Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Failures of memory

It was after 11:30pm when it suddenly registered with me that it's August 6.

August 6. A date that we now tend to pass over without thinking, without considering. Without remembering.

Memory is a fickle thing; it can trick us into believing that what we don't regularly call to mind no longer exists (or at least is no longer important). But reality is not fickle, it just plows ahead. And while the reality has shifted and changed its nature over the years, it has never ceased to exist and has never lost its importance. It has only slipped from frequent memory.

Even as we fail to remember them, there are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world today, some of them stockpiled but still many thousands deployed. Most all of those, as I'm sure you know, are in the hands of the US and Russia. Pretty much all we've heard about those arsenals over the last several years has been how they are being reduced - but what we don't hear is how the present-day weapons are more efficient, more accurate, in every way "better" than those in those old massive arsenals of a few decades ago, how today's weapons, those designed and built since the 1980s, are, as one person put it, "more for use than deterrence."

Beyond that and likely of even greater danger of being used are the nuclear weapons held by the seven other members of the "nuclear club." Those countries each possess anywhere from a handful to a few hundred such weapons - and the issue of their potential to create a hair-trigger regional arms race, particularly in the Middle East, is very real and very current.

So having almost failed to remember the day myself and finding time too short to do much but unwilling the day to pass without remark, I'm going to repost something I put up here three years ago on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945: an examination of the lies at the root of the atomic age. The only changes were to kill dead links.


This week marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the week there will be, if past experience is any guide, a few news stories recalling the events, a few photographs of paper cranes showered over the monument in Hiroshima's Peace Park, and a few "it must not happen again" editorials all expressing with appropriate regret the "necessity" of the bombings. It will, in short, be a week of comforting, reinforcing, oft-told tales - that is, of myths.

That is perhaps more fitting than we realize, because the nuclear weapons age was born in a myth: the myth of the Nazi bomb. Most people date the start of the American nuclear arms effort to a famous 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, written by Dr. Leo Szilard and signed by Albert Einstein (because it was thought his name would be more impressive), noting the possibility of developing an atomic bomb. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the US already had a small nuclear bomb project going that had made real progress.

The political argument given for building the atomic bomb, for investing the enormous amounts of time, money, resources, and scientific talent in what became known at the Manhattan Project, was that some intelligence reports said that Nazi Germany may have been working on one. If so, we had to have one and we had to have it first. Although it must in fairness be noted that it may not have been known at the time, the fact is that although the Germans were indeed doing some experiments in that direction, they were going about it in an extremely inefficient way and it would've taken them decades to develop a bomb - if it was possible at all.

Some of late have tried to resuscitate that threat by claiming the Germans were "closer than we knew." The argument, however, is based on their progress in enriching uranium and relies on the supposition that in the 1940s scientists working on the project could have suddenly changed gears and adopted a different approach - that is, do exactly what they had decided against doing years before. At least one writer added the argument that a commando raid that destroyed a enrichment facility in occupied Norway set back the project significantly. That undoubtedly slowed production, but it didn't affect the problems with the process itself. That is, the "closer than we knew" assertion in based on a series of "what ifs," which makes for interesting speculation but not a persuasive argument.

But no matter what you think of that point, what's important here is that it was the claimed threat from Germany that supposedly provided the logic, the argument, the purpose of the Manhattan Project. And yet, and yet....

By late 1944 US intelligence knew that the German nuclear experiments had failed. The Manhattan Project didn't even slow down.

Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 - 10 weeks before the first successful test explosion of an atomic bomb. (Code-named Trinity, it took place at Alamogordo Testing Range, 230 miles south of Los Alamos, NM on July 16, 1945.) With the surrender, the entire founding logic of the Manhattan Project evaporated. But instead of stopping or even slowing down, the project accelerated, in part because some on the staff were afraid the war would end before they got the bomb built. We simply switched myths: from the myth of Nazi atomic bombs to the myth of the fanatical Japanese. The weapon that was supposedly designed for defense against Germany now "had" to be used on Japan.

And here is what's probably the most important myth of all, because it provided the logical (if you can call it that) underpinnings for actually carrying out the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for actually vaporizing tens of thousands of human beings in the flash of an instant and opening the door of the atomic age, a myth that gets replayed, reproduced, repronounced, reproclaimed every time Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned, a myth that people continue to believe today, as a Gallup poll shows 57% of Americans approving of the bombings: the myth that the Japanese were so fanatical that the only possible alternative to the devastation of those cities was a bloody land invasion of Japan.

It's just not true. It's more than a myth, it's a damned lie. A 60-year old damned lie.

To begin with, the yearly claims, sure to be heard again this week, that such an invasion would've cost 250,000 or 500,000 or 1,000,000 American lives (the numbers vary unpredictably) is utter nonsense. Even President Truman originally cited an estimate of 250,000 casualties (not deaths) - although in later years he doubled it, then doubled it again. More to the point, the War Planning Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff never expected more than 40,000 American deaths, and thought they might've been as low as 20,000 because they thought it a fair likelihood that Japan would surrender during the first part of the campaign.

Which in turn raises the more important question of whether such an invasion was necessary at all.

It wasn't.

By the spring of 1945 Japan was already a defeated nation. It no longer had any navy to speak of, its air force had been decimated, its army driven back to its own shores. It was incapable of mounting any offensive action or even of defending itself against US air raids. Critical materials and even food were in short supply. The situation was so bad that even attempts to justify the bombings wind up confirming Japan's desperate condition: Several years ago I had an email debate with a man who tried to project the classic image of a well-defended Japan bristling with military forces. At one point, trying to show the determination of the Japanese to defend the homeland no matter what the cost, he said "Japan pulled some 500 loaded ships out of China and not one of them made it back to Japan," because of attacks by high-altitude bombers. In response, I noted that he had thereby agreed, if unintentionally, that Japan's air force was so thoroughly destroyed that it couldn't even provide air cover to get its own retreating troops back safely.

In fact, the situation was so bad that before - before - the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan had already made secret overtures to the United States through Sweden and the Soviet Union stating that it was ready to surrender. All of this was known to the US military, all of this was known to Truman, who rejected the offer because it wasn't unconditional: Hirohito would've kept his throne.

What was also known to Truman was the USSR's intent to declare war on Japan and its likely impact: In his journal about his meetings with Stalin at the Potsdam conference, Truman wrote on July 17, 1945, "He'll be in Japan War on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about." (Sidebar: Truman stalled at the beginning of the conference because he wanted to know that the Trinity test had been a success before he dealt with Stalin.)

The atomic bombings were simply unnecessary. But we refused to accept the idea, refused even to accept surrender - because by then peace was not enough, even victory was not enough: It had to be utter, smashing, devastating, total victory.

So we destroyed Hiroshima and then Nagasaki when Japan didn't surrender fast enough. We destroyed them even though military leaders, including "Hap" Arnold and Dwight Eisenhower (who at the time called nuclear weapons "those awful things," even though he himself was later to give serious consideration to their use during the Korean War), declared it unnecessary. That judgment was proved correct by US analysts sent to Japan in 1946 who concluded it would've surrendered before November 1, 1945 "even if atomic bombs hadn't been dropped, Russia hadn't entered the war, and no invasion was planned."

And just as victory had to be total to satisfy our national psyche, our pride and arrogance, it had to be now - now to hold off the demon of our postwar mythology: the Soviet Union. Truman's note about "fini Japs" when the Soviets entered the war against Japan was not enthusiasm; it was a reflection of concern about Soviet influence in the post-war world. We had to finish the war in the Pacific so Stalin could take none of the credit. And for one other reason:

Before the bombings, some officials urged that we stage a "demonstration" blast on a deserted island or in an uninhabited area of Japan to show the Japanese the power of the weapon we had and to give them a chance to surrender before we actually used it. (Among those pushing such an idea was Leo Szilard, who, perhaps having second thoughts about his role in all this, pleaded with Secretary of State James Byrnes not to use the bomb on people and circulated a petition to Truman to rule out its use because it would open the "door to an era of devastation of an unimaginable scale.")

The idea of a "demonstration" blast was supposedly shelved. But, in fact, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were demonstration blasts. They were intended to show the awesome power we held in our arsenal - only the target of the demonstration wasn't Japan. It was the Soviet Union. US officials, including Byrnes, presidential advisor Bernard Baruch, and top military leaders, had urged the bombings as a means of warning the Soviets not to challenge American plans for a postwar world dominated by US interests, to make them "more manageable," as Byrnes put it, by showing both our power and our willingness to use it.

Which means, ultimately, that hundreds of thousands of Japanese were destroyed, disintegrated, as sacrificial lambs at the start of a decades-long campaign to "contain" the Soviets if not to bully them into submission. From Nazi bomb scientists through wild-eyed Japanese fanatics to intractable Soviet deceivers, the mythmakers had constructed an image of the United States as appointed to protect and shape the world, with the atomic bomb, as President Truman put it, the weapon given us by God that we were to use "for His purposes and His ends." The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the last shots of World War II, they were the first shots of the Cold War, and the Japanese the first of its many victims.

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