Rethinking Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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years ago, in response to the 50th anniversary of the
atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Smithsonian Institution
attempted to put on a display presenting the perspective of Japanese
civilians living in the targeted cities. Speaker of the House Newt
Gingrich, fresh off the '94 Republican Revolution, denounced the
Smithsonian's efforts as the work of a "cultural elite"
bent on making Americans ashamed of their history. Following an
outpouring of indignation from veterans groups, Congressional Republicans
led by Gingrich, and self-styled "conservative" patriot
groups, the exhibit was cancelled.

a difference 50 years makes. Although it is hard to believe now
amidst the deluge of so-called "conservative" commentary
emanating from talk radio and points beyond, there was once an American
Right opposed to war and militarism in all its forms. It was precisely
in this tradition that — while left-wing publications like The
Nation and The New Republic rushed apologias for the
destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to print — conservatives like
Felix Morley (co-founder of the influential conservative journal
Human Events), David Lawrence, and Richard Weaver castigated
the bombings as unjustified and abominable. Echo the views of Felix
Morley today though and you are likely to be denounced as "anti-American"
by self-styled conservatives eager to defend the honor of Harry
Truman. Two years ago, this young conservative would have joined
them, but no longer.

standard account of Harry Truman's decision — which he reiterated
consistently was his and his alone to make — to use the atomic bomb
runs thus: faced with the implacable choice between the nuclear
destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a US invasion of Japan
at the cost of a half-million American lives, Truman chose the bomb
thereby shortening the war while saving millions of American and
Japanese lives at the same time. Indeed, the ambiance of the bomb-or-boys
premise to the entire historical question of the justification of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki foreshadows the predictable answer — not
only were the atomic bombings a military necessity, they were a
humanitarian imperative. With this storyline in place, it easy to
see why Truman is considered by many one of our country's greatest
presidents, but this is the stuff of enticing novels — not history.

specter of a bloody US invasion of Japan along with its disturbing
bomb-or-boys corollary forms the backbone of the case for those
who affirm Truman's decision. But the half-million American death
toll routinely bandied about is, to put it lightly, inflated. To
put this ridiculous claim into perspective, consider the fact that
for the estimate of a half-million American deaths to be accurate,
the invasion of Japan would have had to cost more American lives
than the total number of US combat fatalities in all theatres
of World War II. The reality, as Stanford historian Barton Bernstein
has documented, is that the actual worst-case government
estimate for a full-scale US invasion of Japan was around forty-six
thousand lives lost — more than ten times less than the figure often
set forth in American schoolbooks. This fact aside, the bomb-or-boys
myth is completely punctured by the conclusion of the US government-sanctioned
1946 Strategic Bombing Survey, which — after conducting interviews
with US and Japanese military personnel — found that Japan would
have surrendered by the end of 1945 "even if no invasion had
been planned or contemplated."

the grotesquely inflated body count etched into the American psyche,
is the myth that President Truman was faced with a stark bomb-or-boys
decision in the summer of 1945 — he had other options. But surely,
you might say to yourself, Truman would have acted on these alternatives
if he really had them; surely he would have exhausted all other
options before deciding to wipe over 200,000 innocent civilians
off the face of the earth. The historical record, however, shows
us just the opposite.

major alternative discussed in detail by historian Gar Alperovitz
in his indispensable book The
Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb
was the possibility of a
negotiated peace with Japan involving a relaxation of the American
demand for "unconditional surrender." In his monumental
work, Alperovitz documents that from April to August 1945 the Japanese
made a number of official attempts to secure a negotiated peace
settlement and an end to the war. The major sticking point was the
fate of Emperor Hirohito — would the man many Japanese considered
to be divine be tried and hanged as a war criminal? In light of
this concern, Truman was urged by many of his aides to alter the
surrender formula to provide for the preservation of the Emperor
as a constitutional monarch. Presented with opportunity after opportunity
to craft a compromise, Truman refused to bend. Indeed, the most
significant statement of Allied surrender terms prior to the bombings
— the Potsdam Declaration issued July 26, 1945 — maintained the
rhetoric of "unconditional surrender" while not even mentioning
the fate of the Emperor. President Truman then most certainly acted
without exhausting all other options — a gross violation of the
jus in bello principles enunciated by the Christian Church
for centuries.

list of Truman's military aides that believed the bombings were
not a military necessity reads like a who's who list of top US brass:
Generals MacArthur and Eisenhower along with Under Secretaries of
State and the Navy Grew and Bard respectively all dissented from
the necessity logic. In 1963, an aging Eisenhower forcefully reiterated
his position to Newsweek, saying, "The Japanese were
ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that
awful thing."

the most startling condemnation of Truman's decision from a US military
leader came from Admiral William D. Leahy, the president's chief
of staff. In his memoirs, Leahy denounced the destruction of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki – an action he described as "not worth of Christian
man" — as "of no material assistance in our war against
Japan. By using it Leahy said the US had descended to "an ethical
standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."

the condemnation of those who question the justification of the
atomic bombings as "anti-American" a popular technique
of those who defend Truman's decision is to bring up the atrocities
of the Japanese military. But, under what standards of morality
are innocent Japanese men, women, and children legitimate targets
because of the deplorable acts of Nanking and the Bataan Death March?
Why should we, in a country where a majority claim to be Christian,
shun the teachings of Jesus Christ and embrace the concept of total
war? Now 60 years removed from the events of August 1945, it is
past time for our nation to grapple with that question.

8, 2005

R. Lawrence, III [send him mail],
is a junior studying biomedical engineering and political science
at NC State.

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