Today is the 71st anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan, the United States dropped the first of two nuclear bombs, becoming the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon on civilians. Earlier this year, this incident garnered some interest as President Obama, the first US president to visit Hiroshima sincethe bombing, called for nuclear disarmament. Despite his call for an end to nuclear weapons, his administration has been quietly upgrading its nuclear arsenal to create smaller, more precise nuclear bombs as part of a massive effort that will cost up to $1 trillion over three decades.
I first came to know the truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki when I returned to school and discovered the Hiroshima Maidens…
The Hiroshima Maidens
The Tree of the Knowledge of good and Evil/ Hiroshima Maidens
60"x80" Oil on Canvass/ Wood, 2003
The Hiroshima Maidens was a group of twenty-five Japanese women who were horribly disfigured as young women as a result of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. They dedicated their lives to telling the story of the Hiroshima bombings and the horror of nuclear war.
My curiosity piqued after listening to their talk while I was in college, I investigated further and what I discovered wasn’t pretty. The accepted rationale for Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been that if the atomic bomb had not been used, the war would have continued and more lives would have been lost. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many nations have tested nuclear weapons, but only one has ever used them. That nation, of course, is the United States; the bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 incinerated more than 100,000 residents and left perhaps twice that number dying slowly from radiation poisoning. However, politicians at the time and conventional historians still maintain that those acts were justified. Short of a full-scale invasion of Japan, its leaders would not have been convinced to surrender, and that, the reasoning goes, would have resulted in an even higher death toll.
How many lives would have been lost in such an invasion is not clear. While President Truman threw around figures from 500,000 to one million, at least one historian wrote that the figures the military planners projected put the number at between 20,000 to 46,000. However, the disturbing issue here is not the discrepancy in numbers, but the fact that neither an invasion nor a nuclear attack was necessary to make Japan surrender.
By June of 1945, whole-scale bombing of Japan’s six largest cities had substantially wiped out Japan’s infrastructure and countless lives. In March of that year, as many as one million Tokyo residents were left homeless from the bombing raids. No oil shipments were getting into the country, which was utterly dependent on foreign oil, and by late that July, 90 percent of Japanese merchant shipping had been destroyed.
While it is true that some Japanese factions were resisting the notion of surrender, the leaders in charge were on the verge of calling it quits. The only point deterring surrender was the Japanese concern that the emperor would be allowed to maintain his title. The US forces, of course, eventually accepted this condition.
A US government report issued in 1946 concluded that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs did cause a Japanese surrender. The report cited documentation that as early as May 1945, Japanese leaders had decided that the war be ended even if it meant complete acceptance of Allied terms. The document cites the conclusion that Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped and even if no invasion had been planned or completed.
Another 1946 document, a recently discovered secret intelligence study by the army’s top planning and operations group, came to the same conclusion: an invasion “would not have been necessary” and the A-bomb was not decisive in ending the war.
This view wasn’t some radical lefty bullshit; key military leaders echoed it. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender… In being the first to use [the atomic bomb] we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages,” said William D. Leahy, who was the president’s Chief of Staff and the nation’s senior military officer. The same opinion was offered by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. As you can see, these were conservative people. Indeed, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, went public with this statement: “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace… The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.”
This isn’t hindsight as these assessments were known by US policy makers before they chose to drop the bombs. In fact, in July, American intelligence had intercepted a cable from Japanese foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to his ambassador in Moscow that referred to “His Majesty’s strong desire to secure a termination of the war… ”
There was no attempt on behalf of the Truman administration to demand surrender. No show of power by, say, dropping the bomb on an unpopulated island. There was no careful consideration. This wasn’t the act of last resort. So, if there was no true imperative to drop the bombs then why?
There are several theories, but the one I adhere to is that the US was about enter an unprecedented position of leadership in most of the post-war world and a demonstration of nuclear might was intended more for the Soviets than anything else. It was a show of power to the Soviets, a nation the US military feared. In fact, that the second bomb was made from plutonium, and not uranium as the first one, suggests that the Japanese people were the subject of a gruesome scientific experiment. The bombs were more of an opening shot in a Cold War predicated on the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD)1 that would last for decades.
I write all this because we should never forget. We all should know all those innocent men, women, and children didn’t need to die, as those in power would have us believe.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
1. Mutually assured destruction based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy's use of those same weapons.
Alperovitz, G. (1995) The decision to use the atomic bomb and the architecture of an American myth. (New York: Knopf) [link]
Zinn, H. (1991). A people's history of the United States: 1492-present. New York: Perennial Classics. [link]
Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong New York: Touchstone Books. [link]