Hiroshima: New facts and old myths

by Gar Alperovitz,
speech delivered at Iowa State University,
Ames, IA
7 November 1994
available from Alternative Radio

Gar Alperovitz is one of the most highly regarded experts on Hiroshima and U.S. policy. He is professor of political economy at the University of Maryland. His articles appear in the Washington Post, Tikkun, The Nation and Dollars & Sense. His books include Atomic Diplomacy and America Beyond Capitalism. His award-winning book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, is a classic.

I want to read you something to give you what’s called the latest literature review summary in the most recent assessment of the modern historiography on the bombing of Hiroshima. This is from Diplomatic History, a scholarly journal. “Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman Administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisors knew it.” I want to underscore the last part. It’s long been understood by many specialists that the bombing was totally unnecessary, contrary to what you might see in the popular press. But that’s an after-the-fact judgment, after the event. This judgment is what the scholars who are specialists and most knowledgeable say, and Truman and his advisors knew in advance, before using the bomb, that there were other ways to end the war without destroying these two cities.

That’s a very controversial statement. I want to underline the source of it. This is not a left-wing politician or a radical revisionist historian or a left-Socialist scholar saying this. The man who has assessed this does not belong to any of the scholarly camps, He’s not a right-wing, left-wing, or middle-wing professor. He is currently the Chief Historian for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a very neutral body. He is telling you in this statement this is what the scholarly literature, the most recent expert studies, say. It’s not necessarily his opinion; it is what he tells you the experts are saying. Let me give you a couple more, just by way of introduction, just so you get a sense of how others have understood this who have really gone into the documents. Then we can begin to talk about the story.

This is something not from recent assessment. This is something from 1946. I’m going to give you two official 1946 government studies of the decision. Remember, the invasion of Japan, had it occurred, the one that might have cost any serious number of lives, would not, could not have occurred until March or April 1946. The bombs were dropped in August of 1945, six to seven months time before there would have been a real invasion of Japan. There was scheduled a first, preliminary landing–not the full invasion–for November 1, three months off. The reason you need to know these dates is that I’m going to read you the conclusion of one official study from 1946. “Certainly prior to 31 December 1945″ that’s well before an invasion–”and in all probability prior to 1 November, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” We’re going to come back to the question about Russia entering the war. Russia was neutral at this point. That’s the conclusion of the U.S. official Strategic Bombing Survey in June of 1946.

One final one. This one was discovered only five years ago. A Spanish scholar happened upon this top-secret study misfiled at the National Archives. That’s the way historical research works. [laughter] He brought it to my attention. No one seems to have noticed it except the government officials who wrote it and did not make it public. This is 1946, a War Department study by the Strategic Policy Group of the Operations Planning Division, which was the key operational group that did planning for the military for World War II. “The dropping of the bomb was the pretext seized upon by all leaders of Japan as a reason for ending the war. But the various chain of events that led up to this make it almost a certainty that the Japanese would have capitulated upon the entry of Russia into the war” which happened on August 8th, three months before the first landing, seven months before the invasion. “The Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for a sufficient pretext to convince the army group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies. The entry of Russia into the war would almost certainly have furnished this pretext and would have been sufficient to convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable. An invasion was only a ‘remote’ possibility.”

So I’m giving you just some of the headlines of the modern scholarship, the most recent studies, and two official 1946 studies of the decision. Why is that so different from what most Americans were taught and most Americans still believe? For instance, most Americans were taught and most Americans still believe that perhaps 500,000, perhaps a million American lives were saved, and perhaps another million Japanese lives were saved by using the atomic bomb because it ended the war without an invasion. These studies and, I think, the modern expert scholarship agree that that is a myth, a complete myth. One of the questions that we want to come back to is, How is it that a myth of that kind could be created and could survive for now almost fifty years?

Let’s go back a way from the headlines and talk about what we now know and some of the details of this. What most people understand who study this is that by April of 1945, well before the August bombings, Japan was in an extraordinarily bad situation. That is to say, the U.S. Air Force was bombing virtually at will, with very little opposition. Their air force was almost totally destroyed or without fuel or with very limited fuel, so that most bomber missions lost very few flights, very different from what was happening in Germany. The American navy had cut off Japan from all its supplies and had almost totally encircled it and was also using American naval bombardment almost at will. One of the studies that I’ve been looking at for the book I’m now doing shows that the Japanese government was attempting to design airplanes made out of bamboo and with fuel made out of acorns. The situation was fully understood that the war was over. The question was, How long would it take the Japanese to realize that they were in extremely dire straits. The U.S. intelligence studies that we now have say that. What I’ve just said is not controversial. Most historians understand this to be the case. The question is, How long could they have lasted, given the fact that they were already essentially defeated?

The second thing you need to know is that for all of World War II until the time we are talking about, the massive Russian Red Army had been engaged in Europe in the fight against Hitler. It was not part of the Pacific war. It was neutral. There was in fact a neutrality agreement between the Soviet Union and Japan which was still in force up until April of 1945. So the second thing that you need to realize is that with the defeat of Germany, May 8, 1945, the question that was on the horizon for all Japanese political leaders, this is what they were thinking about was what was going to happen when the massive Red Army, which had just defeated a good part of the German armies, goes across the Trans-Siberian Railway, comes to the Manchurian border, and is poised. Japan is already in extremely dire straits. What happens if the Red Army comes in and strikes and attacks us now? That’s what the Japanese government was thinking about at that point in time. And that’s what the U.S. government was also thinking about. Remember, there was no atomic bomb. It was still a theoretical possibility.

U.S. policymakers, President Roosevelt first, then President Truman, understood exactly the same thing that the Japanese government understood: that if the Red Army could be made to attack, could come in, that shock itself–Japan is totally isolated, they’ve lost their one ally, which was Hitler. Italy’s long been out of the war. Their situation is extremely bad. If the Red Army now attacks, that would blow them out of the water and precipitate a surrender.

U.S. intelligence as of April 1945, long before the bomb was used, says, When the Russians attack, that will trigger the first step of an invasion, and by June, General Marshall is saying, that will lever them into surrender, the shock alone. We’ll go through some of the July and August discussions within the U.S. government saying, When the Russians attack, if they attack, that will blow them out of the water. That’s in fact what I just read you from the War Department 1946 study. The Russian attack would have been sufficient to knock them out. So that’s the second thing you need to understand about the context.

We were desperately trying to get the Russians in. At Tehran, at Yalta, the major goal of the administration, Roosevelt and then Truman, was to make sure that the Russians would break the neutrality pact and come and help us. Not so much because at this point it was a military necessity. I’ve said that militarily Japan was already defeated. But it was a political shock effect that we were really after, particularly after April 1945. We had arranged with the Russians at Yalta that they would come into the war three months after Germany was defeated, on the theory that it would take that long to move enough troops and materiel across Siberia to be on the Manchurian border. Three months is an important date. The Germans, as I said, were defeated on May 8. June, July, August 8 is three months. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6. Nagasaki was bombed on August 9. Welcome back to the coincidence–or was it a coincidence?–about those dates. Our goal as a matter of policy was to get the Russians in. We had gotten agreement from them that they would come in, and that was the planning.

The third element you need to understand is that we had broken Japan’s diplomatic codes. We knew everything they were telling their ambassadors back and forth all around the world, but particularly the ambassador they had in Moscow. We knew that a decision had been taken, first in May and then confirmed in June, to attempt to end the war. There were also peace feelers at the Vatican, in Lisbon, in Stockholm, in Tokyo through the Swedish ambassador, above all through Bern, Switzerland, all of them peace feelers, official, unofficial, difficult to understand, but particularly the breaking of the code suggested that by June and then on into early July a major decision had been taken within the Japanese government to attempt to end the war as soon as possible. The key date here is July 12-13, because on that date U.S. intelligence picked up a very important cable. It said the Emperor of Japan himself, breaking a tradition which was only very rarely used, had intervened and was personally attempting to end the war and was asking the Soviet Union to accept a personal envoy, an ambassador personally from the Emperor, not just from the government, Prince Kanoi, to negotiate an end to the war. We knew that as of July 12-13.

In all of this there was clearly one condition that was stated which we knew even before it was stated was the bottom line that the Japanese demanded. This is another element of the picture you need to know to understand why these assessments are what they are. That one bottom line element, so the intelligence studies suggested and so the intercepted cables suggested, was that the Japanese would not lose the Emperor of Japan. He would not he hung as a war criminal, as the Germans leaders were about to be hung. He would not be dethroned. He would be allowed to stay there in some form, politically powerless, like the Queen of England, but he would not be destroyed. It’s important to understand that unlike the Queen of England, the Japanese Emperor in this period was regarded as a deity. He was a god. He was much more like Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha than like the Queen of England. So the Japanese were saying, If you threaten our god-emperor, if you say that he will be deposed or hung or you’re unclear what you’re saying, we will fight to the death. Our intelligence said to our own leaders, advised very dearly, that if Japan were threatened in that way they would fight endlessly. Only if we told them we could keep the Emperor, perhaps in a powerless position, would a surrender be possible. All of the cable intercepts and all of the peace feelers all say that above all the bottom line is, Tell us that you will not demand unconditional surrender which will threaten the Japanese emperor-god.

You know Japan does have an Emperor. He’s still there. The son of the old Emperor is there. We did in the end tell them they could keep the Emperor. He has no power. So that condition ultimately was satisfied. We agreed almost immediately in early August that that would be OK after the bombing. It was not a matter of principle, is what I’m saying, because Japan has an Emperor and we agreed to that. But the intelligence studies said that was the one condition.

So what you’ve got is a deteriorating Japan. You’ve got the Russians poised and about to enter. On April 5 they announce to the Japanese that they will not hold on to their existing neutrality pact and that they are giving notice that it will be abrogated or will not be renewed within the year. So the handwriting is on the wall. And you have two ways, it seems, to end the war. One, get the Russians in, and the shock will blow them out of the water. Two, tell them they can keep the Emperor, and that will end the war. Moreover, two and two, or one and one, add them together, if you do both together–the Russians come in and you tell them that the Emperor will be assured, you won’t hurt their god-emperor–those two together are almost certain to end the war. Moreover, this is only April, May and June. The invasion of Japan is off in 1946, and even the first landing could not take place until November of 1945. So there’s plenty of time to see whether or not your intelligence is accurate and whether what the intelligence people are advising the President will happen. So that’s the context.

It is the reason, with the documents we now have available, why this assessment of the literature that I read you at the outset, by the Chief Historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Samuel Walker is his name, is what it is. There were alternatives, essentially bringing the Russians in and telling them that they could keep the Emperor, that U.S. leaders believed were likely to end the war. The question becomes, If that was so, why did it not happen?

What I’ve said so far sounds rather controversial, but it’s pretty much the agreed position of the consensus of experts. Now we enter the area where the expert debate gets interesting and it’s no longer agreed and there’s not nearly as much a consensus. There’s much more debate about what I’m now going to describe to you as the parameters of the debate and what is now known and what people are thinking about and what is still unknown.

In this part of 1945, President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, just about the time when the Russians said they were going to end the neutrality pact. Three weeks before the Germans had surrendered. Harry S. Truman became President. At this time there was no atomic bomb. The atomic bomb was still a theory. It was believed highly likely by the scientists who were advising and building the bomb that it would work. All their tests and calculations suggested it would work. But it was not something that had as yet been tested. So now you’re sitting in the White House. Perhaps you will have a new weapon of astounding proportions. Maybe. And you have the option of the Russians coming in plus telling them they could keep the Emperor, which seems highly like to end the war. You have to plan for an invasion. First you want to keep the Japanese on their toes. You want to keep U.S. troop morale up. There’s an outside chance you might need it, so invasion planning goes on and on throughout this period.

So the pressure was kept up. But what the President and the White House were thinking about was, What are we going to do? Maybe we’ll have a new weapon. We have a certain way to do this. What is the possibility here? What we now know is that at the same time the picture of Japan was emerging in the way that I’ve described it, something else was going on someplace else. What that was is as follows:

Just as World War II was ending in Europe, the question of who was going to control the continent now that the Germans were defeated was beginning to become very serious world politicos between the United States and particularly the Soviet Union, but also the British. The Red Army was occupying Eastern Europe, having pushed the Nazis back from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and was poised in the middle of Europe. We were beginning to have fights with the Russians about, for instance, the composition of the Polish government: Would it be pro-Russian? Would it be neutral? Would it be pro-Western? There are a whole series of fights going on about the postwar division of Europe and what it would look like. In the midst of those discussions–remember, Stalin was an ally. Twenty to twenty-five million Russians had lost their lives in the common fight against Hitler. This is long before the Cold War gets going. These are our allies. But in the midst of this beginning to tactically prepare for the postwar period, there is also the possibility of this new weapon, quite apart from the Japanese situation, which conceivably, so these people believed, could strengthen your hand in a diplomatic fight with the Soviet Union, particularly in Europe. I want to emphasize that, because many interpretations of this period neglect a rather important fact. President Truman came into office on April 12, with the death of Roosevelt. The first full-scale briefing he got–it had been mentioned to him just after a Cabinet meeting and it was told him by the man who became Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes–the first full discussion of the atomic bomb in the White House after Truman became President had nothing to do with the war against Japan. It was brought to his attention because there was a big fight going on with the Russians over Poland. The Secretary of War, Henry Stinson, said to him, Mr. President, I’ve got to come talk to you about something very important that affects all of my thinking in all of these matters of foreign policy that we’re engaged in right now, the fight over Poland. It is the atomic bomb. On April 25 Truman got his first briefing because he was having a fight with the Russians.

Modern historiography has traced this development. There’s a whole second track going on, which has nothing to do with the war in Japan at all. It has to do with the fact that American policymakers began to understand or believe or erroneously believe there’s a whole set of possibilities-that maybe if they showed this big new weapon, they might be able to have a “hammer on those boys,” Truman says at one point, maybe about the Russians, maybe the Japanese, maybe both. “It might be a stick behind the door,” the Secretary of State says at one point. “It might be the master card of diplomacy against the Russians,” the Secretary of War says. “It might be a pistol on our hip against the Russians.” It’s all about the Russians, not about the Japanese.

I want to give you a little flavor of that, just so you have a feeling about what they were saying. For instance, this is from the diary of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, May 14, 1945. He had just got done talking to the Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy. He writes in his diary, “I told McCloy,” this was May 1945, a couple months before the bomb was tested, just after Germany surrenders, “that my opinion was that the time now and the method now to deal with Russia was to keep our mouths shut and then let our actions speak for words. The Russians will understand them better than anything else. It is a case where we have got to regain the lead and perhaps do it in a pretty rough and realistic way. This is a place where we really hold all the cards. I called it a ‘royal straight flush,’ and we mustn’t be a fool about the way we play it. They can’t get along without our help (economically they’re devastated after the war) in industries. And we have coming into action a weapon which wilt be unique. Now the thing is’–now, before it’s tested–’~is to not get into unnecessary quarrels by talking too much and not to indicate any weakness by talking too much. Let our actions speak for words.”

That’s the Secretary of War, May 1945. I’ll give you one more. This is the way the Secretary of State expressed a similar idea two weeks later to one of the atomic scientists who came to him and said, We don’t think you should use the atomic bomb. We think you should have a demonstration in an uninhabited area. The atomic scientist was Leo Szilard. The man who became Secretary of State was James F. Byrnes. This is Szilard’s report of a meeting with the Secretary of State at the same time, May 1945. “Mr. Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war. Mr. Byrnes’ view was that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe. Russian troops had moved into Hungary and Romania. Byrnes thought Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might.”

I could go on with a whole series of documents. Ambassador Joseph Davies has very similar comments. You find it in many parts of the Stlmson diaries. Most scholars who have studied this now fully recognize that one of the major things that was happening had absolutely nothing to do with the war against Japan. It had to do with the fact that this new weapon, if it worked, would be the master card, the hammer, the pistol, to make the Russians manageable, particularly in Europe and particularly in the eyes of the Secretary of State and the Secretary of War, who were very influential, particularly the Secretary of State with Truman.

Let me back up. There is no atomic bomb yet. This is May 1945. That’s why there’s nothing to talk about. The test has not yet occurred. So a second part of this issue that comes up in this odd period when people are trying to decide what to do about the Japanese war is this whole other game, this whole other planning process that’s going on: What about the Russians in Europe? It is decided that we’d better wait for just a little bit because the atomic test is going to take place, it was hoped July 1, then there were some technical problems. It was put off until July 16. This is May. So you’ve got to wait, technically, until July 16 before you know whether or not you actually have anything that’s real. So we don’t know. There was tremendous pressure to have a meeting with Stalin in Europe to decide the fate of Europe as soon as possible. Churchill, for instance, was begging Truman to meet with Stalin as soon as possible. One of the reasons he was saying that was, You’ve just defeated Germany. You’re about to take the American troops out of Europe to go to Asia. If you pull the troops out you’ve got no bargaining leverage. So let’s have a meeting right away. In fact what was decided was to put off the meeting with Stalin, which became the Potsdam Conference with Stalin. Again, note the dates. The test was July 16, the Alamogordo test. It was set for July 16. The meeting with Stalin was set for July 17. It was no accident, and indeed the test occurred on July 16. It worked. They sat down and negotiated on July 17 with this new weapon behind Truman’s back at Potsdam to settle the fate of Europe.

So that’s part of the second track of what most historians understand was going on in the summer of 1945. Let me give you a third piece which is a little bit more complicated. It’s another element in the puzzle. Let’s go back to it.

Remember I said that there was another way to end the war, which was when the Russians come in the shock of the Russian army entering the war by itself seemed likely, if the bomb wasn’t available, to end the war. There was a problem, however. If the Russians came into Manchuria and North China with the Red Army, possibly Red Army and Russian political influence might follow with the Russians. So American policymakers, quite apart from these European issues, on the one hand wanted the insurance policy of the Russians coming in, and on the other hand they didn’t want to encourage them too soon until the bomb was tested. So it’s a complicated situation. We might need them, and besides we don’t know quite how strong the bomb is. So it might work but it might not be strong enough. We may need the Russian insurance policy. So how do you encourage the Russians to come in but keep them hanging out in a tactical way during this period?

Just to give you a little bit of flavor of how that one is described in the diary of the Secretary of War, this is the next day, May 15. He says, “It may be necessary to have it out with Russia on her relations,” This is not Europe, this is Asia “to Manchuria and Port Arthur and various other parts of north China and also the relations of China to us. Over any such tangled wave of problems” he calls the atomic bomb “S-1″ in his diary, “the S-1 secret would be dominant. And yet, we will not know until after that time, probably, whether this is a weapon in our hands or not. We think it will be shortly afterwards. But it seems a terrible thing to gamble with such big stakes in diplomacy without having your master card in your hand.” That’s May.

So what in fact is done is through a complicated set of negotiations over the conditions of Russian entry with the Chinese Foreign Minister T.V. Soong, we’ll just refer to it as the Soong negotiations, the negotiation is started with the Russians about exactly what will be the terms of reference for the entry into Manchuria, based on an understanding that was generally agreed at Yalta. The idea is to keep the negotiation going, on the one hand keeping them in and on the other hand stalling them, until you know exactly what happens. As soon as the bomb is tested and is shown to work as successfully as it was, and it was a great success, more power than they had expected, and more psychologically impressive than they had expected, then what happens is U.S. policy shifts and gets very rigid in the negotiations and stalls the negotiations as long as possible, quite the reverse, to keep the Russians out, even though they had wanted them in earlier, and even though you knew they could end the war. So there’s a 180 degree turnaround when the bomb works to try to keep the Red Army by stalling this complicated negotiation with T.V. Soong. What I’ve just said is not in dispute among historians who have studied this. This is common ground of the expert literature.

Now let’s back up to what’s going on in the period that really counts. We’ve gotten the atomic test, July 16. The test is a success. President Truman is in Europe the 17th meeting with Stalin for the Potsdam conference. Churchill is there as well. Then Churchill is defeated, and the next Prime Minister Attlee comes into the middle of the conference. You’ve got a tactical problem: What are you going to do? In that context, the key questions are threefold. Three decisions are made at this time.

The first one is rarely noticed by many specialists, but is rather obvious when you look at the documents. First, if you want the Japanese to surrender, if you’re not thinking about using the bomb but you’re just going to want them to surrender before a landing or an invasion, if the goal is to try to end the war without casualties of an invasion, if that’s what you’re talking about, then the Secretary of War and the Acting Secretary of State, the Undersecretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Navy, every major policymaker with one exception we’ll come back to, says, You’ve got to start the game early and tell them they can keep their Emperor well in advance so they can digest it politically and think about it and come to terms with it. So one of the questions that’s posed.is, Do you make any moves early-timing, or do you wait until the very last minute to say anything and then drop the bomb on them. The decision is made not to do anything early but to put any kind of a warning way down the track so there’s almost no time to consider it. That’s one decision made after July 17, quite clearly recorded in the Secretary of War’s diary when he talks with the Secretary of State.

The second decision, which is widely discussed, and everyone understands it who has studied the literature is the following. Every member of the U.S. government and the British government, with one exception I’m going to come back to, says, If you want the war to end you must tell them that they can keep the Emperor, explicitly. A proclamation has been drafted. It was unanimously agreed by all officials at the time, shortly thereafter one of the officials changes, and it is the famous Potsdam Proclamation. Some of you who know this story will know that a proclamation was issued at the Potsdam Conference. It is a warning to Japan to surrender or else. It’s a very general warning. I’ve just talked about that warning. One of the questions was when it would be released, and a decision was made to release it at the last minute rather than give them time. But the most important element of that warning was whether or not it would say explicitly, You can keep the Emperor, we’re not going to harm him. The draft Potsdam Proclamation recommended to the President in Paragraph 12, it’s one of the very few technical things you ought to take back from this talk, Says, recommended by the all Cabinet officials involved, essentially, You can keep the Emperor. At the Potsdam meetings, once the atomic bomb was tested, under the advice of Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and against the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the British military leaders, Prime Minister Churchill, every other major American leader, Paragraph 12 is eliminated. So that the Potsdam Proclamation as it was put out on July 26 does not contain any assurances for the Emperor. And in so doing, we know, from many diaries, the President fully understood it could not be accepted. This warning proclamation could not be accepted, and it was understood, well documented, that it could not be accepted. As one historian- scholar, Leon Sigal, in a book called Fighting for the Finish, puts it, it was put out as a propaganda device. It had nothing to do with a real warning that anyone could accept. So that’s the second decision that’s made.

The third decision that’s made at the Potsdam Conference we’ve already talked about, but I want to underline it. It is to try to keep the Red Army out of the war as long as you could, even though you had wanted them earlier, by stalling these complicated negotiations with the Foreign Minister of China, the Soong negotiations, to try to keep the Russians out as best you could.

So that’s the context in mid- and late July in which we approach the very final end of the war. Another thing to know about that context is that there are new cables intercepted showing again renewed Japanese desire to end the war. The Emperor sends another cable which we intercept, and the decision is then made. The decision to use the atomic bomb–let me sharpen this because sometimes those of you who have studied it, or who will study it, may find people saying that there is no decision to use the atomic bomb. It just happens. The reason people say that is, if you look carefully, you do not find, as you do in almost every other major government decision, a very complicated set of policy papers saying, Should we or shouldn’t we? Should we or shouldn’t we use the atomic bomb? You don’t find anybody saying, Let’s decide to use the atomic bomb, although there is a recommendation of how to use it by a committee called the Interim Committee. You don’t find this kind of paperwork. You don’t find the Joint Chiefs of Staff studying the decision. You don’t find any actual meetings where anybody actually goes through it that we have on record. It just seems to happen.

How could that be? The reason it seems to happen, if you look back at what rye just said to you, is that what happens is major decisions are made which make it the only possible thing to do. That is to say, one option to end the war without an invasion was to have the Russians come in, and you take that away. The second option to end the war is to tell the Japanese they can keep the Emperor. You take that away. Then you know, since the Emperor’s threatened, they will fight forever, meaning there will be an invasion, meaning a lot of people will be killed. If you eliminate the two options, the President says we aren’t going to do A and we aren’t going to do B, then the only thing left is either an invasion, which is crazy, a total loss of lives, or to use the bomb. So it’s in that context, by the process of elimination, that that’s all that’s left. As I said earlier, when I read you the summary of the modern literature, there were alternatives. They were eliminated. The bomb was the one that was left.

I’ll put it another way. Supposing you are a policymaker, like Secretary of the Navy Forrestal or Secretary of War, Stimson, possibly General Marshall, although he’s very difficult to pin down, he plays his cards close to his vest, and you don’t believe this ought to be done. The President has decided, no, we’re not going to use the Russians and no, we’re not going to tell them to keep the Emperor. You’ve got to march into the President’s office and say, Mr. President, don’t use the atomic bomb. That’s the equivalent in that situation of saying, Lose 500,000 men, or whatever the number will be, because that’s all that’s left once he’s made the decisions to eliminate the two options. That’s essentially what happened. I think President Truman wavered a great deal about all of this. I think he personally, every time you find someone on record, in May, in June, in July, he seems to want to tell the Japanese they can keep the Emperor in every diary. The man who was the dominant figure in all this was the Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, the one exception I’ve mentioned several times, who, it seems, at this point in time, was overwhelmingly dominant in influencing the President. He was a much more senior political figure than President Truman at the time, who was not an unknown, but he was not nearly as powerful as the man who was Secretary of State. who had been his mentor in the Senate.

It’s Byrnes who is dominant in these decisions. He’s the man who helps eliminate Paragraph 12 and most historians now agree is the dominant influence in the decision to use the atomic bomb. His concerns, we know, as Secretary of State, were very much focused on the Russians, particularly on Eastern Europe, but also on Asia. His dominant concerns are not necessarily the same as the concerns of other people. But he’s the main figure.

What happens at this point in time, I’ve now given you the basic chronology, the Potsdam Proclamation is issued on July 26, but is issued without Paragraph 12, which means it says it’s a threat to the Japanese Emperor. It is a demand for unconditional surrender. The Japanese mokusatsu the decision. The term issued by the Japanese government is important. It’s mokusatsu, which means either “reject” or ‘ignore” or “take under advisement or study.” It’s a complicated word. We later say what it meant was “reject.” The intercepted cables say what we meant was, Study it. We’ve got to figure out whether we can do this. The dates trigger along we’re at July 26, 27, 28 is the mokusatsu date. The bomb is ready on the 1st of August. The President says, You can use it any time after the 2nd of August. Weather intervenes. It is used on the 6th of August. The Red Army comes into the war as planned on the 8th of August. Nagasaki is destroyed on the 9th of August. Japan says it will surrender on the 10th of August. The 11th of August they say, One condition. We have to keep the Emperor. They’ve been saying that all year. On the 11th of August we say, You can keep the Emperor and the war is over.

Those are the sequences. What’s this got to do with us and me or is it just an interesting history lesson. I want to just go to a couple of points that are often raised in these conversations that you at least ought to flag and think about. One has to do with the casualty estimates. Many of you have seen, probably the argument that President Truman and many other people have made. A new book by David McCullough repeats this argument. That 500,000 perhaps, maybe even a million lives could have been lost. I just want to sharpen what the expert understanding of that is.

In the first instance, if what I’ve said is valid, and if what the literature summary said is valid, and if what the official studies said is valid, the war would have ended without any more major casualties. Zero. I’m exaggerating. There may have been a few people lost. There was very little fighting going on. The Japanese didn’t have any fuel and any ammunition. They were conserving it. We were trying to get in position at this point possibly to have an invasion, so there was very minor fighting going on. Some accidental things happened. But there was no invasion. And if the war could have been ended, as all these other documents said, in August or September or October, before the first landing, the casualty rate in an invasion would have been zero. Not 500,000, and not a million. Zero. It’s very important to get that really sharp, because that’s the major number. Zero.

If there had been a landing, which was highly unlikely, as this War Department study says was a remote possibility, particularly if you told them to keep the Emperor and the Russians came in, the maximum number of casualties anyone has found in a full invasion in all the planning estimates within the official papers we now have, three historians have studied it, Barton Bernstein, professor at Stanford, is the expert who studied it most, another man named Rufus Miles has studied it, and recently another professor, a military historian named John Ray Skates has studied it. The reason I mention it is because they come from different parts of the political spectrum. Skates is a military historian. Bernstein’s on the political, liberal left, and the other man is more neutral. All of them agree is that the maximum number anybody has ever been able to find in any of the documents of the time, as opposed to what was said later, was 46,000. That’s in a full invasion. If you look at what might have happened had you only had the November landing at Kyushu, the maximum number anyone has found is 25,000. Very different from the exaggerated numbers that most people believe and are told. This is pretty much no longer disputed in terms of the estimates that were made at the time and the advice given to the President. So that’s another thing to get sharply in focus.

The last thing I want to mention, as you may have noticed, I’m critical of this decision. I want you to understand that the criticism that I’ve given you so far is very much the same as the criticism that was offered, so far as we can tell, oddly enough, to me it’s the most interesting thing about this story is that some of the top U.S. military leaders, conservative generals, conservative admirals, were saying virtually the same thing modern historians are saying. Let me give you a little flavor of this, because only if you hear the documents of the time do you get some sense of what it felt like to be a top-level, that is, a military leader who knew what was going on and who knew about the intercepts and who knew what was really happening. Not a low-level guy. Guys in the field didn’t know at all. Here’s General Eisenhower, later President Eisenhower, saying what happened when he was told by the Secretary of War that the bombs in fact were going to be used against Japan in these circumstances, with Japan deteriorating. “During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression. So I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated, that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary. And secondly, because I felt that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face. It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” That’s Eisenhower.

I’ll give you another one. The then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1945 structure was slightly different. He was a conservative admiral, Admiral Leahy. He was also Chief of Staff to the President of the U.S. He wore two hats: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conservative admiral, and Chief of Staff to the President. This is what he had to say publicly after the war. Think of Colin Powell after the bombings in the Iraq war publicly saying something like this about his friend the President. This man was a friend, not a critic of the President, a very good friend. Admiral William D. Leahy said, “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan at all. In being the first to use it, we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion. Wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

I want to give you one more. All conservative military leaders of that generation, it’s a different generation. They had standards and morals and ethics about who you killed and who you didn’t kill. They did not think just bombing any city was the right thing to do. This is an interesting one. I’m going to read it to you and then tell you who said it. This is the last one I’m going to read you. The Commander in Chief in the Pacific was General Douglas MaeArthur, a conservative general. “General MacArthur once spoke to me very eloquently about it, pacing the floor of his apartment in the Waldorf Hotel in New York. He thought it a tragedy that the bomb was ever exploded. MacArthur believed that the same restrictions ought to apply to atomic weapons as to conventional weapons, that the military objective should always be limited and should limit damage to non-combatants. MacArthur, you see, was a soldier. He believed in using force only against military targets, and that is why the nuclear thing turned him off.” That’s former President Richard Nixon recalling a private discussion with MacArthur in his apartment at the Waldorf.

Related to this, the final aspect is, the bomb was used against cities. Des Moines, Milwaukee, Chicago, Mexico City. That was not the only choice. Other people, and the last military figure I want to cite raised the issue of, Did you have to use it against a city? Many of the scientists said, Let’s have a demonstration. But usually people think about demonstrations as maybe on a desert island, or maybe in a redwood forest, as Louis Strauss, the Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, said. But General Marshall, who was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, had an obvious suggestion which is rarely discussed in terms of the possibility of demonstrating it. He said, Why don’t we hit a major military target in Japan, like a navy base? We can show the bomb, destroy everything, accomplish all our objectives without destroying a city. A city was where old folks and young kids and cripples were because the young men were off to war. That’s who mainly died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that’s what mainly turned off these military leaders at that time, because they knew what it was all about. So I want to sharpen that aspect of it by reference to the military leaders of World War II who understood the distinction. The Hiroshima bombing is often thought of as the use of the atomic bomb in the abstract. It was not abstract at all. It was the destruction of civilian targets as a major shock. They understood that and that’s why they did it.. It was a choice that was made to hit cities.

I think I’ve probably exhausted the time and I’ve maybe exhausted your patience, but I suspect that last set of conversations, particularly as it appeared to these eminent conservative military leaders, opens some of the more profound questions which still face us as we approach the end of the century, with nuclear weapons still all over the world. Thank you very much. [applause]

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This entry was posted in Big picture, Department of Offense, Follies of empire, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hiroshima: New facts and old myths

  1. Pingback: Did Hiroshima and Nagasaki save lives? (and other thoughts on the use of nukes) | Flag in Distress

  2. Jens-Christian Jensen says:

    This article seems to ignore the fact that the US had already been bombing civilian targets such as cities (both in Japan and Germany) with napalm etc. for years prior to the Hiroshima/nagasaka attacks, killing more civilians that those two attacks combined (100.000 in Tokyo alone). So if killing civilians was a major concern for them, they were pretty hypocritical.

    Besides, no one seems to consider the number of Japanese deaths (military and civilian) and invasion of Japan would have cost.

    If the bomb had not been dropped on H and N, then it would have been used somewhere else, probably to much worse effect.

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