It is an atomic bomb....
It is the greatest thing in history.
President Harry S. Truman,
August 6, 1945
About two months ago, I wrote an article about the film, Pearl Harbor, in which I attempted to present some context about December 7, 1941. I received hundreds of e-mails, mostly supportive, I must add. There was, however, one point made repeatedly by those less then thrilled with what I had to say about U.S. actions in WWII: America had no choice but to drop atomic bombs on Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Had they not done so, my detractors declared, the Japanese never would have surrendered and millions of American soldiers would have perished in the ensuing invasion of the Japanese islands.
are approaching August 6, 2001, the 56th anniversary of the bombing of
Hiroshima, and it¹s apparent that this issue is long from settled. Thus, I¹d
like to begin yet another discussion on the question: Why was the bomb used?
Before confronting the unleashing of the bomb, there is lesser-known myth that must be dealt with: the life-and-death race with German scientists. “Working at Los Alamos, New Mexico,” writes historian Kenneth C. Davis, “atomic scientists, many of them refugees from Hitler¹s Europe, thought they were racing against Germans developing a Nazi bomb.” Surely, if it were possible for the epitome of evil to produce such a weapon, it would be the responsibility of the good guys to beat der Führer to the plutonium punch. While such a desperate race makes for excellent melodrama, the German bomb effort, it appears, fell far short of success.
Thanks to the declassification of key documents, we now have access to “nassailable proof that the race with the Nazis was a fiction,” says Stewart Udall, who cites the work of McGeorge Bundy and Thomas Powers before adding that, “According to the official history of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), those agents maintained contacts with scientists in neutral countries . . .” These contacts, by mid-1943, provided enough evidence to convince the SIS that the German bomb program simply did not exist.
Despite such findings, U.S. General Leslie Groves, military commander of the Manhattan Project, got permission in the fall of 1943 to begin a secret espionage mission known as Alsos (Greek for “grove,” get it?). The mission saw Groves' men following the Allies armies throughout Europe with the goal of capturing German scientists involved in the manufacture of atomic weapons.
the data uncovered by Alsos only served to reinforce the prior reports that the
Third Reich was not pursuing a nuclear program, Groves was able to maintain
enough of a cover-up to keep his pet project alive. In the no-holds-barred
religion of anti-communism, the “Good War” enemy was never fascism. Truman¹s
daughter, Margaret, remarked about her dad¹s early presidential efforts after
the death of FDR in April 1945, “My father¹s overriding concern in these first
weeks was our policy towards Russia.”
The most commonly evoked justification for the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan was to save lives, but was it true? Would such an invasion even have been necessary? Finally, were the actions of the United States motivated by an escalating Cold War with the Soviet Union? Here are the facts that don't mesh with the long-accepted story line:
Although hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives were lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings are often explained away as a “life-saving” measure, American lives. Exactly how many lives saved is, however, up for grabs. (We do know of a few U.S. soldiers who fell between the cracks. About a dozen or more American POWs were killed in Hiroshima, a truth that remained hidden for some 30 years.) In defense of the U.S. action, it is usually claimed that the bombs saved lives. The hypothetical body count ranges from 20,000 to “millions.” In an August 9, 1945 statement to “the men and women of the Manhattan Project,” President Truman declared the hope that “this new weapon will result in saving thousands of American lives.”
“The president¹s initial formulation of `thousands,' however, was clearly not his final statement on the matter to say the least,” remarks historian Gar Alperovitz. In his book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, Alperovitz documents but a few of Truman¹s public estimates throughout the years:
- December 15, 1945: “It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities . . .”
- Late 1946: “A year less of war will mean life for three hundred thousand‹maybe half a million‹of America¹s finest youth.”
- October 1948: “In the long run we could save a quarter of a million young Americans from being killed, and would save an equal number of Japanese young men from being killed.”
- April 6, 1949: “I thought 200,000 of our young men would be saved.”
- November 1949: Truman quotes Army Chief of Staff George S. Marshall as estimating the cost of an Allied invasion of Japan to be “half a million casualties.”
- January 12, 1953: Still quoting Marshall, Truman raises the estimate to “a minimum one quarter of a million” and maybe “as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy.”
- Finally, on April 28, 1959, Truman concluded: “the dropping of the bombs . . . saved millions of lives.”
Fortunately, we are not operating without the benefit of official estimates.
In June 1945, Truman ordered the U.S. military to calculate the cost in American lives for a planned assault on Japan. Consequently, the Joint War Plans Committee prepared a report for the Chiefs of Staff, dated June 15, 1945, thus providing the closest thing anyone has to “accurate”: 40,000 U.S. soldiers killed, 150,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing.
While the actual casualty count remains unknowable, it was widely known at the time that Japan had been trying to surrender for months prior to the atomic bombing. A May 5, 1945 cable, intercepted and decoded by the U.S., “dispelled any possible doubt that the Japanese were eager to sue for peace.” In fact, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey reported shortly after the war, that Japan “in all probability” would have surrendered before the much-discussed November 1, 1945 Allied invasion of the homeland.
Truman himself eloquently noted in his diary that Stalin would “be in the Jap
War on August 15th. Fini (sic) Japs when that comes about.”
Many post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki sentiments questioned the use of the bombs.
“I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives,” said General Dwight D. Eisenhower while, not long after the Japanese surrender, New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote, “The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic position . . . Such then, was the situation when we wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Need we have done it? No one can, of course, be positive, but the answer is almost certainly negative.”
Or was it the cold logic of capitalism that motivated the nuking of civilians? As far back as May 1945, a Venezuelan diplomat was reporting how Assistant Secretary of State Nelson Rockefeller “communicated to us the anxiety of the United States government about the Russian attitude.” U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes seemed to agree when he turned the anxiety up a notch by explaining how “our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in the East . . . The demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America¹s military might.”
General Leslie Groves was less cryptic: “There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis.”
During the same time period, President Truman noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson was “at least as much concerned with the role of the atomic bomb in the shaping of history as in its capacity to shorten the war.” What sort of shaping Stimson had in mind might be discerned from his Sept. 11, 1945 comment to the president: “I consider the problem of our satisfactory relations with Russia as not merely connected but as virtually dominated by the problem of the atomic bomb.”
Stimson called the bomb a “diplomatic weapon,” and duly explained that “American statesmen were eager for their country to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip.”
“The psychological effect [of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] on Stalin was twofold,” proposes historian Charles L. Mee, Jr. “The Americans had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the Russians.”
It also made an impression on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director at Los Alamos. After learning of the carnage wrought upon Japan, he began to harbor second thoughts and he resigned in October 1945. In March of the following year, Oppenheimer told Truman:
President, I have blood on my hands.”
Truman¹s reply? ”It¹ll come out in the wash.”
Later, the president told an aide, “Don¹t bring that fellow around again.”
“Why did we drop [the bomb]?” pondered Studs Terkel at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. “So little Harry could show Molotov and Stalin we¹ve got the cards,” he explained. “That was the phrase Truman used. We showed the goddamned Russians we¹ve got something and they¹d better behave themselves in Europe. That¹s why it was dropped. The evidence is overwhelming. And yet you tell that to 99 percent of Americans and they¹ll spit in your eye.”
Let the spitting begin.
Mickey Z. (Michael Zezima) is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War” (http://www.softskull.com/html/saving.html), on which this article is based. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.