Hiroshima at 75: bitter row persists over US decision to drop the bomb


Category:  History & Sociology

Via:  john-russell  •  2 years ago  •  17 comments

Hiroshima at 75: bitter row persists over US decision to drop the bomb
Historians and military differ on whether 1945 bombing ended the war and saved countless lives – or was an unconscionable act of brutality

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

Seventy-five years after it   dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima , the Enola Gay stands, restored and gleaming, as a museum exhibit close to Washington’s Dulles airport.

It was not always so well looked after. For decades after the war, the B-29 Superfortress bomber was left to rot. It was disassembled, its pieces were scattered, birds nested in its engines, and someone smashed its gun turret.

Behind the neglect lay a deep national ambivalence about what it represented, a quandary which endures today: was this the aircraft that finally ended the second world war, saving hundreds of thousands of lives – or the instrument of the mass killing of civilians, which heralded a new age of nuclear terror?

When the Enola Gay was part restored and plans were made to put in on display at the National Air and Space Museum in 1995, historians agonised over how the exhibit might look at its legacy from all sides. It did not go well.

In the face of   an outcry   from air force veterans, who said the exhibition would put Japanese and US responsibility on the same moral plane, the curators scaled back or eliminated the elements focused on the   140,000 people killed in Hiroshima , and the ensuing nuclear arms race. For the critics, even that was not enough. The museum’s director, Martin Harwit, was forced to resign.

When the plane was fully restored and moved to the museum’s spectacular new building near Dulles in 2003, there were   protests from Japanese survivors and others . Red paint was hurled, denting the airframe.

In the wake of those battles, the inscription below the Enola Gay today is minimal and bland.

“Although designed to fight in the European theater, the B-29 found its niche on the other side of the globe. In the Pacific, B-29s delivered a variety of aerial weapons: conventional bombs, incendiary bombs, mines, and two nuclear weapons,” it reads.

All reference to the moral, political and historical debate over the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 – and then Nagasaki three days later – has been left off the public display, but that has not stopped the row from surfacing in the days leading up to the 75th anniversary on Thursday.

The disagreements are not limited to historians. While the air force view – which reflects US orthodoxy – is that the use of atomic weapons stopped the war and prevented much worse bloodshed, the National Museum of the US Navy has a different take.

“The vast destruction wreaked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of 135,000 people made little impact on the Japanese military,” it says on a plaque beside a replica of Little Boy, the bomb Enola Gay dropped on Hiroshima.

“However, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on 9 August – fulfilling a promise of the Yalta conference in February – changed their minds.”

The plaque reflects the views of US navy leadership at the time.

file58VKMN37.jpg Peace activists arrange ribbons near the Hiroshima memorial museum. About 140,000 people were killed in the bombing. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

“[T]he 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,”   wrote Adm William Leahy , who presided over the combined US-UK chiefs of staff.

The general who had won the war in Europe months earlier, Dwight Eisenhower, recalled his reaction to being told by the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, that the atomic bomb would be used.

“I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon,” Eisenhower told his biographer, Stephen Ambrose.

One of the most contentious issues remains the role of the US secretary of state, James Byrnes, in influencing the decisions of the new president,   Harry Truman , who was inexperienced in foreign policy.

At the Potsdam conference in mid-July 1945, which brought together Truman, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill (replaced during the summit by Clement Attlee), an ultimatum was issued to Japan to surrender. Byrnes was instrumental in removing a paragraph offering to allow Emperor Hirohito to retain his title, the primary Japanese condition.

“The proclamation was issued without any assurances, knowing that it could not be accepted, and then the bombs went forward,” said the historian Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and the author of two books on the diplomacy surrounding the decision to use atomic weapons.

Michael Kort, a social sciences professor at Boston University, who wrote The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb, argues the inclusion of the offer in the Potsdam declaration would not have shortened the war on its own.

“The Japanese military had a whole bunch of other other conditions as well,” Kort said. “Also, what we meant was the Emperor stays on the throne as a constitutional monarch. What the Japanese meant was their demand that the Emperor remain with all his powers.”

When the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow was sounding out the Soviets on terms for a negotiated end to the war.

The destruction of Hiroshima did not change the Japanese negotiating position. That came with a double blow starting two days later. On the evening of 8 August, the Soviets announced they would be entering the war against Japan, as Stalin had promised Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta. Hours after that, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Historians are divided over whether the bombs or the Soviet declaration alone might have ended the war.

“Despite the Hiroshima bomb, the Japanese government still continued to seek the termination of the war through Moscow’s mediation,” said Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, former research professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and an expert on Soviet-Japanese diplomacy at the time.

“I would say that the Soviet entry into the war had a more decisive impact on the decision to surrender than the atomic bombs.”

That view is disputed by the Rev Wilson Miscamble, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.

“Even after the Soviet entry into the war, certain elements of the Japanese military wanted to continue fighting. But it was Hirohito’s motivation, brought on by his recognition of the damage of the bombs, that brought him to engage directly with his government, and to order the surrender,” Miscamble said.

“So, if the bomb was most decisive on Hirohito, and if Hirohito was the most decisive figure in ordering surrender, I think we can conclude that the bombs were the decisive element in bringing about Japan’s surrender.”

The US invasion of the Japanese home islands was not due until November, so some have argued Truman could have put off the decision to use atomic weapons for some time to see what effect the Russian intervention would have. Alperovitz argues that the timing of the bombs was aimed at stopping the war before the Red Army moved too deep into Manchuria.

“It is not an accident the bombs were dropped on 6 August and 9 August, just around the time we had expected the Russians to enter the war,” he said.

Miscamble argues that takes too narrow a view of the scope of the war and the number of lives at stake.

“The object was to end the war as quickly as possible, because lives were being lost all over Asia,” he said. “Would it really have been moral to stand aside so as to maintain one’s supposed moral purity, while a vast slaughter occurred at the rate of over 200,000 deaths a month? Is there not a tragic dilemma here – which innocent lives to save?”


jrDiscussion - desc
Professor Principal
1  seeder  JohnRussell    2 years ago

Today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. 

Professor Principal
2  seeder  JohnRussell    2 years ago

I know this debate has more or less never died down , even over 75 years, but I have long ago come to the conclusion it was the correct thing to do, particularly from the perspective of US leaders in 1945. They believed, as it turned out correctly, that this weapon would end WW2. They believed it would save American lives. But I think most importantly, they believed , also correctly, that other weapons that had been used, such as conventional bombing of city populations, were just as bad as whatever the atomic bomb would do. Many many many more civilians died in WW2 from conventional means than died from the atomic bombs. 

There was also the matter of wanting to punish Japan. The true extent of Japan's barbaric treatment of prisoners of war had just recently come to light as the Philippines where many of the POW camps were located were liberated earlier in 1945, and details about the Bataan Death March in 1942 were made public. I once heard the historian Stephen Ambrose say that he had been told by someone in the Truman administration that "revenge" for Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March was a factor in the decision to drop the bomb.  

Sean Treacy
Professor Expert
2.1  Sean Treacy  replied to  JohnRussell @2    2 years ago

It seems like a no brainer.   While horrifying and brutal, the alternative of an invasion of the home islands would have been much more costly in lives.  

Professor Quiet
2.2  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  JohnRussell @2    2 years ago

We do not agree much on political issues John, but in this I agree with you 100%. Dropping those bombs was the right thing to do at the time and I firmly believe the droppings did in fact save untold lives on both sides as opposed to a seaborne invasion of Japan that would have occurred otherwise. I have read several of Stephen Ambrose's books and am somewhat ambivalent about what he wrote. I don't believe revenge was a factor by our national leadership on a official level, but on a personal level nobody knows for sure. Good post.

Vic Eldred
Professor Principal
3  Vic Eldred    2 years ago

We should never forget, but a bitter row?

Not for the generation which had to fight that war.

Over fifty million had died worldwide, ten times as many as killed in the First World War. 

Professor Quiet
3.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Vic Eldred @3    2 years ago

The Japanese military murdered somewhere between 6 and 10 million people in Asia during WW II. A number of those includes the wanton and savage murders of Allied POW's as well.

Vic Eldred
Professor Principal
3.1.1  Vic Eldred  replied to  Ed-NavDoc @3.1    2 years ago

President Truman never discussed what factored into his decision.

This much is known - According to Truman:

“General Marshall told me that it might cost half a million American lives to force the enemy's surrender on his home grounds”

Beyond that one would also have to consider the prospect of the Soviet Union coming in (as promised) after all the fighting was over to reclaim territory they lost to Japan in previous wars fought between Russia and Japan.

charger 383
Professor Quiet
4  charger 383    2 years ago

If they had not bombed Pearl Harbor we would not have bombed Hiroshima.

The Magic 8 Ball
Masters Participates
5  The Magic 8 Ball    2 years ago
Bitter Row Persists Over US Decision To Drop The Bomb

so what.    they are lucky we stopped at two.

Professor Quiet
5.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  The Magic 8 Ball @5    2 years ago

That was all we had ready at the time, though rumors say there was actually a third one as a backup.

Greg Jones
Professor Guide
6  Greg Jones    2 years ago

I believe that dropping the bombs made it clear that the idea of any more large scale wars was unthinkable.

At this point in history, the threat of retaliation has kept them from being used again....so far

Vic Eldred
Professor Principal
6.1  Vic Eldred  replied to  Greg Jones @6    2 years ago
At this point in history, the threat of retaliation has kept them from being used again.

And has kept a lot of authoritarian regimes in power. We've had to live with them!

Masters Expert
7  XDm9mm    2 years ago

As the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa both proved, a land invasion of the homeland Japan would have been astronomically costly in terms of lives lost for both sides to endure.  We didn't realize how deeply entrenched (tunneled underground) the Japanese were on either island and believed our naval and air bombardment would have been sufficient to ensure our invading land forces would face little resistance.  How wrong we were.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the final events that ended the war in the Pacific.  The military realized how horrendous the loss would be to an invading force, even considering the continual aerial bombing Japan had already endured with no indication of lessening military resistance or possibility of surrender. 

I firmly believe, even though the loss of life was immense, the loss of life in an actual land invasion would have dwarfed the loss endured by the two atomic bombs.   It's just unfortunate that the Emperor essentially forced the United States to use the second bomb on Nagasaki even after being warned it would happen and the destruction Japan had already suffered by conventional weapons plus the Hiroshima atomic bomb. 

Professor Quiet
7.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  XDm9mm @7    2 years ago

Very true. If Emperor Hirohito and the Imperial Japanese Privy Council had accepted the Potsdam Declaration from the beginning, Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been avoided. Another issue the Japanese should have paid attention to was the Soviet declaration of war and the invasion of Manchuria. That's when Japan lost their possible diplomatic outlet to the West.

Mark in Wyoming
Professor Silent
8  Mark in Wyoming     2 years ago

I have a unique perspective on this particular point in history , My mothers father was inducted into the military in mid 44, was shipped to the ETO and made it as far as Belgium by the beginning of 45 , he was immediately turned around and was in transit to the PTO  and had departed the west coast when the bombs were dropped  and never fired a shot there . According to him he would have been in the land invasion of japan. His words ? he didn't think he was coming back.

 Fast forward to the 1980s , and I joined the USAF, went through basic and tech training , and my first duty assignment as a security policeman was with  the 509th wing . to date the only military unit to actually ever use nuclear weapons  in war.

For Truman  , a veteran of WW1 , he as CIC was the final arbitor of using or not using the weapons he was presented , the buck actually did stop with him. How he came to his decision , actually only he himself knows . from what I have read , Truman was in agreement with his military advosors and other allies , that the war being fought then , could not end the same way that the earlier war had and that there would have to be an occupational force  maintained  in the opponents territory to avoid the same thing that happened after WW1 from happening again after the end of WW2. I also tend to think that his choice to use these weapons not only saved , millions of allied lived , but also  saved from extinction , the entire Japanese people.

One has to remember that in the Japanese culture , the emperor was not a person, he was a living god  and until he announced japans surrender , the vast majority of the Japanese people , had never even heard his voice  they had always heard a representative , but not him . To them , if there was no emperor , there was no japan or Japanese people  so of course , the absolute and unconditional surrender that would remove the emperor was not only unacceptable but totally untenable in their minds . and they would have however disaterous for themselves would have fought to the death to keep the emperor., even to the point of wiping out their entire population.

This is already too long so I will end with this,  yes the Japanese were defeated militarily , but they were not beaten , that realization did not occur until the emperor himself told them that they were not only defeated , but had been beaten and had to surrender for their own preservation.

Professor Principal
9  Kavika     2 years ago

I asked this question of my dad who fought as a Marine in the Pacific. Tarawa, Saipan, Okinawa and would have been part of the invasion of Japan proper. 

He rarely ever spoke of his time in the Pacific Theater, (He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters.)

All he said was that the Japanese were the toughest bastards ever and that he thought his luck would have run out in the invasion of the mainland. 

I took that to mean that he approved of dropping the bomb. He never said another word about it. 

Semper Fi.

Mark in Wyoming
Professor Silent
9.1  Mark in Wyoming   replied to  Kavika @9    2 years ago

Ive always found it interesting that the men that were actually there and was witness to what happened , never actually went into great detail of what they experienced  even with later generations that would later go through some of the same things in different places at an entirely different time.

 to me they were men that wouldn't talk about it much if at all , but knew exactly what another had experienced .


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