An excerpt from Howard Zinn's "Postwar America 1945-1971" pg. 7-20 on Hiroshima. (An excellent book imo that anyone who enjoys studying American history should read. Also afaict everything in this passage is consistent with Turn Prophet's post):
All wars of the United States were not splendid crusades, perhaps; Americans admit doubts about the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and even World War 1. But not about World War 2; it was the third of America's unquestionably virtuous wars.
Even Hiroshima did not succeed in breaking the spell of righteousness. Indeed, in a strange way, it made the spell more durable. For those who were appalled that Americans had aimed a terrifyingly destructive new weapon at the entire population of a city, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was explained as something that was quite different from all the other bombs dropped by the good Allies. The event itself was treated as brand new, and an abrupt departure from ordinary devastations--as if it were not a technical extension of the fire-bombings of Tokyo, in which 80,000 were killed, and Dresden, in which 125,000 were killed; as if it were not a logical extension of the cruelty of the whole war.
Hiroshima was, despite all the earnest self-searching after the fact, the final affirmation of the ability of the best of civilizations--that of liberal, rational, enlightened Judeo-Christian society--to commit the worst of war's acts. After Hiroshima, every atrocity short of nuclear death could be accepted as ordinary. And nuclear war itself could be envisioned for extraordinary situations. On August 6, 1970, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hiroshima, American planes, after dropping three million tons of bombs on Vietnam--more than had been dropped on Germany and Japan in World War 2--were still flying over Vietnamese rice fields and destroying peasant villages. Israelis and Egyptians were still dropping bombs on each other. Russians and Americans were still increasing their stockpiles of atomic weapons, which now equaled about fifty tons of TNT for each inhabitant of the earth.
What Hiroshima showed was that, even if Hitler was at the moment ashes, even if the corpse of Benito Mussolini had dangled upside down in front of a Milan gas station, even if plans were being made to execute Japanese generals and admirals one by one, the only possible result that could justify the death of fifty million people had not been achieved; a change in the minds of men or in the institutions that set those minds. The basic premises of a world that had given birth to fascism--the notion of "superior" beings having the right of life and death over "inferior" beings, the idea that the victory of one nation over another in war is important enough to justify any unspeakable act--were affirmed in the Hiroshima bombing.
The debate itself over the bombing proved a point. Could any truly civilized nation debate
gas chambers for Jews or slavery for blacks? Would it matter who won the debate? The concession that these were debatable was enough. And after Hiroshima, the use of atomic bombs was debatable, the extermination of villages and cities debatable, modern wars of annihilation debatable.
In this sense, Hitler won the Second World War in the same way the South won the Civil War: the signs and symbols were surrendered--the swastika in the one case, slavery in the other--but the evils they represented remained. The most extreme positions were yielded to enable a retreat to secondary positions, where the fundamental malevolence--nationalism and war for Hitler; racism for the Confederacy--could be kept alive in more acceptable form. Or, to put it another way, despite important differences in style, in rhetoric, in the degree of cruelty--the extermination of Jews in death camps versus the incineration of Japanese and German civilians--neither side represented a clear break from the idea that war itself is an acceptable means of solving disputes over political power.
The defensive arguments for the atomic bombings of Japan are therefore more important than mere historical facts; they anticipate the whole postwar rationale for preparing for nuclear war, and the justification for the most devastating non-nuclear wars. (In Korea, more than two million were killed in a "conventional" war.) The arguments illustrate a larger question; the extent to which the behavior and thinking of the United States, as one of the victors in World War 2, epitomized certain qualities that were to bring about a national crisis in postwar America.
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima turned into powder and ashes the bones and flesh of 100,000 to 150,000 (no one is yet sure) Japanese men, women, and children--in a few minutes. It left tens of thousands blinded, maimed, and poisoned by radiation, either to die soon after the explosion or to live on as its relics. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later killed between 35,000 and 75,000 (here, too, no one knows exactly).
Harry Truman took office in April, 1945--four months before Hiroshima--following the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was then told, by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, about the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb in New Mexico. In his Memoirs
Truman justified the dropping of the bomb, and one of his points was that an advisory committee appointed by him had carefully considered the question and approved the dropping of the bombs on populated cities. This was the Interim Committee headed by Stimson; it included Secretary of state James Byrnes, three scientists, and three other civilian officials. "It was their recommendation," Truman said, "that the bomb be used against the enemy as soon as it could be done. They recommended further that it should be used without specific warning and against a target that would clearly show its devastating strength. I had realized of course that an atomic bomb explosion would inflict damage and casualties beyond imagination. On the other hand, the scientific advisers of the committee reported: '...we see no acceptable alternative.'" Truman said that "the top military advisers to the President recommended its use, and when I talked to Churchill, he unhesitatingly told me that he favored the use of the atomic bomb if it might aid to end the war."
The decision apparatus on the dropping of the atomic bomb was a perfect example of that dispersed responsibility so characteristic of modern bureaucracy, where an infinite chain of policy-makers, committees, advisers, and administrators make it impossible to determine who is accountable. By comparison, the sly double action of the Inquisition--the church holding the trial, the state carrying out the execution--was primitive. Truman created the impression that expert advisers gave him no choice; the experts--Stimson's Interim Committee--claimed in turn that they depended on the advice of even greater experts, the four scientists on the Scientific Panel: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence.
The four scientists, it turned out later, did not know certain important facts: that the Japanese were negotiating for surrender through the Russians; that the invasion of Japan, which had been projected before the appearance of the bomb, was not scheduled until November; and that the Japanese were militarily close to total defeat. Oppenheimer, testifying after the war before the Atomic Energy Commission, said: "We didn't know beans about the military situation in Japan. We didn't know whether they could be caused to surrender by other means or whether the invasion was really inevitable. But in the back of our minds was the notion that the invasion was inevitable because we had been told that." Yet, the Scientific Panel told the Interim Committee: "We see no acceptable alternative to direct military use."
Early in July Leo Szilard, who had helped persuade Roosevelt to start the atomic-bomb project, circulated a petition among his fellow atomic scientists, which sixty-seven signed, including Ralph Lapp, asking Truman to withhold dropping the bomb while other steps were taken to induce the Japanese to surrender. According to Compton, the Scientific Panel, at the request of Brigadier General Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project, then took a secret poll among scientists at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, which had helped make the bomb. Compton, in an article published three years later, wrote of the poll: "There were a few who preferred not to use the bomb at all, but 87 per cent voted for its military use, at least if after other means were tried this was found necessary to bring surrender." But it was precisely these "other means" that were not brought forth as alternatives by the Scientific Panel. The exact figures on the poll given in Compton's article show that only 15 per cent of the 150 scientists surveyed were for full use of the bomb as dictated by military strategy. Forty-six per cent were for demonstrating the bomb in Japan in such a way as to give the Japanese a chance to surrender "before full use of the weapons," and 26 per cent were for a demonstration in the United States, with Japanese representation present.
The key to Compton's interpretation of the polls is in what he said several years after his 1948 article:
One of the young men who had been with us at Chicago and had transferred to Los Alamos came into my Chicago office in a state of emotional stress. He said he had heard of an effort to prevent the use of the bomb. Two years earlier I had persuaded this young man, as he was graduating with a major in physics, to cast his lot with our project. The chances are, I had told him, that you will be able to contribute more toward winning the war in this position than if you should accept the call to the Navy that you are considering. He had heeded my advice. Now he was sorely troubled. "I have buddies who have fought through the battle of Iwo Jima. Some of them have been killed, others wounded. We've got to give these men the best weapons we can produce." Tears came to his eyes. "If one of these men should be killed because we didn't let them use the bombs, I would have failed them. I just could not make myself feel that I had done my part." Others, though less emotional, felt just as deeply.
Behind the polls, behind the panels, behind the committees, behind the advisers and the interpretations of advice, behind the decision-makers, a persistent basic belief seemed to quash all doubt about using the bomb. This view is summed up by Compton's young friend: "If one
of these men should be killed," the failure to drop the bomb would be damnable. Tears at the thought of even one
American death. But what of the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands of Japanese victims of the bomb?
The dispersion of responsibility for evil, Hiroshima proved, is as insidious in a liberal, capitalist state as in a socialist state or a Fascist state. The proliferation of advisers, committees, and polls on the use of the atomic bomb allowed for enough participants so that the entire procedure might deserve the honor of being termed "democratic." But not all the participants were equals; as the Scientific Panel's ignorance of military matters demonstrates, not all had equal access to information, which is fundamental to real democracy. Further, the liberal state in modern times, like the socialist or Fascist state, is limited in its thinking by national borders; its "democracy" excludes, without a thought, those outside its boundaries. There was no sounding of Japanese opinion on the question of the bomb; indeed, the question sounds absurd in the self-oriented atmosphere created by the nation-state. It seems absurd not just because America and Japan were at war--it would seem just as absurd to suggest that the Greeks should be polled before making a policy decision on whether or not to recognize the Papadopoulos military junta--but because the national limits of democracy are ingrained in our thinking.
Hiroshima showed us that the broad spread of participation in decisions, which presumably marks a "democratic" country like the United States, is also deceptive. Not only did some of the participants have access to information that others did not, some people in the configuration had immeasurably more power than others. Scientists who opposed the dropping of the bomb, like Szilard, who with Fermi had supervised the first controlled atomic chain reaction at the University of Chicago, did not have as powerful a voice as Groves, an army engineer who built the Pentagon and was in charge of building the bomb. The Szilard petition to the president never reached Truman; it was kept for two weeks by Groves. That Szilard's statement and those of others against the immediate use of the bomb were held up by Groves and his staff did not become known until 1963, when the files of the Manhattan Project were opened.
The petition was a forecast of the postwar atomic race:
The development of atomic power will provide the nation with new means of destruction. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for the purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.
If after this war, a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation. All the resources of the United States, moral and material, may have to be mobilized to prevent the advent of such a world situation. Its prevention is at present the solemn responsibility of the United States--singled out by virtue of her lead in the field of atomic power....
Hiroshima pulled all the elements of America's decision-making process--including notions of right and wrong, nationalism, polling, secrecy, and absence of information--toward indiscriminate violence for national goals, without any conscious conspiracy or, evil intent by individual leaders. As Groves said, after the war, it was not a matter of Truman's making the decision to drop the bomb, but rather of his not altering a decision already made, or keeping a commitment hardened by the expenditure of money and men over years. Groves, who pictured Truman as "a little boy on a toboggan," said of the president's action: "As far as I was concerned, his decision was one of non-interference--basically, a decision not to upset the existing plans...As time went on, and as we poured more and more money and effort into the project, the government became increasingly committed to the ultimate use of the bomb...."
It was not that Americans at this point in their history lacked humanitarian feelings. They did not. That is why they needed explanations that showed lives were saved
by dropping the bomb. But because the humanitarianism was vague, while the urge to national power was sharp, the explanations needed only to be made by national leaders in order to be accepted without question or scrutiny. Thus Truman could talk in his Memoirs
of General George C. Marshall telling him "it might cost half a million American lives to force the enemy's surrender on his home grounds." (Marshall's opposition to using the bomb without warning was not known until the Manhattan Project papers were unlocked; they disclosed that at a meeting in Stimson's office May 29, 1945, Marshall had urged that the Japanese be advised about the bomb's targets so people could be removed and only military installations obliterated.) Similarly, Byrnes could say that he had passed on to Truman the estimate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "our invasion would cost us a million casualties." The president, Byrnes said, then "expressed the opinion that, regrettable as it might be, so far as he could see, the only reasonable conclusion was to use the bomb."
That this was not "the only reasonable conclusion" is evident on the basis of only one additional fact, which Truman knew at the time he made the decision on the bomb. He knew that the first invasion of Japan would be on the island of Kyushu, that American casualties there were expected to be about 31,000, and that the Kyushu assault was not scheduled until November--allowing three months for the wobbling nation to surrender. Japan was already beginning to press for peace through her emissary in Moscow, as Truman and the American high command also knew through the interception of Japanese cables. There was, therefore, no immediate need to use the bomb to save lives. Hanson Baldwin summarized the situation as follows:
The atomic bomb was dropped in August. Long before that month started our forces were securely based in Okinawa, the Marianas and Iwo Jima; Germany had been defeated; our fleet had been cruising off the Japanese coast with impunity bombarding Japan; even inter-island ferries had been attacked and sunk. Bombing, which started slowly in June, 1944, from China bases and from the Marianas in November, 1944, had been increased materially in 1945, and by August, 1945, more than 16,000 tons of bombs had ravaged Japanese cities. Food was short; mines and submarines and surface vessels and planes clamped an iron blockade around the main islands; raw materials were scarce. Blockade, bombing, and unsuccessful attempts at dispersion had reduced Japanese production capacity from 20 to 60 per cent. The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic position by the time the Potsdam demand for unconditional surrender was made on July 26.
Such, then, was the situation when we wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Need we have done it? No one can, of course, be positive, but the answer is almost certainly negative.
Confirmation of the argument against the Truman-Byrnes "only reasonable conclusion" thesis was supplied by an official government committee, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, established by Stimson in 1944 to study the results of the aerial attacks on Germany. After Japan surrendered, the survey committee interviewed hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders on many matters, including the effects of the atomic bombing. Its report concludes:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion 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.
Truman's and Byrnes's talk of saving lives in the future by destroying lives in the present has been the supreme defense of the mass killing in modern war. As "humanitarian" rationale, it has been the most persuasive justification for the American depredations not only in World War 2 but in Korea and Vietnam. It is a rationale epitomized best by that quintessential liberal Woodrow Wilson when he described World War 1, which cost ten million lives on the battlefield, as a war to "bring peace and safety to all nations." In the 1950s the destruction of Korea and its people was justified by vague speculation about preventing some possible conflagration in the future. In the 1960s the continued American bombing of Indochina, with a million casualties, and millions more driven from their hamlets, was justified by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as necessary to prevent a larger war.
Truman's other reason for dropping the bomb--that Hiroshima was a military base--is even more untenable than his talk of saving "half a million" American lives or Byrnes's talk of preventing "a million casualties." On August 9, the day on which the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the Japanese were warned to surrender or be destroyed, Truman declared: "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians." In the face of the enormous toll of civilian life in the bombing of Hiroshima, Truman's statement might seem to be one of the most mendacious uttered by any political leader in modern times. Not only were tens of thousands of civilians killed in this "military" bombing, but the official report of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey said that "Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population."
Truman's statement, however, had to be made because of an important political fact: the American population needed such reassurance, and it depended for its information on the president and other government leaders. It is one of the ironies of modern "democracy" that the public, which is supposed to weigh the claims of its leaders, depends on its leaders for its information. In the Vietnam War, American political leaders continued to speak to the public, with considerable success, about bombing only military targets with only occasional, accidental failures resulting in civilian casualties. Among themselves, military men spoke more frankly, as one naval officer did in a Naval Review
article in 1969:
One naturally wonders why so many bombing sorties are required in order to destroy a bridge or other pinpoint target....However, with even the most sophisticated computer system, bombing by any mode remains an inherently inaccurate process, as is evident from our results to date in Vietnam. Aiming errors, boresight errors, system computational errors and bomb dispersion errors all act to degrade the accuracy of the system. Unknown winds at altitudes below the release point and the "combat degradation" factor add more errors to the process. In short, it is impossible to hit a small target with bombs except by sheer luck. Bombing has proved most efficient for area targets such as supply dumps, build-up areas, and cities. (My emphasis)
Hiroshima was not an unfortunate error in an otherwise glorious war. It revealed, in concentrated form, characteristics that the United States had in common with the other belligerents--whatever their political nomenclature. The first of these is the commission and easy justification of indiscriminate violence when it serves political aims. The second is the translation of the system's basic power motives into whatever catchall ideology can mobilize the population--"socialism" for socialist states, "democracy" for capitalist states, "the master race" for Fascist states. The common denominator for all has been the survival of the system of power--whether socialist, Fascist, or capitalist. What dominated the motives for war among all the belligerents were political ends--power, privilege, expansion--rather than human ends--life, liberty, the pursuit of individual and social happiness.
This is not to deny that political ends--power, the survival and growth of particular social systems--have human consequences, and that the survival of certain social systems may be highly desirable in human terms. But the overlapping of political and human ends has been, so far, a matter of chance. And the reason why it has been a matter of chance is because no society in the world, including the American, has as yet reached the point where its political leaders are subject to the informed power of the people whose interests they claim to represent. As a result, the decisions of the leadership are motivated primarily by the aggrandizement of its own power and wealth, with token payments made in behalf of human rights when necessary to maintain control, and violations committed against such rights when they conflict with national political power.
The motivation behind dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, despite the death and suffering of the Japanese, and despite the consequences for the world of that atomic terror forecast by the Szilard petition, was political; the "humanitarian" aspect of the decision to drop the bomb is dubious. That political motive was to keep the Russians out of the Pacific war so that the United States would play the primary role in the peace settlement in Asia. The circumstantial evidence for this conclusion, Truman and Byrnes notwithstanding, is that the strictly military need to end the war did not require such instant use of the bomb. Admiral William Leahy, Truman's chief of staff; General Henry Arnold, commanding general of the air force; General Carl Spaatz, commander of the Strategic Air Force; as well as General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Pacific theater; and General Eisenhower, did not think use of the bomb was necessary.
The political motive was first pointed out by the British scientist P.M.S. Blackett in his book Fear, War, and the Bomb.
Blackett wondered about the rush to drop the bombs, and concluded that it was to beat the Russian entrance into the war against Japan, which was scheduled for August 8. The Russians had promised at Yalta and Potsdam to attack Japan three months after victory in Europe, which was May 8. Blackett says: "One can imagine the hurry with which the two bombs--the only two existing--were whisked across the Pacific to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just in time, but only just, to insure that the Japanese Government surrendered to American forces alone." Blackett points to an article by Norman Cousins and Thomas K. Finletter, in the Saturday Review of Literature
, June 15, 1946, in which they ask why the United States did not first warn the Japanese by a demonstration of the atomic bomb. According to Cousins and Finletter, a demonstration would have taken some preparation, and there was no time for making such arrangements before the Russian invasion:
No; any test would have been impossible if the purpose was to knock Japan out before Russia came in....
It may be argued that this decision was justified; that it was a legitimate exercise of power politics in a rough-and-tumble world, that we thereby avoided a struggle for authority in Japan similar to what we have experienced in Germany and Italy, that unless we came out of the war with a decisive balance of power over Russia, we would be in no position to checkmate Russian expansion.
The hurried dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a brilliant success, in that all the political objectives were fully achieved. American control of Japan is complete, and there is no struggle for authority there with Russia....So we may conclude that the dropping of the atomic bombs was not so much the last military act of the second World War, as the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia now in progress.
Blackett's conclusion is supported by Gar Alperovitz's meticulous research of the Stimson papers and related documents. Alperovitz points out that at Potsdam Winston Churchill told his secretary of state for foreign affairs, Anthony Eden, that "it is quite clear that the United States do not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war." Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, in his diary entry for July 28, 1945, said Secretary of State Byrnes "was most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in." Byrne's own memoir, Speaking Frankly
, is full of frankness: "As for myself, I must frankly admit that in view of what we knew of Soviet actions in eastern Germany and the violations of the Yalta agreement in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria, I would have been satisfied had the Russians determined not to enter he war." He then adds a much franker statement: that at the January, 1945, Yalta Conference the United States agreed on Russian entrance into the war because then "the military situation had been entirely different"; now with Japan near defeat and with the United States in possession of a brand-new deadly weapon, there was no reason to give Russia the added psychological and physical power in Asia that a major share in defeating Japan would afford.
What Hiroshima suggests is not that a liberal, humane society can make a mistake
and commit mass murder for political ends, but that it is characteristic
for modern societies to do so. The evidence for this harsh conclusion is in the explanations for the atomic bombings, advanced by the government and generally accepted by the American public, and it is reinforced by the behavior of the United States prior to and after Hiroshima. Granted that Hitlerism was a monstrous evil, were the attitudes toward human life demonstrated by the Allies during the war, and perpetuated after the war, such as to make the difference between theirs and Hitler's worth fifty million corpses?
In World War 2 the two nations credited with being the most enlightened, liberal, democratic, and humane--the United States and England--agreed on the efficacy of saturation bombing of the German civilian population. As early as 1942 the British Bomber Command staff, according to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey's official report, "had a strong faith in the morale effects of bombing and thought that Germany's will to fight could be destroyed by the destruction of German cities....The first thousand-bomber raids on Cologne and Essen marked the real beginning of this campaign." At the Casablanca Conference in January, 1943, this faith was affirmed as Allied strategy; larger-scale air attacks would be carried out to achieve "the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened."
It was the same strategy Mussolini had used in dropping bombs on civilians in the Ethiopian campaign and the Spanish Civil War, and it was the same strategy used in bombing civilian populations from Kiev to Coventry--all to the horrified outcries of the liberal, democratic, capitalist nations of the West. The only difference in the two strategies was that the English and American attacks on German, French, Czechoslovakian, and other cities made the Fascist bombing of civilians seem puny.
World War 2 did not end, but rather sustained, the Fascist notions that war is a proper mode of solving international political problems, and that, once a nation is at war, any means whatsoever justify victory. The saturation bombing of Vietnamese villages by American bombers dropping napalm and cluster bombs, which are deliberately intended for people, not bridges or factories, and leave particularly cruel wounds, has been in accord with the thinking of the Allies in World War 2--that "the morale" of the enemy could thereby be destroyed. In 1968 Daniel Ellsberg, at the time an official in the Department of Defense, publicly described this psychological objective in the strategic bombing of Vietnam. But Vietnam is only another example of the post-World War 2 acceptance of mass slaughter. When British historian A.J.P. Taylor was asked how he could place Hitler in the same broad context of evil shared by other nations, in view of the killing of six million Jews, he responded that those nations that had defeated Hitler were now stockpiling weapons capable of killing far more."