Every August, as the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approach, comments resume about American decisions at the end of World War II. Despite the passage of 65 years, heated opinions are repeated as fact and myths become immortalized as truths. Beyond distorting the historical record, wishful thinking about it leads us to repeat past mistakes in new ways against new enemies.
Exposing the Myths
Among the inaccuracies are these:
1) Japan was ready to fight to the end.
Facts: In an intercepted cable of July 12, 1945, Emperor Hirohito revealed his decision to intervene to end the war. In Truman’s journal he characterized the message as “telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Tokyo was prepared to surrender unconditionally if the monarchy would be retained, the very position the Allies accepted after Hiroshima.
Five days later Truman predicted that Stalin would “be in the Jap war by August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.” Nevertheless, he ordered the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6. The U.S.S.R. entered the war on Aug. 8. Truman ordered the bombing of Nagasaki anyway.
2) Dropping the bomb was necessary to prevent an American invasion.
Facts: In 1946, a U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey report based on intelligence available to the White House concluded: “certainly prior to Dec. 31, 1945 and in all probability prior to Nov. 1, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russian had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
3) Dropping the bomb saved lives.
Facts: Stanford historian Barton Bernstein’s study of declassified documents found that the worst-case scenario by military planners was 46,000 deaths if the U.S. invaded both Kyushu and Honshu islands.
Since Hiroshima, these estimates have grown exponentially as if to justify using the bomb. In notes, Truman cites 250,000 casualties (dead, wounded, missing). His published memoir raises the number to 500,000 dead. Still later, he referred to saving a million lives. In 1991, President H.W. Bush claimed that the bomb saved “millions.” Since both presidents, among countless others, ignored the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conclusion that an invasion was unnecessary, it is no wonder average Americans do the same. All of these morbid calculations ignore the stark fact that more than 187,000 humans died at Hiroshima.
4) At the time, military and civilian leaders agreed the bomb was necessary.
Fact: Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower told Secretary of War Stimson, “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.” Fleet Admiral William Leahy, Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, wrote in his memoirs, “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.” Among the few civilians who knew about the bomb, 155 Manhattan Project scientists signed petitions raising moral concerns about bombing Japanese cities. The report issued by Nobel physicist James Franck in June 1945 recommended a demonstration bombing on a deserted island and also anticipated creating a dangerous arms race.
5) Japanese citizens were warned in advance.
Fact: They were not.
Americans properly disparage countries that manipulate their own histories, whether it is Stalinist revisionism or Japanese amnesia about the forced prostitution of “comfort women.” Yet, powerful belief in American ideals and in the nobility of our motives, leads us to do the same. The result, as with Hiroshima, is a chasm between public perception and historical truth, between ideals and reality.
If we had not used the bomb to end a war that was already won, we might not have had to negotiate with one “evil empire” (N. Korea) to stop developing nuclear weapons, or be anxious that another “evil empire” (Iran) is secretly developing them, while all the while supporting an unstable ally (Pakistan) that possesses them already. Φ
Russell Vandenbroucke, Professor and Chair of Theatre Arts at the University of Louisville, is the author of Atomic Bombers, a play broadcast on public radio to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima.