Did Hiroshima and Nagasaki save lives? (and other thoughts on the use of nukes)

The following is an excerpt from War Is a Lie by David Swanson, who served as press secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign. He is the cofounder of WarIsACrime.org (formerly AfterDownStreet.org) and was instrumental in exposing the Downing Street Minutes and other evidence of Iraq War lies. He is also the author of Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. He holds a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia.

Most supporters of war admit that war is hell. But most human beings like to believe that all is fundamentally right with the world, that everything is for the best, that all actions have a divine purpose. Even those who lack religion tend, when discussing something horribly sad or tragic, not to exclaim “How sad and awful!” but to express–and not just under shock but even years later–their inability to “understand” or “believe” or “comprehend” it, as though pain and suffering were not as clearly comprehensible facts as joy and happiness are. We want to pretend with Dr. Pangloss that all is for the best, and the way we do this with war is to imagine that our side is battling against evil for the sake of good, and that war is the only way such a battle can be waged.

If we have the means with which to wage such battles, we must expect to use them. Consider what Senator Albert J. Beveridge (R-IN) offered the Senate at the turn of the twentieth century as his own divinely guided rationale for war on the Philippines:

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns.

During our Vietnam travesty, Senator William Fulbright (D-AR) explained the phenomenon for using the power we have this way:

Power tends to confuse itself with virtue, and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations–to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.

Madeline Albright, Secretary of State when Bill Clinton was president, was more concise:

What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

The belief in a divine right to wage war seems to only grow stronger when great military power runs up against resistance too strong for military power to overcome. In 2008 a U.S. journalist wrote about General David Petraeus, then commander in Iraq,

God has apparently seen fit to give the U.S. Army a great general in this time of need.

[Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), p. 205.]

On August 6, 1945, President Harry S Truman announced:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power that 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam,” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

When Truman lied to America that Hiroshima was a military base rather than a city full of civilians, people no doubt wanted to believe him. Who would want the shame of belonging to the nation that commits a whole new kind of atrocity? (Will naming lower Manhattan “Ground Zero” erase the guilt?) And when we learned the truth, we wanted and still want desperately to believe that war is peace, that violence is salvation, that our government dropped nuclear bombs in order to save lives, or at least to save American lives.

We tell each other that the bombs shortened the war and saved more lives than the some 200,000 they took away. And yet, weeks before the first bomb was dropped, on July 13, 1945, Japan sent a telegram to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan’s codes and read the telegram. Truman referred in his diary to “the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Truman had been informed through Swiss and Portuguese channels of Japanese peace overtures as early as three months before Hiroshima. Japan objected only to surrendering unconditionally and giving up its emperor, but the United States insisted on those terms until after the bombs fell, at which point it allowed Japan to keep its emperor.

Presidential advisor James Byrnes had told Truman that dropping the bombs would allow the United States to “dictate the terms of ending the war.” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote in his diary that Byrnes was “most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.” Truman wrote in his diary that the Soviets were preparing to march against Japan and “Fini Japs when that comes about.” Truman ordered the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th and another type of bomb, a plutonium bomb, which the military also wanted to test and demonstrate, on Nagasaki on August 9th.

Also on August 9th, the Soviets attacked the Japanese. During the next two weeks, the Soviets killed 84,000 Japanese while losing 12,000 of their own soldiers, and the United States continued bombing Japan with non-nuclear weapons. Then the Japanese surrendered.

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that,

… certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, 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.

One dissenter who had expressed this same view to the Secretary of War prior to the bombings was General Dwight Eisenhower. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy agreed:

The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.

[Howard Zinn, The Bomb (San Francisco City Lights Books, 2010)]

Whatever dropping the bombs might possibly have contributed to ending the war, it is curious that the approach of threatening to drop them, the approach used during a half-century of Cold War to follow, was never tried. An explanation may perhaps be found in Truman’s comments suggesting the motive of revenge:

Having found the bomb, we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, and against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.

[Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, "Were the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Justified?" in Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History, ed. Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young (New York: The New Press, 2009), p. 127]

Truman could not, incidentally, have chosen Tokyo as a target–not because it was a city, but because we had already reduced it to rubble.

The nuclear catastrophe may have been, not the ending of a World War, but the theoretical opening of the Cold War, aimed at sending a message to the Soviets. Many low and high ranking officials in the U.S. military, including commanders in chief, have been tempted to nuke more cities ever since, beginning with Truman threatening to nuke China in 1950. The myth developed, in fact, that Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for nuking China led to the rapid conclusion of the Korean War. Belief in the myth led President Richard Nixon, decades later, to imagine he could end the Vietnam War by pretending to be crazy enough to use nuclear bombs. Even more disturbingly, he actually was crazy enough:

The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?… I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes,

Nixon said to Henry Kissinger in discussing options for Vietnam.

President George W. Bush oversaw the development of smaller nuclear weapons that might be used more readily, as well as much larger non-nuclear bombs, blurring the line between the two. President Barack Obama established in 2010 that the United States might strike first with nuclear weapons, but only against Iran and North Korea. The United States alleged, without evidence, that Iran was not complying with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), even though the clearest violation of that treaty is the United States’ own failure to work on disarmament and the United States’ Mutual Defense Agreement with the United Kingdom, by which the two countries share nuclear weapons in violation of Article 1 of the NPT, and even though the United States’ first-strike nuclear weapons policy violates yet another treaty: the UN Charter.

Americans may never admit what was done in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but our country had been in some measure prepared for it. After Germany had invaded Poland, Britain and France had declared war on Germany. Britain in 1940 had broken an agreement with Germany not to bomb civilians, before Germany retaliated in the same manner against England–although Germany had itself bombed Guernica, Spain, in 1937, and Warsaw, Poland, in 1939, and Japan meanwhile was bombing civilians in China. Then, for years, Britain and Germany had bombed each other’s cities before the United States joined in, bombing German and Japanese cities in a spree of destruction unlike anything ever previously witnessed.

When we were firebombing Japanese cities, Life magazine printed a photo of a Japanese person burning to death and commented “This is the only way.” By the time of the Vietnam War, such images were highly controversial. By the time of the 2003 War on Iraq, such images were not shown, just as enemy bodies were no longer counted. That development, arguably a form of progress, still leaves us far from the day when atrocities will be displayed with the caption “There has to be another way.”

For more on the myth of the nuke attacks on Japan saving lives, see

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

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