By Tania Bhattacharya
On the 6th and 9th of August 2018, the Allied bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki completed seventy three years. It is urban legend that humanity’s most famous atomic attacks, were a necessity, which had subsequently brought an intransigent, warmongering Japan to its knees, leading to its surrender and the cessation of the Second World War.
While Japan’s aggression along with its Axis co-conspirators is in no doubt, the American justification for its action of bombing Japan, and indeed the collective Allied decision to carpet-bomb the German municipality of Dresden, implementing Operation Meetinghouse on Tokyo, along with the ethnic cleansing of the Sudeten Germans in the former Czechoslovakia, and the mysterious ‘suicide’ of Nazi prisoner-of-war Rudolf Hess in 1994, are receiving the attention of whistle-blowers and conscientious historians, alike.
This piece focuses on exposing the convenient narrative over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as it has been fed to people within and without the United States for more than seventy years.
If the American account of the events is to be believed, Japan was unwilling to surrender even after six years of internecine conflict that had subsumed most of the globe. The bombs were dropped over two Japanese cities as a last, desperate action to stunt the country’s advance and force it to stop. The United States had never comprehended that it would have to resort to a measure as tragic as what happened. The whole thing had been a ‘necessary evil’, that had the full backing of the American people.
In 1965, this version of the events was taken to the cleaners, by the investigative journalist Gar Alperovitz. Alperovitz’ path-breaking research over the Pacific war is collated in the compendium ‘Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima And Potsdam’, a treatise that has stood the test of time, unlike Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s apologist tome ‘Racing The Enemy: Stalin, Truman, And The Surrender Of Japan’.
It is time to address the myths one by one.
A) ‘Japan Was Forced Into A Surrender’.
In reality, Japan had surrendered a few weeks prior to the cessation of hostilities. It had considered an unconditional capitulation to the Allied Forces, something that American intelligence documents that were only declassified in 1976, have revealed. Here is an excerpt from the document titled ‘Estimate of the Enemy Situation’ that was presented at the Potsdam Conference to the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the United States. The event took place on the sixth of July in 1945, a month before the bombings. “We believe that a considerable portion of the Japanese population now consider absolute military defeat to be inevitable. The increasing effects of sea blockade and cumulative devastation wrought by strategic bombing, which has already rendered millions homeless and has destroyed from 25% to 50% of the built-up area of Japan’s most important cities, should make this realization increasingly general. Although individual Japanese willingly sacrifice themselves in the service of the nation, we doubt that the nation as a whole is predisposed toward national suicide.”
The aforementioned document is significant, in that it goes on to emphasize Japan’s willingness to accept U.S. terms of the former’s laying down of arms. “A conditional surrender by the Japanese government might be offered by them at any time now until the time of the complete destruction of all Japanese power of resistance.”
Furthermore, the report goes on to state, that “Japanese ruling groups are aware of the desperate military situation and are increasingly desirous of a compromise peace.” A month before Nagasaki and Hiroshima faced their fate, American military leadership was well aware of Japan’s anxiety in seeking a surrender.
B) ‘The bombings were a last-ditch effort at reining in the enemy’.
Hardly. As Gar Alperovitz writes in Atomic Diplomacy, in the late April of 1945, American secretary of war, Stimson, wrote a note to President Truman, stating,
“Dear Mr. President,
I think it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a highly secret matter. I mentioned it to you shortly after you took office, but have not urged it since on account of the pressure you have been under. It, however, has such a bearing on our present foreign relations and has such an important effect upon all my thinking in this field that I think you ought to know about it without much further delay.” ~ Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to President Harry S. Truman, on the 24th of April 1945.
The secret matter was regarding the Lend-Lease agreement that the United States had been a partner to, along with the erstwhile Soviet Union. Russia – a name that has been used interchangeably with ‘Soviet Union’ – with its contribution to the war effort since the late June of 1941, had suffered considerable losses in manpower and materials. Its devastation cannot be overstated. It had been the wish of the Russian top echelon, that the Americans would forward an indemnity to them in the shape of a loan. The loan that the Russians were looking forward to, amounted to billions of dollars. By the standards of the 1940s, it would have been a gigantic sum of money.
While the Americans were willing to help Russia in her post-war rebuilding efforts, they were increasingly intimidated by her expansionism. The Soviet sphere of influence now engulfed all of Eastern Europe including the strategically crucial location of Poland. Despite being allies during the Second World War, Russia could no longer see eye to eye with her western comrades-in-arms around the time the cessation of hostilities was occurring. After their brief camaraderie while fighting the Axis Powers, the free-economy supporting West split with the Communist Soviet Union, with each going their own way in protecting their interests.
When time arrived for the Potsdam Conference, Churchill was pushing President Truman in exacting his pound of flesh from the Soviets, who were clearly no longer perceived as allies of the West, but were seen as an ideological behemoth that was best done away with.
Was there a way in which Russia could be arrested in her advance over the globe especially in Eastern Europe? Perhaps under duress, she could be forced to back down? This duress had to be caused by something magnificent. An astonishing show of technological strength, that would make the Soviets rethink their obstinacy over political matters. Something, that was good enough to warn them, that America – as team captain for the West as a whole – was far superior and thus, not to be messed with.
The absence of moral courage is notable in the demeanour of the leading Americans of the time. Very few, like Roosevelt, actually displayed any. In 1941, when Roosevelt was sticking his neck out in favour of the Lend-Lease agreement – to the tune of six billion dollars – with the Soviets, Senator Truman was shooting down the initiative with these words “If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible……”
An immediate showdown was how the point men of the United States, planned to rein in the Communist Soviet Union. This is demonstrated with finality by the following paragraph culled from the personal diary of President Truman, in Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy:
“(Secretary of State) Byrnes had already told me…..that in his belief the bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.” ~ President Harry S. Truman on a conversation with James F. Byrnes in April 1945.
The post-war credit of six billion dollars due to be received by a Russia devastated by war was ultimately withdrawn by the American leadership and two days before he left for the British capital, we have a diary entry by the American Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, that recorded a conversation that had recently transpired between him, and Truman. Byrnes’ opposition to Stalin and his influence over the decision-making ability of President Harry Truman, was well known to McCloy.
“Jim Byrnes had not yet gone abroad and I had a very good talk with him afterwards sitting in the White House Hall…..I took up the question which I had been working at up in St. Hubert’s, namely how to handle Russia with the big bomb. I found that Byrnes was very much against any attempt to cooperate with Russia. His mind is full of problems with the coming meeting of foreign ministers and he looks to having the presence of the bomb in his pocket, so to speak, as a great weapon to get through the thing……”
It is notable, that striking a teetering Japan with an atomic holocaust, quite unnecessarily, to end a war that was all but over with Japan seeking surrender on American terms, was never on American minds. Instead, President Truman, and the mastermind James Byrnes, were interested in threatening the Soviet Union through a display of atomic power, in the hopes of containing her and preventing her expansionism in Eastern Europe, and by extent, elsewhere.
It seemed ‘morally right’ to the United States, that Japan be turned into cannon fodder, with millions of innocent Japanese citizens being killed or maimed and future generations inheriting the damaged genetics of their bombed ancestors, if their arch enemy, the Soviet Union, could be contained.
C) ‘There was an overwhelming American consensus over Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s fate’.
This terminal myth deserves a thorough confuting. We have already learnt under what circumstances the Americans were proposing using their atomic technology. Not Japan, but a muscle flexing Russia was the target. John Hershey, author of ‘Hiroshima’ has written “The Atomic Bomb was first of all an intimate, personal, highly individual experience. To walk the streets of Hiroshima today is to be forced to recognize the obvious: A young housewife passes, walking arm in arm with an elderly woman, perhaps her mother-in-law; three schoolchildren, maybe nine years old, scamper up the road; a tired, aged garbage collector makes his rounds. Such people remind us that such people then, individuals, were the ones who felt the experience of Hiroshima; and it was a very, very direct one indeed. Reflect for a moment on the death of a loved one, perhaps a father or a mother; reflect on a moment of personal illness. There is no way to grasp the meaning of Hiroshima, ultimately, to 200,000 individuals. In the attempt, however, it may be possible to begin to break loose from the abstractions to know what nuclear warfare meant, really, to fellow human beings.”
Of the few men in power who could exercise their conscience over the bombing of two Japanese cities, and whose words perhaps reflected the regret of many ordinary Americans who were never asked for an opinion, were the observations of Admiral William D. Leahy and those of Eisenhower. “I was not taught to make war in that fashion” Leahy had noted. As for Eisenhower, he is reported to have felt sick at the thought of the mass destructions of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”, was an entry in his personal diary, a view probably echoed by millions of American citizens themselves.
For decades the United States prevented the publishing of photos that had been taken soon after the double atomic bombings of 1945. People around the world, were only privy to a select number of pictures of the catastrophe. Not until the twenty first century had dawned, and the internet became a tool for people-to-people contact, could the public enlighten themselves on the true nature and extent of the devastation wreaked at the aforementioned locations. Up until then, photographers like Yoshito Matsushige and Yosuke Yamahata, who had shot images of the devastation, did not have a chance of displaying the fruits of their labour at anything apart from Japan’s national galleries.
Righting the wrongs of American war history and tackling its propaganda myths that were carefully constructed around the twin bombings in no way means, that Japan’s aggression in East Asia as a member of the Axis Power block, can be absolved of its guilt. The rape of Nanking in China, and other acts of downright barbarism on behest of a false sense of hubris that Japan had been harbouring, are frozen in time as a reminder of Axis brutality.
In a war, there are no true victors, as the axiom goes, but as far as the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are in focus, it is safe to quote the Gnostic author Elaine Pagels. She had famously said “It is the victors who write history. Their way”.
Tania is a freelance writer with a masters in defence and strategic studies, who has a wide range of interests.