This week marks the 70th 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.
The letter noted 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 of a commando raid that destroyed an enrichment facility in occupied Norway, claiming that set back the German's bomb 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 on 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....
By late 1944 US intelligence knew that the German nuclear experiments had failed. The Manhattan Project didn't even slow down.
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, re-pronounced, re-proclaimed every time Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned, a myth that people continue to believe today, as polls show that a clear majority of Americans approve 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, worse than a myth, it's a damned lie. A 70-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, each time for no discernible reason other than self-justification. 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 such a campaign.
20,000 is a lot of people - then again, it's about 1/7 to 1/10 of the death which we inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Which in turn raises the more important question of whether such an invasion was necessary at all.
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 as Emperor.
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 it was that early on the morning of August 6th, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress bomber nicknamed "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific, headed for Hiroshima, a city in Japan of about 250,000 people. It carried a single bomb, codenamed "Little Boy." At 8:15 AM local time, Little Boy was dropped.
I want to pause for a moment to give you a sense of the kind of power we're talking about here. The bomb contained 64 kilograms - about 141 pounds - of highly-enriched, fissionable uranium. Of that amount, only about .7 kilogram, or about 1.5 pounds, actually fissioned - that is, the atoms split - and only about 600 milligrams was actually converted into energy. That 600 milligrams equals six-tenths of a gram, or a little more than 1/50 ounce.
Just three days later, another nuclear bomb, codenamed "Fat Man," did the same to Nagasaki, with tens of thousands more dead, thousands more condemned to die of injuries, radiation poisoning, and cancer, and another city destroyed.
Bombing Hiroshima was unnecessary and the US government and military knew it was unnecessary. It was a crime, a war crime, one that we compounded, more than doubtled, by bombing Nagasaki before the impact of the first bomb had time to settle in. The Nagasaki bomb was made ready in a day-and-night effort and the city wasn't even the primary target. Kokura was. In fact, Nagasaki was not on the original list of the top three targets for the second bomb and wound up being devastated only because Kokura had too much cloud cover that day for a clean bomb run.
Which raises the question of if the second bombing was to force Japan to surrender - or to get it in before Japan had a chance to do so.
There is good reason to think the latter. 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 and how we could try to prevent that.
|James Byrnes (and Truman)|
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.
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.
One other bitter note: Six after the bombing of Nagasaki, on August 15, Japan formally surrendered. Whether or not the atomic bombs actually ended the war can be argued: On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and attacked Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state on the mainland of Asia, leading some to claim that that, and not the atomic bombings, is what precipitated the Japanese surrender. (Again, recall Truman's prediction about the impact of Soviet involvement.)
If true, that would make the bombings even bigger crimes - but what I wanted to point out here is that the ultimate terms of surrender for Japan were almost exactly the same as those offered by Japan before the bombing of Hiroshima, including allowing Hirohito to keep his position role as Emperor - marking the last several weeks of World War II were a complete and utter waste of time, energy, resources, and most importantly, life.
That, too, is part of the world the Manhattan Project created.
Sources cited in links: