The Lies About Hiroshima

John Pilger has written a terrific article to commemorate the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (6 August, 1945).

I was talking about Hiroshima with American friends while in France. They gave me the usual answer “it was horrible but it stopped the war and saved lives”. These friends are Democrats – anti-war, anti-American Imperialism. And yet they still believe that old line about it saving lives. I asked them why America couldn’t have just shown the Japanese video footage of the bombs being dropped in the desert and used it as a threat. They replied that the Japanese were too arrogant and wouldn’t have stopped their war for anything. This is what even the good Americans want to believe. They have bought the propaganda.

To this, Pilger writes:

The most enduring lie is that the atomic bomb was dropped to end the war in the Pacific and save lives. “Even without the atomic bombing attacks,” concluded the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946, “air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. 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 … 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.”

The National Archives in Washington contain US government documents that chart Japanese peace overtures as early as 1943. None was pursued. A cable sent on May 5, 1945 by the German ambassador in Tokyo and intercepted by the US dispels any doubt that the Japanese were desperate to sue for peace, including “capitulation even if the terms were hard”. Instead, the US secretary of war, Henry Stimson, told President Truman he was “fearful” that the US air force would have Japan so “bombed out” that the new weapon would not be able “to show its strength”. He later admitted that “no effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb”. His foreign policy colleagues were eager “to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip”. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project that made the bomb, testified: “There was never any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and that the project was conducted on that basis.” The day after Hiroshima was obliterated, President Truman voiced his satisfaction with the “overwhelming success” of “the experiment”.

13 thoughts on “The Lies About Hiroshima

  1. I think you’re right that there was a desire to demonstrate the new weapon to the world in the decision to drop it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    But, I’m also pretty convinced that there wasn’t another way out that would have resulted in less loss of life, assuming the Japaneses weren’t willing to sue for peace.

    I don’t attach any special moral value to the use of a nuclear weapon as opposed to, say, massive loss of life due to strategic bombing or a land invasion. Consequently, it doesn’t seem logical to suffer or cause more deaths than those caused by the bomb in order to avoid it’s use*. I’m not sure you’re arguing that, though.

    I also don’t see it as particularly useful to dwell on the fact that American generals held such gung ho attitudes towards the war – it’s awful, but I’m not convinced any other winning side would be more gracious.

    To me, the really interesting part of this is the possibility of Japanese surrender, and the suggestion that these overtures were simply not followed. This is a pretty strange attitude for the American government to have taken, particularly given the losses taken at Okinawa and Iwo Jima – conducting those campaigns in the face of a Japanese desire to surrender (and, given the losses taken on both sides) would be truly twisted.

    Have you seen any more evidence of this desire? It would be really interesting to see primary source material for this – particularly on the idea that America was treating the late Pacific campaign as preparation for an eventual confrontation with Russia.

    One telling piece of evidence to attitudes at the time was recently mentioned on Boing Boing – a survey of scientists at a US national lab in Chicago taken four days before trinity. The plurality of votes was for ‘a military demonstration in Japan followed by a renewed opportunity for surrender’, suggesting that no such opportunity would exist during the lead up. Even more interestingly, the second most voted option was for a non-military demonstration in front of Japanese delegates – meaning that those who voted for the military demonstration were actively deciding that people needed to die for the ‘demonstration’ to be compelling. Chilling..

    Anyway, interesting and provocative post, as always..

    * Of course, to honestly play ethical calculus with this, you have to take into account the long term effects of the bomb on the environment and the surviving populace; effects that simply weren’t understood at that time. The risk of these long term effects can’t then have been considered, and it’s pretty reasonable to be appalled by this.

  2. Trond, great and thoughtful comments. I haven’t been able to find online links to the source documents, but I did find this site, which has this to say:

    In his later memoirs, Stimson (US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson) admitted that no effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb.

    And that effort could have been minimal. In July, before the leaders of the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union met at Potsdam, the Japanese government sent several radio messages to its ambassador, Naotake Sato, in Moscow, asking him to request Soviet help in mediating a peace settlement. His Majesty is extremely anxious to terminate the war as soon as possible …, said one communication. Should, however, the United States and Great Britain insist on unconditional surrender, Japan would be forced to fight to the bitter end.

    On July 25, while the Potsdam meeting was taking place, Japan instructed Sato to keep meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Molotov to impress the Russians with the sincerity of our desire to end the war [and] have them understand that we are trying to end hostilities by asking for very reasonable terms in order to secure and maintain our national existence and honor (a reference to retention of the emperor).

    Having broken the Japanese code years earlier, Washington did not have to wait to be informed by the Soviets of these peace overtures; it knew immediately, and did nothing. Indeed, the National Archives in Washington contains U.S. government documents reporting similarly ill-fated Japanese peace overtures as far back as 1943.

    (end quote)

    So, assuming this is true, it’s quite clear that the Japanese were genuinely offering a surrender, an end to the war, but that the USA were more interested in testing out their new toy than attempting to follow through the Japanese offer.

  3. Just for completeness, here’s a link to that survey I mentioned.

    The responses to it are pretty disturbing, and suggest that it wasn’t simply a case of a few crazy generals pushing for a demonstration, but rather that was the prevailing attitude. Which says a lot of unpleasant things about human nature, really..

  4. Yeah that is an interesting report/survey. I had always assumed that most scientists would have been against the use of the bomb at all. Important thought that they were talking about a MILITARY target, something Hiroshima and Nagasaki most certainly were not.

  5. Cameron,
    This is certainly an interesting post, and not completely surprising when you look at other Allied tactics during the war, including mercilessly bombing civilian targets and desolating the land, especially in Germany, where there were many instances like Dresden which were unnecessarily bombed in acts of sheer barbarity. As the often quoted line goes, “The victor writes the history books,” and in their assessment many of the victor’s attrocities are overlooked and neglected or at the very least downtoned. Another interesting topic you might want to discuss is how at least here in the US we tend to scorn the British and French policy of appeasement towards the Germans in he early phases of WWII, yet during the war Franklin Roosevelt relied heavily upon appeasement with the Stalinists, despite becoming aware of their attrocities in areas such as Warsaw and their increasing demands for more land. Just some food for thought!

  6. Cam, I too buy the propoganda.

    I had an uncle who fought in New Guinea- a fair minded and thoughtful man. He went to his grave maintaining that the Japanese were determined to fight all the way.

    He said that during his time in New Guinea (he was part of the AIF who returned from the middle east per Curtain’s orders- see Kakoda movie for detail on who they are), he never saw a live Japanese soldier. He said that even when pinned down, outnumbered or abandoned, they just fought on until they were killed.

    So he maintained that a culture that had created such soldiers would surely beahve in the same way and fight to the end. I am sure that you can dind evidence to suggest that the Americans dropped the bomb for all the wrong reasons- but I am slo sure there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Japanese were ready to fight an invasion down to every last man woman and child.

    The Japanese making overtures about peace is also no suprise. German negotiators tried the same and were summarily executed.

    It is perhaps a touch easy to look at 1945 from 2008 eyes and say WE were too harsh, but then it is easy to jump over the raft of Japanese atrocities without considering that a people prepared to commit such atrocities might also be preopared to fight by any means to defend their homeland.

    I understand completely the “experiment” and the “Send the Russions a Message” factor, but I think after 6 years of World War, an atomic bomb would have seemed like a panacea to end all panaceas.

    hey- it prevented a 3rd world war did it not?


  7. I personally wish that Truman had been given an anal probe of ” Fat Man”! How many innocent lifes justify that kind of inhumanity? They’re not enough tears to wash away that kind of shit!!!

  8. Thanks for this very useful discussion. So far as I can tell there was never any real discussion about using the bomb as a demonstration device rather than as a weapon. This was simply not an option, not even for Oppenheimer, who in the Interim Committee meetings never pursued the demonstration route. Also I should point out that in the very elementary re-polling that I did with that same 1945 Chicago Metallurgical poll that the 2008 results were very similar. And that’s with 2000+ responses. I’m not sure what that means, to be frank about it. But, overall, after much reading and digging around, the overall impression in my head was that there was simply no way in the world that the bomb would not be used militarily. (Also, something that *was* on the table during the Interim Committee meetings was that the bomb would kill fewer people than were just destroyed during the Tokyo fire bombing raids of a few weeks earlier.)

  9. The 1st bomb was to end the war, the second prevented a war with the Soviets.

    The Allies insisted on unconditional surrender, the Japanese could never accept that until the Emperor was convinced. That said even after Hirohito was convinced, a lot of hardliners resisted. There was a Coup attempt that failed, by the hard liners.

    The Japanese would have surrendered eventually without the A Bomb, but a lot more lives would have been lost on both sides.

    We did the correct thing. Those that say it was not warranted, should look at the Japanese war crimes before Pearl Harbor, and after it. The Rape of Nanking, the bayoneting of pregnant Filipinos. The death marches. I don’t see the anti-nuke people crying about Japanese human right crimes. Does to Wrongs Make a Right? Three Rights make a left.

    The use of the atomic bombs by the United States on Japan saved more lives then continued fighting. Perhaps 10 X the number of Japanese would have died if there was an invasion. It would have taken such to end the war. Also at least 10s of thousands of American lives were saved by ending the war quicker.

    Thousand more lives were saved in understanding that the US had Nukes and how terrible such weapons are.

    We CAN learn from the dead.

  10. Cameron, and Hollywood generally, continue to balk the looming,
    indeed gargantuan moral implications of having made BILLIONS upon
    BILLIONS looking the other way while shamelessly catering to the
    franchise-slum denial needs of history’s –MOST– awesomely genocidal
    regime —ACROSS the Pacific.

    70 million downed —decades AFTER WWII —in ‘peacetime’ —unoutted
    and utterly unanswered for…

    ESP. galling on this, the once again ‘msteriously overlooked’ 60th Anniversary
    of the epically relevant, STILL unfolding —-ongoing nightmare —that IS
    the KOREAN WAR…


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