Whitewashing Hiroshima: The Uncritical Glorification of American Militarism

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Back in 1995, the Smithsonian Institute was preparing an honest but aggressive display dealing with the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Amid much right-wing reactionary wrangling, from various ultrapatriotic veterans groups all the way up to the Newt Gingrich/GOP-dominated Congress, the Smithsonian was forced to eliminate that painful but historically important part of the story — the Japanese civilian perspective. So again we had another example of powerful politically conservative groups influencing public policy — and messing with history because they didn’t have the courage to face up to unpleasant historical truths.

The historians did have a gun to their heads, of course, but in the mle, the media and therefore the public ignored a vital historical point. And that is this: The war would have ended soon without the atomic bombs, and thus there wouldn’t have been a bloody American invasion of Japan. American intelligence, with the full knowledge of President Truman, was fully aware of Japan’s desperate search for ways to honorably surrender weeks before the order was given for the Holocaust that was Hiroshima.

American intelligence data, revealed in the 1980s, shows that a large-scale US invasion (planned for no sooner than November 1, 1945) would have been unnecessary. Japan was working on peace negotiations with the Allies through its Moscow ambassador in July of 1945. Truman knew of these developments, the US having broken the Japanese code years earlier, and all of Japan’s military and diplomatic messages were being intercepted. On July 13, 1945, Foreign Minister Togo said: “Unconditional surrender (giving up all sovereignty) is the only obstacle to peace.” Truman knew this, and the war could have ended by simply conceding a post-war figurehead position for the emperor — a leader regarded as a deity in Japan. That concession was refused by the US, the Japanese continued negotiating for peace, and the bombs were dropped. And after the war, the emperor remained in place. So what were the real reasons for 1) the refusal to accept Japan’s offer of surrender and 2) the decision to proceed with the bombings?

Shortly after WWII, military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote: “The Japanese, in a military sense, were in a hopeless strategic situation by the time the Potsdam demand for unconditional surrender was made on July 26, 1945.” Admiral William Leahy, top military aide to President Truman, said in his war memoirs, I Was There: “It is my opinion 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 because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. My own feeling is that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.” And General Dwight Eisenhower agreed.

Truman proceeded with the plans to use the bombs, but he never officially ordered the Nagasaki bomb that followed Hiroshima only three days later. There are a number of factors that helped Truman make his decision.

  1. The US had made a huge investment in time, mind and money ($2,000,000,000 in 1940 dollars) to produce the bombs, and there was no inclination — and no guts — to stop the momentum.
  2. The US military — as did its citizens — had a bloodthirsty appetite for revenge because of Pearl Harbor. Mercy wasn’t the mind-set of these professed Christians, and the missions were accomplished — with glee.
  3. The Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium bomb and Hiroshima’s was uranium. Scientific curiosity certainly was a major factor for the mass slaughter of the Nagasaki community. The decision to use both bombs had obviously been made well in advance. The three day interval was unconscionably inadequate — Japan being in shambles in its communications and transportation capabilities — and besides, no one, not even the Japanese high command, fully understood what had happened at Hiroshima.
  4. The Russians had proclaimed their intent to enter the war with Japan 90 days after V- Day, which would have been Aug. 8, two days after Hiroshima. Indeed, Russia did declare war on August 8 and was marching across Manchuria when Nagasaki was incinerated. The US didn’t want Japan surrendering to anybody else, especially a future enemy, so the first nuclear “messages” of the infantile Cold War were sent. Russia indeed received less of the spoils of war, and the two superpowers were mired in mutual moral bankruptcy and economic near-bankruptcy for the rest of the century.

An estimated 80,000 innocent civilians — plus 20,000 young essentially weaponless Japanese conscripts — died instantly in the Hiroshima bombing. Hundreds of thousands suffered agonizing burns, leukemia and infections for the rest of their shortened lives, and generations of the survivor’s progeny inherited horrible radiation-induced illnesses, cancers and premature death. What has been covered up is the fact that 12 American Navy pilots, their existence well known to the US command, were incinerated in the Hiroshima jail on Aug. 6.

The 75,000 Nagasaki victims were virtually all innocent civilians, except for the inhabitants of an allied POW camp near Nagasaki’s ground zero. They were incinerated, carbonized, then evaporated, by a scientific experiment carried out by obedient, unaware soldiers. The War Dept. knew of the existence of the POWs but, when informed, simply replied: “Targets previously assigned for Centerboard (atomic bomb mission code name) remain unchanged.”

So the end of the war in the Pacific was just one more myth in a long list of myths Americans have been fed by our military and civilian leaders, war being glorified in the process. A short list of some of the others includes the censored-out military invasions of (and usually CIA-orchestrated atrocities in) Korea, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Granada, Panama, Iraq, the Philippines, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, Colombia, etc, etc. But somehow we still hang on to our shaky “my country right or wrong” patriotism, desperately wanting to believe that our nation only works for peace, justice and democracy and not mainly for capitalism. While it is true that the US military has faced down a few despots, with natural heroism and sacrifice from the dead and now dying American soldiers, more often than not our methods of rationalizing the atrocities of war are identical to those of the “godless communists” or “evil empire” on the other side of the battle line. August 6 and 9, 1945 are just two more examples of the brutalization of innocent civilians in “total war," whether it is called “regretful collateral damage” or “friendly fire."

The time has come for Americans to stand up for real justice and peace (rather than the unaffordable “armed truces” we have all over the world) by acknowledging the whole truth of history and owning up to the numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been perpetrated by American militarism in the last half-century. And then we need to start accepting the consequences of our leadership's actions, like the courageous and honorable people we claim to be. Doing what is right for the whole of humanity for a change, rather than just what is advantageous for us over-privileged Americans, would be real honor, real patriotism and an essential start toward real peace.

August 3, 2006