Rethinking Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Ten 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.

What 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.

The 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.

The 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."

Beside 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.

A 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.

The 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."

Perhaps 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."

Beside 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.

August 8, 2005