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8/06/2005

Our dumb century

Two pieces from Common Dreams make the case that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not done from necessity.

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin examine "the myths of Hiroshima":
Sixty years ago tomorrow, an atomic bomb was dropped without warning on the center of the Japanese city of Hiroshima. One hundred and forty thousand people were killed, more than 95% of them women and children and other noncombatants. At least half of the victims died of radiation poisoning over the next few months. Three days after Hiroshima was obliterated, the city of Nagasaki suffered a similar fate.

...To many Americans at the time, and still for many today, it seemed clear that the bomb had ended the war, even "saving" a million lives that might have been lost if the U.S. had been required to invade mainland Japan.

This powerful narrative took root quickly and is now deeply embedded in our historical sense of who we are as a nation. A decade ago, on the 50th anniversary, this narrative was reinforced in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first bomb. The exhibit, which had been the subject of a bruising political battle, presented nearly 4 million Americans with an officially sanctioned view of the atomic bombings that again portrayed them as a necessary act in a just war.

But although patriotically correct, the exhibit and the narrative on which it was based were historically inaccurate. For one thing, the Smithsonian downplayed the casualties, saying only that the bombs "caused many tens of thousands of deaths" and that Hiroshima was "a definite military target."

Americans were also told that use of the bombs "led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands." But it's not that straightforward. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has shown definitively in his new book, "Racing the Enemy" — and many other historians have long argued — it was the Soviet Union's entry into the Pacific war on Aug. 8, two days after the Hiroshima bombing, that provided the final "shock" that led to Japan's capitulation.

...The hard truth is that the atomic bombings were unnecessary. A million lives were not saved. Indeed, McGeorge Bundy, the man who first popularized this figure, later confessed that he had pulled it out of thin air in order to justify the bombings in a 1947 Harper's magazine essay he had ghostwritten for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

The bomb was dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said in November 1945, on "an essentially defeated enemy." President Truman and his closest advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes, quite plainly used it primarily to prevent the Soviets from sharing in the occupation of Japan. And they used it on Aug. 6 even though they had agreed among themselves as they returned home from the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 3 that the Japanese were looking for peace.
Matthew Rothschild calls the upcoming anniversary an unhappy one:
From the historical record, it's becoming increasingly clear that these atomic bombs—which killed more than 200,000 people immediately—were unnecessary.

Now I know a lot of old vets will tell you that the bombs saved hundreds of thousands of lives by forestalling a bloody invasion of the island.

My uncle was a commander in the Pacific, and he always made that argument.

But the argument is no longer holding.

First of all, if the United States had detonated a demonstration bomb on an unpopulated island and proved to Japan how lethal these weapons were, it's possible that the Japanese government would have surrendered.

And secondly, the event that had the most to do with that ultimate surrender was the Soviet Union declaring war on Japan on August 8, two days after the Hiroshima blast, argues Professor Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in a new book entitled Racing the Enemy.

The Japanese had long understood that once the Soviets joined the battle, the war was over. They were looking for assurances that Emperor Hirohito would remain in power, and if they got such assurances, they were prepared to surrender. The last thing they wanted was the Russian army, a historical enemy, to be occupying the country, writes Hasegawa.

For a while, the United States wanted the Soviets to join the effort against Japan. But once the U.S. came up with the bomb, Washington felt it no longer needed the Soviets to enter the war. In fact, it wanted the Soviets to bug out, historian Gar Alperovitz contends.

The Hiroshima bombing on August 6 was therefore as much an effort to preempt the Soviets, and to scare them into a submissive position at the dawn of the Cold War, as it was to bring the war to a speedy conclusion.

Anyone who argues for the utility of the Hiroshima bombing has to come to terms with Nagasaki three days later, which appears utterly senseless and sadistic.

"I knew a single word that proved our democratic government was capable of committing obscene, gleefully rabid and racist, yahooistic murders of unarmed men, women, and children, murders wholly devoid of military common sense," wrote Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake. "I said the word. It was a foreign word. That word was Nagasaki."

Or, as the Onion put it in Our Dumb Century, "Nagasaki bombed ‘just for the hell of it.’"

...General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself argued against using the bomb, and after the war he famously said: "It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."
It's time to come to terms with the horror and evil of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Speculation about the millions that would have otherwise died means nothing; the fact is that acts as horrific as these are only justified under the most dire of possible conditions, and every effort must be made to avoid them - efforts which were clearly not made by Truman and his advisors.

Would a demonstration bombing have worked? Truman apologists say no. But the fact is they don't know that. What we do know is that it wasn't even tried. This is inexcusable.

Did Truman et al. work as hard as they possibly could to bring about an end to the war without using atomic weapons? Did they fully explore every alternative? Did they try every other possible tactic? The answer to these questions is clearly no.

They had their atom bomb, and damned if they were going to keep it in their back pocket. The fact that hundreds of thousands would die, some instantly, some within hours, their skin literally falling off of their bodies, others only after many years of sickness - this doesn't seem to have given them much pause at all.

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