Myth-making and the Atomic Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Nakasaki 9th August 1945

Nakasaki 9th August 1945

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

6th and 9th August 1945 – Dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Myth-making and the Atomic Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by Jacques R. Pauwels

[The following essay was published on the CounterPunch website on August 6th 2021. Although the analysis of Soviet intentions during and following the Great Patriotic War is open to question the essay points out clearly US Imperialism’s justifications for the dropping of the two atom bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th August 1945 respectively, and their aspirations for hegemony in the Pacific area.]

Myth: The war in the Far East only ended in the summer of 1945, when the US president and his advisors felt that, to force the fanatical Japanese to surrender unconditionally, they had no other option than to destroy not one but two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with atom bombs. This decision saved the lives of countless Americans and Japanese who would have perished if the war had continued and required an invasion of Japan.

Reality: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed to prevent the Soviets from making a contribution to the victory against Japan, which would have forced Washington to allow Moscow to participate in the postwar occupation and reconstruction of the country. It was also the intention to intimidate the Soviet leadership and thus to wrest concessions from it with respect to the postwar arrangements in Germany and Eastern Europe. Finally, it was not the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Soviet entry into the war against Japan, which caused Tokyo to surrender.

With the German capitulation in early May 1945, the war in Europe was over. The victors, the Big Three,[1] now faced the complex and delicate problem of the postwar reorganization of Europe. The United States had entered the war rather late, namely in December 1941. And the Americans only started to make a major contribution to the victory against Germany with the landings in Normandy in June 1944, that is, less than one year before the end of the hostilities in Europe. When the war against Germany came to an end, however, Uncle Sam occupied a seat at the table of the victors, ready and eager to look after his interests, to achieve what one might call the American war aims. (It is a myth that the presumably deeply isolationist Americans just wanted to withdraw from Europe: the country’s political, military, and economic leaders had urgent reasons for maintaining a presence on the old continent.) The other big victorious powers, Britain and the Soviet Union, also looked to pursue their interests. It was clear that it would be impossible for one of the three to ‘have it all’, that compromises would have to be reached. From the American point of view, the British expectations did not present much of a problem, but Soviet aspirations were a concern. What, then, were the war aims of the Soviet Union?

As the country that had made the biggest contribution by far to the common victory over Nazi Germany and suffered enormous casualties in the process, the Soviet Union had two major objectives. First, hefty reparation payments from Germany as compensation for the huge destruction wrought by Nazi aggression, a demand similar to the French and Belgian demands for reparations payments from the Reich after World War I. Second, security against potential future threats emanating from Germany. These security concerns also involved Eastern Europe, especially Poland, a potential springboard for German aggression against the USSR. Moscow wanted to ensure that in Germany, Poland, and other Eastern European countries, no regimes hostile to the Soviet Union would ever come to power again. The Soviets also expected the Western allies to certify their recuperation of territories lost by revolutionary Russia during the Revolution and the Civil War, such as ‘Eastern Poland’, and to recognize the metamorphosis of the three Baltic states from independent countries to autonomous republics within the Soviet Union. Finally, now that the nightmare of the war was over, the Soviets expected that they would be able to go back to work on the construction of a socialist society. It is well known that the Soviet supremo, Stalin, was a firm believer in the idea that it was possible and even necessary to create ‘socialism in one country’, hence the hostility between him and Trotsky, an apostle of worldwide revolution. Less well known is the fact that, as the war came to an end, Stalin did not plan to install communist regimes in Germany or in any of the Eastern European countries liberated by the Red Army, and that he also discouraged communist parties in France, Italy, and elsewhere in Western Europe, liberated by the Americans and their allies, from trying to come to power. He had already formally stopped promoting worldwide revolution in 1943, when he dissolved the Comintern, the communist international organization created for that purpose by Lenin in 1919. This policy was resented by many communists outside of the Soviet Union, but it pleased Moscow’s Western allies, especially the US and Britain. Stalin was eager to maintain good relations with them, because he needed their goodwill and cooperation to achieve the objectives, described above, aimed at providing the Soviet Union with reparations, security, and the opportunity to resume work on the construction of a socialist society. His American and British partners had never indicated to Stalin that they found these expectations unreasonable. To the contrary, the legitimacy of these Soviet war aims had been recognized repeatedly, either explicitly or implicitly, in Tehran, Yalta, and elsewhere.

The Americans and their British, Canadian, and other partners had liberated most of Western Europe by the end of 1944. And they had made sure that in Italy, France, and elsewhere, regimes were established that were congenial to them, if not always to the population at large. This usually meant that the local communists were sidelined entirely; if that proved impossible, for example in France, they were denied a share of power commensurate with the important role they had played in the resistance or the considerable popular support they enjoyed. And even though the inter-allied agreements had stipulated that the ‘big three’ would collaborate closely in the administration and reconstruction of liberated countries, the Americans and British prevented their Soviet ally from providing any input into the affairs of Italy, for example, the first country to be liberated, already in 1943. In that country, the Americans and British sidelined the communists, who were very popular because of their role in the resistance, in favour of former fascists such as Badoglio, without allowing the Soviets any input. This modus operandi was to set a fateful precedent. Stalin had no choice but to accept that arrangement, but, as US historian Gabriel Kolko has observed, ‘the Russians accepted the [Italian] ‘formula’ without much enthusiasm, but carefully noted the arrangement for future reference and as a precedent’.[2] (The Soviets were unquestionably entitled to a voice in the affairs of Italy, since Italian troops had participated in Operation Barbarossa.)

In Western Europe, in 1943-1944, the American and British liberators had acted ad libitum, ignoring not only the wishes of a large part of the local population but also the interests of their Soviet ally, and Stalin had accepted that arrangement. In 1945, on the other hand, the shoe was on the other foot: the Soviets clearly enjoyed the advantage in an Eastern Europe liberated by the Red Army. Even so, the Western Allies could hope that they might be able to provide a measure of input into the reorganization of this part of Europe as well. Everything was still possible over there. The Soviets had obviously favoured the local communists but had not yet created any faits accomplis. And the Western Allies were well aware that Stalin craved their goodwill and cooperation and would therefore be willing to make concessions. The political and military leaders in Washington and London also expected that Stalin would be indulgent because, if not, he had reason to fear the consequences. The Soviet leader was keenly aware that it was already an enormous achievement for his country to have emerged victoriously from a life-and-death struggle with the Nazi behemoth. But he also knew that many US and British leaders, exemplified by Patton and Churchill, hated the Soviet Union and were even considering waging war against it as soon as the common German enemy was defeated, preferably in a march on Moscow side-by-side with the remainder of the Nazi host; that plan called Operation Unthinkable, had been hatched by Churchill. Stalin had reason to try to avoid such a scenario.

The aspirations of the Soviets with respect to reparations and security, described above, were not unreasonable, and the US and British leaders had recognized their legitimacy, explicitly or implicitly, during a meeting of the Big Three in Yalta in February 1945. But Washington and London were far from enchanted by the prospect of seeing the Soviet Union receiving its due after having made such outstanding efforts and sacrifices on behalf of the common anti-Nazi cause. The Americans, in particular, had their own ideas with respect to postwar Germany and Eastern as well as Western Europe, to be examined in the next chapter. Reparations, for example, would enable the Soviets to resume work, possibly successfully, on the project of a communist society, a counter system to the international capitalist system of which the USA had become the great champion.

Essentially, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Uncle Sam wanted governments, democratic or not, that would pursue a liberal economic policy, involving an ‘open door’ for American products and investment capital. Roosevelt had displayed a measure of empathy vis-à-vis the Soviets, but after his death on April 12, 1945, his successor, Harry Truman, had little or no sympathy or understanding for the Soviet point of view. He and his advisors loathed the idea that the Soviet Union might receive major reparations from Germany, since this was likely to disqualify Germany as a potentially lucrative market for American products and investment capital. And they also found it abominable that the Soviets were certain to use that German capital to build a socialist system, an undesirable form of competition for capitalism.

The Soviet aspirations were reasonable, and the Soviet leaders, including Stalin, who is usually wrongly depicted as making all the decisions by himself, were certainly willing to make major concessions. It was possible to talk with them, but such a dialogue also required patience and understanding of the Soviet viewpoint and had to be carried out in the knowledge that the Soviet Union was not prepared to leave the conference table empty-handed. Truman, however, had no desire to engage in such a dialogue. (That Stalin was interested in dialogue and could be most reasonable was to be reflected in his approach to the postwar arrangements regarding Finland and Austria; the Red Army would in due course pull out of these countries without leaving behind any communist regimes.)

Truman and his advisors hoped that it would prove possible to force the Soviets to abstain from German reparations and withdraw not only from the eastern reaches of German territory but also from Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, so that the Americans and their British partners could operate there as they had already done in Western Europe. Truman even hoped that it might be possible to cause the Soviets to put an end to their communist experiment, which remained a source of inspiration for ‘reds’ and other radicals and revolutionaries everywhere on earth, even in the United States itself.

In the early spring of 1945, Churchill had flogged the idea of having US and British troops march to Moscow together with the remaining Nazi forces. But that plan, called Operation Unthinkable, had to be abandoned mainly because of the same stiff kind of opposition displayed by soldiers and civilians that had led to the aborting of the armed intervention in the Russian Civil War. Like Patton, who had looked forward to playing a major role in ‘Barbarossa Bis’, Truman must have been disappointed. But on April 25, 1945, only days before the German capitulation, the president received electrifying news. He was briefed about the top-secret Manhattan Project, or S-1, the code name for the construction of the atom bomb. That new and powerful weapon, on which the Americans had been working for years, was almost ready and, if tested successfully, would soon be available for use. Truman and his advisors thus fell under the spell of what the renowned American historian William Appleman Williams has called a ‘vision of omnipotence’. They convinced themselves that the new weapon would enable them to force their will on the Soviet Union. The atomic bomb was ‘a hammer’, as Truman himself put it, that he would wave over the heads of ‘those boys in the Kremlin’.[3]

Thanks to the bomb, it would now be possible to force Moscow to withdraw the Red Army from Germany and to deny Stalin a say in its postwar affairs. It now also seemed a feasible proposition to install pro-Western and even anticommunist regimes in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and to prevent Stalin from exerting any influence there. It even became thinkable that the Soviet Union itself might be opened up to American investment capital as well as American political and economic influence, and that this communist heretic might thus be returned to the bosom of the universal capitalist church. ‘There is evidence’, writes the German historian Jost Dülffer, that Truman believed that the monopoly of the nuclear bomb would be ‘a passepartout for the implementation of the United States’ ideas for a new world order’.[4] Indeed, with the nuclear pistol on his hip, the American president did not feel that he had to treat ‘the boys in the Kremlin’, who did not have such a super-weapon, as his equals. ‘The American leaders waxed self-righteous and excoriated Russia’, writes Gabriel Kolko, ‘[and] they refused to negotiate in any serious way simply because as self-confident master of economic and military powers the United States felt it could ultimately define the world order’.[5]

Possession of a mighty new weapon also opened up all sorts of possibilities with respect to the ongoing war in the Far East and the postwar arrangements to be made for that part of the world, of great importance to the leaders of the US, as we have seen when dealing with Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, playing that powerful trump card would only be possible after the bomb had been successfully tested and was available to be used. Truman needed to bide his time. He therefore did not heed Churchill’s advice to discuss the fate of Germany and Eastern Europe with Stalin as soon as possible, ‘before the armies of democracy melted’, that is, before the American troops were to pull out of Europe. Eventually, Truman did agree to a summit meeting of the Big Three in Berlin, but not before the summer, when the bomb was supposed to be ready.

The meeting of the Big Three took place, not in bombed-out Berlin but in nearby Potsdam, from July 17 to August 2, 1945. It was there that Truman received the long-awaited message that the atomic bomb had been tested successfully on July 16 in New Mexico. The American president now felt strong enough to make his move. He no longer bothered to present proposals to Stalin but made all sorts of non-negotiable demands; at the same time, he rejected out of hand all proposals emanating from the Soviet side, for example proposals concerning German reparation payments. But Stalin did not capitulate, not even when Truman attempted to intimidate him by whispering into his ear that America had acquired an incredibly powerful new weapon. The Soviet leader, who had certainly been informed already about the Manhattan Project by his spies, listened in stony silence. Truman concluded that only an actual demonstration of the atomic bomb could persuade the Soviets to give way. Consequently, no general agreement on important issues could be achieved at Potsdam. [6]

In the meantime, the Japanese battled on in the Far East, even though their situation was totally hopeless. They were in fact prepared to surrender, but not unconditionally as the Americans demanded. To the Japanese mind, an unconditional capitulation conjured up the supreme humiliation, namely, that Emperor Hirohito might be forced to step down and possibly be accused of war crimes. American leaders were aware of this, and some of them, for example Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, believed, as historian Gar Alperovitz writes, ‘that a statement reassuring the Japanese that unconditional surrender did not mean dethronement of the Emperor would probably bring an end to the war’.[7]

The demand for an unconditional surrender was actually far from sacrosanct: in General Eisenhower’s HQ in Reims on May 7, a German condition had been accepted, namely their request for the cease-fire to be implemented only after a delay of no less than 45 hours, long enough to permit a large number of their troops to slip away from the eastern front in order to end up in not in Soviet but in American or British captivity; even at this late stage, many of these units would be kept ready – in uniform, armed, and under the command of their own officers – for possible use against the Red Army, as Churchill was to admit after the war.[8] It was therefore quite possible to bring about a Japanese capitulation in spite of the demand for immunity for Hirohito. Furthermore, Tokyo’s condition was far from essential: after an unconditional surrender was finally wrested from the Japanese, the Americans never bothered to lay charges against Hirohito, and it was thanks to Washington that he was able to remain emperor for many more decades.

Why did the Japanese think that they could still afford the luxury of attaching a condition to their offer of surrender? The reason was that in China the main force of their army remained intact. They thought that they could use this army to defend Japan itself and thus exact a high price from the Americans for their admittedly inevitable final victory. This scheme would only work, however, if the Soviet Union did not get involved in the war in the Far East, thus pinning the Japanese forces down on the Chinese mainland. Soviet neutrality, in other words, allowed Tokyo a small measure of hope, not hope for a victory of course, but hope that Washington might accept the condition about their emperor. To a certain extent, the war with Japan dragged on because the USSR was not yet involved in it. But Stalin had already promised in 1943 to declare war on Japan within three months after the capitulation of Germany, and he had reiterated this commitment as recently as July 17, 1945, in Potsdam. Consequently, Washington counted on a Soviet attack on Japan in early August. The Americans thus knew only too well that the situation of the Japanese was hopeless. ‘Fini Japs when that comes about’, Truman wrote in his diary, referring to the expected Soviet intervention in the war in the Far East.[9]

In addition, the American navy assured Washington that it was able to prevent the Japanese from transferring their army from China to defend the homeland against an American invasion. Finally, it was questionable whether an American invasion of Japan would be necessary at all, since the mighty US Navy could also simply blockade that island nation and thus confront it with a choice between capitulating or starving to death.

In order to finish the war against Japan without having to make more sacrifices, Truman thus had a range of attractive options. He could accept the trivial Japanese condition, immunity for their emperor; he could also wait until the Red Army attacked the Japanese in China, thus forcing Tokyo into accepting an unconditional surrender after all; and he could have instituted a naval blockade that would have forced Tokyo to sue for peace sooner or later. But Truman and his advisors chose none of these options. Instead, they decided to knock Japan out with the atomic bomb.

This fateful decision, which was to cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, offered the Americans considerable advantages. First, the bomb might still force Tokyo to surrender before the Soviets got involved in the war in Asia. In this case it would not be necessary to allow Moscow a say in the coming decisions about postwar Japan, about the territories that had been occupied by Japan (such as Korea and Manchuria), and about the Far East and the Pacific region in general. The United States would then enjoy total hegemony over that part of the world, something that was Washington’s true, albeit unspoken, war aim in the conflict with Japan, as we have seen in the previous chapter. It is for this reason that the option of a blockade was also rejected: in this case, the Japanese would have capitulated only many months after the entry into the war of the Soviet Union.

A Soviet intervention in the war in the Far East threatened to achieve for the Soviets the same advantage that the Americans’ own relatively late intervention in the war in Europe had produced for themselves, namely, a place at the round table of the victors who would force their will on the defeated enemy, decide on borders, determine postwar socio-economic and political structures, and thereby achieve enormous benefits and prestige. Washington absolutely did not want the Soviet Union to enjoy this kind of input. The Americans had eliminated their great imperialist competitor in that part of the world and did not relish the idea of being saddled with a new potential rival, a rival, moreover, whose detested communist ideology was already becoming dangerously influential in many Asiatic countries, including China. By making use of the atom bomb, US leaders hoped to finish off the Japanese quickly and start to rearrange the Far East without a potentially pesky Soviet partner.

The atom bomb seemed to offer the American leaders an additional important advantage. Truman’s experience in Potsdam had persuaded him that only an actual demonstration of this new weapon would make Stalin pliable. Using the atom bomb to obliterate a Japanese city seemed to be the perfect stratagem to intimidate the Soviets and coerce them to make major concessions with respect to postwar arrangements in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Truman’s secretary of state, James F. Byrnes, reportedly declared later that the atom bomb had been used because such a demonstration of power was likely to make the Soviets more accommodating in Europe.

To make the desired terrifying impression on the Soviets – and the rest of the world – the bomb obviously had to be dropped on a big city. It is probably for this reason that Truman turned down a proposal, made by some of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, to demonstrate the power of the bomb by dropping it on some uninhabited Pacific island: there would not have been sufficient death and destruction. It would also have been extremely embarrassing if the weapon had failed to work its deadly magic; but if the unannounced atomic bombing of a Japanese city backfired, no one would have known and no one would have been embarrassed. A big Japanese city had to be selected, but the capital, Tokyo, did not qualify, since it was already flattened by previous conventional bombing raids, so that additional damage was unlikely to loom sufficiently impressive. In fact, very few cities qualified as the required ‘virgin’ target. Why? In early August 1945, only ten cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants remained relatively unscathed by bombing raids, and quite a few of those were beyond the range of the bombers which, on account of inexistent Japanese air defences, the latter had already started to obliterate towns with a population of less than 30,000. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unlucky enough to qualify.[10]

The atom bomb was ready just in time to be put to use before the USSR had a chance to become involved in the Far East. Hiroshima was obliterated on August 6, 1945, but the Japanese leaders did not react immediately with an unconditional capitulation. The reason was that the damage was great, but not greater than that caused by earlier bombing raids on Tokyo, where an attack by thousands of bombers on March 9 and 10, 1945, had caused more destruction and killed more people than at the ‘virgin’ target of Hiroshima. This ruined Truman’s delicate scenario, at least partly. Tokyo had not yet surrendered when on August 8, 1945 – exactly three months after the German capitulation in Berlin – the USSR declared war on Japan, and the next day the Red Army attacked the Japanese troops stationed in northern China. Truman and his advisors now wanted to end the war as quickly as possible in order to limit the ‘damage’ (from their perspective) done by the Soviet intervention.

Already on August 9, 1945, just one day after the Soviet Union’s entry into the war in the Far East, a second bomb was dropped, this time on the city of Nagasaki. About this bombardment, in which many Japanese Catholics perished, a former American army chaplain later stated: ‘That’s one of the reasons I think they dropped the second bomb. To hurry it up. To make them surrender before Russians came’.[11] (The chaplain may or may not have been aware that among the 75,000 human beings who were ‘instantaneously incinerated, carbonized and evaporated’ in Nagasaki were many Japanese Catholics as well an unknown number of inmates of a camp for allied POWs, whose presence had been reported to the air command, to no avail.)[12]

Japan capitulated not because of the atom bombs but because of the Soviet entry into the conflict. After the obliteration of most of the country’s big cities, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no matter how horrible, made little or no difference from a strategic viewpoint. The Soviet declaration of war, on the other hand, was a fatal blow, because it eliminated Tokyo’s very last hope for attaching some minor conditions to the inevitable capitulation. Moreover, even after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese leaders knew that it would take many months before American troops might land in Japan, but the Red Army was making such rapid progress that it was estimated to cross into Japan’s own territory within ten days. Because of the Russian involvement, in other words, Tokyo ran out of time and of options other than unconditional surrender. Japan capitulated because of the Soviet declaration of war, not because of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even without the atomic bombs, the Soviet entry into the war would have triggered a surrender.[13] But the Japanese leaders took their time. Their formal capitulation occurred on August 14, 1945.

To the great chagrin of Truman and his advisors, the Red Army was able to make considerable progress during those final days of the war. The Soviets even began to drive the Japanese out of their Korean colony, and did so in collaboration with a Korean liberation movement led by Kim Il-sung, which proved to be immensely popular and therefore poised to come to power after the liberation of the entire country from Japan’s nasty colonial yoke. But the prospect of an independent, socialist Korea did not fit into American plans for the postwar Far East. Washington therefore quickly send troops to occupy the south of the peninsula, and the Soviets agreed to a division of the country that was supposed to be only temporary but has lasted until the present.[14]

It looked as if the Americans would be stuck with a Soviet partner in the Far East after all, but Truman made sure that this was not the case. He acted as if the earlier cooperation of the three great powers in Europe had not set a precedent by rejecting Stalin’s request for a Soviet occupation zone in the defeated Land of the Rising Sun on August 15, 1945. And when on September 2, 1945, General MacArthur officially accepted the Japanese surrender on the American battleship Missouri in the Bay of Tokyo, representatives of the Soviet Union, and of other allies in the Far East, including Great Britain and the Netherlands, were allowed to be present only as insignificant extras. Japan was not carved up into occupation zones, like Germany. America’s defeated rival was to be occupied in its entirety by the Americans only, and as American viceroy in Tokyo, General MacArthur would ensure that, regardless of contributions made to the common victory, no other power would have a say in the affairs of postwar Japan.

The American conquerors recreated the Land of the Rising Sun according to their ideas and to their advantage. In September 1951, a satisfied America would sign a peace treaty with Japan. The USSR, however, whose interests had never been taken into account, did not co-sign this treaty. The Soviets did pull out of the parts of China and Korea they had liberated, but they refused to evacuate Japanese territories such as Sakhalin and the Kurils, which had been occupied by the Red Army during the last days of the war. They would be mercilessly criticized for this in the United States afterwards, as if the attitude of the American government itself had nothing to do with this issue.

American leaders believed that after the Japanese rape of China and its humiliation of traditional colonial powers such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, and after their own victory over Japan, only the elimination of the USSR from the Far East – seemingly a mere formality – was required in order to realize their dream of absolute hegemony in that part of the world. Their disappointment and chagrin were all the greater when, after the war, China was ‘lost’ to Mao’s Communists. To make things worse, the northern half of Korea, a former Japanese colony the US had hoped to reduce to vassalage together with Japan itself, opted for an idiosyncratic path to socialism, and in Vietnam a popular independence movement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh likewise turned out to have plans that proved to be incompatible with the grand Asian ambitions of the United States. No wonder, then, that it would come to war in Korea and Vietnam, and almost to an armed conflict with ‘Red China’.

To force Japan to its knees, it was not necessary to use the atom bomb. As a thorough American study of the war in the air, the US Strategic Bombing Survey, was to acknowledge categorically, ‘Japan would certainly have surrendered prior to 31 December 1945, even if the atom bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated’.[15] Several American military leaders have publicly acknowledged this, including Henry ‘Hap ’ Arnold, Chester Nimitz, William ‘Bull ’ Halsey, Curtis LeMay, and a future president, Dwight Eisenhower. Truman, however, wanted to use the bomb for a number of reasons, and not just to get the Japanese to surrender. He expected that dropping the atom bomb would keep the Soviets out of the Far East and terrorize that country’s leaders, so that Washington could impose its will on the Kremlin with respect to European affairs. And so, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pulverized. Many American historians realize this only too well. Sean Dennis Cashman writes:

‘With the passing of time, many historians have concluded that the bomb was used as much for political reasons . . . Vannevar Bush [the head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development] stated that the bomb ‘was also delivered on time, so that there was no necessity for any concessions to Russia at the end of the war’. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes [Truman’s secretary of state] never denied a statement attributed to him that the bomb had been used to demonstrate American power to the Soviet Union in order to make [the Soviets] more manageable in Europe.'[16]

Truman himself, however, hypocritically declared at the time that the purpose of the two nuclear bombardments had been ‘to bring the boys home’, that is, to quickly finish the war without any further major loss of life on the American side. This explanation was uncritically broadcast in the American media and thus was born a myth eagerly propagated by them and by mainstream historians in the US and in the Western World in general, and of course by Hollywood.

The myth that two Japanese cities were nuked to force Tokyo to surrender, thus shortening the war and saving lives, was ‘made in USA’, but it was to be eagerly espoused in Japan, whose post-war leaders, vassals of the US, found it extremely useful for a number of reasons, as Ward Wilson has pointed out in his excellent article on the Bomb. First, the emperor and his ministers, who were in many ways responsible for a war that had caused so much misery for the Japanese people, found it extremely convenient to blame their defeat, as Wilson puts it, on ‘an amazing scientific breakthrough that no one could have predicted’. The blinding light of the atomic blasts made it impossible, so to speak, to see their ‘mistakes and misjudgments’. The Japanese people had been lied to about how bad the situation really was, and how the misery had dragged on so long just to save the emperor, but the Bomb provided the perfect excuse for having lost the war. No need to apportion blame; no court of enquiry need be held. Japan’s leaders were able to claim they had done their best. So, at the most general level the Bomb served to deflect blame from Japan’s leaders.

Second, the Bomb earned Japan international sympathy. Like Germany, Japan had waged a war of aggression and committed all sorts of war crimes. Both countries looked for ways to improve their image, seeking to exchange the mantle of perpetrator for that of victim. In that context, post-war (West) Germany invented the myth of the Red Army, depicted as a latter-day horde of racially inferior Mongols, storming towards Berlin, raping blond Frauleins and pillaging peaceful gingerbread towns en route to Berlin. Hiroshima and Nagasaki similarly permitted Japan to pose as ‘a victimized nation, one that had been unfairly bombed with a cruel and horrifying instrument of war’.

Third, echoing the American notion that the Bomb had ended the war was certain to please Japan’s post-war American overlords. The latter would protect Japan’s upper class against the demands for radical societal change emanating from radical elements, including communists, whose gospel ‘resonated among Japan’s poor, threatening plutocratic rule’.[17] But for quite some time, the elite worried that the Americans might abolish the institution of the emperor and put many top government officials, bankers, and industrialists on trial for war crimes. It was therefore deemed useful to please the Americans and, as a Japanese historian has put, ‘if they wanted to believe that the Bomb won the war, why disappoint them?’ Japanese acceptance of their Hiroshima myth gratified the Americans because it served to spread the word in Japan, elsewhere in Asia, and around the world, that the US was militarily all-powerful yet peace-loving, and willing to use its monopoly of the atom bomb only when absolutely necessary. Ward Wilson continues and concludes as follows:

‘If, on the other hand, the Soviet entry into the war was what caused Japan to surrender, then the Soviets could claim that they were able to do in four days what the United States was unable to do in four years, and the perception of Soviet military power and Soviet diplomatic influence would be enhanced. And once the Cold War was underway, asserting that the Soviet entry had been the decisive factor would have been tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the enemy.'[18]

Over the years, the myth that the ‘nuking’ of two Japanese cities was justified, has lost much of its appeal on both sides of the Pacific. In 1945, an overwhelming 85% of Americans saw it that way, but that share declined to 63% in 1991 and 29% 2015; of the Japanese population, only 29% approved in 2015, and in 2015 merely 14%.[19] The myth obviously needed a boost, and it was duly provided by one of Truman’s successors, President Barack Obama.

Obama visited Hiroshima in May 2016. In a public address he coolly described the pulverization of the city by means of the atom bomb in 1945 as ‘death falling from the sky’, as if it had been a hailstorm or some other natural phenomenon his country had nothing to do with, and he neglected to utter a single word of regret, let alone an apology, on behalf of Uncle Sam. In an enthusiastic report about this presidential performance, the New York Times, one of America’s leading newspapers, wrote that ‘many historians believe the bombings on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, which together took the lives of more than 200,000 people, saved lives on balance, since an invasion of the islands would have led to far greater bloodshed’.[20] That numerous facts contradict this ‘belief’, and that numerous historians believe the exact opposite was not mentioned at all. This is how myths, even ailing myths, are kept alive.


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Terkel, Studs. ‘The Good War’: An Oral History of World War Two, New York, 1984.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, revised edition, New York, 1962.

Wilson, Ward. ‘The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan … Stalin Did’. Have 70 years of nuclear policy been based on a lie?’, F[oreign]P[olicy], May 30, 2013.


[1] France was to join this trio later, thus making it the Big Four.

[2] Kolko (1968), pp. 50-51.

[3] Williams, p. 250.

[4] Dülffer, p. 155.

[5] Kolko (1976), p. 355.

[6] Alperovitz, p. 223.

[7] Alperovitz, p.156.

[8] Pauwels, pp. 178-79.

[9] Quoted in Alperovitz, p. 24.

[10] Wilson.

[11] Quoted in Terkel, p. 535.

[12] Kohls.

[13] Hasegawa, pp. 185-86, 295-97; Wilson.

[14] For a myth-free history of the tragedy if the division of Korea, see the books by Cummings and by Gowans.

[15] Quotation in Horowitz, p. 53.

[16] Cashman, p. 369.

[17] American historian Sarah C. Paine as quoted in Gowans, p. 106.

[18] Wilson

[19] Stokes.

[20] Harris.

This essay is adapted from Jacques Pauwels forthcoming book on The Great Myths of Modern History.

Jacques R. Pauwels is the author of The Great Class War: 1914-1918.

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

5th May – Anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The Great ‘Marxist-Leninist’ Theoreticians

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

5th May – Anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx

Karl Marx was born on 5th May 1818 in the German town of Trier. In his twenties he started to develop the political theory which is now known as Marxism, very soon developing his ideas with his life time companion, friend and collaborator Frederick Engels.

Within a hundred years of his birth the Russian Bolsheviks, under the leadership of VI Lenin and JV Stalin, succeeded in establishing the first socialist state, in what became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) following the October Revolution of 7th November 1917.

Revolutionary Marxist ideas were also fundamental in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and it’s Chairman, Mao Tse-tung, and the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, under the leadership of the Party of Labour of Albania and it’s General Secretary, Enver Hoxha.

‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’ (Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, No. XI, in Frederick Engels,  Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy, p61)

These two, simple sentences are the very essence of Marxism. And since the early 1840s, when Marx started to develop his ideas, there has been a continual struggle to keep that issue at the forefront of workers’ movements throughout the world.

In the 19th century workers who attempted to change the world were far in advance of some of the so-called ‘leaders’, intellectuals and demagogues who spoke well but were found to be wanting when it came to action. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the prime example of this where workers knew instinctively what had to be done.

VI Lenin, the great Marxist theoretician, who was the first leader to be able to lead a successful proletarian revolution, learnt – and implemented – the lessons, both positive and negative, from the Commune and ensured that the Russian workers, peasants and soldiers had a better chance of success against an even more powerful reactionary force. However, Lenin’s ideas were based on the solid bedrock of Marxism, which philosophy he developed into what is now known as Marxism-Leninism.

The significance of Marx’s ideas have never been underestimated by capitalist, imperialist and reactionary forces. In the, now, 173 years since the publication of The Manifesto of the Communist Party (in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6, pp477-519.) there have been countless occasions when those movements who have used Marxism as their ideological base have been attacked and vilified as being inappropriate to the circumstances or as being a ‘foreign import’. The danger that these ideas pose to the ruling classes in most countries of the world demonstrate the value they have for those who are oppressed and exploited – the majority of the population of the world.

But from its inception Marxism has not only had to contend with the attacks from capitalism and imperialism. Within the working class itself there have been those revisionists who have sought to emasculate Marxism of its revolutionary content and these cowards, traitors and renegades have caused incalculable damage to any advances in the conditions of the world’s workers and peasants.

However, those attacks only serve to make Marxism relevant in the present circumstances, where the people of the world are suffering during a health pandemic which has been made worse – and longer lasting – due to the fact that capitalism has no real interest in effectively dealing with such a situation that benefits the majority of people.

So far there’s been no indication that this crisis – caused by the political and economic situation under which all in the world live – has caused workers to rethink the old certainties (even if they did exist pre-2019). The negative effects of covid-19 will last for a long time and there’s no chance that the world will just change, taking into consideration the situation of the majority of the population, without them taking action to change their condition themselves.

Those ‘crumbs’ which capitalism have thrown to avoid the destruction of its rotten and moribund system are becoming harder to find and are getting scattered more widely.

Implementing the ideas of Marx – and how they have been developed by Lenin and Mao – is the only way there will be a long-term and sustainable future for the workers and peasants of the world.

Marxism is far from being dead.

Long Live Marxism!

As part of the commemoration of Marx’s birth we reproduce the interview below (first published on the 200th Anniversary) with David Harvey who has produced a series of video lectures which seek to make Marx’s most important work, Capital, (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Capital Volunme 1, Capital Volume 2 and Capital Volume 3)   understandable and more accessible to those who might find the three, large volumes too daunting.

Why Marx Still Matters

An interview with David Harvey

This article originally appeared as an interview on Daniel Denvir’s podcast, The Dig, in 2018

On the second centenary of Karl Marx’s birth, global capitalism is stumbling from crisis to crisis. In the wake of the financial crash, interest in Marx’s ideas has blossomed once again. This should come as no surprise: they remain vital to understanding not only the dynamics of capitalism itself but the manner in which it structures our modern world.

David Harvey is one of the world’s leading scholars of Marx. His course on the three volumes of Capital became synonymous with Marx’s re-emergence in recent years, and has been viewed by millions online. This course has been condensed into the recently-published Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason, a companion to Marx’s magnum opus, which addresses its relevance today.

In this interview, David Harvey speaks with journalist Daniel Denvir about Marx’s work, his understanding of capitalism’s contradictions, and why his ideas endure so long after his time.

You’ve been teaching Capital for quite a long time. Can you lay out a brief overview of each of the three volumes?

Marx is very much into detail, and it’s sometimes hard to get a sense of exactly what the whole conception of Capital is about. But really, it’s simple. Capitalists start the day with a certain amount of money, take the money into the marketplace and buy commodities like means of production and labour power, and put them to work in a labour process that produces a new commodity. That commodity is sold for money, plus a profit. Then the profit is redistributed in various ways, in the form of rents and interest, which circulates back into money, which starts the production cycle again.

It’s a circulation process. And the three volumes of Capital deal with different aspects. The first deals with production. The second deals with circulation and what we call ‘realisation’ — the way the commodity is converted back into money. And the third deals with distribution — how much goes to the landlord, how much goes to the financier, how much goes to the merchant, before it is all turned around and sent back into the circulation process.

That’s what I try to teach, so that people understand the relationships between the three volumes of Capital and don’t get lost entirely in any one volume or parts of them.

You differ with other Marx scholars in that you pay a lot of attention to volumes two and three, in addition to volume one. Why is that?

It’s clear that in Marx’s mind, he had an idea of the totality of the circulation of capital. His plan was to break it down into these three component parts in the three volumes. So I just follow what Marx says he’s doing. Now, the problem of course, is that volumes two and three were never completed, and they aren’t as satisfactory as volume one, which is a literary masterpiece. So I can understand why, if people want to read Marx with a certain sense of joy and fun, that they would stick with volume one. But I’m saying, ‘No, if you really want to understand what his conception of capital is, then you can’t understand it as just being about production. It’s about circulation. It’s about getting it to market and selling it, then it’s about distributing the profits.’

One reason that it’s important is that we need it to understand this dynamic of constant expansion that drives capitalism.

You get this idea of a ‘bad infinity’ in volume one. The system has to expand because it’s always about profit, creating what Marx called a ‘surplus value’, and the surplus value then gets reinvested in the creation of more surplus value. So capital is about constant expansion.

And what that does is this: if you grow at 3 percent a year, forever, then you get to the point where the amount of expansion required is absolutely huge. In Marx’s time, there’s plenty of space in the world to expand into, whereas right now we’re talking about 3 percent compound rate of growth on everything that’s happening in China and South Asia and Latin America. The problem arises: where are you going to expand into? That’s the bad infinity coming into being.

In volume three, Marx says maybe the only way it can expand is by monetary expansion. Because with money there’s no limit. If we’re talking about using cement or something like that, there’s a physical limit to how much you can produce. But with money, you can just add zeros to the global money supply.

If you look at what we did after the 2008 crisis, we added zeros to the money supply by something called ‘quantitative easing’. That money then flowed back into stock markets, and then asset bubbles, especially in property markets. We’ve now got a strange situation where, in every metropolitan area of the world that I’ve visited, there’s a huge boom in construction and in property asset prices – all of which is being fuelled by the fact that money is being created and it doesn’t know where to go, except into speculation and asset values.

You’re trained as a geographer, and for you Marx’s account of capitalism is fundamentally about dealing with problems of space and time. Why are these two axes of space and time are so critical?

For instance, the interest rate is about discounting into the future. And borrowing is about foreclosing on the future. Debt is a claim on future production. So the future is foreclosed on, because we’ve got to pay our debts. Ask any student who owes $200,000: their future is foreclosed, because they’ve got to pay off that debt. This foreclosure of the future is a terribly important part of what Capital is about.

The space stuff comes in because as you start to expand, there’s always the possibility that if you can’t expand in a given space, you take your capital and go into another space. For instance, Britain was producing a lot of surplus capital in the nineteenth century, so a lot of it was flowing to North America, some through Latin America, some to South Africa. So there’s a geographical aspect to this.

The expansion of the system is about getting what I call ‘spatial fixes’. You’ve got a problem: you’ve got excess capital. What are you going to do with it? Well, you have a spatial fix, which means you go out and build something somewhere else in the world. If you have an ‘unsettled’ continent like North America in the nineteenth century, then there’s vast amounts of space you can expand into. But now North America has been pretty much covered.

The spatial reorganisation is not simply about expansion. It’s also about reconstruction. We get deindustrialisation in the United States and Europe, and then the reconfiguration of an area through urban redevelopment, so that cotton mills in Massachusetts get turned into condominiums.

We’re running out of both space and time right now. That’s one of the big problems of contemporary capitalism.

What do mainstream economists miss about all of this?

They hate contradictions. It doesn’t fit with their world view. The economists love to confront what they call problems, and problems have solutions. Contradictions don’t. They exist with you all the time, and therefore you have to manage them.

They get heightened into what Marx called ‘absolute contradictions’. How do economists deal with the fact that in the crisis of the 1930s or the 1970s or more recently, surplus capital and surplus labour sit side by side, and nobody seems to have a clue as to how to put them back together so that they can work for socially productive purposes?

Keynes tried to do something about this. But by and large, economists have no idea how to deal with these contradictions. Whereas Marx is saying that this contradiction is in the nature of capital accumulation. And this contradiction then produces these crises periodically, which claim lives and create misery.

In terms of that contradiction, you describe in your book ‘surplus capital and surplus labour existing side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together.’ How has capitalism attempted to resolve this?

The response to the 2007–8 crisis was to, in most of the world – except China – double down into a neoliberal austerity politics. Which made things worse. Since then, we’ve had more cuts. It hasn’t worked very well. Slowly, unemployment has come down in the United States, but of course it’s gone shooting up in places like Brazil and Argentina.

The neoliberal argument had a lot of legitimacy in the 1980s and 1990s as being liberatory in some way. But nobody believes that anymore. Everybody realises it’s a con job in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

But now we’re seeing the emergence of an ethno-nationalist protectionism-autarky, which is a different model. That doesn’t sit very well with neoliberal ideals. We could be headed into something which is much less pleasant than neoliberalism, the division of the world into warring and protectionist factions who are fighting each other over trade and everything else.

The argument of somebody like Steve Bannon is that we need to protect the working people of America from competition in the job market by limiting immigration. Instead of blaming capital, you blame the immigrants. The second thing is to say, we can also get support from that population by putting up tariffs and blaming Chinese competition. In effect, you’ve got a right-wing politics that is gathering a great deal of support by being anti-immigrant and anti-offshoring.

You’re well known for your scholarly work, but you’re perhaps known better as a teacher of Marx. Why do you think it’s important for leftists outside of the academy to engage with Marx’s work?

When you’re involved in political action and activism, you’ve usually got some very specific target. Let’s say, lead paint poisoning in the inner city. You’re organising around what to do about the fact that 20 percent of the kids in inner-city Baltimore suffer from lead paint poisoning. You’re involved in a legal battle, and in fighting with landlord lobbies and with all kinds of opponents. Most people I know who are involved in activist forms of that kind are so consumed with the details of what they’re doing that they often forget where they are in the overall picture – of the struggles in a city, let alone in the world.

Often you find that people need assistance from outside. That lead paint thing is much easier to handle if you’ve got all of the people who are involved in the educational system, who see kids in schools with problems with lead paint poisoning. You start to build alliances. And the more alliances you can build, the more powerful your movement could be.

I try not to lecture people about what they should think, but try to create a framework of thinking, so that people can see where they are in the totality of complicated relationships that make up contemporary society. Then people can form alliances around the issues they’re concerned with, and, at the same time, mobilise their own powers to help other people in their alliances.

I’m into building alliances. In order to build alliances, you have to have a picture of the totality of a capitalist society. To the degree that you can get some of that from studying Marx, I think that it’s helpful.

The Great ‘Marxist-Leninist’ Theoreticians

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

The History of May Day

Workers of the World - Unite, May Day 1920

Workers of the World – Unite, May Day 1920

More on the ‘Revolutionary Year’

This article by the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was written in 1990 after the failure of the international labour movement to celebrate, in a special manner, the centenary of ‘their’ day.

The version below was originally published in The Tribune on 1st May 2019.

A garland for May Day - Walter Crane - 1895

A garland for May Day – Walter Crane – 1895

The History of May Day by Eric Hobsbawm

In 1990 Michael Ignatieff, writing about Easter in the Observer, remarked that ‘secular societies have never succeeded in providing alternatives to religious rituals.’ He pointed out that the French Revolution ‘may have turned subjects into citizens, may have put liberté, égalité and fraternité on the lintel of every school and put the monasteries to the sack, but apart from the Fourteenth of July it never made a dent on the old Christian calendar.’

My present subject is perhaps the only unquestionable dent made by a secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar, a holiday established not in one or two countries, but in 1990 officially in 107 states. What is more, it is an occasion established not by the power of governments or conquerors, but by an entirely unofficial movement of poor men and women. I am speaking of May Day, or more precisely of the First of May, the international festival of the working-class movement, whose centenary ought to have been celebrated in 1990, for it was inaugurated in 1890.

‘Ought to be’ is the correct phrase, for, apart from the historians, few have shown much interest in this occasion, not even in those socialist parties which are the lineal descendants of those which, at the inaugural congresses of what became the Second International, in 1889 called for a simultaneous international workers’ demonstration in favour of a law to limit the working day to eight hours to be held on 1 May 1890. This is true even of those parties actually represented at the 1889 congresses, and which are still in existence. These parties of the Second International or their descendants today provide the governments or the main oppositions almost everywhere in Europe west of what was the self-described region of ‘really-existing socialism.’ One might have expected them to show greater pride, or even merely greater interest in their past.

The strongest political reaction in Britain to the centenary of May Day came from Sir John Hackett, a former general and, I am sorry to say, former head of a college of the University of London, who called for the abolition of May Day, which he appeared to regard as some sort of Soviet invention. It ought not, he felt, to survive the fall of international communism. However, the origin of the European Community’s spring May Day holiday is the opposite of Bolshevik or even social-democratic. It goes back to the anti-socialist politicians who, recognising how deeply the roots of May Day reached into the soil of the western working-classes, wanted to counter the appeal of labour and socialist movements by co-opting their festival and turning it into something else. To cite a French parliamentary proposal of April 1920, supported by forty-one deputies united by nothing except not being socialists:

This holiday should not contain any element of jealousy and hatred [the code word for class struggle]. All classes, if classes can still be said to exist, and all productive energies of the nation should fraternise, inspired by the same idea and the same ideal.

Those who, before the European Community, went furthest in co-opting May Day were on the extreme right, not the left. Hitler’s government was the first after the USSR to make the First of May into an official National Day of Labour. Marshal Petain’s Vichy government declared the First of May a ‘Festival of Labour and Concord’ and is said to have been inspired to do so by the Phalangist May Day of Franco’s Spain, where the Marshal had been an admiring ambassador.

Indeed, the European Economic Community which made May Day into a public holiday was a body composed not, in spite of Mrs Thatcher’s views on the subject, of socialist but of predominantly anti-socialist governments. Western official May Days were recognitions of the need to come to terms with the tradition of the unofficial May Days and to detach it from labour movements, class consciousness and class struggle. But how did it come about that this tradition was so strong that even its enemies thought they had to take it over, even when, like Hitler, Franco and Petain, they destroyed the socialist labour movement?

Italian Socialist Party - 1902

Italian Socialist Party – 1902

The Rapid Rise

The extraordinary thing about the evolution of this institution is that it was unintended and unplanned. To this extent it was not so much an ‘invented tradition’ as a suddenly erupting one. The immediate origin of May Day is not in dispute. It was a resolution passed by one of the two rival founding congresses of the International – the Marxist one – in Paris in July 1889, centenary year of the French Revolution. This called for an international demonstration by workers on the same day, when they would put the demand for a legal eight hour day to their respective public and other authorities. And since the American Federation of Labor had already decided to hold such a demonstration on 1 May 1890, this day was to be chosen for the international demonstration. Ironically, in the USA itself May Day was never to establish itself as it did elsewhere, if only because an increasingly official public holiday of labour, Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was already in existence.

Scholars have naturally investigated the origins of this resolution, and how it related to the earlier history of the struggle for the legal eight hour day in the USA and elsewhere, but these matters do not concern us here. What is relevant to the present argument is how what the resolution envisaged differed from what actually came about. Let us note three facts about the original proposal. First, the call was simply for a single, one-off, international manifestation. There is no suggestion that it should be repeated, let alone become a regular annual event. Second, there was no suggestion that it should be a particularly festive or ritual occasion, although the labour movements of all countries were authorised to ‘realise this demonstration in such ways as are made necessary by the situation in their country.’

This, of course, was an emergency exit left for the sake of the German Social Democratic Party, which was still at this time illegal under Bismarck’s anti-socialist law. Finally, there is no sign that this resolution was seen as particularly important at the time. On the contrary, the contemporary press reports barely mention it, if at all, and, with one exception (curiously enough a bourgeois paper), without the proposed date. Even the official Congress Report, published by the German Social Democratic Party, merely mentions the proposers of the resolution and prints its text without any comment or apparent sense that this was a matter of significance. In short, as Edouard Vaillant, one of the more eminent and politically sensitive delegates to the Congress, recalled a few years later: ‘Who could have predicted … the rapid rise of May Day?’

Its rapid rise and institutionalisation were certainly due to the extraordinary success of the first May Day demonstrations in 1890, at least in Europe west of the Russian Empire and the Balkans. The socialists had chosen the right moment to found or, if we prefer, reconstitute an International. The first May Day coincided with a triumphant advance of labour strength and confidence in numerous countries. To cite merely two familiar examples: the outburst of the New Unionism in Britain which followed the Dock Strike of 1889, and the socialist victory in Germany, where the Reichstag refused to continue Bismarck’s anti-socialist law in January 1890, with the result that a month later the Social Democratic Party doubled its vote at the general election and emerged with just under 20 per cent of the total vote. To make a success of mass demonstrations at such a moment was not difficult, for both activists and militants put their hearts into them, while masses of ordinary workers joined them to celebrate a sense of victory, power, recognition and hope.

Dutch May Day poster - Johan van Hell, 1927

Dutch May Day poster – Johan van Hell, 1927

And yet the extent to which the workers took part in these meetings amazed those who had called upon them to do so, notably the 300,000 who filled Hyde Park in London, which thus, for the first and last time, provided the largest demonstration of the day. For, while all socialist parties and organisations had naturally organised meets, only some had recognised the full potential of the occasion and put their all into it from the start. The Austrian Social Democratic Party was exceptional in its immediate sense of the mass mood, with the result that, as Frederick Engels observed a few weeks later, ‘on the continent it was Austria, and in Austria Vienna, which celebrated this festival in the most splendid and appropriate manner.’

Indeed, in several countries, so far from throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the preparation of May Day, local parties and movements were, as usual in the politics of the left, handicapped by ideological arguments and divisions about the legitimate form or forms of such demonstrations – we shall return to them below – or by sheer caution. In the face of a highly nervous, even on occasion hysterical, reaction to the prospect of the day by governments, middle-class opinion and employers who threatened police repression and victimisation, responsible socialist leaders often preferred to avoid excessively provocative forms of confrontation. This was notably the case in Germany, where the ban on the party had only just been revoked after eleven years of illegality. ‘We have every reason to keep the masses under control at the First of May demonstration,’ wrote the party leader August Bebel to Engels. ‘We must avoid conflicts.’ And Engels agreed.

The crucial matter at issue was whether the workers should be asked to demonstrate in working time, that is to go on strike, for in 1890 the First of May fell on a Thursday. Basically, cautious parties and strong established trade unions – unless they deliberately wanted to be or found themselves engaged in industrial action, as was the plan of the American Federation of Labor – did not see why they should stick their own and their members’ necks out for the sake of a symbolic gesture. They therefore tended to opt for a demonstration on the first Sunday in May and not on the first day of the month. This was and remained the British option, which was why the first great May Day took place on 4 May.

However, it was also the preference of the German party, although there, unlike Britain, in practice it was the First of May that prevailed. In fact, the question was to be formally discussed at the Brussels International Socialist Congress of 1891, with the British and Germans opposing the French and Austrians on this point, and being outvoted. Once again this issue, like so many other aspects of May Day, was the accidental by-product of the international choice of the date. The original resolution made no reference at all to stopping work. The problem arose simply because the first May Day fell on a weekday, as everybody planning the demonstration immediately and necessarily discovered.

Caution dictated otherwise. But what actually made May Day was precisely the choice of symbol over practical reason. It was the act of symbolically stopping work which turned May Day into more than just another demonstration, or even another commemorative occasion. It was in the countries or cities where parties, even against hesitant unions, insisted on the symbolic strike that May Day really became a central part of working-class life and of labour identity, as it never really did in Britain, in spite of its brilliant start. For refraining from work on a working day was both an assertion of working-class power – in fact, the quintessential assertion of this power – and the essence of freedom, namely not being forced to labour in the sweat of one’s brow, but choosing what to do in the company of family and friends. It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour. And, of course, in the circumstances of 1890 it was also a celebration of victory, a winner’s lap of honour round the stadium. Seen in this light May Day carried with it a rich cargo of emotion and hope.

Manchester and Salforn Council of Labour May Dat poster - 1945

Manchester and Salforn Council of Labour May Dat poster – 1945


This is what Victor Adler realised when, against advice from the German Social Democratic Party, he insisted that the Austrian party must provoke precisely the confrontation which Bebel wanted to avoid. Like Bebel he recognised the mood of euphoria, of mass conversion, almost of messianic expectation which swept through so many working classes at this time. ‘The elections have turned the heads of the less politically educated [geschult] masses. They believe they have only to want something and everything can be achieved,’ as Bebel put it.

Unlike Bebel, Adler still needed to mobilise these sentiments to build a mass party out of a combination of activists and rising mass sympathy. Moreover, unlike the Germans, Austrian workers did not yet have the vote. The movement’s strength could not therefore be demonstrated electorally as yet. Again, the Scandinavians understood the mobilising potential of direct action when, after the first May Day, they voted in favour of a repetition of the demonstration in 1891, ‘especially if combined with a cessation of work, and not merely simple expressions of opinion.’ The International itself took the same view when in 1891 it voted (against the British and German delegates as we have seen) to hold the demonstration on the First of May and ‘to cease work wherever it is not impossible to do so.’

This did not mean that the international movement called for a general strike as such, for, with all the boundless expectations of the moment, organised workers were in practice aware both of their strength and of their weakness. Whether people should strike on May Day, or could be expected to give up a day’s pay for the demonstration, were questions widely discussed in the pubs and bars of proletarian Hamburg, according to the plain-clothes policemen sent by the Senate to listen to workers’ conversations in that massively ‘red’ city. It was understood that many workers would be unable to come out, even if they wanted to. Thus the railwaymen sent a cable to the first Copenhagen May Day which was read out and cheered: ‘Since we cannot be present at the meeting because of the pressure exerted by those in power, we will not omit fully supporting the demand for the eight-hour working day.’

May Day poster, Israeli Communist Party, 1950

May Day poster, Israeli Communist Party, 1950

However, where employers knew that workers were strong and solidly committed, they would often tacitly accept that the day could be taken off. This was often the case in Austria. Thus, in spite of the clear instruction from the Ministry of the Interior that processions were banned and taking time off was not to be permitted; and in spite of the formal decision by employers not to consider the First of May a holiday – and sometimes even to substitute the day before the First of May as a works holiday – the State Armaments Factory in Steyr, Upper Austria, shut down on the First of May 1890 and every year thereafter. In any case, enough workers came out in enough countries to make the stop-work movement plausible. After all, in Copenhagen about 40 per cent of the city’s workers were actually present at the demonstration in 1890.

Given this remarkable and often unexpected success of the first May Day it was natural that a repeat performance should be demanded. As we have already seen, the united Scandinavian movements asked for it in the summer of 1890, as did the Spaniards. By the end of the year the bulk of the European parties had followed suit. That the occasion should become a regular annual event may or may not have been suggested first by the militants of Toulouse who passed a resolution to this effect in 1890, but to no one’s surprise the Brussels congress of the International in 1891 committed the movement to a regular annual May Day.

However, it also did two other things, while insisting, as we have seen, that May Day must be celebrated by a single demonstration on the first day of the month, whatever that day might be, in order to emphasize ‘its true character as an economic demand for the eight-hour day and an assertion of class struggle.’

It added at least two other demands to the eight-hour day: labour legislation and the fight against war. Although it was henceforth an official part of May Day, in itself the peace slogan was not really integrated into the popular May Day tradition, except as something that reinforced the international character of the occasion. However, in addition to expanding the programmatic content of the demonstration, the resolution included another innovation. It spoke of ‘celebrating’ May Day. The movement had come officially to recognize it not only as a political activity but as a festival.

Once again, this was not part of the original plan. On the contrary, the militant wing of the movement and, it need hardly be added, the anarchists opposed the idea of festivities passionately on ideological grounds. May Day was a day of struggle. The anarchists would have preferred it to broaden out from a single day’s leisure extorted from the capitalists into the great general strike which would overthrow the entire system. As so often, the most militant revolutionaries took a sombre view of the class struggle, as the iconography of black and grey masses lightened by no more than the occasional red flag confirms.

The anarchists preferred to see May Day as a commemoration of martyrs – the Chicago martyrs of 1886, ‘a day of grief rather than a day of celebration,’ and where they were influential, as in Spain, South America and Italy, the martyrological aspect of May Day actually became part of the occasion. Cakes and ale were not part of the revolutionary game-plan. In fact, as a recent study of the anarchist May Day in Barcelona brings out, refusing to treat it or even to call it a ‘Festa del Traball,’ a labour festival, was one of its chief characteristics before the Republic. To hell with symbolic actions: either the world revolution or nothing. Some anarchists even refused to encourage the May Day strike, on the ground that anything that did not actually initiate the revolution could be no more than yet another reformist diversion. The revolutionary syndicalist French Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) did not resign itself to May Day festivity until after the First World War.

The leaders of the Second International may well have encouraged the transformation of May Day into a festival, since they certainly wanted to avoid anarchist confrontational tactics and naturally also favoured the broadest possible basis for the demonstrations. But the idea of a class holiday, both struggle and a good time, was definitely not in their minds originally. Where did it come from?

Polish May Day poster, Roman Cieslewicz, 1957

Polish May Day poster, Roman Cieslewicz, 1957


Initially the choice of date almost certainly played a crucial role. Spring holidays are profoundly rooted in the ritual cycle of the year in the temperate northern hemisphere, and indeed the month of May itself symbolises the renewal of nature. In Sweden, for instance, the First of May was already by long tradition, almost a public holiday. This, incidentally, was one of the problems about celebrating wintry May Days in otherwise militant Australia. From the abundant iconographical and literary material at our disposal, which has been made available in recent years, it is quite evident that nature, plants and above all flowers were automatically and universally held to symbolise the occasion. The simplest of rural gatherings, like the 1890 meeting in a Styrian village, shows not banners but garlanded boards with slogans, as well as musicians. A charming photograph of a later provincial May Day, also in Austria, shows the social democratic worker-cyclists, male and female, parading with wheels and handlebars wreathed in flowers, and a small flower-decked May child in a sort of baby-seat slung between two bicycles.

Flowers appear unselfconsciously round the stern portraits of the seven Austrian delegates to the 1889 International Congress, distributed for the first Vienna May Day. Flowers even infiltrate the militant myths. In France the fusillade de Fourmies of 1891, with its ten dead, is symbolised in the new tradition by Maria Blondeau, eighteen years old, who danced at the head of 200 young people of both sexes, swinging a branch of flowering hawthorn which her fiancé had given her, until the troops shot her dead.

Yugoslav May Day poster, 1969

Yugoslav May Day poster, 1969

Two May traditions patently merge in this image. What flowers? Initially, as the hawthorn branch suggests, colours suggestive of spring rather than politics, even though the movement soon comes to settle on blossoms of its own colour: roses, poppies and above all red carnations. However, national styles vary. Nevertheless, flowers and those other symbols of burgeoning growth, youth, renewal and hope, namely young women, are central. It is no accident that the most universal icons for the occasion, reproduced time and again m a variety of languages, come from Walter Crane – especially the famous young woman in a Phrygian bonnet surrounded by garlands. The British socialist movement was small and unimportant. Its May Days, after the first few years, were marginal. However, through William Morris, Crane and the arts-and-crafts movement, inspirers of the most influential ‘new art’ or art nouveau of the period, it found the exact expression for the spirit of the times. The British iconographic influence is not the least evidence for the internationalism of May Day.

In fact, the idea of a public festival or holiday of labour arose, once again, spontaneously and almost immediately – no doubt helped along by the fact that in German the word feiern can mean both ‘not working’ and ‘formally celebrating.’ (The use of ‘playing’ as a synonym for ‘striking,’ common in England in the first part of the century, no longer seems common by its end.) In any case it seemed logical on a day when people stayed away from work to supplement the morning’s political meetings and marches with sociability and entertainment later, all the more so as the role of inns and restaurants as meeting places for the movement was so important. Publicans and cabaretieri formed a significant section of socialist activists in more than one country.

One major consequence of this must be immediately mentioned. Unlike politics, which was in those days ‘men’s business,’ holidays included women and children. Both the visual and the literary sources demonstrate the presence and participation of women in May Day from the start. What made it a genuine class display, and incidentally, as in Spain, increasingly attracted workers who were not politically with the socialists, was precisely that it was not confined to men but belonged to families. And in turn, through May Day, women who were not themselves directly in the labour market as wage-workers, that is to say the bulk of married working-class women in a number of countries, were publicly identified with movement and class. If a working life of wage-labour belonged chiefly to men, refusing to work for a day united age and sex in the working-class.

Somalian May Day poster, 1977

Somalian May Day poster, 1977

The Workers’ Easter

Practically all regular holidays before this time had been religious holidays, at all events in Europe, except in Britain where, typically, the European Community’s May Day has been assimilated to a Bank Holiday. May Day shared with Christian holidays the aspiration to universality, or, in labour terms, internationalism. This universality deeply impressed participants and added to the day’s appeal. The numerous May Day broadsheets, often locally produced, which are so valuable a source for the iconography and cultural history of the occasion – 308 different numbers of such ephemera have been preserved for pre-fascist Italy alone – constantly dwell on this. The first May Day journal from Bologna in 1891 contains no fewer than four items specifically on the universality of the day. And, of course, the analogy with Easter or Whitsun seemed as obvious as that with the spring celebrations of folk custom.

Italian socialists, keenly aware of the spontaneous appeal of the new festa del lavoro to a largely Catholic and illiterate population, used the term ‘the workers’ Easter’ from, at the latest, 1892, and such analogies became internationally current in the second half of the 1890s. One can readily see why. The similarity of the new socialist movement to a religious movement, even, in the first heady years of May Day, to a religious revival movement with messianic expectations was patent.

So, in some ways, was the similarity of the body of early leaders, activists and propagandists to a priesthood, or at least to a body of lay preachers. We have an extraordinary leaflet from Charleroi, Belgium in 1898, which reproduces what can only be described as a May Day sermon: no other word will do. It was drawn up by, or in the name of, ten deputies and senators of the Parti Ouvrier Belge, undoubtedly atheists to a man, under the joint epigraphs ‘Workers of all lands unite’ (Karl Marx) and ‘Love One Another’ (Jesus). A few samples will suggest its mood:

This is the hour of spring and festivity when the perpetual Evolution of nature shines forth in its glory. Like nature, fill yourselves with hope and prepare for The New Life.

After some passages of moral instruction (‘Show self-respect: Beware of the liquids that make you drunk and the passions that degrade’) and socialist encouragement, it concluded with a passage of millennial hope:

Soon frontiers will fade away! Soon there will be an end to wars and armies! Every time that you practice the socialist virtues of Solidarity and Love, you will bring this future closer. And then, in peace and joy, a world will come into being in which Socialism will triumph, once the social duty of all is properly understood as bringing about the all-round development of each.

Yet the point about the new labour movement was not that it was a faith, and one which often echoed the tone and style of religious discourse, but that it was so little influenced by the religious model even in countries where the masses were deeply religious and steeped in church ways. Moreover, there was little convergence between the old and the new Faith except sometimes (but not always) where Protestantism took the form of unofficial and implicitly oppositionist sects rather than Churches, as in England. Socialist labour was a militantly secular, anti-religious movement which converted pious or formerly pious populations en masse.

We can also understand why this was so. Socialism and the labour movement appealed to men and women for whom, as a novel class conscious of itself as such, there was no proper place in the community of which established Churches, and notably the Catholic Church, were the traditional expression. There were indeed settlements of ‘outsiders’, by occupation as in mining or proto-industrial or factory villages, by origin like the Albanians of what became the quintessentially ‘red’ village of Piana dei Greci in Sicily (now Piana degli Albanesi), or united by some other criterion that separated them collectively from the wider society. There ‘the movement’ might function as the community, and in doing so take over many of the old village practices hitherto monopolised by religion.

However, this was unusual. In fact a major reason for the massive success of May Day was that it was seen as the only holiday associated exclusively with the working class as such, not shared with anyone else, and moreover one extorted by the workers’ own action. More than this: it was a day on which those who were usually invisible went on public display and, at least for one day, captured the official space of rulers and society. In this respect the galas of British miners, of which the Durham miners’ gala is the longest survivor, anticipated May Day, but on the basis of one industry and not the working class as a whole. In this sense the only relation between May Day and traditional religion was the claim to equal rights. ‘The priests have their festivals,’ announced the 1891 May Day broadsheet of Voghera in the Po valley, ‘the Moderates have their festivals. So have the Democrats. The First of May is the Festival of the workers of the entire world.’

Greek Tade Union May Day poster, 1985

Greek Tade Union May Day poster, 1985

The New World

But there was another thing that distanced the movement from religion. Its key word was ‘new’, as in Die Neue Zeit (New Times), title of Kautsky’s Marxist theoretical review, and as in the Austrian labour song still associated with May Day, and whose refrain runs: ‘Mit uns zieht die neue Zeit’ (‘The new times are advancing with us’). As both Scandinavian and Austrian experience shows, socialism often came into the countryside and provincial towns literally with the railways, with those who built and manned them, and with the new ideas and new times they brought. Unlike other public holidays, including most of the ritual occasions of the labour movement up till then, May Day did not commemorate anything – at least for events outside the range of anarchist influence which, as we have seen, liked to link it with the Chicago anarchists of 1886. It was about nothing but the future, which, unlike a past that had nothing to give to the proletariat except bad memories. ‘Du passe faisons table rase’ (‘Of the past we make a blank slate’) sang the Internationale, not by accident. Unlike traditional religion, ‘the movement’ offered not rewards after death but the new Jerusalem on this earth.

The iconography of May Day, which developed its own imagery and symbolism very quickly, is entirely future-oriented. What the future would bring was not at all clear, only that it would be good and that it would inevitably come. Fortunately for the success of May Day, at least one way forward to the future turned the occasion into something more than a demonstration and a festival. In 1890 electoral democracy was still extremely uncommon in Europe, and the demand for universal suffrage was readily added to that for the eight-hour day and the other May Day slogans. Curiously enough, the demand for the vote, although it became an integral part of May Day in Austria, Belgium, Scandinavia, Italy and elsewhere until it was achieved, never formed an ex officio international part of its political content like the eight-hour day and, later, peace. Nevertheless, where applicable, it became an integral part of the occasion and greatly added to its significance.

In fact, the practice of organising or threatening general strikes for universal suffrage, which developed with some success in Belgium, Sweden and Austria, and helped to hold party and unions together, grew out of the symbolic work stoppages of May Day. The first such strike was started by the Belgian miners on 1 May 1891. On the other hand trade unions were far more concerned with the Swedish May Day slogan ‘shorter hours and higher wages’ than with any other aspect of the great day. There were times, as in Italy, when they concentrated on this and left even democracy to others. The great advances of the movement, including its effective championship of democracy, were not based on narrow economic self-interest.

South African May Day poster, 1994

South African May Day poster, 1994

Democracy was, of course, central to the socialist labour movements. It was not only essential for its progress but inseparable from it. The first May Day in Germany was commemorated by a plaque which showed Karl Marx on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. An Austrian May Day print of 1891 shows Marx, holding Das Kapital, pointing across the sea to one of those romantic islands familiar to contemporaries from paintings of a Mediterranean character, behind which there rises the May Day sun, which was to be the most lasting and potent symbol of the future. Its rays carried the slogans of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which are found on so many of the early May Day badges and mementoes. Marx is surrounded by workers, presumably ready to man the fleet of ships due to sail to the island, whatever it might be, their sails inscribed: ‘Universal and Direct Suffrage. Eight-Hour Day and Protection for the Workers.’ This was the original tradition of May Day.

That tradition arose with extraordinary rapidity – within two or three years – by means of a curious symbiosis between the slogans of the socialist leaders and their often spontaneous interpretation by militants and rank-and-file workers. It took shape in those first few marvellous years of the sudden flowering of mass labour movements and parties, when every day brought visible growth, when the very existence of such movements, the very assertion of class, seemed a guarantee of future triumph. More than this: it seemed a sign of imminent triumph as the gates of the new world swung open before the working class.

However, the millennium did not come and May Day, with so much else in the labour movement, had to be regularised and institutionalised, even though something of the old flowering of hope and triumph returned to it in later years after great struggles and victories. We can see it in the mad futurist May Days of the early Russian Revolution, and almost everywhere in Europe in 1919-20, when the original May Day demand of the eight hours was actually achieved in many countries. We can see it in the May Days of the early Popular Front in France in 1935 and 1936, and in the countries of the continent liberated from occupation, after the defeat of fascism. Still, in most countries of mass socialist labour movements, May Day was routinised some time before 1914.

Curiously, it was during this period of routinisation that it acquired its ritualistic side. As an Italian historian has put it, when it ceased to be seen as the immediate antechamber of the great transformation it became ‘a collective rite which requires its own liturgies and divinities,’ the divinities being usually identifiable as those young women in flowing hair and loose costumes showing the way towards the rising sun to increasingly imprecise crowds or processions of men and women. Was she Liberty, or Spring, or Youth, or Hope, or rosy-fingered Dawn or a bit of all of these? Who can tell? Iconographically she has no universal characteristic except youth, for even the Phrygian bonnet, which is extremely common, or the traditional attributes of Liberty, are not always found.

We can trace this ritualisation of the day through the flowers which, as we have seen, are present from the beginning, but become, as it were, officialised towards the end of the century. Thus the red carnation acquired its official status in the Habsburg lands and in Italy from about 1900, when its symbolism was specially explicated in the lively and talented broadsheet from Florence named after it. (II Garofano Rosso appeared on May Days until the First World War.) The red rose became official in 1911-12. And, to the grief of incorruptible revolutionaries the entirely unpolitical lily-of-the-valley began to infiltrate the workers’ May Day in the early 1900s, until it became one of the regular symbols of the day.

Nevertheless, the great era of May Days was not over while they remained both legal – that is, capable of bringing large masses on to the street – and unofficial. Once they became a holiday given or, still worse, imposed from above, their character was necessarily different. And since public mass mobilisation was of their essence, they could not resist illegality, even though the socialists (later communists) of Piana del Albanesi took pride, even in the black days of fascism, in sending some comrades every First of May without fail to the mountain pass where, from what is still known as Dr Barbato’s rock, the local apostle of socialism had addressed them in 1893. It was in this same location that the bandit Giuliano massacred the revived community demonstration and family picnic after the end of fascism in 1947. Since 1914, and especially since 1945, May Day has increasingly become either illegal or, more likely, official. Only in those comparatively rare parts of the third world where massive and unofficial socialist labour movements developed in conditions that allowed May Day to flourish is there a real continuity of the older tradition.

May Day has not, of course, lost its old characteristics everywhere. Nevertheless, even where it is not associated with the fall of old regimes which were once new, as in the USSR and eastern Europe, it is not too much to claim that for most people even in labour movements the word May Day evokes the past more than the present. The society which gave rise to May Day has changed. How important, today, are those small proletarian village communities which old Italians remember? ‘We marched round the village. Then there was a public meal. All the party members were there and anyone else who wanted to come.’

What has happened in the industrialised world to those who in the 1890s could still recognize themselves in the Internationale’s ‘Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers?’ As an old Italian lady put it in 1980, remembering the May Day of 1920 ‘I carried the flag as a twelve-year-old textile worker, just started at the mill: ‘Nowadays those who go to work are all ladies and gentlemen, they get everything they ask for.’ What has happened to the spirit of those May Day sermons of confidence in the future, of faith in the march of reason and progress? ‘Educate yourselves! Schools and courses, books and newspapers are instruments of liberty! Drink at the fountain of Science and Art: you will then become strong enough to bring about justice.’ What has happened to the collective dream of building Jerusalem in our green and pleasant land?

Turkish Trade Union May Day 2010 - commemorating 1977 Taksim massacre

Turkish Trade Union May Day 2010 – commemorating 1977 Taksim massacre

And yet, if May Day has become no more than just another holiday, a day – I am quoting a French advertisement – when one need not take a certain tranquilliser, because one does not have to work, it remains a holiday of a special kind. It may no longer be, in the proud phrase, ‘a holiday outside all calendars,’ for in Europe it has entered all calendars. It is, in fact, more universally taken off work than any other days except 25 December and 1 January, having far outdistanced its other religious rivals. But it came from below. It was shaped by anonymous working people themselves who, through it, recognised themselves, across lines of occupation, language, even nationality as a single class by deciding, once a year, deliberately not to work: to flout the moral, political and economic compulsion to labour. As Victor Adler put it in 1893: ‘This is the sense of the May holiday, of the rest from work, which our adversaries fear. This is what they feel to be revolutionary.’

The historian is interested in this occasion for a number of reasons. In one way it is significant because it helps to explain why Marx became so influential in labour movements composed of men and women who had not heard of him before, but recognised his call to become conscious of themselves as a class and to organise as such. In another, it is important, because it demonstrates the historic power of grassroots thought and feeling, and illuminates the way men and women who, as individuals, are inarticulate, powerless and count for nothing can nevertheless leave their mark on history.

But above all this is for many of us, historians or not, a deeply moving time, because it represents what the German philosopher Ernst Bloch called (and treated at length in two bulky volumes) The Principle of Hope: the hope of a better future in a better world. If nobody else remembered it in 1990, it was incumbent on historians to do so.

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