The mythology of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

As a general rule, when we hear of the great deeds and noble aspirations of the U.S. political establishment, we should assume that the reality is, in fact, exactly opposite.

When, on the 60th anniversary, we hear how the atomic horrors dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military necessities to ensure victory that actually saved lives by preventing a land invasion and hastening the end of World War II, we should assume the opposite: Atomic bombs cost far more lives than necessary, they were militarily unnecessary, as was a land invasion and the U.S. prolonged the war in order to justify using them to end the war, as their use was necessary, but for other ends.

By 1945, the U.S. had destroyed Japan’s navy and air force and cut its oil supply. Japan couldn’t survive much longer as it was so the war continued in form, waiting for an end, while U.S. Air Force generals complained about the lack of targets to bomb.

The Japanese knew this and sought a way to end the war while still preserving some form of dignity and sovereignty. They were willing to surrender as long as the emperor could remain, even formally, in power.

U.S. leaders knew this as they had broken Japan’s code earlier in the war. After one message, on July 12, 1945, President Truman wrote in his journal of the “telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Throughout 1945, military leaders like General MacArthur urged him to follow up on these offers, but rather than pursue a quick, peaceful end to the war, Truman ignored them all.

On July 16, the U.S. had the first successful atomic test. Truman delayed his meeting with Joseph Stalin at Potsdam until the day after the test when he took a more forceful tone.

On July 26, against the advice of U.S. military leadership and his own administration, he removed from the Potsdam Declaration a crucial paragraph that had met Japanese demands making the declaration more likely to be rejected even though Truman didn’t mind the main demand, to keep the emperor – after the war he did exactly that. The declaration, an appearance of peaceful intentions, was used to continue the war rather than a real effort to end it. The previous day Truman had approved the order to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

There is nothing more horrifying than a nuclear bomb and nothing more likely to coerce others than possessing one, but Truman didn’t tell the nearly defeated Japanese that he would drop one on them to convince them to give up until he had already decided to use it. He didn’t tell them that Russia would join the war in the Pacific on August 8, either.

On August 6, two days before Russia was due to join the war, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, as Russia joined the war and moments after Prime Minister Kintaro Suzuki conceded defeat telling the Japanese Cabinet that they had to “accept the Potsdam Proclamation and terminate the war,” the U.S. dropped the second on Nagasaki.

The bombs killed at least 120,000 civilians immediately, searing their flesh and burning them alive and at least a quarter million over time. Fifty years later Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima called the bombings “one of the two great crimes against humanity in the 20th Century, along with the Holocaust.”

As for the necessity of using the bombs, in 1946, looking at what the Truman administration knew in 1945, the U.S. 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.”

And if Truman had told Japan about the nuclear bombs or that Russia was going to join the war in early August, Japan almost certainly would have surrendered sooner.

Instead, rather than end the war peacefully, Truman kept it going so he could use the bombs to show the world, particularly Russia, what they could do.

As Secretary of State James Byrnes, Truman’s closest adviser on atomic matters, told atomic scientist Leo Szilard, the bombs weren’t necessary to win the war but “possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe.” Influencing the ascendant and ideologically opposed Soviet Union and not defeating Japan was more likely the purpose of the bombing.

The good intentions of U.S. leaders are usually feel-good mythology built up over time to hide truly awful crimes. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is no exception.