It is perceived wisdom throughout the Western world – particularly America – that the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “necessary” to end the war with Japan. Printed throughout textbooks in the post-war world, the understanding is that, had these targets not been struck, the war would have waged on indefinitely, with potentially untold American soldier and Japanese civilian deaths.
As the world commemorates the 68th anniversary of the attacks, however, it is important to take a step back and view the catastrophic event not through the prism of propaganda and mythologizing, but instead through the lens of historical scrutiny. For, as if often the case, the disparity between “Official History” and reality is characterized by lies and deceptions bolstered by patriotism and American exceptionalism.
We are told repeatedly that, without the use of weapons which current Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui refers to as the “ultimate inhumane weapon and an absolute evil”, Japan would never have surrendered. We are told that President Truman was troubled by the mounting Allied casualties, and that the Joint Chiefs had told him to expect 1,000,000 dead Americans in the pending attack on the Japanese home islands. Yet this figure is a complete fabrication, invented by Secretary of War Stimson. No such claim was made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Truman himself, in different statements, asserted “thousands of lives would be saved,” and “a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities,” and also “I thought 200,000 of our young men would be saved by making that decision.” None of these statements were based on any evidence.
The alleged indefatigably of the Japanese military and their unwillingness to surrender is also a proven myth. By the summer of 1945 their position was hopeless and numerous attempts to surrender had already been made. Brigadier Gen. Carter W. Clarke stated: “We brought them down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.”
Truman knew weeks before the Potsdam Conference, which began in July, 1945, that the Japanese were making overtures to surrender, the only condition being the retention of the Emperor. But Truman was determined to test the new bombs. In the words of General Douglas McArthur: ”The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.” In the event, the US agreed to the terms of the Japanese surrender anyway – but not until they had tested their new weapons and caused the deaths of 100,000s of innocent civilians.
In reality, most of the military top brass were disgusted at the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki and understood completely that it served no military purpose whatsoever. Admiral William D. Leahy, the President’s Chief of Staff said, “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.” This view was reiterated by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who said, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace… The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.”
So what is the truth about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why, when intelligence agencies knew months in advance that contingency plans for a large-scale invasion were completely unnecessary and that Japan desperately sought peace, did they, as Admiral Leahy put it, adopt “an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages”?
There are two main reasons. Firstly, the Russians had entered the Japanese war and were making striking advances through Manchuria, decimating the already weakened Japanese army. Indeed, their role was pivotal – as Air Force General Claire Chennault stated: “Russia’s entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped.” The last thing the American leadership wanted was for Russia to receive equal spoils of war and emerge from the war as a superpower equal to the US.
In this sense, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are more accurately perceived as the opening salvos of the Cold War, rather than the final shots fired in the Second World War – the Cold War was, after all, defined essentially as a balance of nuclear powers; realpolitik and the primacy of power where the arms race and military insanity took supremacy over diplomacy.
The other, far more sinister reason, was one of scientific curiosity. After making such a huge investment in the Manhattan Project (2 billion in 1940) and with three bombs completed, there was little to no desire to shelve the weapons. The fissionable material in the Hiroshima bomb was uranium, while the Nagasaki bomb was plutonium, and subsequently there was intense scientific curiosity as to the different effects these bombs would produce. As the US Army director of the project, General Leslie Groves pondered: “what would happen if an entire city was leveled by a single uranium bomb?” “What about a plutonium bomb?” For the science experiment to go ahead, surrender was not an option.
Perhaps Stanley Kubrick in his movie Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb expressed his understanding more than most of the mentality of those who pushed for the use of atomic weapons on the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – it was a decision based on a kind of hell-bent fanatical militarism combined with the worst kind of scientific endeavor devoid of any sense of humanity. Small wonder that this history books and the propaganda machine went into overdrive in the following years, endlessly justifying the use of what President Eisenhower described as “that awful thing”.
Andrew Dilks is the author of Goliath.