Monday, August 6, 2018


Aftermath I
Hiroshima After the Bomb 

August 6th marks the 73rd anniversary of the dropping of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. As has been the case on every anniversary of the bombing, the atomic bomb’s use will undoubtedly be commemorated by politicians, media sorts, and most Americans as being responsible for ending the war and thus negating the need for an invasion of Japan’s home islands that would have caused enormous losses on both sides. This belief has achieved numinous status in the United States; most Americans accept it as an article of faith. It has become, as historian Christian Appy put it, the most successful legitimizing narrative in American history. There’s only one thing wrong with the Hiroshima narrative: it's not factual. There is perhaps no greater myth in U.S. history than the belief that the atomic bomb was the "winning weapon" that ended World War II. It’s what I call the Hiroshima Myth.

Despite doubts about the necessity to use the bomb expressed by a number of top military and political leaders at the time (and later in their personal reflections), challenges to the traditional Hiroshima narrative by several historians, and declining overall American attraction to nuclear weapons, the Hiroshima Myth remains deeply embedded in the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of Americans. How did it get so embedded? Why didn’t the highly authoritative 1947 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which concluded that the Japanese would have surrendered "certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1 1945--even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, the Russians had not entered the war, and no invasion had been planned or contemplated," establish a different narrative?

Were the bombings instrumental in ending the war? Did they avert an invasion of the Japanese homeland and thus save lives? There’s much at stake in the answers to these questions, for if the bomb wasn't necessary to end the war, then its use on Hiroshima and, especially Nagasaki, was wrong, militarily, politically and morally, especially when one considers that these two cities were not vital military targets.

At the risk of being called unpatriotic, un-American, or worse, because the issue still touches raw emotions (Americans don't take kindly to questioning the morality of our country's purposes), I will attempt to refute the Hiroshima Myth. Fortunately I am able to draw upon information that wasn’t available when early histories of the bombings were written. This information includes a declassified paper written by a Joint Chiefs of Staff advisory group in June 1945, the personal accounts of a number of top Japanese leaders, and various bits of documentary evidence uncovered by enterprising historians. These discoveries enable a more accurate picture of bomb’s role in ending the war.

In a previous two-part essay, posted in August of 2015, I argued that Truman’s atomic bomb-use decision was not primarily motivated by a desire to end the war quickly in order to save American lives that would have been lost in a land invasion and that the use of the bomb was not the main factor inducing Japan to surrender.  I also argued in a Part III that our enduring belief in the bomb as “the winning weapon” has had a profound impact on American culture and on how we approach national security.  These essays challenged the prevailing beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Americans.  In the hope of stimulating an ongoing dialogue on the Hiroshima Myth and its implications, I’ve decided to re-post these essays as a single post on this, the 53rd anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. I will re-post it every August 6.  Critical comments are encouraged.  


Atomic Bombs Over Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima (left) and Nagazaki (right)

When Harry Truman became president on April 12, 1945, upon the death of President Roosevelt, he had little knowledge of international affairs and knew virtually nothing about the Manhattan Project that was developing an atomic bomb. On the first day of his presidency, Truman said in his memoirs, he was told by Roosevelt confidant James Byrnes that the U.S. was building an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world.” He would be fully briefed on the bomb project on April 25 by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and General Leslie Groves, who had been put in charge of the Manhattan Project. Truman had only a rudimentary understanding of what an atomic bomb was, but what he did grasp was its potential for unlimited power. The idea of its omnipotence was engrained into his consciousness early in his presidency.

As president, Truman, who had been selected by Roosevelt as his vice-president running mate after the nominating convention was deadlocked between Henry Wallace and Byrnes, inherited issues of momentous significance-- foremost of which were to lead the victory over Japan and decide what to do with the atomic bomb, which was nearing completion.

To bring victory in the Pacific, his advisers presented him three options. The first was diplomatic: negotiate an end to the war. Truman knew Japan was trying to get out of the war because we had broken its codes and were listening in on their communications.  Tokyo had made overtures toward the Soviet Union, with whom it had signed a neutrality pact, in the hope that Moscow would help mediate an end to the war.  (Overtures were also made to neutral states Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal.)  Japanese leaders reasoned the Soviets offered the best hope for mediation since they might see this as an opportunity to limit U.S. influence in the region.

Diplomacy was the least popular option among Truman's top advisers. They knew that Japan, whose air force and navy had been destroyed, and was short on food, supplies, munitions, and men to defend the home front (they were recruiting child soldiers and airmen), was close to defeat. A military victory seemed imminent; on what terms was the question.

In striving to carry on with FDR's policies, Truman adopted the former president's call for “unconditional surrender,” which Roosevelt had mentioned for the first time at the 1943 Casablanca Conference. Unconditional surrender was a popular war aim among war-weary, revenge-thirsty Americans, but it complicated a negotiated end to the war because it was totally unacceptable to the Japanese, who were adamant about retaining their emperor, governing system and culture. Despite it being more of a slogan than a policy, Truman had little interest in revising a term so many Americans had rallied behind, especially when Japan was playing such a weak hand.

The idea of unconditional surrender had its critics. Churchill told Truman at Potsdam he thought the rhetorical term was too rigid. Forcing Japan to accept it, would extract too heavy a price on the allies. Churchill thought that in the interest of future peace and security Japan had to be left with “some show of saving their military honor and some assurance of their national existence.” Acting U.S. Secretary of State Joseph Grew, a former ambassador to Japan, was an outspoken critic of unconditional surrender. He advised Truman to modify the surrender terms to allow the emperor to remain as head of state. The highly respected Secretary of War Henry Stimson was persistent in pressing Truman to pursue surrender terms  that would not exclude a constitutional monarch under Japan's present dynasty.

Truman and Byrnes II
President Truman and James Byrnes
Although Truman gave hints he was open to the idea of modifying unconditional surrender, he was being pulled in the opposite direction by Byrnes and Grove, who had bigger plans for atomic weapons. Byrnes in particular had the ear of the president. He had vast experience in foreign affairs, full knowledge of the bomb project, and had been FDR's closest adviser. And, he was a leading figure on the Interim Committee Truman appointed to advise him on use of the bomb. Given Byrnes' pro-bomb views, and Truman's fear of being considered weak or an "appeaser,"  the diplomatic option never really had a chance. Byrnes made sure of this when he shut Stimson our of the deliberations and negotiations at Potsdam. Truman and Byrnes made sure unconditional surrender remained the key feature of the Potsdam Ultimatum.

The second option was an invasion of the mainland. Given the uncertainty about the bomb’s availability, this was the option that garnered Truman’s attention. The President asked the military to estimate the number of American lives that would be lost in an assault on Japan. Barton Bernstein uncovered a declassified June 1945 Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advisory group paper that estimated the number of American lives likely lost at twenty-five to forty-six thousand. A later JCS War Plans Committee report estimated 31,000 battle casualties (dead, wounded and missing), numbers it said made an invasion “relatively inexpensive"--numbers, however, Truman still found alarming. The President had little stomach for a land invasion.  Nevertheless he ordered the JCS to proceed with planning an invasion. It was to begin on Kyushu with simultaneous landings on three fronts, commencing around November 1. The invasion of the main island of Honshu was not to take place until the spring of 1946.

Sec. of Defense Henry Stimson
Truman also understood that fewer American lives would be lost if the Russians joined the fight, which they had promised at Yalta to do three months after Germany's surrender. General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, had told him at a June 18 meeting of the Joint Chiefs that Japan would likely capitulate after the Russian entry. With the atomic bomb project approaching a conclusion, however, Truman and Byrnes had second thoughts about Russia's entry into the war.

A test of the Plutonium bomb was scheduled for the middle of July. Wanting the knowledge of a successful test before he met Stalin, Truman pushed the promised July 1 date for the Potsdam Conference back to July 15. It is clear  he was coordinating the Potsdam meeting with the Alamogordo atomic test.

Truman, Stalin, Churchill
Stalin, Truman and Churchill at Potsdam
At Potsdam, Truman first saw Stalin on July 17 and quickly got his promise he would invade Japan as he had pledged at Yalta. In his Potsdam diary, Truman celebrated Stalin’s promise to “be in Jap war on August 15th” . . . “fini Japs when that comes about.” On July 18 he wrote to his wife: “I’ve gotten what I came for—Stalin goes to war on August 15 with no strings on it . . . I’ll say we’ll end the war sooner now, and think of the kids that won’t be killed.”

These words suggest that Truman believed Russia's intervention might not only end the war, but obviate America's invasion plan, and he therefore was motivated to encourage Soviet entry. This may have been so in the weeks leading up to Potsdam; it wasn't the case after Trinity.  In truth, at Potsdam, with a strong prodding from Byrnes, the President was thinking about how best to keep the Russians out of the war.  The challenge now was to end the war before, as Byrnes put it, the Russians could get "in on the kill?"  Truman's reflections in his diary and to his wife appear to be playing more to posterity than truth.

Truman and Byrnes returning from Potsdam
Truman and Byrnes Triumphal Return from Postsdam
When Truman learned about the successful Trinity test on July 16, his demeanor at Potsdam changed. Fortified by the exciting news, his overriding focus at the conference shifted from the waning war with Japan to the looming Soviet threat. Russia's entry into the war was no longer needed to defeat Japan; it was now seen as a move that would further Stalin's grand design to extend communist control throughout the Far East. Truman’s focus abruptly shifted from military to political imagery: the bomb would give him, as he put it, “a hammer on those boys.”

Events at Potsdam pose a significant challenge to the Hiroshima Myth narrative for they make it clear Truman thought the end of the war was near, especially if the Russians joined in. The only real issue was how and on what terms. It’s pretty clear he realized that if the bomb was not used before August 15, it might not be used at all.

To ensure that the Japanese would not fall on their sword and surrender before the bomb could be used, Byrnes insisted that the final draft of the Potsdam Ultimatum retained the demand for "unconditional surrender," which he knew was unacceptable to the Japanese, and that the Russians would not be listed as a co-sponsor.  This was intended to keep alive Japan's fantasy about Moscow mediating better surrender terms.

General Groves
General Leslie Groves
Momentum for using the bomb had been building up since General Groves was put in charge of the bomb project. Unsure of himself, Truman quickly fell under the spell of pro-bomb advocates Byrnes and Groves, who said in his memoir (Now It Can Be Told) that Truman always assumed the bomb would be used when ready. He characterized the president as being pulled along “like a little boy on a toboggan.”

This suggests that Truman was not exposed to alternatives. This isn’t true. Six of the seven five-star generals and admirals at the time, including Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe and General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, and Fleet Admiral William "Bull" Halsey believed use of the atomic bomb was “completely unnecessary:” Japan was already defeated, realized it, and were likely to surrender even before any American invasion could be launched.

General George C. Marshall also had serious reservations. If the bomb were to be used, he though it should be dropped on a purely military target; if this didn't induce surrender, then the Japanese should be warned before a second bombing. Believing Japan’s defeat was imminent Navy Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy insisted that even an invasion of Japan was not necessary to end the war. He urged altering the surrender terms to allow Japan to keep their emperor.

There is no evidence Truman gave serious consideration to any of these alternative views. The power surge he got from Trinity led him to shift priorities. Already inclined to heed the advice of Byrnes, whom he had named Secretary of State, he now listened more intently to the Secretary's urging that we should think beyond the war—to the rivalry that was sure to develop with the Soviet Union. If the Russians invaded Japan and were instrumental in forcing Tokyo’s surrender, then they would be in a position after the war to not only extend communist control in the Far East, including in China and Manchuria, but also in Eastern Europe where Red Army troops were still stationed. General Groves echoed Byrnes' concerns about Soviet expansionism, which to him was always the main reason why the bomb's creation was necessary.

Byrnes believed the display of awesome American power would make the Russians more "manageable" on critical issues involving the independence of Poland and other East European states. Enamored with the bomb’s omnipotence, he thought it would enable the U.S. to pretty much dictate terms after the war, as he put it, enable us to control events both large and small. The desire to showcase the bomb’s destructiveness lay behind the decision to spare a few Japanese cities from the fire bombings, so as to provide “virgin targets” where the effects of the bomb could be clearly seen (and studied). It also led the Interim Committee to reject recommendations to demonstrate the bomb, drop it on a sparsely-populated area, or warn the Japanese in advance. The goal was to maximize its shock value.

So once he has his "master card" in his hands, Russian entry no longer looked so good to the President. Neither did recommendations he was getting from Stimson and others to share bomb knowledge with Stalin in order to make international control of the weapon after the war more feasible. Truman wasn't interested in such a sharing. At Potsdam, he only casually mentioned to Stalin that the U.S. had a "new weapon of unusual destructive force." Stalin responded that he was glad and hoped the U.S. would make "good use of it against the Japanese." (Stalin, of course, already knew about the bomb from his spies at Los Alamos.)

Truman and Sailors on the Augusta
Telling Sailors About "The Greatest Thing in History"
The availability of the bomb and concern about Soviet expansionism led Truman to instruct the Target Committee to use it as soon as it could be made ready. General Groves, the head of the Committee, was determined to use it before the Russians entered the war. Truman said he ordered its use on July 25 while still in Potsdam, though he has also claimed he gave the final order while at sea returning from Europe, which would have made it on or after August 2. Historian Barton Bernstein, the foremost expert on the bomb decision, concludes that Truman decided the July 25 order would stand unless Japan made a satisfactory response to the Potsdam Ultimatum. This was probably "an informal but clearly understood arrangement" that was later transformed by Truman and his ghost writers into a "firm order."  The evidence suggests that Truman had no hand in the written directive to use the bomb nor did he issue an official instruction to drop it (the only written direction to use the bomb came from General Marshall).

The Target Committee selected four cities: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Niigata. None of these were of much military significance. Operational control was given to Groves who made the actual decision to drop the "Little Boy" on Hiroshima on August 6. In a rush to drop the second bomb, Groves pushed up the date to August 9. Despite a fuel pump problem that should have delayed the mission, Bock's Car took off in the morning of the 9th. The "Fat Man" bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, instead of the intended target, Kokura, which was heavily clouded over. This was just one day after the Russians had entered the war.

After Nagasaki, to give Japan a reasonable amount of time to surrender, and restore his control over the bombing process, Truman ordered that no additional bombs would be dropped without his expressed permission. He was reportedly deeply troubled by visuals of the two devastated cities and had little stomach for another bomb. This may be the great irony of the Hiroshima narrative.  The atomic bomb may in fact have been instrumental in ending the war, not by shocking the Japanese into surrendering, however, but by shocking Truman into modifying the surrender terms to allow Japan to keep its emperor.

The Cold War
The evidence is thus clear that main motive in Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan was not primarily to avoid a bloody land invasion, and hence save lives—i.e., the Hiroshima Myth--but to contain and intimidate the Soviet Union. In this, it's more correct to think of its use not so much as the last act of World War II, but the first act of the cold war.

There has been much speculation as to why President Truman fell in line so easily with the pro-bomb advocates. Some, like General Groves, point to bomb-use momentum he inherited. Others believe he misunderstood the nature of the bombing, believing, based on comments he made, that Japan would be given advanced warning and the bomb would be dropped only on a military target, hence minimizing the loss of civilian lives. Some histories emphasize that with so much money invested in producing the bomb, and all the use machinery in place, the American people would fully expect that the bomb would be used, if for no other reason than to justify the expenditure.

A number of historians have focused on Truman’s alleged racist views toward the Japanese. The president seemed to have been swept into the anti-Japanese maelstrom of race hate and revenge. To most Americans, the Japanese were “subhuman,” or as Truman put it in his diary, “savages--ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.” (Magazines and newspapers routinely depicted Japanese as apes, insects and vermin—“the only good Jap is a dead Jap” was a common refrain.) They were a people so loyal to the emperor that they would fight to the bitter end. Besides, this was “total war.” The line between combatants and civilians had long been broached. Given the prevailing image of the Japanese, it was easy to believe that nothing short of near extermination could force their surrender. These sub-humans deserved the worst.

In their book Hiroshima in America, Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist, and Greg Mitchell illuminate elements of Truman’s personality they believe made him willing to go in the atomic direction Byrnes was taking him. The insecure Truman had long tried to counter perceptions of him as weak-- a "sissy" he was often called in school-- with displays of toughness. They argue that Truman’s insecure psychological style lent itself to a considerable capacity for numbing and denial of death. They say he tended toward premature decisiveness when under stress, which would block our remorseful reflections of any kind. So constituted, he was disinclined to probe his advisers for latent disagreement. He lacked the self-confidence needed to resist the pressures of assertive men like Byrnes and Groves.

So President Truman plunged into his decision with little reflection on troubling details and larger consequences. Given all the momentum built up to use the bomb, Truman would have to have been a man of iron will to say no.  This he wasn't.  He went to his grave insisting he never had a single regret or a moment’s doubt about his decision.

The decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan thus played more to Moscow than to the widely-held belief in the U.S. that it was used to end the war before a bloody land invasion that would have resulted in a heavy loss of lives--a mercy killing that prevented even greater suffering. This, of course, does not mean Truman was not concerned about the loss of American lives. In his view, the bomb decision served both purposes. In the end, like so many others, Harry Truman was drawn to the bomb’s ultimate power and feared the consequences of not using it.
*It is important to note that the expected loss of American lives was far less than the inflated numbers tossed around after the war. In a widely read intimate history of the bomb decision, published by Secretary of War Stimson in the February 1947 issue of Harper's Magazine, the War Secretary wrote he was informed the invasion would cost "over a million American casualties." The New York Times bought into Stimson's projection and atomic bombing justification, observing that "by sacrificing thousands of lives" the atomic bomb "saved millions." In his 1955 memoir, Truman put the number of American lives that would have been lost at “half a million.” Most Americans believe the  highly inflated numbers brandished around after the war.  Clearly the lives-saved numerology game plays well to the claim that the bomb’s use was necessary and morally justified.  The "million lives saved" myth is a key component of the official Hiroshima narrative.


It is conventional wisdom that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with Truman’s threat to launch a “reign of ruin” on Japan the likes of which the world had never seen, forced the Japanese Supreme Council (consisting of the six top members of the government) to accept the Potsdam Declaration’s demand for “unconditional surrender.” Assessing the validity of this claim requires looking at the war situation from Japan’s perspective. Were the atomic bombings, and the threat of more to come, the main reason Japan’s Supreme Council, after intervention by the emperor, decided to surrender? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine the timing of the surrender decision as well as how the top Japanese political and military leaders saw their strategic options in August of 1945.

An examination of the timing of Japan’s surrender decision casts serious doubt on the traditional understanding of the bomb’s role. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6. On the morning of August 9, the Supreme Council met for the first time in the war to discuss the unconditional surrender terms set forth in the Potsdam Ultimatum. Though Japan had explored ways to negotiate an end to the war, which we knew because we had broken their communication codes, it was adamantly opposed to surrendering unconditionally since this would likely result in an occupation, the loss of the authority of the emperor, dramatic changes to the country's form of government, its beliefs, traditions, and ways of life, and, possibly, to war crimes trials, which had been hinted at in the Potsdam Declaration. So what motivated the Supreme Council to meet on August 9 to discuss terms of surrender?

Prime Minister Togo and His Cabinet
Contrary to the established winning weapon narrative, it wasn’t the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. First, it is doubtful the bombing of Hiroshima pushed Japan’s political and military leaders to consider unconditional surrender. The fact that the Supreme Council decided to disregard Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori’s recommendation to meet on August 8 after Hiroshima, and didn’t meet until a day later, suggests that, despite having heard about the city's destruction shortly after the bombing, they didn’t consider it important enough to quickly convene.

Perhaps, as some defenders of the traditional narrative contend, the Council did not fully understand the nature and magnitude of the new weapon. This isn’t likely. Japan had its own nuclear research program and several military officers mentioned in their diaries that Hiroshima had been destroyed by a nuclear weapon.  Also, accounts of the utter destruction had been circulating.

So, if Hiroshima didn’t push the Supreme Council to meet on August 9, what did? Was it the Nagasaki bombing? Again, timing suggests it wasn’t Nagasaki. When the Supreme Council met on the morning of August 9, Nagasaki had not yet been bombed. The Council would not learn about Nagasaki until after their meeting on the surrender decision had adjourned, in a three-to-three deadlock, and the full cabinet had been called to take up the question.

There is good reason why the Japanese might not have been shocked by the horrors of the mass destruction of Hiroshima and, later, Nagasaki. The country had endured night and day fire bombings of its cities for weeks, resulting collectively in far more devastation and loss of life. In Tokyo alone, 16 square miles of the city were destroyed and an estimated 120,000 Japanese died. Japan had become numbed to destruction well before the atomic bombs. Sixty-six of its cities had been destroyed. If they didn’t surrender after all this destruction, why would the leveling of yet two more cities make them change their mind? Minister of War and Supreme Council member General Korechika Anami agreed, commenting on August 13 that the atomic bombings were no more menacing than the fire bombings Japan had endured from the sky for months.

A Bombed-out Tokyo
The timing evidence makes it clear that something other than the shock of atomic bombs drove the Japanese to surrender on August 14. The decisive factors included: The debilitating effects of the naval blockade on the Japanese economy, the Russian invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria on August 8, and, most significantly, Truman's decision to allow the Imperial dynasty to continue, which was granted by the so-called "James Byrnes Note" on August 11.

Joseph Stalin
Japan wanted to bring the war to an end on the best possible terms. To accomplish this, it had two options: one diplomatic and one military. On the diplomatic front, since Japan nominally had a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, it thought Stalin might be willing to mediate a settlement that would not require unconditional surrender. Not only might Japan be able to keep their emperor, but also avoid war crimes trials and possibly even keep some of the territories it had conquered. Japan figured Moscow might welcome the establishment of terms less favorable to the U.S.

The military option was to bolster the capability of Japan’s Imperial Army to inflict heavy casualties on American troops in the event of an invasion. The army entrusted with defending the homeland was still strong and had not been diminished by the atomic bombings. If the Army could prove formidable, and possibly even win a decisive battle, this might motivate the Americans to negotiate a termination of the war on better terms for Japan—or so it was hoped. Expecting that an invasion would begin in the southern island of Kyushu (correctly as it turned out), the bulk of the Japanese army was shifted to the south.

So on August 8 both of Japan’s strategic options were thus still alive: Stalin might still mediate, and the capacity of the Japanese Army’s to inflict punishment defending the homeland remained viable.

Moscow’s declaration of war against Japan on August 8, a week before it had promised to do so at the Yalta Conference, and its prompt invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island, however, changed the picture dramatically. Stalin’s belligerency wiped out the diplomatic option. Japan’s shifting of its best troops to the southern part of the home islands, left the north of Japan poorly defended. The Soviet Army sliced quickly through Manchuria and Sakhalin and was preparing to invade the northern Japanese Island of Hokkaido. It appeared the Red Army would soon land on Honshu. Japan was now facing a two-front war. While the bombing of Hiroshima had foreclosed neither of Japan’s strategic options, the Soviet invasion has foreclosed both.

Japanese intelligence had predicted that the U.S. would not invade for several months, possibly not until late 1945 or early 1946. This provided time for its Army to dig in and prepare for a decisive battle. The Soviet invasion and immediate threat to the home islands, however, turned the Supreme Council’s fear, originally expressed in June 1945, that Soviet entry into the war would “determine the fate of the empire,” into a reality. The prospect of a Communist Japan haunted the regime.  It now became critical to end the war as quickly as possible, and it was deemed far better to deal with the Americans than Stalin and the Red Army.

Emperor Hirohito
On August 11 a note from Secretary of State Byrnes to the Japanese Supreme Council qualified the "unconditional surrender" terms.  It stated that "the authority of the Emperor shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers," ... but "the ultimate form of government of Japan shall be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people."  This was a major breakthrough; Japan could keep its Emperor.  (Hirohito's post-war value as an authority to containing Japan's extended military, naval and war forces was deemed essential by Byrnes and Truman.)  Assuring Hirohito's role in the post-war world strengthened the hand of moderates on the Supreme Council over the militarists who were adamantly opposed to unconditional surrender.  This  paved the way for Japan' surrender on August 14.

The historical evidence thus points to the conclusion that the Japanese agreement to surrender was not motivated by the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,* or Truman’s threat of a “reign of ruin” (there were few cities left to hit with atomic bombs), or even a pending American invasion of the Japanese islands; rather it was inspired by Russia’s declaration of war and invasion and Washington's modification of the terms of surrender.  Also in play was Japan's deteriorating economic situation which compromised its capacity to sustain its military effort.
*  A number of defenders of the Hiroshima Myth site a statement made by Hirohito shortly after the war that a "new and most cruel bomb" had been a significant consideration in Japan's decision to lay down its arms.  He went on to imply that Japan's capitulation had saved the rest of the world from nuclear annihilation.  These words should be more correctly seen as part of a Hirohito face-saving spin to defect the humiliation of Japan's defeat.  It was designed to enable Tokyo to surrender without conceding defeat on the battlefield, where it counted most in the samurai mind.  To repeat: the Japanese Emperor, cabinet, and Supreme Council barely mentioned the bomb during their surrender deliberations.


Parts I and II  examined distortions of truth surrounding the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These distortions formed a mythology about the bombings that has become deeply embedded in the collective American conscience. Part III offers my thoughts on the legacy of the Hiroshima Myth.

Enduring American allegiance to the Hiroshima Myth—or, conversely, our collective failure to confront its truth—has had a profound impact on the United States, both at home and abroad. Perceiving the atomic bomb as a decisive war-winning weapon led most Americans to embrace it as the essential protector of our nation. To be safe, we needed to stockpile nuclear weapons and be prepared to use them, a belief that would spark a massive nuclear arms race in the ensuing decades. Accepting the Hiroshima Myth meant accepting nuclear weapons as a fact of national and international life.

The belief that the bomb killed thousands to save millions imparted a moral righteousness to the bomb that today translates into a collective American numbness to matters of mass destruction, even genocide. Almost anything is permissible if used to “save American lives.” This numbness, along with our belief in American exceptionalism and the decisiveness of military power, helps explain why the US is prone to deploying extensive force and using increasingly destructive weapons against perceived international enemies, however non-threatening they may appear to the reasoned mind.

Public opinion surveys taken shortly after the war revealed that the overwhelming majority of Americans approved of the bomb’s use (85%), believed it ended the war, and accepted the official Hiroshima narrative as set forth in Henry Stimson’s article in Harpers magazine: the bomb’s use on military targets ended the war making an invasion of Japan unnecessary, thus saving thousands of lives, and, because the Japanese started the war, committed criminal acts, and mistreated American POWs, they had forfeited any claim for mercy. To be sure, this approval derived from overwhelming joy at the war’s victorious ending, but also attests to the tremendous effectiveness of the Truman Administration’s propaganda campaign to justify use of the bomb on military as well as ethical grounds. Leading military and political figures in the bomb decision went to great lengths to emphasize the bomb’s essential role, hide its grotesque effects on people, and deny its revolutionary significance. A compliant media and opinion-molding industry transmitted the official narrative without questions.  Virtually all editorials endorsed the use of the bomb.

There were some contrary accounts, most notably John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, a moving account from ground zero, David Bradley's best-selling No Place to Hide, and essays that appeared in the Saturday Review by Lewis Mumford and Normal Cousins that put a human face on the bomb’s devastation and touched on the lethal effects of nuclear radiation. These challenges to the carefully structured official story, however, failed to shake the strength of the Hiroshima Myth; the “good war” and “winning weapon” were embraced as unambiguously righteous.

Politicians fell in line with the sanitized version of Hiroshima. Only one president ever strayed from the official line: Dwight Eisenhower who wrote in his 1948 memoir Crusade in Europe that he had argued against the military use of the bomb. Later he more firmly and publicly criticized the use of those “awful things.”

It is my thesis that an inability or reluctance to confront the full truth of Hiroshima, and a failure to recognize that the atomic bomb had changed everything--that the very survival of mankind was now an issue--led to a fateful American embrace of nuclear weapons and an arms race with the Soviet Union that has drained our country economically, morally and spiritually. The bomb exacerbated Cold War fears, aggravated global tensions, and has spawned an acquisition dynamic that now finds nine nations in possession of nuclear weapons, and others possibly on the verge. Unstable Pakistan is now reported to have the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal; many worry that Iran will be next to join the nuclear club. We tremble at the thought of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear device.

Not all Americans believed the U.S. could maintain an atomic monopoly that would protect us into the foreseeable future. Several atomic scientists and government officials had doubts and advocated for the internationally control of atomic weapons. To rally Americans behind this idea, a number of scientists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project launched a campaign to educate the public about the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons.  They reasoned this would frighten people into rallying behind the idea of international control. Their insistent tales about apocalyptic destruction did resonate with the American people, but, as Eugene Rabinowitch, one of the touring scientists, later lamented in a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editorial, they had left the American people only "half-educated": while the lesson of the bomb's awesome power had been learned, the lesson of the value of international control and cooperation had not.  Rabinowitch concluded that the scientists' effort had been worse than a failure: by drumming into the public consciousness the bomb's irresistible power, they encouraged the very reliance on atomic weapons they had hoped to avoid.

Meanwhile a fear of communism was spreading throughout the U.S., especially after the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949.  According to Paul Boyer, in By the Bomb's Early Light, the strong emotions the scientists had stirred in their scare campaign created fertile psychological soil for an all-out crusade against the growing communist menace.  When fear of the bomb married the fear of communism, nuclear weapons gained deified status in the U.S. The atomic bomb became central to American security, around which everything else revolved. And, if we were to have atomic bombs, we had to have the biggest and best: the idea of nuclear supremacy was born.

Still many Americans felt a foreboding about a possible—or even likely--apocalyptic future. Opinion molders tried to soothe public anxiety about atomic bombs and its hazards, particularly the danger of radiation, with reassuring TV ads, the “duck-and-cover” campaign, and positive messages about the peaceful uses of atomic energy, but visions of a nuclear finale remained in the public consciousness. Many of the same Americans who endorsed the use of the bomb, and later embraced it, felt it would ultimately destroy the world. This reflected the seemingly contradictory emotions of approval and fear the bomb evoked, a combination that has disturbed and confused Americans ever since.

In America, secrecy, concealment, and falsifications that surrounded the nuclear weapon narrative, and the profound fear of being a victim of mass destruction--perhaps of the utmost—has led to the creation of an all-powerful and encompassing national security state. All post-Hiroshima presidents have resisted open debate about national security and have sought to control the dissemination of information about security matters. The purpose of such control has always been to retain the military prerogative without public constraint. Since Hiroshima, a small group of relatively isolated individuals has made enormously consequential decisions in secret, then afterwards concealed from the public the real reasons for, and the nature and consequences of, their decisions.

Secrecy and concealment have not only become institutionally entrenched, manifested in a myriad of cover-ups of misdeeds (Hiroshima was the mother of all cover-ups), but has invaded individual American psyches. Evoking “national security” is like a muzzle; Americans generally don’t question actions taken in the name of national security. We have become accustomed to putting our gravest security problems completely in the hands of so-called “experts” and political leaders who always claim to have things under control—only to recognize later that they really don't. The dissident who questions actions taken in the name of national security, or reveals concealed “secrets,” runs the risk of ridicule, physical attack, and even imprisonment.

It may not be too far a stretch to say that the rising mistrust of Americans for politicians, governing officials, and government in general, and much of the angry cynicism so evident in our current public life, is an outcome of the Hiroshima and post-Hiroshima nuclear deceptions and concealment of truth.

With new historical revelations raising serious questions about the truthfulness of the official Hiroshima narrative, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 1995 used the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II to plan an exhibit that would offer visitors much more than the usual decennial triumphant celebration.  lts curators and consulting historians wanted to provide a thought-provoking exhibit about the development of the bomb, the debate--then and now--over its use, and its legacy. Smithsonian officials also wanted to put a Japanese face on the exhibit by displaying some artifacts from the flattened Hiroshima.  They hoped the exhibition would promote a national dialogue.

It wasn’t to be. When word leaked out about the project, the Smithsonian curators were bombarded with protests from veteran groups, pro-military organizations, conservatives, and many Americans unflinchingly proud of their country’s victory in the Good War. Editorials were almost uniformly hostile to the Smithsonian. Voicing outrage, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution, which while condemning the Smithsonian for being “revisionist and offensive,” reiterated the Hiroshima Myth that use of the bomb brought a merciful end to the war, saving both American and Japanese lives. Attempts by historians and supporters to defend the planned exhibit were to no avail. The Smithsonian ended up cancelling the full-picture exhibit and in the end displayed little more than the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb.

Such is the tenacity of the official Hiroshima narrative. After all these years it still touches raw emotions. To many Americans, challenging its truthfulness is like desecrating the flag; it's not something to tread on. 

While psychologically numbing Americans to mass killings, making such actions easier to contemplate and tolerate, the Hiroshima Myth has also inculcated a sense of futurelessness in the psyches of our citizens. Since nuclear weapons, most now far more powerful than Little Boy and Fat Man, could end life on earth as we know it; why, then, should people think about, or plan for, the future? And, why worry about one’s transgressions in the now? Hiroshima made it clear that while our new weaponry endangers particular human populations, it more ominously poses a threat to the overall human habitat--the earth. Even if nuclear weapons are never used again, our awareness of that possibility has shaken our confidence in the quality of “eternal nature.” Early 1980's revelations about the possibility of a continuous “nuclear winter” underscored this fear. Nuclear weapons pose the ultimate environmental danger.

So here we are 70+ years later still firmly subscribed to the belief that dropping atomic bombs on Japan’s civilian population brought a merciful end to a bloody war. (How “merciful” was it when the number of civilians instantly killed by the two bombs was more than twice the number of our troops killed during the entire Pacific War, not counting the thousands of Japanese who would die from the effects of radiation.) After all, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by a country that had been victimized by a surprise attack and suffered numerous wartime atrocities (Okinawa and Bataan, for example). Few Americans see any reason to revisit the atomic bomb decision.

Belief in American virtue and exceptionalism (Truman thanked God for giving the decisive weapon to us), and pride in our scientific achievement in creating and improving on the bomb has fostered an admiration, and for some a complete devotion, to nuclear weapons. This enthrallment, which has continued despite the end of the Cold War, has blocked out reflection on past wars, and, for many, future dangers. Under these circumstances, self-condemnation for Hiroshima is out of the question. The Japanese prime minister has apologized for the horrors his country visited upon the United States; don’t hold your breath for an American president to do the same.

Our entrapment by the Hiroshima Myth has, I believe, taken a heavy toll on the America for which we are supposed to stand: an America based on democratic accountability, liberty, justice, ethical conduct, the rule of law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes; an America where its leaders speak forthrightly to its people; an America with a capacity for empathy and compassion. Until we confront the Hiroshima Myth, we will never acknowledge that nuclear weapons can never be used again, never be able to seriously lead a movement to establish a nuclear-free world, and never wean ourselves from our habit of using force as a first, rather than a last resort. We can also never fulfill the promise of our founding ideals.

The words of Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell ring truer today than they did 20 years ago when they published their book Hiroshima in America:

"Confronting Hiroshima can be a powerful source of renewal. It can enable us to emerge from nuclear entrapment and rediscover our imaginative capacities on behalf of human good. We can overcome our moral inversion and cease to justify weapons or actions of mass killings. We can condemn and step back from acts of desecration and recognize what Camus called a “philosophy of limits.” In that way we can also take steps to cease betraying ourselves, cease harming and deceiving our own people. We can also free our society from its apocalyptic concealment, and in the process enlarge our vision. We can break out of our long-standing numbing in the vitalization endeavor of learning, or relearning, to feel. And we can divest ourselves of a debilitating sense of futurelessness and once more feel bonded to past and future generations."

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