Rembering Hiroshima: 58 Years of Myths
(Originally published 5 August 2002, revised)
On 6 August 1945, American war planes dropped the first of two Atomic bombs against Japan, hitting Hiroshima and killing perhaps 150,000 people and destroying the city. Three days later, US planes dropped another bomb on Nagasaki, and Japan sued for peace days later, thus ending the war in the Pacific.
Historians and policymakers often refer to 6 August as "Day One,"
because a new era in mankind was ushered in; cities, perhaps nations, could
now be destroyed with a single weapon, in a single day! Since 6 August
1945, the world has witnessed a spiraling arms race, with many trillions
of dollars spent on nuclear weapons by over a score of countries, with
a corresponding lack of spending and concern for human needs in many places
on the globe.
Despite the horrific consequences of the development and use of nuclear weapons, Americans have not been unduly critical, or even curious, about the decision to use the bomb against Japan in 1945. Opinion polls consistently show that overwhelming numbers of people–in the 80-90 percent range–support the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, principally because they believe, as President Harry Truman and others argued in the late 1940s, that the bomb was necessary to avoid a land invasion of Japan that might have cost a million lives.
In the intervening years, however, various scholars have conducted significant and impressive research on the use of the Atomic Bomb and have compellingly called into question the rationale behind the use of the bomb. So, as we commemorate the 58th anniversary of Hiroshima, a look back at the history of the decision to drop the bomb is worthwhile.
The United States had begun the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons at the outset of the second world war, eventually bringing its ally Britain in on the project, but not its other ally, the Soviet Union. Germany too had been trying to develop a bomb, but many of its scientists, many of whom were Jewish, had fled the Nazi state, with several emigrating to the US or Soviet Union and working on weapons projects there.
By 1945 it was clear that Germany was not close to developing nuclear
capabilities, while the Manhattan Project was on the verge of creating
an atomic bomb. At that point, American decisionmakers in the Roosevelt
and then the Truman administration began to plan to end World War II and
for the potential use of the atomic bomb.
Often, historians and history buffs get bogged down in the precise dates at which events occur and lose sight of the bigger picture. But when discussing the atomic bomb, the timeline is critical:
----In February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta to discuss the postwar world. There, Stalin agreed that the Soviet would enter the war against Japan precisely three months after the European phase of the war was over [in exchange for territorial concessions in Japan].
--American war planners were at this time busy preparing for a military conquest of Japan, and they had two important assumptions in their planning. First, they believed that Japan was already devastated from the grind of war and unremitting air attacks–including incendiary bombing–from the US. Second, they contended that a Soviet declaration of war by itself–prior to an attack –would almost surely force Japan to surrender.
----In the Spring of 1945, American officials, via MAGIC intercepts of Japanese messages, learned that Japan was making overtures for and had a delegation working with the Soviet to develop a settlement/surrender with one major condition–that they would retain their emperor, Hirohito. The US had already announced a policy of Unconditional Surrender, so did not pick up on the Japanese entreaties. In the US, however, there was a strong media push to end the war promptly, even if this meant keeping the emperor in place.
----On 8 May, the war in Europe ended, meaning that the Soviet pledge to attack Japan would be effective on 8 August.
-----In the first half of 1945, US military planners, unquestionably aware of and assuming that Japan was desperate, began planning for an invasion of Japan. They assumed that the earliest date for a limited invasion, of the Ryuku Islands, was 1 November 1945, while the earliest date for an invasion of the Japanese mainland was 1 January 1946–both dates are significantly later than the 8 August Soviet promise of intervention, which planners maintained would force a Japanese surrender by itself. Planners, led by General George Marshall, also assumed that the US could expect about 25,000 casualties as the result of a land invasion.
----On 17 July President Truman met with British PM Clement Attlee and Stalin at Potsdam. The US had delayed the meeting for a couple weeks, claiming pressing budget matters. More likely, Truman was buying time to allow for a test of the Atomic Bomb scheduled for Almogordo, New Mexico. At Potsdam, Staling reaffirmed Soviet intentions to enter the war, but the US was now not eager for Stalin's help. While at Potsdam, Truman received word that the A-Bomb test had been a success. He then began, as his aide James Byrnes described it, to "carry the bomb around on his hip." His previously diplomatic and conciliatory tone gave way to an aggressive bluster and he began to issue ultimatums to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyasheslev Molotov.
----On 6 August, just days before the Soviet Union was to enter the
war, and months before any US invasion, limited or full, was possible,
and aware that Japan was prostrate and desperate, Truman ordered the bombing
of Hiroshima, then Nagasaki. Japan surrendered within the week. Hirohito
was retained as emperor!
The initial public reaction to the use of the bomb was not as overwhelmingly positive as one might think. The country was split about evenly on its use. Many Americans, including the National Council of Bishops and conservatives like William Buckley Sr., criticized Truman's decision on moral and practical grounds. Many if not most of the president's military advisors, including Generals Dwight Eisehnower, Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay, had cautioned against using the A-Bomb, finding it unnecessary and provocative.
In 1947, however, public perceptions on the bomb began to change. Truman published an article, ghosted by Henry Stimson, in which he claimed he dropped the bomb to prevent an invasion of Japan that would have cost one million American lives. With the horror of that scenario in their minds, Americans began to change their opinions on the use of the bomb and have consistently supported it since then.
In the interim, though, scientists and historians have begun to correct the historical record. The bomb's use, many contend, was an example of "atomic diplomacy." The bomb was not dropped to end the war but to assert US hegemony, to send a message to the Soviet Union that the US would use its nuclear monopoly to shape the postwar world in its image.
The decision to use the bomb is still emotional and controversial,
as evidenced by the mid-1990s controversy at the Smithsonian, where politicians
and veterans groups killed an exhibit on the bomb that would have been
displayed at the Air and Space Museum. Myth continues to substitute for
history, and we continue to face the prospects of nuclear war daily.
Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb; and Atomic Diplomacy:
Hiroshima and Potsdam.
P.M.S. Blackett, Fear, War, and the Bomb
John Hersey, Hiroshima
Martin Sherwin, The Willing Weapon
J. Samuel Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction
Gregg Herken, Counsels of War
Ronald Takaki, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb
Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial
David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb
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