The Talking Lion

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mushroom Cloud Nine

It's been just about 60 years since the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and this country remains the only nation to use the terribly powerful weapon.

Most people try to justify the thousands of Japanese civilian deaths that the attack caused by claiming that the bombing hastened the end to the war. There is a growing amount of evidence that suggests that this wasn't the case, however, and the United States had other viable options.

In a recently released Harvard University Press volume drawing upon the latest Japanese sources, for instance, Professor Tsuyohsi Hasegawa concludes that the traditional “myth cannot be supported by historical facts.” By far the most important factor forcing the decision, his research indicates, was the Soviet declaration of war against Japan on August 8, 1945, just after the Hiroshima bombing.

Similarly, Professor Herbert Bix–whose biography of Hirohito won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction–also writes in a recent article that “the Soviet factor carried greater weight in the eyes of the emperor and most military leaders.”

Many Japanese historians have long judged the Soviet declaration of war to have been the straw that broke the camels back–mainly because the Japanese military feared the Red Army more than the loss of another city by aerial bombardment. (They had already shown themselves willing to sacrifice many, many cities to conventional bombing!)

An intimately related question is whether the bomb was in any event still necessary to force a surrender before an invasion. Again, most Americans believe the answer obvious–as, of course, do many historians. However, a very substantial number also disagree with this view. One of the most respected, Stanford University Professor Barton Bernstein, judges that all things considered it seems “quite probable–indeed, far more likely than not–that Japan would have surrendered before November” (when the first landing in Japan was scheduled.)

So why did we do it?

Why was the bomb used? The conventional view, of course, is that it was to save as many lives as possible. But if this is so, several historians now ask, why did President Truman and his chief adviser Secretary of State James Byrnes make it harder for Japan to surrender? Specifically, why did they remove assurances for the Japanese emperor from the July 1945 Potsdam Proclamation warning Japan to surrender? The assurances were strongly recommended by U.S. and British military leaders, and removing them, they knew, would make it all but impossible for Japan to end the war.

A traditional theory has been that the President feared political criticism if he provided assurances to the emperor. But, other historians note, leading Republicans were for–not against–clarifying the terms to achieve a surrender, and were calling for this publicly. Moreover, American leaders always knew the emperor would be needed to order a surrender–and, of course, in the end they did agree to an understanding which allowed such assurances: Japan still has an emperor.

Hasegawa believes the assurances were taken out of the Potsdam Proclamation precisely because American leaders wanted to have the warning rejected so as to justify the bombing–and, further, that they saw the bomb as a way to end the war before Russia could join the fighting. There is other evidence suggesting that policy makers, especially Secretary of State Byrnes, wanted to use the bomb to “make the Russians more manageable in Europe”--as he told one scientist.

The tragedy that was these bombings is not talked about enough. It is a chilling example of a powerful nation taking away the lives of innocent civilians in order to bolster its status in the international power struggle. This weekend should be a time to reflect about the serious damage these bombings caused and think about how this sort of chilling realist political philosophy continues to reign supreme among Bush adminitration officials, leaving the civilians of this country less safe. Because unlike 1945, there are plenty of civilian groups around the world that can gain access to dangerous weapons and seek revenge...


  • Are you familiar with the Japanese mindset? Surrender is not an option to them, at least it wasnt in the 1940s.

    When Americans took over islands one by one that were controlled by Japan, the civilian inhabitants of hte islands would throw their children off cliffs and quickly follow. They would rather committ suicide than "surrender" to the American barbarians.

    When Japan did surrender after the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the nation was so disgraced over the idea that they had surrendered rather than fight to the death, that tens of thousands of Japanese citizens committed suicide. Most of the military officers ran knives through their bellies rather than live with the disgrace of surrender.

    From kamikazes, to a non-surrender mentality, the Japanese were not a people afraid of death. They promised themselves to fight to the death. Under threat of a fire-bombing of Tokyo, the Japanese still refused to surrender. Only the garuanteed destruction of A bombs would serve as an appropriate motivator for them to give up.

    By Blogger Aaron Kinney, at Thursday, 04 August, 2005  

  • That's a great point Aaron makes, and is quite important in understanding the necessity for, as you call it, "chilling realist political philosophy" under certain circumstances.

    To assume that the U.S. used the bomb solely as a strong move in geopolitical chess game with the Soviets is to disregard a tremendous amount of the scholarship on this issue, as well as most of the personal correspondence between Truman and his advisors. The realist would look at the situation by sizing up the enemy - the Japanese - just as Aaron has done. Under this assumption, the numbers thrown around for projected American casualties (which were estimated as high as 1 million) seem quite plausible. With this in mind, one should agree with the usage of the bomb to end the war, especially if you agree that World War II was the most, if not the only, justifiable war of the 20th century.

    However, if you are looking merely for an easy way to scare people about the Bush administration, your post is quite the dishonest success.

    For further reading on this issue, Truman by David McCullough is a fantastic book. As well, readings on the Enola Gay controversy with the Smithsonian from the mid-90's will prove to be quite fascinating.

    By Blogger Kevin, at Thursday, 04 August, 2005  

  • The Japanese mindset not withstanding, I think it is important to remember and acknowledge how much of a tragedy that this bombing was and at least consider the fact that there were other options out there for Truman.

    Before using such a powerful weapon that would inflict so much damage upon civilians, I think all other options should be exhausted. It doesn't seem like this was the case back in August of 1945. Considering the timing of the bombing, it seems like the United States may have had other motives (making a statement to the USSR) that isn't enough to justify Truman's action.

    But the most important thing in all this is recognizing the tragedy of what happened and acknowledging that it would be a tragedy if such a use of force were ever used on civilians again.

    By Blogger Sean, at Friday, 05 August, 2005  

  • The tragedy is that the war started in the first place, not merely Hiroshima. As Pat is fond of saying, Dresden was worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as was the firebombing of Tokyo, as were, of course, the concentration camps.

    Still, WW2 was the most justified war of the 20th century, and it was imperative that the Allies won for countless reasons. The decision to bomb Hiroshima by Truman was made in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military. His primary concern is to win the war and save American and allied lives. It was 1945, it was the most turbulent time of the century, and probably a decision more difficult than anything any of us have ever made.

    It's quite easy to sit on your high horse and say that Truman was not justified in his actions, but I must say for someone who finds it imperative that everyone else sit back and "reflect about the serious damage these bombings caused," you have done little yourself in regard to the opposite action, which would require admittance that sometimes in war people have to do nasty things which no one wants to see happen ever, ever again but may have to under extreme circumstances. However, this would take time away from conjuring up conspiracy theories and thus may appear unattractive.

    What is the extent of "all other options" anyway? Is the death and maming of one million allied soldiers one of these options? I guess after that happened and the Japanese remained standing, fighting to the last man the bomb would be justified. Or maybe not, maybe we could have drafted more allied soldiers and sent them to die in Japan so we didn't have to use the bomb. Where does this number stop? Five million? How do you come to a number?

    Keep in mind, of course, that most of us who feel Truman was justified in this situation to use the A-bomb are not the ones saying we should today make a parking lot out of the Middle East. No one can read the stories about Hiroshima and not feel horrible that innocent people died. Most people do not like death, especially painful, horrible death like that which occured at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, under the context, it was justified to END THE WAR and save millions of people on all sides of the conflict. You were not going to be able to reason with the Japanese or the Emperor, whose apparent divinity in the minds of the Japanese citizens was a large part of their desire to fight to the death for his honor and the honor of Japan. Some people at some points in time cannot be reasoned with: other examples include Islamofascist suicide bombers, as well as say a passionate New York City firefighter after September 11th, or a parent whose child is in danger.

    Exhaust other options before the war, but during the war this becomes harder.

    By Blogger Kevin, at Friday, 05 August, 2005  

  • I would like to chime in again to say that, despite my comments about the Japanese mindset, the legitimacy of dropping two atomic weapons on a foreign country can still come into question.

    I would not disagree with Seans contention that America was a bit too eager to try their new toy. What president in the middle of a 4 year global war wouldnt want to try a new superweapon?

    I think that if the Japanese were more willing to surrender like a Western mind would be, then America likely wouldnt have dropped the bombs. BUT if America wasnt all hyped up and eager to drop bombs in the first place, then they wouldnt have fallen regardless of the Japanese anti-surrender mindset.

    By Blogger Aaron Kinney, at Friday, 05 August, 2005  

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