The Bomb didn’t beat Japan … Stalin did

Stalin at Potsdam

Stalin at Potsdam

More on the USSR

The Bomb didn’t beat Japan … Stalin did

Have decades of nuclear policy been based on a lie?

[This article first appeared way back in May 2013 when it was published on the Foreign Policy website. This version is taken from that which appeared on the Portside website on 13th November 2021. Although we disagree with the statement about the start of the Korean War we generally agree with the content and that’s why it’s being reproduced here. American spelling and grammar has been retained.]

The U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II has long been a subject of emotional debate. Initially, few questioned President Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, in 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz argued that, although the bombs did force an immediate end to the war, Japan’s leaders had wanted to surrender anyway and likely would have done so before the American invasion planned for Nov. 1. Their use was, therefore, unnecessary. Obviously, if the bombings weren’t necessary to win the war, then bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. In the years since, many others have joined the fray: some echoing Alperovitz and denouncing the bombings, others rejoining hotly that the bombings were moral, necessary, and life-saving.

Both schools of thought, however, assume that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with new, more powerful weapons did coerce Japan into surrendering on Aug. 9. They fail to question the utility of the bombing in the first place — to ask, in essence, did it work? The orthodox view is that, yes, of course, it worked. The United States bombed Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9, when the Japanese finally succumbed to the threat of further nuclear bombardment and surrendered. The support for this narrative runs deep. But there are three major problems with it, and, taken together, they significantly undermine the traditional interpretation of the Japanese surrender.

Timing

The first problem with the traditional interpretation is timing. And it is a serious problem. The traditional interpretation has a simple timeline: The U.S. Army Air Force bombs Hiroshima with a nuclear weapon on Aug. 6, three days later they bomb Nagasaki with another, and on the next day the Japanese signal their intention to surrender. One can hardly blame American newspapers for running headlines like: “Peace in the Pacific: Our Bomb Did It!”

When the story of Hiroshima is told in most American histories, the day of the bombing — Aug. 6 — serves as the narrative climax. All the elements of the story point forward to that moment: the decision to build a bomb, the secret research at Los Alamos, the first impressive test, and the final culmination at Hiroshima. It is told, in other words, as a story about the Bomb. But you can’t analyze Japan’s decision to surrender objectively in the context of the story of the Bomb. Casting it as “the story of the Bomb” already presumes that the Bomb’s role is central.

Viewed from the Japanese perspective, the most important day in that second week of August wasn’t Aug. 6 but Aug. 9. That was the day that the Supreme Council met — for the first time in the war — to discuss unconditional surrender. The Supreme Council was a group of six top members of the government — a sort of inner cabinet — that effectively ruled Japan in 1945. Japan’s leaders had not seriously considered surrendering prior to that day. Unconditional surrender (what the Allies were demanding) was a bitter pill to swallow. The United States and Great Britain were already convening war crimes trials in Europe. What if they decided to put the emperor — who was believed to be divine — on trial? What if they got rid of the emperor and changed the form of government entirely? Even though the situation was bad in the summer of 1945, the leaders of Japan were not willing to consider giving up their traditions, their beliefs, or their way of life. Until Aug. 9. What could have happened that caused them to so suddenly and decisively change their minds? What made them sit down to seriously discuss surrender for the first time after 14 years of war?

It could not have been Nagasaki. The bombing of Nagasaki occurred in the late morning of Aug. 9, after the Supreme Council had already begun meeting to discuss surrender, and word of the bombing only reached Japan’s leaders in the early afternoon — after the meeting of the Supreme Council had been adjourned in deadlock and the full cabinet had been called to take up the discussion. Based on timing alone, Nagasaki can’t have been what motivated them.

Hiroshima isn’t a very good candidate either. It came 74 hours — more than three days — earlier. What kind of crisis takes three days to unfold? The hallmark of a crisis is a sense of impending disaster and the overwhelming desire to take action now. How could Japan’s leaders have felt that Hiroshima touched off a crisis and yet not meet to talk about the problem for three days?

President John F. Kennedy was sitting up in bed reading the morning papers at about 8:45 a.m. on Oct. 16, 1962, when McGeorge Bundy, his national security advisor, came in to inform him that the Soviet Union was secretly putting nuclear missiles in Cuba. Within two hours and forty-five minutes a special committee had been created, its members selected, contacted, brought to the White House, and were seated around the cabinet table to discuss what should be done.

President Harry Truman was vacationing in Independence, Missouri, on June 25, 1950, when North Korea sent its troops across the 38th parallel, invading South Korea. Secretary of State Acheson called Truman that Saturday morning to give him the news. Within 24 hours, Truman had flown halfway across the United States and was seated at Blair House (the White House was undergoing renovations) with his top military and political advisors talking about what to do.

Even Gen. George Brinton McClellan — the Union commander of the Army of the Potomac in 1863 during the American Civil War, of whom President Lincoln said sadly, “He’s got the slows” — wasted only 12 hours when he was given a captured copy of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s orders for the invasion of Maryland.

These leaders responded — as leaders in any country would — to the imperative call that a crisis creates. They each took decisive steps in a short period of time. How can we square this sort of behavior with the actions of Japan’s leaders? If Hiroshima really touched off a crisis that eventually forced the Japanese to surrender after fighting for 14 years, why did it take them three days to sit down to discuss it?

One might argue that the delay is perfectly logical. Perhaps they only came to realize the importance of the bombing slowly. Perhaps they didn’t know it was a nuclear weapon and when they did realize it and understood the terrible effects such a weapon could have, they naturally concluded they had to surrender. Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t square with the evidence.

First, Hiroshima’s governor reported to Tokyo on the very day Hiroshima was bombed that about a third of the population had been killed in the attack and that two thirds of the city had been destroyed. This information didn’t change over the next several days. So the outcome — the end result of the bombing — was clear from the beginning. Japan’s leaders knew roughly the outcome of the attack on the first day, yet they still did not act.

Second, the preliminary report prepared by the Army team that investigated the Hiroshima bombing, the one that gave details about what had happened there, was not delivered until Aug. 10. It didn’t reach Tokyo, in other words, until after the decision to surrender had already been taken. Although their verbal report was delivered (to the military) on Aug. 8, the details of the bombing were not available until two days later. The decision to surrender was therefore not based on a deep appreciation of the horror at Hiroshima.

Third, the Japanese military understood, at least in a rough way, what nuclear weapons were. Japan had a nuclear weapons program. Several of the military men mention the fact that it was a nuclear weapon that destroyed Hiroshima in their diaries. Gen. Anami Korechika, minster of war, even went to consult with the head of the Japanese nuclear weapons program on the night of Aug. 7. The idea that Japan’s leaders didn’t know about nuclear weapons doesn’t hold up.

Finally, one other fact about timing creates a striking problem. On Aug. 8, Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori went to Premier Suzuki Kantaro and asked that the Supreme Council be convened to discuss the bombing of Hiroshima, but its members declined. So the crisis didn’t grow day by day until it finally burst into full bloom on Aug. 9. Any explanation of the actions of Japan’s leaders that relies on the “shock” of the bombing of Hiroshima has to account for the fact that they considered a meeting to discuss the bombing on Aug. 8, made a judgment that it was too unimportant, and then suddenly decided to meet to discuss surrender the very next day. Either they succumbed to some sort of group schizophrenia, or some other event was the real motivation to discuss surrender.

Scale

Historically, the use of the Bomb may seem like the most important discrete event of the war. From the contemporary Japanese perspective, however, it might not have been so easy to distinguish the Bomb from other events. It is, after all, difficult to distinguish a single drop of rain in the midst of a hurricane.

In the summer of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force carried out one of the most intense campaigns of city destruction in the history of the world. Sixty-eight cities in Japan were attacked and all of them were either partially or completely destroyed. An estimated 1.7 million people were made homeless, 300,000 were killed, and 750,000 were wounded. Sixty-six of these raids were carried out with conventional bombs, two with atomic bombs. The destruction caused by conventional attacks was huge. Night after night, all summer long, cities would go up in smoke. In the midst of this cascade of destruction, it would not be surprising if this or that individual attack failed to make much of an impression — even if it was carried out with a remarkable new type of weapon.

A B-29 bomber flying from the Mariana Islands could carry — depending on the location of the target and the altitude of attack — somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 pounds of bombs. A typical raid consisted of 500 bombers. This means that the typical conventional raid was dropping 4 to 5 kilotons of bombs on each city. (A kiloton is a thousand tons and is the standard measure of the explosive power of a nuclear weapon. The Hiroshima bomb measured 16.5 kilotons, the Nagasaki bomb 20 kilotons.) Given that many bombs spread the destruction evenly (and therefore more effectively), while a single, more powerful bomb wastes much of its power at the center of the explosion — re-bouncing the rubble, as it were — it could be argued that some of the conventional raids approached the destruction of the two atomic bombings.

The first of the conventional raids, a night attack on Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, remains the single most destructive attack on a city in the history of war. Something like 16 square miles of the city were burned out. An estimated 120,000 Japanese lost their lives — the single highest death toll of any bombing attack on a city.

We often imagine, because of the way the story is told, that the bombing of Hiroshima was far worse. We imagine that the number of people killed was off the charts. But if you graph the number of people killed in all 68 cities bombed in the summer of 1945, you find that Hiroshima was second in terms of civilian deaths. If you chart the number of square miles destroyed, you find that Hiroshima was fourth. If you chart the percentage of the city destroyed, Hiroshima was 17th. Hiroshima was clearly within the parameters of the conventional attacks carried out that summer.

From our perspective, Hiroshima seems singular, extraordinary. But if you put yourself in the shoes of Japan’s leaders in the three weeks leading up to the attack on Hiroshima, the picture is considerably different. If you were one of the key members of Japan’s government in late July and early August, your experience of city bombing would have been something like this: On the morning of July 17, you would have been greeted by reports that during the night four cities had been attacked: Oita, Hiratsuka, Numazu, and Kuwana. Of these, Oita and Hiratsuka were more than 50 percent destroyed. Kuwana was more than 75 percent destroyed and Numazu was hit even more severely, with something like 90 percent of the city burned to the ground.

Three days later you have woken to find that three more cities had been attacked. Fukui was more than 80 percent destroyed. A week later and three more cities have been attacked during the night. Two days later and six more cities were attacked in one night, including Ichinomiya, which was 75 percent destroyed. On Aug. 2, you would have arrived at the office to reports that four more cities have been attacked. And the reports would have included the information that Toyama (roughly the size of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1945), had been 99.5 percent destroyed. Virtually the entire city had been leveled. Four days later and four more cities have been attacked. On Aug. 6, only one city, Hiroshima, was attacked but reports say that the damage was great and a new type bomb was used. How much would this one new attack have stood out against the background of city destruction that had been going on for weeks?

In the three weeks prior to Hiroshima, 26 cities were attacked by the U.S. Army Air Force. Of these, eight — or almost a third — were as completely or more completely destroyed than Hiroshima (in terms of the percentage of the city destroyed). The fact that Japan had 68 cities destroyed in the summer of 1945 poses a serious challenge for people who want to make the bombing of Hiroshima the cause of Japan’s surrender. The question is: If they surrendered because a city was destroyed, why didn’t they surrender when those other 66 cities were destroyed?

If Japan’s leaders were going to surrender because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you would expect to find that they cared about the bombing of cities in general, that the city attacks put pressure on them to surrender. But this doesn’t appear to be so. Two days after the bombing of Tokyo, retired Foreign Minister Shidehara Kijuro expressed a sentiment that was apparently widely held among Japanese high-ranking officials at the time. Shidehara opined that “the people would gradually get used to being bombed daily. In time their unity and resolve would grow stronger.” In a letter to a friend he said it was important for citizens to endure the suffering because “even if hundreds of thousands of noncombatants are killed, injured, or starved, even if millions of buildings are destroyed or burned,” additional time was needed for diplomacy. It is worth remembering that Shidehara was a moderate.

At the highest levels of government — in the Supreme Council — attitudes were apparently the same. Although the Supreme Council discussed the importance of the Soviet Union remaining neutral, they didn’t have a full-dress discussion about the impact of city bombing. In the records that have been preserved, city bombing doesn’t even get mentioned during Supreme Council discussions except on two occasions: once in passing in May 1945 and once during the wide-ranging discussion on the night of Aug. 9. Based on the evidence, it is difficult to make a case that Japan’s leaders thought that city bombing — compared to the other pressing matters involved in running a war — had much significance at all.

Gen. Anami on Aug. 13 remarked that the atomic bombings were no more menacing than the fire-bombing that Japan had endured for months. If Hiroshima and Nagasaki were no worse than the fire bombings, and if Japan’s leaders did not consider them important enough to discuss in depth, how can Hiroshima and Nagasaki have coerced them to surrender?

Strategic Significance

If the Japanese were not concerned with city bombing in general or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in particular, what were they concerned with? The answer is simple: the Soviet Union.

The Japanese were in a relatively difficult strategic situation. They were nearing the end of a war they were losing. Conditions were bad. The Army, however, was still strong and well-supplied. Nearly 4 million men were under arms and 1.2 million of those were guarding Japan’s home islands.

Even the most hard-line leaders in Japan’s government knew that the war could not go on. The question was not whether to continue, but how to bring the war to a close under the best terms possible. The Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and others — the Soviet Union, remember, was still neutral) were demanding “unconditional surrender.” Japan’s leaders hoped that they might be able to figure out a way to avoid war crimes trials, keep their form of government, and keep some of the territories they’d conquered: Korea, Vietnam, Burma, parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, a large portion of eastern China, and numerous islands in the Pacific.

They had two plans for getting better surrender terms; they had, in other words, two strategic options. The first was diplomatic. Japan had signed a five-year neutrality pact with the Soviets in April of 1941, which would expire in 1946. A group consisting mostly of civilian leaders and led by Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori hoped that Stalin might be convinced to mediate a settlement between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Japan on the other. Even though this plan was a long shot, it reflected sound strategic thinking. After all, it would be in the Soviet Union’s interest to make sure that the terms of the settlement were not too favorable to the United States: any increase in U.S. influence and power in Asia would mean a decrease in Russian power and influence.

The second plan was military, and most of its proponents, led by the Army Minister Anami Korechika, were military men. They hoped to use Imperial Army ground troops to inflict high casualties on U.S. forces when they invaded. If they succeeded, they felt, they might be able to get the United States to offer better terms. This strategy was also a long shot. The United States seemed deeply committed to unconditional surrender. But since there was, in fact, concern in U.S. military circles that the casualties in an invasion would be prohibitive, the Japanese high command’s strategy was not entirely off the mark.

One way to gauge whether it was the bombing of Hiroshima or the invasion and declaration of war by the Soviet Union that caused Japan’s surrender is to compare the way in which these two events affected the strategic situation. After Hiroshima was bombed on Aug. 6, both options were still alive. It would still have been possible to ask Stalin to mediate (and Takagi’s diary entries from Aug. 8 show that at least some of Japan’s leaders were still thinking about the effort to get Stalin involved). It would also still have been possible to try to fight one last decisive battle and inflict heavy casualties. The destruction of Hiroshima had done nothing to reduce the preparedness of the troops dug in on the beaches of Japan’s home islands. There was now one fewer city behind them, but they were still dug in, they still had ammunition, and their military strength had not been diminished in any important way. Bombing Hiroshima did not foreclose either of Japan’s strategic options.

The impact of the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island was quite different, however. Once the Soviet Union had declared war, Stalin could no longer act as a mediator — he was now a belligerent. So the diplomatic option was wiped out by the Soviet move. The effect on the military situation was equally dramatic. Most of Japan’s best troops had been shifted to the southern part of the home islands. Japan’s military had correctly guessed that the likely first target of an American invasion would be the southernmost island of Kyushu. The once proud Kwangtung army in Manchuria, for example, was a shell of its former self because its best units had been shifted away to defend Japan itself. When the Russians invaded Manchuria, they sliced through what had once been an elite army and many Russian units only stopped when they ran out of gas. The Soviet 16th Army — 100,000 strong — launched an invasion of the southern half of Sakhalin Island. Their orders were to mop up Japanese resistance there, and then — within 10 to 14 days — be prepared to invade Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s home islands. The Japanese force tasked with defending Hokkaido, the 5th Area Army, was under strength at two divisions and two brigades, and was in fortified positions on the east side of the island. The Soviet plan of attack called for an invasion of Hokkaido from the west.

It didn’t take a military genius to see that, while it might be possible to fight a decisive battle against one great power invading from one direction, it would not be possible to fight off two great powers attacking from two different directions. The Soviet invasion invalidated the military’s decisive battle strategy, just as it invalidated the diplomatic strategy. At a single stroke, all of Japan’s options evaporated. The Soviet invasion was strategically decisive — it foreclosed both of Japan’s options — while the bombing of Hiroshima (which foreclosed neither) was not.

The Soviet declaration of war also changed the calculation of how much time was left for maneuver. Japanese intelligence was predicting that U.S. forces might not invade for months. Soviet forces, on the other hand, could be in Japan proper in as little as 10 days. The Soviet invasion made a decision on ending the war extremely time sensitive.

And Japan’s leaders had reached this conclusion some months earlier. In a meeting of the Supreme Council in June 1945, they said that Soviet entry into the war “would determine the fate of the Empire.” Army Deputy Chief of Staff Kawabe said, in that same meeting, “The absolute maintenance of peace in our relations with the Soviet Union is imperative for the continuation of the war.”

Japan’s leaders consistently displayed disinterest in the city bombing that was wrecking their cities. And while this may have been wrong when the bombing began in March of 1945, by the time Hiroshima was hit, they were certainly right to see city bombing as an unimportant sideshow, in terms of strategic impact. When Truman famously threatened to visit a “rain of ruin” on Japanese cities if Japan did not surrender, few people in the United States realized that there was very little left to destroy. By Aug. 7, when Truman’s threat was made, only 10 cities larger than 100,000 people remained that had not already been bombed. Once Nagasaki was attacked on Aug. 9, only nine cities were left. Four of those were on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, which was difficult to bomb because of the distance from Tinian Island where American planes were based. Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, had been removed from the target list by Secretary of War Henry Stimson because of its religious and symbolic importance. So despite the fearsome sound of Truman’s threat, after Nagasaki was bombed only four major cities remained which could readily have been hit with atomic weapons.

The thoroughness and extent of the U.S. Army Air Force’s campaign of city bombing can be gauged by the fact that they had run through so many of Japan’s cities that they were reduced to bombing “cities” of 30,000 people or fewer. In the modern world, 30,000 is no more than a large town.

Of course it would always have been possible to re-bomb cities that had already been bombed with firebombs. But these cities were, on average, already 50 percent destroyed. Or the United States could have bombed smaller cities with atomic weapons. There were, however, only six smaller cities (with populations between 30,000 and 100,000) which had not already been bombed. Given that Japan had already had major bombing damage done to 68 cities, and had, for the most part, shrugged it off, it is perhaps not surprising that Japan’s leaders were unimpressed with the threat of further bombing. It was not strategically compelling.

A Convenient Story

Despite the existence of these three powerful objections, the traditional interpretation still retains a strong hold on many people’s thinking, particularly in the United States. There is real resistance to looking at the facts. But perhaps this should not be surprising. It is worth reminding ourselves how emotionally convenient the traditional explanation of Hiroshima is — both for Japan and the United States. Ideas can have persistence because they are true, but unfortunately, they can also persist because they are emotionally satisfying: They fill an important psychic need. For example, at the end of the war the traditional interpretation of Hiroshima helped Japan’s leaders achieve a number of important political aims, both domestic and international.

Put yourself in the shoes of the emperor. You’ve just led your country through a disastrous war. The economy is shattered. Eighty percent of your cities have been bombed and burned. The Army has been pummeled in a string of defeats. The Navy has been decimated and confined to port. Starvation is looming. The war, in short, has been a catastrophe and, worst of all, you’ve been lying to your people about how bad the situation really is. They will be shocked by news of surrender. So which would you rather do? Admit that you failed badly? Issue a statement that says that you miscalculated spectacularly, made repeated mistakes, and did enormous damage to the nation? Or would you rather blame the loss on an amazing scientific breakthrough that no one could have predicted? At a single stroke, blaming the loss of the war on the atomic bomb swept all the mistakes and misjudgments of the war under the rug. The Bomb was 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.

But attributing Japan’s defeat to the Bomb also served three other specific political purposes. First, it helped to preserve the legitimacy of the emperor. If the war was lost not because of mistakes but because of the enemy’s unexpected miracle weapon, then the institution of the emperor might continue to find support within Japan.

Second, it appealed to international sympathy. Japan had waged war aggressively, and with particular brutality toward conquered peoples. Its behavior was likely to be condemned by other nations. Being able to recast Japan as a victimized nation — one that had been unfairly bombed with a cruel and horrifying instrument of war — would help to offset some of the morally repugnant things Japan’s military had done. Drawing attention to the atomic bombings helped to paint Japan in a more sympathetic light and deflect support for harsh punishment.

Finally, saying that the Bomb won the war would please Japan’s American victors. The American occupation did not officially end in Japan until 1952, and during that time the United States had the power to change or remake Japanese society as they saw fit. During the early days of the occupation, many Japanese officials worried that the Americans intended to abolish the institution of the emperor. And they had another worry. Many of Japan’s top government officials knew that they might face war crimes trials (the war crimes trials against Germany’s leaders were already underway in Europe when Japan surrendered). Japanese historian Asada Sadao has said that in many of the postwar interviews “Japanese officials … were obviously anxious to please their American questioners.” If the Americans wanted to believe that the Bomb won the war, why disappoint them?

Attributing the end of the war to the atomic bomb served Japan’s interests in multiple ways. But it also served U.S. interests. If the Bomb won the war, then the perception of U.S. military power would be enhanced, U.S. diplomatic influence in Asia and around the world would increase, and U.S. security would be strengthened. The $2 billion spent to build it would not have been wasted. 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.

It is troubling to consider, given the questions raised here, that the evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is at the heart of everything we think about nuclear weapons. This event is the bedrock of the case for the importance of nuclear weapons. It is crucial to their unique status, the notion that the normal rules do not apply to nuclear weapons. It is an important measure of nuclear threats: Truman’s threat to visit a “rain of ruin” on Japan was the first explicit nuclear threat. It is key to the aura of enormous power that surrounds the weapons and makes them so important in international relations.

But what are we to make of all those conclusions if the traditional story of Hiroshima is called into doubt? Hiroshima is the center, the point from which all other claims and assertions radiate out. Yet the story we have been telling ourselves seems pretty far removed from the facts. What are we to think about nuclear weapons if this enormous first accomplishment — the miracle of Japan’s sudden surrender — turns out to be a myth?

Ward Wilson is a senior fellow at the British American Security Information Council and the author of “Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons,” from which this article was adapted.

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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.

Sources

Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power, new edition, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1985 (original edition 1965).

Cashman, Sean Dennis. Roosevelt, and World War II, New York and London, 1989.

Cummings, Bruce. The Korean War: A History, New York, 2011.

Dülffer, Jost. Jalta, 4. Februar 1945: Der Zweite Weltkrieg und die Entstehung der bipolaren Welt, Munich, 1998.

Gowans, Stephen. Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, Montreal, 2018.

Harris, Gardiner. ‘At Hiroshima Memorial, Obama Says Nuclear Arms Require ‘Moral Revolution’’, The New York Times, May 27, 2016.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, Cambridge, MA, 2005.

Kohls, Gary G. ‘Whitewashing Hiroshima: The Uncritical Glorification of American Militarism’,

Kolko, Gabriel. The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945, New York, 1968.

Kolko, Gabriel. Main Currents in Modern American History, New York, 1976.

Pauwels, Jacques R. The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, revised edition, Toronto, 2015.

Stokes, Bruce. ’70 years after Hiroshima, opinions have shifted on use of atomic bomb’, Factank, August 4, 2015.

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.

Notes

[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.

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