “understood the native mind,” or whether he understood it as little as he does the difference between spring and neap tides. He himself provides little evidence. His view, however, is that the quasi-supernatural character of the bombs, to a superstitious people, made acceptable the thought that it would not be dishonorable to surrender, and thus made it possible for the Emperor and the peace party to bring the war to an end. Although he can claim Churchill’s support for this thesis (The Second World War, vol. VI, London, 1954, pp. 552 f.), his own defense of it is highly subjective, and, as he says himself, “One of the most difficult problems for me in life has always been to draw a distinction between fear and wishful thinking on the one hand and valid intuition on the other” (p. 42).


This is the inevitable weakness of those who, whether in history or in morality, rely on intuition instead of argument; and though intuition may sometimes be the only recourse of the intelligence officer, it ought not to suffice for the historian writing twenty-five years after the event. It is to be hoped, however, that professional historians will thoroughly investigate the truth of van der Post’s thesis, now that he has suggested it, for it might have a crucial bearing on the moral issue about the bomb, and needs at least as much discussion as some other factors which have been in the forefront of attention.

There are those who would say that it could have no such bearing, because the dropping of the bomb was in itself a moral crime which could not be justified by any good consequences, even the saving of more lives (enemy and Allied alike) than it destroyed. People who discuss the morality of actions will perhaps always be divided into two classes: those who think that one should do the best one can in an evil world, and those who think it more important to keep oneself unspotted, by observing, “whatever the consequences,” certain simple moral principles which are not allowed to be over about twelve words long. It is fortunate, and perhaps natural, that members of the second class do not often find themselves in positions in which they have to make decisions on which the fate of millions depends—fortunate, because, if they did, that fate might be much worse; and natural, because power, though it may corrupt, does also, often, bring with it a sense of that responsibility from which it is inseparable, thus shifting its wielders from the second class into the first.

It is really very difficult to see how any person with this sense of responsibility, in Truman’s position, could say to himself (as it has been urged that he should have said), “If I drop the bomb innocent people will be killed by it, and that would be murder, so I must not drop it. Admittedly, if I don’t drop it, a great many more innocent people will get killed by the enemy, but that is irrelevant and is not to be laid to my charge, but to that of the enemy leaders.” Truman could not escape from the responsibility of his position as supreme commander. He had a choice between doing various things, and to do any of them would be to bring about certain consequences. We hold statesmen responsible for evils that occur if they could have prevented them by courses which would have produced less evil. For a full treatment of this question, more explanations and qualifications are needed, but that is the heart of it.

To condemn Truman just because he failed to cancel orders whose execution entailed the killing of innocent people is, therefore, to oversimplify the question. If he is to be condemned, it will have to be because he did not do the best he could in the circumstances and did not take sufficient trouble to inform himself about the circumstances in order to determine what was the best thing to do. If this indictment is to be sustained, its second clause is crucial. Truman was, or would have been, very much to blame if there were other possible courses of action besides the bombing (both “conventional” and atomic) that would have ended the war at less cost in lives and suffering, and if he could have discovered and adopted them, but did not.

It is to be hoped that van der Post’s book will make historians pay more attention than they recently have to two factors in the argument. First of all, did the use of this “almost supernatural weapon” (as Churchill called it) do something to the Japanese psychology which conventional weapons, even if equally destructive in total effect, had not achieved; or was it merely that they feared the great escalation that they then saw to be possible? Secondly, in how much danger of massacre were the prisoners of war, and did the fact that atomic bombs were used, and not just “conventional” weapons, make any difference to their fate? It is necessary for anybody who wants to form a considered judgment about the morality of the bombing to sift van der Post’s claims along with the rest of the evidence, and we should be grateful to him for forcing them upon our attention. For myself, I would rather judge Truman’s decision than have to make it, but do not consider myself competent to do even the former.

This Issue

May 20, 1971