Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Dropping the Big One posted by Richard Seymour
Roughly sixty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a poll was taken among Americans on the topic of dropping the atomic bomb. It found that 47% thought it was the right thing to do, and 46% did not. Now, as it happens, that's a considerable improvement on the situation after Truman did the dirty deed. 85% of Americans then supported it, while a study of US newspaper editorials found that only 1.7% disapproved. The typical editorial argued that the barbarism was a response legitimised by Japan's own barbarity both in the attack on Pearl Harbour and in the disgusting treatment of prisoners of war. This was a view commonly held in the mainstream and on what was and is considered the 'American left', as Paul Boller discovered in his research. It was a view shared by The Nation, The New Republic and the left-liberal magazine PM, whose managing editor wrote: "While we are dropping atomic bombs why not drop a few on Tokyo, where there's a chance to run up our batting average on the royal family - and clear the bases for democracy after the war." For most people, however, Nukes For a Democratic Revolution was not the slogan that mattered. Essentially, it was the extreme hostility to Japanese people that Americans had been saturated in during the war. A Gallup poll taken in 1944 found that 13% of thus surveyed favoured genocide against the Japanese. And of course, that made it much easier for people to accept the now comprehensively refuted mythology that was constructed to enable public support for the bombings.
The academic consensus was summed up by Samuel Walker, a chief historian of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who explained that "careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts" had answered all the critical questions and generated the conclusion that "the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan to end the war within a relatively short period of time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it." This is to say that the usual claim that the bombing was chosen to end the war early, thus saving lives was wrong; the claim that it was necessary to achieves this purpose was wrong. The remaining question would seem academic: would it have been moral, even if necessary for the stated purposes? Obviously, this can't be answered independently of the . But there is a fairly robust discussion of the diplomatic record, the internal governmental and military discussions, and the process of Japanese surrender, in a few good books, not least of which is Martin Sherwin's 'A World Destroyed' and Gar Alperovitz's two classic books, 'The Decision to Use the Atomic and the Architecture of an American Myth' and 'Atomic Diplomacy'. (For the apologists' side there's Stephen Harper's 'The Miracle of Deliverance', Wilson Miscamble's 'From Roosevelt to Truman', and a lively historiographical survey in The New England Quarterly by Robert P Newman called 'Hiroshima and the Trashing of Henry Stimson').
A lot of the current writing kicks off with the decision by the Smithsonian Institute to feature an installation with the fuselage of the Enola Gay in 1995, producing a significant right-wing backlash and the display's eventual withdrawal. The installation was to be accompanied by commentary based on the currently regnant revisionist account, which is what made it so offensive. I think it's telling that on this, as on a number of issues (Israel/Palestine for example), public opinion is kept so far in the dark for so long by historical mythology that is only belatedly undermined by revisionism and declassification that it results in such a massive gulf between what is academically known and what is generally understood. It is particularly the case on matters where historical events matter most for contemporary understanding. As Alperovitz and his team discovered when going through the archives, this particular American myth of a necessary evil has been assiduously constructed and disseminated by military figures, policymakers and educators from the instant the decision was made: he devotes almost half of his 1995 book to dealing with the extensive efforts in this regard.
The main findings of revisionist scholarship coincide with those of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946, which concluded (in a widely quoted statement) 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." Now, since there is no doubt that Russia would have entered the war on 15th August 1945, it would seem probable on the basis of that conclusion that a surrender could have been achieved even more quickly than this. And since the planned invasion by ground would not have occurred before 1 November 1945 (it was scheduled for the Spring of 1946), the claim that the bomb saved 500,000 lives that would have been lost in such an invasion doesn't seem to be supportable. A second document, declassified in the Seventies, is a War Department study on the 'Use of Atomic Bomb on Japan' written in 1946. It found that "the Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies." Even an early landinglanding on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu would have been only a 'remote' possibility, while the full invasion of Japan in the spring of 1946 would not have occurred. In fact, the belief that it was totally unnecessary to use the atomic bomb on Japan's cities was shared by Eisenhower, who records telling Stimson that "Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bombs was completely unnecessary" and by Admiral William D Leahy, who opined that "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."
Robert P Newman insists that the bombing survey's conclusions couldn't possibly have been sustainable had the MAGIC decryptions (the decoded intercepted communications between Japanese officials) been available, since they only show that Japan wanted an armistice on easy terms, not surrender. However, this is not supportable by the evidence, and it's glossed over very quickly by Newman. The reality is that Japan's situation was basically unrecoverable from late 1944. Russia's abrogation of the Neutrality Pact in March 1945 had sent a massive shockwave through Japan, and it was followed by the surrender of Germany on 8th May. Italy had disintegrated, and the only Axis member left was losing territory, and soon had to deal with a massive Russian entanglement in Manchuria. On 12th May, an intercepted message from Ambassador Naotake Sato read: "once the enemy's European air forces are transferred to the Pacific, our damages will exceed anything we can imagine, so that we may be facing the same situation that led to the downfall of Hitler Germany." In late June, Japanese Army leaders called a meeting of the Supreme Army Council for the Direction of the War and relayed a very gloomy assessment of the growing internal dissent and the destruction of the wartime economy. In fact, the previous year, the US War Department intercepted a message dated 11 August 1944, in which it was stated that Foreign Minister Shigemitsu had instructed Ambassador Sato to see if Moscow would assist a negotiated peace. In all of Japan's communications with Moscow seeking mediation, in fact, it was never asserted that only a favourable armistice would do. What was asserted, and what continued to be the case until the end, was that surrender would not be unconditional. In fact, many US state actors were concerned to avoid unnecessary continuation of hostilities because of an unhealthy attachment to the phrase "unconditional surrender" (George Marshall was such a one), and Churchill encouraged Roosevelt to avoid that phrase and simply define terms and war aims. By 25th October 1944, Japan was negotiating a peace in China. By 30 Janauary 1945, the State Department received an OSS message that Japan was seeking peace mediations through the Vatican. As of April 29, 1945, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) explained in a report entitled 'Unconditional Surrender of Japan', that increasing "numbers of informed Japanese, both military and civilian, already realize the inevitability of absolute defeat." William Donovan, director of the OSS, sent a memo the President on 31 May, stating that Japan was ready to cease hostilities if it could keep its "home islands". A 12 July message, intercepted just before Potsdam, showed that the Japanese emperor himself had decided to intervene to attempt to end the war. In his private journal, Truman described it as the "telegram from [the] Jap Emperor asking for peace." By 17 July, an intercepted cable showed Foreign Minister Togo express the surrender terms thus: "If today, when we are still maintaining our strength, the Anglo-Americans were to have regard to Japan's honour and existence, they could save humanity by bringing the war to an end." However, "if they insist on unconditional surrender, the Japanese are unanimous in their resolve to wage a thorough-going war." Despite being fully aware of this, the US continued to insist on unconditional surrender, with assurances for the future of the Emperor or any of the leadership cut out of the declaration at Potsdam by Truman and Byrnes against the advise of practically the entire remainder of the Anglo-American elite: in fact the uncompromising declaration by the US at Potsdam threatened the most stern reprisals against war criminals, and it was reasonably assumed that the Emperor would not be safe from such threats. As was understood and predicted by the American leadership, this resulted in a chilly silence from the Japanese.
With the US fully apprised of Japan's weakened condition, its 'peace feelers' and the moves by important civilian leaders going right up to the Emperor to seek surrender, the question is left as to why the US decided to bomb two cities very closely together, without warning. After all, the Russian Option, as it was understood by America's military and civilian leadership, would certainly do the trick. When Truman obtained a promise from Stalin that he would enter the war, he explained the consequences to his wife Bess: "we'll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won't be killed!" That is the question that Sherwin focuses on, and as he shows, the documentary record proves that as soon as the bomb was proven to work - as it was at the Alamagordo base in New Mexico on 16th July 1945 - the US military and civilian leadership was convinced that it no longer needed Russia. In fact, the bomb itself was a good diplomatic weapon against Russia. As Secretary of State-designate Byrnes explained, "our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe". At this time, the US had been experiencing some difficulty persuading Russia to accept its terms, particularly an independent Poland. By 28th July, Byrnes, according to the diary of Navy secretary James Forrestal was "most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in." Sherwin broadly accepts that the main motive of Secretary of War Stimson in using the bomb was to end the war early, not to intimidate Russia: his account has altered only slightly over the last thirty years or so, with assessments becoming a touch more conservative on the "balance of evidence" (previously, he had suggested that there wasn't really a balance of evidence available as to Stimson's true motives). However, he does not accept that it was the only motive or that the bomb was necessary: in fact he repeatedly finds US leaders making the effect of the bomb on Russia a central consideration. As soon as it was understood that a bomb could be developed quickly, and what its impact would be, the civilian leadership including those who envisaged some form of postwar cooperation understood the bomb as a vital diplomatic lever. So, Stimson, by 14 May 1942, was already recording that the USSR "can't get along without our help and industries, and we have coming into action a weapon which will be unique". Sherwin shows that although elements in the civilian leadership favoured international control of atomic energy (Stimson did up until July 1945), Roosevelt had been opposed to the whole idea and pursued a contrary strategy - which is why he had effectively rebuffed Niels Bohr's pleas that negotiations be opened with the Soviet Union with the aim of avoiding an arms race after the war: Roosevelt and Churchill both wanted what Bohr did not. As soon as a successful test was made, Walter Brown, Byrnes' press secretary, records the Secretary of State saying that he was hoping that the bomb would press Japan to surrender and ensure that Russia would not "get in so much on the kill". He describes the minutes of the Interim Committee which recommended the bombing without warning (all the important documents are included in a lengthy appendix), showing that the leadership was intent on assuring not only a profound impact on the Japanese government, but also a salutary effect on relations with the USSR. Even if intimidating Japan was the chief motive, it was certainly not the only one, and nor can it be understood separately from the refusal to consider the other options, including the Russian one. In fact, the decision to use the bomb a way of avoiding the Russian option, and limiting its claims on a postwar set-up in the Far East.
There remains the question of the impact of the bomb. Its physical effects were impossible not to foresee. The test in New Mexico had resulted in a 41,000 foot high mushroom cloud spilling into the stratosphere. It had broken the window of a building 125 miles away. It had created a 1,200 foot wide crater. It had destroyed a 41 ton steel tower one and a half miles away. Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project which oversaw the bomb's development, accurately predicted that its effects would be much more significant than those observed in New Mexico. On August 6th 1945, two days before Russia declared war on Japan, the uranium weapon 'Little Boy' was dropped on Hiroshima, with predictably atrocious consequences. The impact created an enormous fireball with a temperature of 4000 degrees centigrade at its core, sent out a shockwave and then a thermal pulse that destroyed everything in its path and vaporised everyone in open space within a kilometre radius. Ionized radiation killed tens of thousands more slowly, and led to the massive growth of malignant tumours, small head size among babies, mental retardation, chromosomal abnormalities and so on. Now, it's quite typical of apologists for the bombing to assert that even then the Japanese were intransigent. Stephen Harper's account, for example, acknowledges the 'peace feelers' very briefly, but without considering their significance. He makes much of Japan's refusal of the terms of Potsdam without considering that the US was perfectly well aware that such terms could not possibly lead to peace, but that slightly different terms would. He emphasises that the war continued for nine days after Hiroshima, and suggests - without any evidence at all - that only after Nagasaki, and "rumours that Tokyo itself was to be the third atomic target" impelled the Emperor to step in and end the government's "prevarication". He also accepts, without considering any contrary evidence at all, that an invasion would have been necessary without the bombs. Now, this doesn't stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, the peace party in the civilian leadership were already openly calling for surrender, and insufficient time was given between Hiroshima and Nagasaki to see how this would work out. For another, if the Army was still intransigent after Hiroshima, it might suggest that the atomic bomb wasn't what decisively shifted the leadership. Indeed, Robert Pape's 1993 study, 'Why Japan Surrendered', suggests that: "Japan's military position was so poor that its leaders would likely have surrendered before invasion, and at roughly the same time in August 1945, even if the United States had not employed strategic bombing or the atomic bomb." Furthermore, "the atomic bomb had little or no impact on the Army's position. First, the Army initially denied that the Hiroshima blast had been an atomic bomb. Second, they went to great lengths to downplay its importance. When Togo raised it as an argument for surrender on 7th August, General Anami explicitly rejected it. Finally, the Army vigorously argued that minor civilian defense measures could offset the bomb's effects." The 13 August MAGIC cable intercepted by the US showed the Army General Staff surrendering in these terms: "As a result of Russia's entrance into the war, the Empire, in the fourth year of its endeavour is faced with a struggle for the existence of the nation." This statement did not mention the bombings. In fact, the condition that the national (Imperial) structure be maintained was not relinquished, but the surrender was accepted all the same, and the Emperor remained in place. Since postwar plans situated Japan as an outpost of US interests in South East Asia (a crucial consideration for Stimson in the selection of targets, by the way, and one reason why Kyoto was not bombed), the US relied on the old elite to oversee its reform programme. The alternative as they saw it was a socialist or communist threat of some kind.
Now, there is an attempt to challenge this revisionist account in a book published this year by Reverend Wilson Miscamble (mentioned above), a neoconservative scholar who works at the University of Notre Dame. Miscamble writes about postwar US foreign policy, and makes his preferences clear at the outset: complaining of "predictable" outrage at the bombings, recommending a piece in the neoconservative rag The Weekly Standard by Richard B Frank - who he relies on a great deal - a summary of Frank's book 'Downfall' which purportedly exposes the myths of the Alperovitz 'thesis' (Miscamble's scare quotes). Miscamble is extremely pissed off at the influence of commies on the teaching of history. He promises to undermine the revisionist account, showing its faulty assumptions for what they are. The trouble is that he spends more time carefully editorialising on behalf of Truman than he does engaging with the writings of Alperovitz and his sympathisers. He explains that the decision to use the bomb wasn't at all controversial for Truman or Byrnes, which is certainly the case (although he omits to mention the extensive controversy beyond this pair - virtually every important World War II military leader who had access to the relevant information stated openly that the use of the atomic bomb was not a matter of military necessity). He claims on the basis of single edited sentence of Truman's (hoping that "pacific war might now be brought to a speedy end") that this was his "primary and deepest hope regarding the impact of the atomic bomb". He insists that no change of action by the Japanese made the avoidance of the bomb possible anyway, and insists - using Frank's account - that the Japanese terms did not include surrender or envisage any occupation of the home lands. Now this is simply disingenuous: you can read Frank's piece for yourself and decide, but I think it's fairly clear that he is only able to qualify and minimise the mountainous already existing evidence that a surrender was available. In fact, much of the evidence he highlights is already perfectly well known, and is cited in Sherwin and Alperovitz's account. What is more, Frank's argument (repeated by Miscamble) that the Japanese were such fanatics and so looking forward to giving the Americans a good kicking on the home islands that they would not have surrendered, is incompatible with the extensive evidence which he only deals with patchily. Not only that, it is logically incoherent: if the argument is that the Japanese wanted a land war on home territory which would have killed hundreds of thousands, if not perhaps millions, then why are they supposed to have surrendered after a couple of hundred thousand deaths resulting from attacks on non-military targets? Actually Miscamble suggests that alternatives to bombing have been "overemphasised", but this is supported by nothing more than the point that the President didn't really consider the alternatives as useful (although the evidence, which Miscamble doesn't engage with, suggests that before the bomb was shown to work, the alternatives were seriously considered and understood as such). Miscamble acknowledges, briefly, the importance of the Soviet Union's declaration of war to the Japanese surrender, but tries to argue that the Soviet entry was precipitated by the atomic bomb itself. Whatever the merits of this position, the Soviet Union was going to declare war at any rate, regardless of the bomb, and thus surrender would have been assured. In fact, Miscambles account confirms some of the revisionist claims without appearing to appreciate their implications. So, for example, he acknowledges that neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki made an impact on the position of the military leadership - but this totally undermines the claim that these bombings resulted in the surrender. He also repeats the inane claim that Hiroshima was a military target, although this is a stretch only permissible within the purview of total war: there were military targets near the city, not in it. He sneers that those who actually study the alternatives are engaged in "wishful thinking and fanciful recreations", but in fact his entire counterfactual scenario as to what would have happened had the bomb not been dropped (an eventual ground invasion with many deaths) is based on a complete refusal to assess the countervailing evidence and as such as wishful thinking and a fanciful recreation. And so on and on, he bleats for "poor Harry Truman" who has been the topic of "moral condemnation" that Churchill and Roosevelt escaped. He refers critics of Truman to the despicable Japanese leadership, and anything else that will remove the focus from the very real and known alternatives, from the extensive documentary record about what Truman knew to be the case, about what the American military leadership knew to be the case, about how close surrender was and how little needed to be done to achieve it. This is apologia in pseudo-scholarly veneer, and rather typical of its kind.
So why is it crucial for some people to rescue that disgusting human sacrifice? It isn't exactly a mystery, is it? The nuclear question is a pressing one in British politics, with the decision to renew trident. It is a pressing global question with the threat of nuclear weapons being wielded against Iran. Options need to be kept open. And, of course, it never ceases to be important to demonstrate that American power is uniquely benevolent, utterly free of the fanaticism and inhuman derangement that most power systems exhibit. As soon as you start to notice a pattern of atrocity, extending into the Korean War, the Vietnam War and its extension into Cambodia, Latin America, the Middle East and so on, you become less susceptible to claims that policymakers are turning a new leaf and that this time things will be different.