Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb”, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, after the explosion of the first atomic bomb, New Mexico, July 16, 1945
When Paul Tibbets was thirteen years old he flew a bi-plane over Florida’s Miami Beach dropping a promotional cargo of Babe Ruth Candy Bars directly on to the promotional target area, in an advertising stunt. It was his first solo flight and: “From that moment he became hooked on flying.”
He became a test pilot and: “one of the first Americans to fly in world War Two.” Seventeen years later he had graduated from dropping Candy Bars to dropping the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Thirty years later, the now retired Brigadier-General Paul Warfield Tibbets told authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, for their minutely detailed and definitive book on one of the world’s greatest crimes, of the background to the venture. Most would surely conclude it was a criminal project from the start, on every level.
Tibbets told the authors:
I got called on this bomb job … I was told I was going to destroy one city with one bomb. That was quite a thought … We had, working in my organization, a murderer, three men guilty of manslaughter and several felons; all of them had escaped from prison.
The murderer was serving life; the manslaughter guys were doing ten to fifteen years; the felons three to five. After escaping they had enlisted under false names. They were all skilled technicians … They were all good, real good at their jobs and we needed ‘em. We told them that if they gave us no trouble, they would have no trouble from us.
After it was over, we called each of them in and handed them their dossiers and a box of matches and said ‘Go burn ‘em.’ You see, I was not running a police department, I was running an outfit that was unique.
The crime which the “outfit” committed was also unique, making the odd murder, manslaughter or felony on home soil pale into insignificance in comparison.
In Hiroshima, a millisecond after 8.16 a.m., on August 6th, 1945, the temperature at the core of the hundreds of feet wide fireball reached 50,000,000 degrees. Flesh burned two miles distant from it’s outer parameters.
80,000 people were killed or mortally injured instantly. The main area targeted was “the city’s principal residential, commercial and military quarters.”
The entrance to the Shima Clinic was flanked by great stone columns – “They were rammed straight down into the ground.” The building was destroyed: “The occupants were vapourised.”
Just three of the city’s fifty five hospitals remained usable, one hundred and eighty of Hiroshima’s two hundred doctors were dead or injured and 1,654 of 1,780 nurses.
Sixty-two thousand buildings were destroyed as were all utilities and transportation systems. Just sixteen fire fighting vehicles remained workable.
People standing, walking, the schoolgirls manning the communications centre in Hiroshima Castle and ninety percent of the castle’s occupants, including American prisoners of war, were also vapourised. Gives a whole new meaning to the US military’s much vaunted ‘No soldier left behind.’
The radiant heat set alight Radio Hiroshima, burnt out the tramcars, trucks, railway rolling stock.
Stone walls, steel doors and asphalt pavement glowed red hot.” Clothing fused to skin. “More than a mile from the epicenter” mens’ caps fused to their scalps, womens’ kimonos to their bodies and childrens’ socks to their legs. All the above decimations happened in the time a crew member of the US bomber, “Enola Gay”, took to blink from the flash behind his goggles. What he saw when he opened them and looked down was, he said: “a peep in to hell.1
At home base, as Hiroshima was incinerated, a party was being prepared to welcome the arsonists. “The biggest blow out” with free beer, all star soft ball game, a jitter bug contest, prizes, star attractions, a movie and the cooks working overtime to prepare a sumptuous fare.
Hiroshima’s destruction had a uranium-based detonation. Three days later on August 9th, Nagasaki was destroyed by a plutonium-based detonation to ascertain which would be the most “effective” in the new nuclear age warfare.
Not even a nod or thought had been given to the Hague Convention which had very specific legal guidelines for protection of civilians in war. One might speculate that Hiroshima also vapourised any pretention of such considerations for all time, in spite of the subsequent Geneva Convention and its additional protocols.
In May of this year, President Obama visited Hiroshima. He said:
Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.
Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.
Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.
Obama ended his Hiroshima address with:
Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.
For a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a constitutional law expert, his words are especially cheap. The man who began his Presidency with a public commitment to build a nuclear weapons free world (speech in Czech Republic, April 5th, 2009) has, mind bendingly, committed to a thirty year, one Trillion $ nuclear arsenal upgrade.
The epitaph at Hiroshima was written by Tadayoshi Saika, Professor of English Literature at Hiroshima University. He also provided the English translation: “Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil.”
On November 3, 1983, an explanation plaque in English was added in order to convey Professor Saika’s intent that “we” refers to “all humanity”, not specifically the Japanese or Americans, and that the “error” is the “evil of war”.
The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima – enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony … and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.
Did President Obama have a twinge of conscience as he read it? Or did he even bother? He is surely among the most unworthy of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. And will the rest of the world heed the words, the pledge and the spirit, before it is too late?
- Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. Ruin from the Air: The Enola Gay’s Atomic Mission to Hiroshima, August 1990
Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist with special knowledge of Iraq. Author, with Nikki van der Gaag, of Baghdad in the Great City series for World Almanac books, she has also been Senior Researcher for two Award winning documentaries on Iraq, John Pilger’s Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq and Denis Halliday Returns for RTE (Ireland.)
On his visit to Hiroshima last May, Obama did not, as some had vainly hoped he might, apologize for the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of the city. Instead he gave a high-sounding speech against war. He did this as he was waging ongoing drone war against defenseless enemies in faraway countries and approving plans to spend a trillion dollars upgrading the US nuclear arsenal.
An apology would have been as useless as his speech. Empty words don’t change anything. But here was one thing that Obama could have said that would have had a real impact: he could have told the truth.
He could have said:
“The atom bombs were not dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘to save lives by ending the war’. That was an official lie. The bombs were dropped to see how they worked and to show the world that the United States possessed unlimited destructive power.”
There was no chance that Obama would say that. Officially, the bombing “saved lives” and therefore, it was worth it. Like the Vietnamese villages we destroyed in order to save them, like the countless Iraqi children who died as a result of US sanctions, the hundreds of thousands of agonizing women and children in two Japanese cities remain on the debit side of the United States accounts with humanity, unpaid and unpunished.
“It Was Worth It”
The decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a political not a military decision. The targets were not military, the effects were not military. The attacks were carried out against the wishes of all major military leaders. Admiral William Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his memoirs that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…” General Eisenhower, General MacArthur, even General Hap Arnold, commander of the Air Force, were opposed. Japan was already devastated by fire bombing, facing mass hunger from the US naval blockade, demoralized by the surrender of its German ally, and fearful of an imminent Russian attack. In reality, the war was over. All top U.S. leaders knew that Japan was defeated and was seeking to surrender.
The decision to use the atom bombs was a purely political decision taken almost solely by two politicians alone: the poker-playing novice President and his mentor, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes.
President Harry S. Truman was meeting with Churchill and Stalin in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam when secret news came that the New Mexico test of the atomic bomb was a success. Observers recall that Truman was “a changed man”, euphoric with the possession of such power. While more profound men shuddered at the implications of this destructive force, to Truman and his “conniving” Secretary of State, James Byrnes, the message was: “Now we can get away with everything.”
They proceeded to act on that assumption – first of all in their relations with Moscow.
In response to months of U.S. urging, Stalin promised to enter the Asian war three months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, which occurred in early May 1945. It was well known that the Japanese occupation forces in China and Manchuria could not resist the Red Army. It was understood that two things could bring about Japan’s immediate surrender: Russia’s entrance into the war and U.S. assurance that the royal family would not be treated as war criminals.
Both these things happened in the days right after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But they were overshadowed by the atom bomb.
And that was the point.
That way, the U.S. atom bombs got full credit for ending the war.
But that is not all.
The demonstrated possession of such a weapon gave Truman and Byrnes such a sense of power that they could abandon previous promises to the Russians and attempt to bully Moscow in Europe. In that sense, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only gratuitously killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. They also started the Cold War.
Hiroshima and the Cold War
A most significant observation on the effects of the atomic bomb is attributed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. As his son recounted, he was deeply depressed on learning at the last minute of plans to use the bomb. Shortly after Hiroshima, Eisenhower is reported to have said privately:
“Before the bomb was used, I would have said yes, I was sure we could keep the peace with Russia. Now, I don’t know. Until now I would have said that we three, Britain with her mighty fleet, America with the strongest air force, and Russia with the strongest land force on the continent, we three could have guaranteed the peace of the world for a long, long time to come. But now, I don’t know. People are frightened and disturbed all over. Everyone feels insecure again.”
As supreme allied commander in Europe, Eisenhower had learned that it was possible to work with the Russians. US and USSR domestic economic and political systems were totally different, but on the world stage they could cooperate. As allies, the differences between them were mostly a matter of mistrust, matters that could be patched up.
The victorious Soviet Union was devastated from the war: cities in ruins, some twenty million dead. The Russians wanted help to rebuild. Previously, under Roosevelt, it had been agreed that the Soviet Union would get reparations from Germany, as well as credits from the United States. Suddenly, this was off the agenda. As news came in of the successful New Mexico test, Truman exclaimed: “This will keep the Russians straight.” Because they suddenly felt all-powerful, Truman and Byrnes decided to get tough with the Russians.
Stalin was told that Russia could take reparations only from the largely agricultural eastern part of Germany under Red Army occupation. This was the first step in the division of Germany, which Moscow actually opposed.
Since several of the Eastern European countries had been allied to Nazi Germany, and contained strong anti-Russian elements, Stalin’s only condition for those countries (then occupied by the Red Army) was that their governments should not be actively hostile to the USSR. For that, Moscow favored the formula “People’s Democracies” meaning coalitions excluding extreme right parties.
Feeling all-powerful, the United States sharpened its demands for “free elections” in hope of installing anti-communist governments. This backfired. Instead of giving in to the implicit atomic threat, the Soviet Union dug in its heels. Instead of loosening political control of Eastern Europe, Moscow imposed Communist Party regimes – and accelerated its own atomic bomb program. The nuclear arms race was on.
“Have Our Cake and Eat It”
John J. McCloy, labeled by his biographer Kai Bird as the informal “chairman of the U.S. establishment”, told Secretary of War Henry Stimson at the time that: “I’ve been taking the position that we ought to have our cake and eat it too; that we ought to be free to operate under this regional arrangement in South America, at the same time intervene promptly in Europe; that we oughtn’t to give away either asset…” Stimson replied, “I think so, decidedly.”
In short, the United States was to retain its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere, claimed by the Monroe Doctrine, while depriving Russia of its own buffer zone.
It is necessary to recognize the sharp distinction between domestic policy and foreign policy. The nature of the Soviet internal regime may have been as bad as it is portrayed, but when it came to foreign policy, Stalin scrupulously respected deals made with the Western allies – abandoning, for instance, the Greek Communists as they were crushed by the Anglo-Americans after the war. It was the United States that reneged on the deals made at Yalta, which were then stigmatized as sellouts to “communist aggression”. Stalin had absolutely no desire to promote communist revolution in Western Europe, much less to invade those countries. In fact his failure to promote world revolution was precisely the basis of the campaign against “Stalinism” by Trotskyists – including Trotskyists whose devotion to world revolution has now shifted to promotion of US “regime change” wars.
There is a prevailing Western doctrine that dictatorships make war, and democracies make peace. There is no proof of that whatsoever. Dictatorships (think of Franco Spain) may be conservative and inward-looking. The major imperialist powers, Britain and France, were democracies. Democratic America is far from peaceful.
As the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear arsenal, the United States was unable to interfere effectively in Eastern Europe and fell back on lesser enemies, overthrowing governments in Iran and Guatemala, getting bogged down in Vietnam, on the theory that these were surrogates for the Soviet communist enemy. But now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, abandoning Russia’s buffer zone in Eastern Europe, there appears to be a resurgence of the sort of confidence that overcame Truman: a euphoria of limitless power. Why else would the Pentagon undertake a trillion dollar program to renew America’s nuclear arsenal, while stationing troops and aggressive military equipment as close as possible to the Russian border?
In his 1974 book about his relations with his brother Dwight, The President Is Calling, Milton Eisenhower wrote: “Our employment of this new force at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a supreme provocation to other nations, especially the Soviet Union.” And he added, “Certainly what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki will forever be on the conscience of the American people.”
Alas, the evidence so far is all to the contrary. Concerned critics have been marginalized. Systematic official lies about the “necessity to save American lives” have left the collective American conscience perfectly clear, while the power of the Bomb has created a lasting sense of self-righteous “exceptionalism” in the nation’s leaders. We Americans alone can do what others cannot, because we are “free” and “democratic” and they – if we so decide – are not. Other countries, not being “democracies”, can be destroyed in order to liberate them. Or simply destroyed. This is the bottom line of the “exceptionalism” that substitutes in Washington for the “conscience of the American people” which was not aroused by Hiroshima, but asphyxiated.
The Moral Sleep
As a guest in Hiroshima, Obama pontificated skillfully:
“The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”
Well yes, but no such moral revolution has taken place.
“… the memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.”
“Change” is an Obama specialty. But he did nothing to change our nuclear arms policy, except to beef it up. No sign of a “moral imagination” imagining the devastation that this policy is leading us toward. No imaginative ideas to bring about nuclear disarmament. Just promises not to let the bad guys get a hold of them. They belong to us.
“And since that fateful day,” Obama continued, “we have made choices that give us hope. The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war.”
This is sinister. As a matter of fact, it was precisely through war that the U.S. forged this alliance and this friendship – which the United States is now trying to militarize in its “Asian pivot”. It means that we can wipe out two of a country’s cities with nuclear weapons and end up with “not only an alliance but a friendship”. So why stop now? Why not make more such “friends” in the same way, for instance in Iran, which Hillary Clinton has expressed willingness to “obliterate” if the circumstances are right.
“That is a future we can choose,” said Obama, “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
But so far, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are very far from marking the “start of our own moral awakening”. On the contrary. The illusion of possessing limitless power removed any need for critical self-examination, any need to make a real effort to understand others who are not like us and don’t want to be like us, but could share the planet peacefully if we would leave them alone.
Since we are all-powerful, we must be a force for good. In reality, we are neither. But we seem incapable of recognizing the limits of our “exceptionalism”.
The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki plunged the United States leadership into a moral sleep from which it has yet to awaken.
 All of that is known to experts. The documentary proofs were all laid out by Gar Alperovitz in the 800 pages of his 1995 book, The Decision to Use the Atom Bomb. However, official lies outlive documented refutation.
 Alperovitz pp 352-3.
 Ibid p.254.
Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book is Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. She can be reached at email@example.com
On May 27, Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing. Though highly photogenic, the visit was otherwise one that avoided acknowledging the true history of the place.
Like his official predecessors (Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial in early April, as did two American ambassadors before him), Obama did not address the key issues surrounding the attack. “He [Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, stated.
With rare exception, the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end World War Two is debated only deep within the safety of academic circles: could a land invasion have been otherwise avoided? Would more diplomacy have achieved the same ends without the destruction of two cities? Could an atomic test on a deserted island have convinced the Japanese? Was the surrender instead driven primarily by the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific War, which, by historical accident, took place two days after Hiroshima—and the day before Nagasaki was immolated?
But it is not only the history of the decision itself that is side stepped. Beyond the acts of destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen.
The short version of the atomic myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were not dropped out of revenge or malice, immoral acts, but of grudging military necessity. As a result of this, the attacks have not provoked or generated deep introspection and national reflection.
The use of the term “myth” is appropriate. Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new, extraordinary power the United States alone possessed. The military necessity argument was largely created later, in a 1947 article defending the use of the atomic bomb, written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Conant described the article’s purpose at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”
The Stimson article was a response to journalist John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorker and later as a book. Due to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required that formal White House response. Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name. The Stimson article was quite literally the moment of creation of the Hiroshima myth.
The national belief that no moral wrong was committed with the atomic bombs, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection, echoes forward through today (the blithe way Nagasaki is treated as a historical after thought – “and Nagasaki, too” – only drives home the point.) It was 9/11, the new Pearl Harbor, that started a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition and indefinite detention are seen by most as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.
And with that, the steps away from the violence of Hiroshima and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are merely a matter of degree. The myth allows the world’s most powerful nation to go to war as a victim after the tragic beheadings of only a small number of civilians. Meanwhile, the drone deaths of children at a wedding party are seen as unfortunate but only collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism itself. It is a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who held the knife.
We may, in fact, think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands to otherwise end World War Two. There is little debate in the “war on terror” because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says an illusion of expediency wipes away any concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to strike next.
Japan, too, is guilty of failing to look deep into itself over its own wartime atrocities. Yet compared to the stunning array of atrocities during and since World War Two, the world’s only use of nuclear weapons still holds a significant place in infamy. To try and force the Japanese government to surrender (and no one in 1945 knew if the plan would work) by making it watch mass casualties of innocents, and then to hold the nation hostage to future attacks with the promise of more bombs to come, speaks to a cruelty previously unseen.
For President Obama to visit Hiroshima without reflecting on the why of that unfortunate loss of lives, acting as if they occurred via some natural disaster, is tragically consistent with the fact that for 71 years no American president felt it particularly important to visit the victimized city. America’s lack of introspection over one of the 20th century’s most significant events continues, with 21st century consequences.
Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Hiroshima on Friday, more than seven decades after the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped a 10,000-pound atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on the city whose military value was far less than that of Tampa to the United States. More than 70,000 people were instantly killed, and virtually the entire city was flattened. Many survivors would suffer prolonged and unimaginably painful aftereffects of radiation, which would cost at least 100,000 more people their lives. The effects of radiation would harm people for years and decades after the initial explosion.
Obama stood at a podium with the epicenter of the blast, the Genbaku Domu, in the background and said that he had “come to mourn the dead.” While Obama mourned, there was one thing he did not do: apologize.
He said that “death came from the sky.” No mention of why. Or who was responsible, as if it were a natural disaster rather than a crime perpetrated by actual people. Obama was either unwilling or unable to confront the truth and make amends.
Here’s what he could have said to try to do so:
Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, an American warplane unleashed the most horrific and inhuman weapon ever invented, immediately imperiling the survival of the entire human species. This act of terrorism was the ultimate crime: a crime of mass murder, a crime of war, and a crime against humanity.
The victims, those who died incinerated in a flash, and those who died slowly and painfully over years from chemical poisoning, were never able to see justice served. Sadly, there is no way the criminals who carried out this heinous and barbaric act will ever face justice for their crimes.
I cannot change that. But, there is one thing I can do as the leader of the nation in whose name the bombing of Hiroshima was carried out: I can tell you, residents of Hiroshima and the rest of Japan, that I am sorry. I am sorry on behalf of my government and my country. I wish an American President would have come earlier and said this. This apology is decades overdue. It is a small and symbolic act, but it is necessary as a first step for true reconciliation.
A nuclear bomb should have never been dropped on Hiroshima. The most important goal of mankind should be to ensure that no nuclear bomb is ever dropped again. Anywhere in the world. Ever.
It would be easy to stand here and tell you that there are reasons why the American military and political officials chose to use a nuclear bomb. I could say it served a greater good of saving lives that would have been lost if the war had continued. I could say it was a decision made by people who were dealing with the pressure and horrors of fighting a war. But that would not be the truth. Those would be empty rationalizations. There is no justification for the bomb. Period.
The truth is that by August 6, 1945 Japan was defeated and had been seeking a conditional surrender for months. And American war planners knew this. They knew it because they had cracked the Japanese code and were intercepting their messages. 
Japan was willing to surrender under the condition that their Emperor, who was seen as a God among the Japanese people, be allowed to maintain his throne and not be prosecuted for war crimes. The Emperor himself called for “a plan to end the war” six weeks before the fateful day.  After so much unspeakable death and destruction, this reasonable offer should have been met with ecstatic celebration and relief.
Instead, U.S. officials disregarded it. They decided that it was necessary not just to defeat Japan, but to leave them utterly humiliated and disgraced. They wanted to demonstrate to their public that they could force another country to lay prostrate in front of them in complete submission. This is the mindset of terrorists, torturers, and sadists.
The United States joined with China and Great Britain to issue the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, in which they called on Japan “to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces.” These were terms they understood Japan could not accept.
Unfortunately, the use of the atomic bomb had become inevitable after the massive investment of time and treasure represented by the Manhattan Project. Military planners worried about “the possibility that after spending huge amounts of money … the bomb would be a dud. They could easily imagine being grilled mercilessly by hostile members of Congress.”
Historian and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission employee J. Samuel Walker confirmed that aside from “shortening the war and saving American lives, Truman wanted to justify the expense and effort required to build the atomic bombs.”
That financial considerations and a self-interested desire for bureaucrats to validate themselves and protect their careers could lead to the single most destructive and cruel act in history is an abomination. It is a deep offense to the idea that people are innately moral, and it makes us ask how in a democratic society we can vest people with the authority to make decisions of such profound impact secretly and without accountability?
Walker notes that another consideration for using the bomb on Hiroshima was to put fear into the leaders of the Soviet Union and make them “more amenable to American wishes.” Just six weeks earlier the UN Charter had been established. It included the demand that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force” against other states. The drafters could of the treaty could never have imagined such an unconscionable violation of their words so soon after the monumental pact had been written.
As horrific as the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima was, it did not occur in a vacuum. What no one in mainstream American political discourse has so far been able to admit is that not only was there no justification for the bomb, there was little justification for the war against Japan in the first place.
The war was the result of the notion, which first emanated from the Council on Foreign Relations in 1941, that the U.S.’s “national interest” called for a “Grand Area” that consisted of the Western hemisphere, the British Empire and the Far East, while assuming the majority of Europe would be controlled by Nazi Germany. This was translated into a policy that demanded a military confrontation with Japan for control of the Far East. 
A pillar in this policy was an economic embargo against Japan. Cut off from imports and raw materials from the United States and Great Britain, Japan grew desperate and subsequently sought to expand its Empire. Japan saw itself in need of a sphere of influence involving the same areas in the Far East as the United States.
The U.S. had several options to avoid war. For one, they could develop a program of agricultural and economic self-sufficiency which would allow them to insulate themselves from dependence on colonial powers, as well as allow them to steer clear of unpredictable and potentially hostile regions of the world.
But for businessmen who wanted to maintain control over the direction of the economy and keep their own fortunes growing at a limitless pace, this was a nonstarter. Instead, they were dedicated to challenging Japan. Hence, the embargo and the buildup for an inevitable military confrontation over Eastern Asia.
This is the background to Pearl Harbor. Japan was obviously not justified for attacking sovereign American territory in a blatant act of aggression. But we cannot pretend that it was not predictable or logical from their point of view.
Japan felt itself backed into a corner by the embargo. They felt they needed to expand further into Asia. They believed that if they did so, the U.S. military would have attacked them. They were right.
Both countries should have worked together to recognize each other’s perceived interests, deescalate, and achieve a mutually acceptable compromise. It is the ability to understand one’s perceived adversary as a rational counterpart, rather than an evil and irrational enemy, that separates humans from beasts. If we are not able to use this ability, we are no better than a predator seeking his prey.
The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima did not need to happen. But the bombing that took place on this site was just a symptom of the war it was part of. War will necessarily produce horrific crimes, some of which are unimaginable at the time they happen. As horrific as the nuclear bomb was, 70 years of technological advancements have made not just the destruction of an entire city, but of an entire country or continent within the realm of possibility.
We need to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. But that is not enough. Chemical weapons like napalm, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, and white phosphorous; biological weapons like Dengue bacteria and germ bombs; and conventional weapons like cluster bombs, pineapple bomblets, butterfly bombs and land mines are just some of the savage weapons used by the U.S. military alone in the years since the close of World War II to kill and maim millions of people. Many other countries possess similar weapons of mass destruction and have the capacity to do the same.
We need to eliminate war. All war. Forever. War is evil, plain and simple. We cannot undo the actions of the past. But we can let them guide us to a better world where we don’t repeat the horrors that the people of Hiroshima suffered here 71 years ago. That will be the only way to prevent the victims from having died in vain.
 Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. pp. 423.
 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 19, 1946. President’s Secretary’s File, Truman Papers. http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/documents/index.php?pagenumber=33&documentid=65&documentdate=1946-06-19&studycollectionid=abomb&groupid=
 Shoup, Laurence H. and William Minter. Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2004.
President Obama made an historic visit to Hiroshima today—the first sitting US president to do so since the US atomic bombing of that city on August 6, 1945, followed three days later by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
As he did in Prague, in 2009, President Obama gave a very moving and meaningful speech about the impact of nuclear weapons, reflecting upon the experience of the victims of nuclear warfare—the Hibakusha.
“Their souls speak to us,” he said. “They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.”
In reiterating his call for a world without nuclear weapons, President Obama acknowledged that the suffering of the Hibakusha gives us “a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.” The very existence of nuclear weapons, he said, “fuels our moral imagination.”
These thoughts and words, though profound, have not been matched by US actions to eliminate nuclear weapons. To the contrary, the Obama administration is implementing a $1 trillion, 30-year program to build new and more usable nuclear weapons, along with more accurate delivery systems and the infrastructure to keep producing them well into the 21st century. This administration has done less to reduce the number of US nuclear weapons than any of its recent predecessors. Not only has the US failed to reduce its own reliance on nuclear weapons, it has induced other countries, including Japan, to rely upon US nuclear weapons for their own security. Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow has rightly called this extended nuclear deterrence arrangement with Japan an insult to the Hibakusha.
Moreover, while President Obama payed homage to the Hibakusha and to the victims of all wars, declaring that we must “reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race,” the United States has boycotted a series of international conferences and the meetings of a UN working group with a mandate to recommend ways of doing things differently to achieve a world without nuclear weapons and to ensure that no other city ever suffers the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
All of the other nuclear-armed states—Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—have paid similar lip service to the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, and all are engaged in their own large and expensive nuclear rearmament programs. All of them have boycotted the UN working group that is laying the groundwork for a new legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons based on their humanitarian impact. All of the nuclear-armed states, including the US, are turning their backs on the meaning of Hiroshima and the appeal of the Hibakusha.
When the US and the other nuclear-armed states stop doing everything they can to block a treaty banning nuclear weapons, and abandon plans to rebuild and perpetuate their nuclear arsenals, President Obama’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons will have meaning. Until then it is empty rhetoric.
Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry will not offer any apologies to the people of Hiroshima over the 1945 atomic bombing of the Japanese city, a senior US official says.
Kerry arrived in Hiroshima on Sunday and is reportedly arranging for a trip by President Barack Obama as the first US president to visit the city, as part of his trip to Japan for a G7 summit in late May.
“If you are asking whether the secretary of state came to Hiroshima to apologize, the answer is no,” a senior US official told reporters Sunday, on condition of anonymity.
“If you are asking whether the secretary and I think all Americans and all Japanese are filled with sorrow at the tragedies that befell so many of our countrymen, the answer is yes,” he noted.
Kerry and a number of other foreign ministers are slated to visit Peace Memorial Park as well as a museum dedicated to the obliteration of the city by an American atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.
The bombing killed nearly 140,000 people and was shortly followed by another US atomic bombing on the port city of Nagasaki, killing about 70,000 people three days later.
Kerry was visiting the memorial to “recognize the huge loss of life” during the war, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
“It is also an acknowledgement that since the end of World War II that the United States and Japan have become the closest of friends and strong allies,” he added.
Attending the two-day G7 gathering was also on Kerry’s agenda, where he will be discussing with other leaders “urgent international political and security concerns and to speak with one, clear voice on concrete actions needed.”
Diplomats from nuclear-armed Britain and France, as well as Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan will also partake in the G7 meeting.
Kerry’s trip to Japan comes after a visit to Afghanistan where he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday.
The absence of justice over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is due to America’s refusal to admit the truth about its nuclear holocaust.
That denial is necessary because otherwise it would reveal the criminal nature of US governments and their ongoing criminal prerogative to continue using the threat of nuclear weapons to maintain global hegemony.
Nagasaki, the second atomic bombing of Japan by the United States on August 9, 1945, was in many ways an even bigger crime. The US government had three days to assess the devastating human horror of the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, in which some 70,000 civilians were incinerated.
Hardly a building was left standing in the southern Japanese port city amid humans vaporised or turned into charred jelly, yet the American leaders went ahead with the second atomic bombing on the western city of Nagasaki in which another 40,000 people were annihilated. In total over the following year, the death toll would reach at least 200,000, and many more again over subsequent decades from cancers and other malignancies.
Both attacks can be adjudged as premeditated mass murder – indeed acts of genocide by any legal definition – that had little to do with compelling Imperial Japan to surrender towards the end of the Pacific War.
It is documented by historians that the American and British wartime leaders were well aware that Japan was seeking to surrender in early 1945 – not least because of the merciless firebombing by the Western powers of the capital, Tokyo, and other Japanese cities, where the death tolls would match those later incurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With Soviet Russia about to enter the Pacific War in mid-August 1945, as agreed upon at the Potsdam conference held in July, it seems unequivocal that the Americans rushed to deploy their new nuclear weapon as a way of demarcating the postwar order in Asia-Pacific.
The first atomic explosion was tested by the Americans only three weeks prior on July 16 in the desert of New Mexico.
The Americans and the British did not want their then wartime Soviet ally to make territorial gains in Asia, as it had done in Europe when it alone had largely rolled back and defeated Nazi Germany.
To prevent Stalin’s Red Army also taking Japan and other Asian territories as it was poised to do on entering the Pacific War, American President Harry Truman went ahead with the A-bombing of Japan. The Americans were not planning a land invasion of Japan’s mainland until November 1945.
So, official US claims that the atomic bombs were dropped in order to promptly end the Pacific War are partially true. But the objective was not to save up to one million American troop lives, as Truman claimed. Rather the real objective was to forestall the geopolitical advance of the Soviet Union and the “dread of communism”.
Thus, the atomic bombing of Japan by the US was not the last act of the Pacific War, but rather was the opening act of the soon-to-be Cold War between the American-led Western world and the Soviet Union.
Since the Soviet Union would not obtain its own nuclear weapons until 1949, the dropping of the A-bombs on Japan certainly would have served as blood-curdling check on Moscow and any ambitions it may have had in expanding into Asia following the defeat of Japan.
However, the salient point here is that the US deployed weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations not for any supposed military or moral imperative – the defeat of Japan and saving of American lives. No, the objective was primarily political, that is, the prevention of perceived Soviet geopolitical advance in the postwar global order. That makes the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nothing less than acts of state terrorism – on a scale that puts the American government in a barbarous class of its own.
The myth of military necessity to defeat Japan so as to save American lives has proven to be an enduring one. A recent public opinion survey by the Pew Institute found that a majority of Americans – 56 per cent – believe that it was right to drop the A-bombs on Japan.
But if we strip away that myth then that leaves us with a most chilling conclusion – that American leaders viewed it as their right to obliterate 200,000 civilians for geopolitical objectives. That genocidal ideology – to use weapons of mass destruction – still resides in Washington.
At the close of the Second World War, American and British leaders weighed up a secret plan, Operation Unthinkable, in which they contemplated dropping atomic weapons on their then Soviet wartime ally. The treacherous plan was eventually shelved.
But in July 1961, the head of the American CIA, Allen Dulles, and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff presented a plan to President John F Kennedy for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. To his credit, Kennedy quashed the proposal in disgust, reportedly saying to one of his aides, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
Just this year, in June, the Associated Press reported on a Pentagon plan under Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey for “pre-emptive nuclear strikes to take out Russian military sites”. According to AP : “The options go as far as one implied – but not stated explicitly – that would improve the ability of US nuclear weapons to destroy military targets on Russian territory.”
Seventy years ago, the world witnessed the cold-blooded destruction of entire human populations with nuclear weapons. Today, the world has some 16,000 such weapons each many times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ninety per cent of the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons is possessed by the US and Russia.
But it is the US that has doggedly prevented moves towards full-scale nuclear disarmament – despite incumbent President Barack Obama having been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Under Obama, the US is planning to spend some $355 billion over the next decade in upgrading its nuclear arsenal.
In May this year, the US blocked a global nuclear disarmament initiative signed by 107 nations, including Russia and Iran, which called for the immediate implementation of the 40-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It was the US that also unilaterally withdrew in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty between Washington and Moscow.
Ironically, in the same week that the world commemorates the horror of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Obama delivered a major speech in which he hailed the recent Geneva nuclear accord with Iran because it “would prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb” – a bomb that the Iranian leadership has repeatedly said it is not seeking nor desires. The monstrous American arrogance in Obama’s words is breath-taking.
What the world has to contend with is this: the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons with cold-blooded criminality, still presumes the right to use those weapons for its own twisted political objectives.
The United States is so contaminated with its own “exceptionalism” and propaganda that the world remains perilously under the pall of horror that was visited upon on Japan 70 years ago. Until that American genocidal ideology is disarmed then the threat to world peace will persist.
Aftermath of the US Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Voice Over – Russian Ambassador 1945
On 1 September 1939 – the date of the beginning of the Second World War – the President of the United States of America, Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote to «the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and His Britannic Majesty» saying that «The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centres of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenceless men, women, and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity».
He was rightly appalled about the aerial slaughter of civilians and desired each country to which he addressed his appeal «to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents».
We are now marking the seventieth anniversary of the explosion of the atomic bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and Nagasaki three days later, killing a total of over 100,000 «defenceless men, women, and children,» prompting the nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer to quote from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu religious and philosophical text, that «Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds».
Development of the atomic bomb began in 1939 but went into high gear as the Manhattan Project three years later. What is intriguing is that President Roosevelt approved the programme on 9 October 1941, a full two months before the Japanese attacked America at Pearl Harbor killing 2,403 people — including civilians. The subsequent declaration of war by the US resulted in concentration on means of war-winning by any means, and resulted in development of the ultimate weapon.
Even before the atomic explosions it was apparent that the major nations involved in the Second World War had no qualms about inflicting devastation. The British considered that their «aim is, therefore, twofold: namely, to produce (i) destruction, and (ii) the fear of death» and to that end mercilessly bombed German cities. The rationale was that it was the Germans who started it and who in 1940-41 subjected London to a non-stop 60 days and nights of aerial bombardment that killed 30,000 people.
In a macabre game of explosive ping-pong the countries at war sought more and deadlier ways to wreak havoc on their opponents, and it would have been difficult to have found a citizen of any of these countries who would have failed to agree with the actions of their government. It was thus that Project Manhattan received its massive impetus, and in an amazing display of technical prowess and organisational proficiency its scientists designed and produced the Atom Bomb.
It was astonishing that President Roosevelt had not told his Vice-President, Harry Truman, one single thing about the bomb project which some well-informed people believed was a potentially catastrophic venture. The first bomb was tested on 16 July 1945 at Alamogordo in New Mexico and caused concern among the scientists who had been involved in its development, 70 of whom sent a letter to President Roosevelt pointing out that use of the atomic bomb would likely presage «an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale» and that «a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale».
Their letter wasn’t allowed to reach the President. He never knew of its existence, but in any event was convinced that the A-bomb was essential and had written to Oppenheimer, who had grave doubts about the military’s attitude to nuclear developments, that «whatever the enemy may be planning, American science will be equal to the challenge». The Bomb was going to be used, no matter the consequences, although the president who gave the order to drop the bombs in August 1945 was Harry Truman, who learned of the project’s existence on 13 April 1945, the day after Roosevelt died.
As recorded by Eric Schlosser in his edifying book Command and Control, there had been air attacks on Japan of staggering intensity in the months before the atom bombs were employed. On the night of 9 March 1945, for example, «American planes struck Tokyo with 2,000 tons of bombs containing napalm and jellied gasoline… Within hours the firestorm consumed one quarter of the city. It killed about 100,000 civilians… «Worse was yet to come because Truman icily warned that the Japanese «may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth».
There were not many large concentrations of Japanese that had not been subjected to firebombing, and choosing the ultimate victims was not easy. Kyoto was removed from the list of four targets because the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, pointed out that it was a major cultural centre of great importance to Japanese art and history — and Nagasaki was chosen instead. By such decisions are the fates of human beings decided. Countless thousands of Kyoto citizens were spared, but 39,000 in Nagasaki were condemned to death.
First came Hiroshima, where on 6 August «a firestorm engulfed the city» and 66,000 people were killed. Next on the target list was Kokura, and in yet another horrible twist of fate the city was covered in smoke and haze and the plane was diverted to Nagasaki where the second bomb, hideously named Fat Man, was dropped on 9 August.
The war against Japan then ended, but it should be remembered that between the destruction of the two cities there was a Charter was being approved, on 8 August in the German city of Nuremburg, signed by the victorious allies, that included guidelines for the forthcoming trial of German war criminals by the International Military Tribunal. In an alarming example of double standards, the judges were informed that «The following acts, or any of them, are crimes coming within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal for which there shall be individual responsibility… (b) War Crimes: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include… wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages». It did not include the words of President Roosevelt, that it was sickening to «undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities,» but made it clear that such attacks were against the laws of war.
The Nuremburg Charter guided the conviction of German war criminals, and it is hideous coincidence that it was signed at the very time when «Death, the destroyer of worlds» was thundering down on Japan in what Truman called «a rain of ruin from the air».
Which goes to show that justice is reserved for those who win wars.
Really, Sad Nuclear Anniversary.
Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.
RT |August 4, 2015
70 years after the US dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the real reasons behind the decision still divide historians. Recently declassified documents from the time suggest that the nuclear strikes may have been performed not out of military necessity but to intimidate the USSR. RTD’s Peter Scott travels to the two Japanese cities that were devastated by the attacks, where he visits a victims’ memorial and meets nuclear blast survivors still haunted by their memories. He also interviews President Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, on the subject of his grandfather’s controversial legacy.
How Patriotism Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry
“Never, never waste a minute on regret. It’s a waste of time.” — President Harry Truman
Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I’m wondering if we’ve come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world’s only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings. Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the “black rain” that spread radiation and killed even more people — slowly and painfully — leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?
Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear “modernization” in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I’ve been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story: “Love,” says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, “means never having to say you’re sorry.” It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.
It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you’re sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
It turns out, however, that Bush’s version of American remorselessness isn’t quite enough. After all, Americans prefer to view their country as peace-loving, despite having been at war constantly since 1941. This means they need more than denials and non-apologies. They need persuasive stories and explanations (however full of distortions and omissions). The tale developed to justify the bombings that led to a world in which the threat of human extinction has been a daily reality may be the most successful legitimizing narrative in our history. Seventy years later, it’s still deeply embedded in public memory and school textbooks, despite an ever-growing pile of evidence that contradicts it. Perhaps it’s time, so many decades into the age of apocalyptic peril, to review the American apologia for nuclear weapons — the argument in their defense — that ensured we would never have to say we’re sorry.
The Hiroshima Apologia
On August 9, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a radio address from the White House. “The world will note,” he said, “that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” He did not mention that a second atomic bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki.
Truman understood, of course, that if Hiroshima was a “military base,” then so was Seattle; that the vast majority of its residents were civilians; and that perhaps 100,000 of them had already been killed. Indeed, he knew that Hiroshima was chosen not for its military significance but because it was one of only a handful of Japanese cities that had not already been firebombed and largely obliterated by American air power. U.S. officials, in fact, were intent on using the first atomic bombs to create maximum terror and destruction. They also wanted to measure their new weapon’s power and so selected the “virgin targets” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed Truman of his fear that, given all the firebombing of Japanese cities, there might not be a target left on which the atomic bomb could “show its strength” to the fullest. According to Stimson’s diary, Truman “laughed and said he understood.”
The president soon dropped the “military base” justification. After all, despite Washington’s effort to censor the most graphic images of atomic annihilation coming out of Hiroshima, the world quickly grasped that the U.S. had destroyed an entire city in a single blow with massive loss of life. So the president focused instead on an apologia that would work for at least the next seven decades. Its core arguments appeared in that same August 9th speech. “We have used [the atomic bomb] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor,” he said, “against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
By 1945, most Americans didn’t care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan’s war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of “yellow peril” racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of “savages” — “ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true “civilians” and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America’s willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, “The only good Jap is a Jap who’s been dead six months.”
In the years after World War II, the most virulent expressions of race hatred diminished, but not the widespread idea that the atomic bombs had been required to end the war, eliminating the need to invade the Japanese home islands where, it was confidently claimed, tooth-and-nail combat would cause enormous losses on both sides. The deadliest weapon in history, the one that opened the path to future Armageddon, had therefore saved lives. That was the stripped down mantra that provided the broadest and most enduring support for the introduction of nuclear warfare. By the time Truman, in retirement, published his memoir in 1955, he was ready to claim with some specificity that an invasion of Japan would have killed half-a-million Americans and at least as many Japanese.
Over the years, the ever-increasing number of lives those two A-bombs “saved” became a kind of sacred numerology. By 1991, for instance, President George H.W. Bush, praising Truman for his “tough, calculating decision,” claimed that those bombs had “spared millions of American lives.” By then, an atomic massacre had long been transformed into a mercy killing that prevented far greater suffering and slaughter.
Truman went to his grave insisting that he never had a single regret or a moment’s doubt about his decision. Certainly, in the key weeks leading up to August 6, 1945, the record offers no evidence that he gave serious consideration to any alternative.
“Revisionists” Were Present at the Creation
Twenty years ago, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum planned an ambitious exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. At its center was to be an extraordinary artifact — the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But the curators and historical consultants wanted something more than yet another triumphal celebration of American military science and technology. Instead, they sought to assemble a thought-provoking portrayal of the bomb’s development, the debates about its use, and its long-term consequences. The museum sought to include some evidence challenging the persistent claim that it was dropped simply to end the war and “save lives.”
For starters, visitors would have learned that some of America’s best-known World War II military commanders opposed using atomic weaponry. In fact, six of the seven five-star generals and admirals of that time believed that there was no reason to use them, that the Japanese were already defeated, knew it, and were likely to surrender before any American invasion could be launched. Several, like Admiral William Leahy and General Dwight Eisenhower, also had moral objections to the weapon. Leahy considered the atomic bombing of Japan “barbarous” and a violation of “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war.”
Truman did not seriously consult with military commanders who had objections to using the bomb. He did, however, ask a panel of military experts to offer an estimate of how many Americans might be killed if the United States launched the two major invasions of the Japanese home islands scheduled for November 1, 1945 and March 1, 1946. Their figure: 40,000 — far below the half-million he would cite after the war. Even this estimate was based on the dubious assumption that Japan could continue to feed, fuel, and arm its troops with the U.S. in almost complete control of the seas and skies.
The Smithsonian also planned to inform its visitors that some key presidential advisers had urged Truman to drop his demand for “unconditional surrender” and allow Japan to keep the emperor on his throne, an alteration in peace terms that might have led to an almost immediate surrender. Truman rejected that advice, only to grant the same concession after the nuclear attacks.
Keep in mind, however, that part of Truman’s motivation for dropping those bombs involved not the defeated Japanese, but the ascending Soviet Union. With the U.S.S.R. pledged to enter the war against Japan on August 8, 1945 (which it did), Truman worried that even briefly prolonging hostilities might allow the Soviets to claim a greater stake in East Asia. He and Secretary of State James Byrnes believed that a graphic demonstration of the power of the new bomb, then only in the possession of the United States, might also make that Communist power more “manageable” in Europe. The Smithsonian exhibit would have suggested that Cold War planning and posturing began in the concluding moments of World War II and that one legacy of Hiroshima would be the massive nuclear arms race of the decades to come.
In addition to displaying American artifacts like the Enola Gay, Smithsonian curators wanted to show some heartrending objects from the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, including a schoolgirl’s burnt lunchbox, a watch dial frozen at the instant of the bomb’s explosion, a fused rosary, and photographs of the dead and dying. It would have been hard to look at these items beside that plane’s giant fuselage without feeling some sympathy for the victims of the blast.
None of this happened. The exhibit was canceled after a storm of protest. When the Air Force Association leaked a copy of the initial script to the media, critics denounced the Smithsonian for its “politically correct” and “anti-American” “revision” of history. The exhibit, they claimed, would be an insult to American veterans and fundamentally unpatriotic. Though conservatives led the charge, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Smithsonian for being “revisionist and offensive” that included a tidy rehearsal of the official apologia: “The role of the Enola Gay… was momentous in helping to bring World War II to a merciful end, which resulted in saving the lives of Americans and Japanese.”
Merciful? Consider just this: the number of civilians killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone was more than twice the number of American troops killed during the entire Pacific war.
In the end, the Smithsonian displayed little but the Enola Gay itself, a gleaming relic of American victory in the “Good War.”
Our Unbroken Faith in the Greatest Generation
In the two decades since, we haven’t come closer to a genuine public examination of history’s only nuclear attack or to finding any major fault with how we waged what Studs Terkel famously dubbed “the Good War.” He used that term as the title for his classic 1984 oral history of World War II and included those quotation marks quite purposely to highlight the irony of such thinking about a war in which an estimated 60 million people died. In the years since, the term has become an American cliché, but the quotation marks have disappeared along with any hint of skepticism about our motives and conduct in those years.
Admittedly, when it comes to the launching of nuclear war (if not the firebombings that destroyed 67 Japanese cities and continued for five days after “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki), there is some evidence of a more critical cast of mind in this country. Recent polls, for instance, show that “only” 56% of Americans now think we were right to use nuclear weapons against Japan, down a few points since the 1990s, while support among Americans under the age of 30 has finally fallen below 50%. You might also note that just after World War II, 85% of Americans supported the bombings.
Of course, such pro-bomb attitudes were hardly surprising in 1945, especially given the relief and joy at the war’s victorious ending and the anti-Japanese sentiment of that moment. Far more surprising: by 1946, millions of Americans were immersed in John Hersey’s best-selling book Hiroshima, a moving report from ground zero that explored the atomic bomb’s impact through the experiences of six Japanese survivors. It began with these gripping lines:
“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
Hiroshima remains a remarkable document for its unflinching depictions of the bomb’s destructiveness and for treating America’s former enemy with such dignity and humanity. “The crux of the matter,” Hersey concluded, “is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result?”
The ABC Radio Network thought Hersey’s book so important that it hired four actors to read it in full on the air, reaching an even wider audience. Can you imagine a large American media company today devoting any significant air time to a work that engendered empathy for the victims of our twenty-first century wars? Or can you think of a recent popular book that prods us to consider the “material and spiritual evil” that came from our own participation in World War II? I can’t.
In fact, in the first years after that war, as Paul Boyer showed in his superb book By the Bomb’s Early Light, some of America’s triumphalism faded as fears grew that the very existence of nuclear weapons might leave the country newly vulnerable. After all, someday another power, possibly the Soviet Union, might use the new form of warfare against its creators, producing an American apocalypse that could never be seen as redemptive or merciful.
In the post-Cold War decades, however, those fears have again faded (unreasonably so since even a South Asian nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India could throw the whole planet into a version of nuclear winter). Instead, the “Good War” has once again been embraced as unambiguously righteous. Consider, for example, the most recent book about World War II to hit it big, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Published in 2010, it remained on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover for almost four years and has sold millions of copies. In its reach, it may even surpass Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, The Greatest Generation. A Hollywood adaptation of Unbroken appeared last Christmas.
Hillenbrand’s book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of World War II or even of the war in the Pacific. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a child delinquent turned Olympic runner turned B-24 bombardier. In 1943, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. He and the pilot survived 47 days in a life raft despite near starvation, shark attacks, and strafing by Japanese planes. Finally captured by the Japanese, he endured a series of brutal POW camps where he was the victim of relentless sadistic beatings.
The book is decidedly a page-turner, but its focus on a single American’s punishing ordeal and amazing recovery inhibits almost any impulse to move beyond the platitudes of nationalistic triumphalism and self-absorption or consider (among other things) the racism that so dramatically shaped American combat in the Pacific. That, at least, is the impression you get combing through some of the astonishing 25,000 customer reviews Unbroken has received on Amazon. “My respect for WWII veterans has soared,” a typical reviewer writes. “Thank you Laura Hillenbrand for loving our men at war,” writes another. It is “difficult to read of the inhumanity of the treatment of the courageous men serving our country.” And so on.
Unbroken devotes a page and a half to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, all of it from the vantage point of the American crew of the Enola Gay. Hillenbrand raises concerns about the crew’s safety: “No one knew for sure if… the bomber could get far enough away to survive what was coming.” She describes the impact of the shockwaves, not on the ground, but at 30,000 feet when they slammed into the Enola Gay, “pitching the men into the air.”
The film version of Unbroken evokes even less empathy for the Japanese experience of nuclear war, which brings to mind something a student told my graduate seminar last spring. He teaches high school social studies and when he talked with colleagues about the readings we were doing on Hiroshima, three of them responded with some version of the following: “You know, I used to think we were wrong to use nukes on Japan, but since I saw Unbroken I’ve started to think it was necessary.” We are, that is, still in the territory first plowed by Truman in that speech seven decades ago.
At the end of the film, this note appears on the screen: “Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness. He returned to Japan, where he found and made peace with his former captors.”
That is indeed moving. Many of the prison camp guards apologized, as well they should have, and — perhaps more surprisingly — Zamperini forgave them. There is, however, no hint that there might be a need for apologies on the American side, too; no suggestion that our indiscriminate destruction of Japan, capped off by the atomic obliteration of two cities, might be, as Admiral Leahy put it, a violation of “all of the known laws of war.”
So here we are, 70 years later, and we seem, if anything, farther than ever from a rejection of the idea that launching atomic warfare on Japanese civilian populations was an act of mercy. Perhaps some future American president will finally apologize for our nuclear attacks, but one thing seems certain: no Japanese survivor of the bombs will be alive to hear it.
Christian Appy, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of three books about the Vietnam War, including most recently American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking).
Copyright 2015 Christian Appy
The US atomic destruction of 140,000 people at Hiroshima and 70,000 at Nagasaki was never “necessary” because Japan was already smashed, no land invasion was needed and Japan was suing for peace. The official myth that “the bombs saved lives” by hurrying Japan’s surrender can no longer be believed except by those who love to be fooled. The long-standing fiction has been destroyed by the historical record kept in US, Soviet, Japanese and British archives — now mostly declassified — and detailed by Ward Wilson in his book “Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
Greg Mitchel’s “Atomic Cover-Up” (Sinclair Books, 2011) also helps explain the durability of the “saved lives” ruse. Wartime and occupation censors seized all films and still photos of the two atomic cities, and the US government kept them hidden for decades. Even in 1968, newsreel footage from Hiroshima held in the National Archives was stamped, “SECRET, Not To Be Released Without the Approval of the DOD.” Photos of the atomized cities that did reach the public merely showed burned buildings or mushroom clouds — rarely human victims.
In “Hiroshima in America: 50 Years of Denial,” (Grosset/Putnam, 1995) Robert Lifton and Mitchell note that Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, “left nothing to chance.” Even before Hiroshima, he prohibited US commanders from commenting on the atomic attacks without clearance from the War Department. “We didn’t want MacArthur and others saying the war could have been won without the bomb,” Groves said.
In fact, MacArthur did not believe the bomb was needed to end the war, but he too established a censorship program as commander of the US occupation of Japan. He banned reporters from visiting Hiroshima or Nagasaki, expelled reporters who defied the ban and later said that those who complained that censorship existed in Japan were engaged in “a maliciously false propaganda campaign.”
That most people in the United States still believe the “saved lives” rationale to be true is because of decades of this censorship and myth-making, begun by President Harry Truman, who said Aug. 6, 1945, “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. … That was because we wished this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” In fact, the city of 350,000 had practically no military value at all and the target was the city, not the base three kilometers away.
Taking President Truman at his word, the 140,000 civilians killed at Hiroshima are the minimum to be expected when exploding a small nuclear weapon on a “military base.” Today’s “small” Cruise missile warheads – which are 12 times the power of Truman’s A-bomb – could kill 1.68 million each.
Official censorship of what the two bombs did to people and the reasons for it has been so successful, that 25 years of debunking hasn’t managed to generally topple the official narrative. In 1989, historian Gar Alperovitz reported, “American leaders knew well in advance that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not required to bring about Japan’s surrender;” and later, in his 847-page “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” (Random House, 1995), “I think it can be proven that the bomb was not only unnecessary but known in advance not to be necessary.” The popular myth “didn’t just happen,” Alperovitz says, “it was created.”
Kept hidden for decades was the 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey’s conclusion that Japan almost certainly would have surrendered in 1945 without the atomic bombs, without a Soviet invasion and without a US invasion. Not long after V-J Day in 1945, Brig. Gen. Bonnie Feller wrote, “Neither the atomic bombing nor the entry of the Soviet Union into the war forced Japan’s unconditional surrender. She was defeated before either of these events took place.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said in his memoirs he believed “that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”
Adm. William Leahy, the wartime Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in 1950, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material success in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender….” Feller’s, Ike’s and Leahy’s opinions were conspicuously left out of or censored by the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 display of the atomic B-29 bomber “Enola Gay.”
Admiral Leahy’s 1950 myth- and censor-busting about the Bomb could be an epitaph for the nuclear age: “I was not taught to make war in that fashion,” he said of Hiroshima’s incineration, “and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch in Wisconsin and edits its Quarterly newsletter.