Kimura in this book debunks so-called "a-bomb myths," a prevailing view about the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in some regions of the world that it ended the war early and saved lives. However, mounting evidences indicate that the US (Harry Truman and his hardliner aides James Byrnes and Leslie Groves) even purposefully delayed the end of the war to gain time to drop the atomic bombs, by removing a clause in the Potsdam Declaration that hinted that US would allow Japan to keep the emperor, and by excluding Stalin from the Declaration - in order to experiment both an uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb before the Soviets entered the war. (See Kimura's lecture notes HERE.)
Kuznick, in his introductory chapter (with the original English version published here on this website with author's permission), reflects on the way scholarly and popular thinking have evolved over 65 years and assesses the significance of the fact that recent U.S. public opinion polls reveal growing American support for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kuznick offers two other major articles in this book. One, on Truman and atomic bombings, moves beyond the perspectives of the Japanese victims and the American perpetrators to show how the decision to drop atomic bombs in World War II opened the door to the potential annihilation not only of the entire human species, but of all life on our planet. The other essay looks at the life of Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets and weighs the meaning of his unwavering refusal to question either the moral or military justifications for his participation in the atomic bombings, as well as the reactions of the other crew members of the Enola Gay. The original English versions of these two articles are available in Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative
Defending the Indefensible: A Meditation on the Life of Hiroshima Pilot Paul Tibbets, Jr.
(This article ranks No.3 in the all-time most-read ranking of Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.)
The book received good reviews in newspapers and magazines including Chugoku Shimbun, Shukan Kin'yobi, Kyodo News Agency, and Nishinippon Shimbun. An English translation of Chugoku Shimbun's Tashiro Akira's review is available HERE.
Here is Peter Kuznick's introductory chapter from the book (footnotes are ommitted in this on-line version).
Sixty-five Years and Counting: The Debate Goes OnPeter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He was born in New York City in July 1948 and received his Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctoral degrees from Rutgers University. His doctorate was earned in History, in 1984, and he began his work at American University in 1986. He is the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America and co-author of Rethinking Cold War Culture. He is currently writing a 10-part documentary film series with Oliver Stone with tentative title "The Secret History of the United States" that will air in the fall of 2011. He and Oliver Stone are also co-authoring a book by that title. He has led the Nuclear Studies Institute's tour to Hiroshima and Nagasaki since 1995.
No topic sparks more controversy or arouses greater passion among American scholars and the public at large than the decision by President Harry Truman and his military and civilian advisors to drop two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. But, sadly, there is also no topic more shrouded in ignorance than this crucially important one. Surveys show that more than one-third of young Americans and young Japanese either cannot identify Hiroshima as the target of the first atomic bomb or don’t know that the United States was the nation that dropped it. They also indicate that, among those Americans who do know, the majority still believe that the bomb was justified because it avoided an invasion and saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. In this book, Professor Kimura and I challenge this and other myths as we try to pierce the veil of ignorance that still surrounds discussion of the most consequential event in human history.
Perhaps the United States is finally beginning to wake up to its culpability for the nuclear nightmare that begin on that fateful day in August 1945 and has haunted humankind ever since. To his credit, President Barack Obama has put nuclear abolition back on the international agenda after eight years of losing ground under George W. Bush. In his inspiring Prague speech of April 2009, Obama declared, “as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” Acknowledgement of America’s special responsibility is an important first step. As the American Catholic Bishops stated in their 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear weapons: “we must shape the climate of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing in 1945. Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons." The attendance by more than 100 Hibakusha--living reminders of what two primitive atomic bombs could do to human beings--at the May 2010 NPT Review Conference at the United Nations drove home the urgency of Obama’s call to action. The tireless efforts of the Hibakusha, who have heroically transformed themselves from victims into the conscience of humanity, provides a constant reminder that the world cannot wait for another Hiroshima or Nagasaki or worse--maybe much, much worse—before it eradicates these evil weapons from our midst.
But a moral obtuseness still clouds the debate—an obtuseness that can be traced back to the ways in which the bombings were originally justified by some of their earliest defenders. Taking a cue from Truman, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Manhattan Project Director Brigadier General Leslie Groves, these early defenders argued that the bomb brought a mercifully speedy end to a bloody and brutal war without a costly invasion. Although Truman and Groves initially said the bombings saved “thousands” of American lives, the number of projected dead climbed to Truman’s half million and beyond as more and more questions were raised about the justification for such devastating actions.
Although, in the immediate aftermath, 85 percent of the American public supported the atomic bombings and almost 23 percent were so filled with hatred of the Japanese that they wished that the United States had had time to pulverize Japan with additional atomic bombs, some Americans, like Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, were horrified by what their government had done. Equally appalled, Albert Einstein astutely opined that the real target was the Soviet Union not Japan. Others immediately recognized that the most terrifying implications went beyond the unconscionable slaughter of over a hundred thousand Japanese civilians or the dangerous provocations toward the Soviet Union. Historian Paul Boyer described a “primal fear of extinction” that swept the United States. NBC radio commentator Cesar Saerchinger noted: “the atomic bomb is merely in its infancy. Indeed, mankind . . . has achieved the power to destroy himself.” One of the starkest assessments came from Major George Fielding Eliot, who wrote in the New York Herald-Tribune: “Mankind stands at the crossroads of destiny.” If humans fail to rise to the challenge, “this planet will vanish into darkness and roll on, a blackened cinder, through the limitless night of interstellar space.” Earlier pre-atomic warnings “were warnings of chaos and of terror, but they were not warnings of the end of the world, only of the end of a particular phase of civilization. They were warnings of a new Dark Age, out of which man might again have arisen after a few centuries of suffering. But the forces which man has now brought into play are forces which can be utterly destructive, so that no living thing may survive their loosing—if ever they are loosed in their ultimate power.”
Hence, the terms of the debate over the atomic bombings were established within days of the attacks as the three narratives—heroic, tragic, and apocalyptic—were clearly set before a frightened and confused public. It is stunning how closely the public debate has hewed to these formulations over the subsequent six and a half decades although the positions embraced have not always conformed to political views or attitudes about the legitimacy of future use of nuclear weapons. A writer in the National Review, America’s leading conservative magazine, even posited in 1959 that criticism of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “was becoming part of the national conservative creed.” The ironies and contradictions abound. The “official” defense of the bombings was published by Henry Stimson, a man who campaigned aggressively to change the surrender terms the U.S. was offering in hopes of avoiding using the bomb and was subsequently tormented over his responsibility for authorizing use of such a weapon and publishing such a disingenuous defense. On the other hand, six of the seven five star generals and admirals who won their fifth star during the war can subsequently be counted among the critics due to their statements that the bomb was either morally indefensible, militarily unnecessary, or both. Counted among them were Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. MacArthur went so far as to praise former President Herbert Hoover for his May 30, 1945 memo urging Truman to let the Japanese keep the Emperor. MacArthur wrote, “That the Japanese would have accepted it and gladly I have no doubt.” While that judgment seems rather premature for late May, there is certainly reason to believe that it might have worked a month or two later, especially if combined with word of imminent Soviet entry into the conflict and, perhaps, a warning about the Allies’ devastating new weapon. Eisenhower claimed to have expressed to Stimson his opposition to using “that awful thing” against an “already defeated” Japan. Dulles issued a statement on August 9 deploring the morality of using such a weapon and worrying about the example the U.S. was setting for other nations who would emulate it in the future. All three were passionate and vehement in their denunciations. Yet MacArthur called for use of atomic bombs during the Korean War. And Eisenhower said the U.S. should use nuclear weapons in Korea like it used a bullet and Dulles offered atomic bombs to the French in Vietnam at Dienbienphu in 1954. Together, Eisenhower and Dulles oversaw an increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 1750 nuclear weapons when they took office in January 1953 to 23,000 when Eisenhower left in 1961. The Eisenhower-approved Pentagon war plan called for killing, deliberately and inadvertently, up to 650 million people in the event of all-out war with the Soviet Union, a possibility that seemed far from remote during the Eisenhower presidency.
The scholarly debate has developed along similar lines. Gar Alperovitz posed the biggest challenge to historical orthodoxy with his 1965 book Atomic Diplomacy, which argued that the bombs were not needed to end the war and that their real target was Moscow, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Alperovitz refined and further substantiated this thesis in his magisterial 1995 book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. Here he argues that the combination of changing the surrender terms and the Soviet invasion would have ended the war without the atomic bombings and that Truman and his advisors were aware of this. They deliberately delayed clarifying the surrender terms until after the bombs were dropped in hopes that the bombs would enable them to limit Soviet gains in both Europe and Asia. Other scholars, including Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, also believe the bombings were indefensible but present a more complex view of U.S. decisionmakers’ motives.
This tragic narrative, as John Dower labeled it, emphasized both the indefensibility of the bombings and the suffering of the victims. Though it is supported by both sound logic and extensive documentation, it has been challenged on several grounds by scholars who persist in the belief that the bombings were necessary to end the war. Such scholars, including Robert Newman and Robert Maddox, insist that the Japanese, far from surrendering in early August 1945, were busy shoring up their forces in Kyushu to resist the anticipated Allied invasion. Privileging military cables over diplomatic ones, they cling to the notion that, without the atomic bombs, the Allies would have launched their invasion and suffered catastrophic casualties. In their minds, potential American deaths from an invasion not even scheduled to begin for another three months should take precedence over actual Japanese deaths in indiscriminate atomic attacks that deliberately targeted overwhelmingly civilian populations. Although scholars, such as John Ray Skates, have effectively challenged the rationale for an invasion , and others, such as Barton Bernstein and J. Samuel Walker, have refuted the bloated casualty projections, a handful of influential academic and military historians hold strong to such views. And the American public still adheres to the belief that such an invasion was inevitable. According to an August 2009 poll of 2,400 American voters, 61 percent said the U.S. did the “right thing” in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and only 22 percent thought it “wrong.” Sixteen percent were undecided. These figures actually show stronger support for the bombings than was evident in previous polls in recent years. Perhaps this reflects a new strategy among the bomb defenders, who have tried to increasingly cast the bomb as a humanitarian gesture on Truman’s part. They have done this by not only emphasizing the numbers of Japanese who would have lost their lives in resisting an invasion, but by emphasizing the death rates among other Asians being subjugated under Japanese rule. Based on this, they argue that the lives saved by expediting the end of the war without an invasion far outweigh those killed in the atomic bombings. This is an extreme and particularly specious case of historical hindsight because there is no evidence that such considerations influenced the thinking of American policymakers in 1945 when the decision was being made.
Two other recent books have sharpened the debate. In 1999, Richard Frank published Downfall, which offers the most informed and reasoned effort to defend the bombs’ use. Frank goes beyond previous scholars in making extensive use of Japanese archives. Like others who embrace the heroic narrative, Frank believes the bombs’ use was the quickest way to end the war but acknowledges that the Japanese would not have been able to hold out much longer given the collapse of their rail system and the hunger and deprivation that was already undermining both morale and the war effort. The most significant recent work on the subject is Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s 2005 work Racing the Enemy. Hasegawa goes Frank one better, drawing upon U.S., Japanese, and Soviet archives to show that the Soviet entry into the war in the early morning of August 9, not America’s use of the atomic bombs, spurred the Japanese decision to surrender. Soviet entry proved the bankruptcy of both Japan’s diplomatic strategy, based upon seeking Soviet mediation to secure better surrender terms, and its Ketsu-go military strategy, based upon inflicting very heavy casualties upon the invading Allied forces. Ultimately helpless in the face of the rampaging Red Army, Japanese leaders decided to surrender to the U.S. while they still had the chance rather than risk a major Soviet role in the occupation, which would further diminish the chance of retaining the Emperor while it would increase the chance of socialist transformation inside Japan. This is not to ignore the impact of the atomic bombings on Japanese leaders. But U.S. firebombing of over 100 Japanese cities between March and August had already demonstrated U.S. ability to extirpate urban populations. The difference between doing this with one plane and one bomb or hundreds of planes and thousands of bombs was less monumental to Japanese leaders than many Americans realize.
What was really new, as I argue in this book, was the fact that the human species was now, for the first time, forced to reckon with its own annihilation and that of all other living things on this planet. And what I find most appalling, beyond the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, is that Truman and his advisors knew enough about the prospects for inducing Japanese surrender without the bombs and understood full well that, by using the bombs, they were opening the door to what Truman called “the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley era after Noah and his fabulous ark,” and still opted for the nuclear option. As the following pages attempt to show, it is this willingness to use the weapons at hand and the reckless disregard of long-term consequences that makes the elimination of all nuclear weapons more urgent than ever.
Also see related articles:
Hiroshima and the World: Awakening America's "Moral Responsibility to Act"
Hiroshima and Nagasaki at 65 – A Reflection