Seventy years ago tomorrow, Japan surrendered to end World War II. Almost a lifetime later, that surrender remains wrapped in myths. (More)

Mythellaneous Part II: Ending ‘The Good War’

This week Morning Feature contrasts some common myths with reality. Yesterday we began with swaggering, blustering ‘tough guys’ and research that suggests most are actually losers. Today we see myths that were spawned to justify the use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Saturday we’ll conclude with The Better Deal Myth being pushed by opponents of the Iran nuclear deal.

“As has been demonstrated above….”

We all know the story of how Japan surrendered. The Trinity test proved the success of the Manhattan Project, and the U.S. had two workable atomic weapons. Japan was reeling after 9 years of war, but not willing to surrender. The battle for Okinawa had been horrific and military estimates agreed that hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, would have died in a U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The International Business Times’s Shane Croucher summarizes the mainstream approach to that history:

Japan’s economy, resources and military were mostly spent after years of war. Tokyo had been the target of a fierce and destructive conventional bombing campaign. And the Soviet Union had indicated for months that its non-aggression pact with Japan was now redundant. Revisionists argue that had the Japanese been offered a deal whereby the existing rulers could have held on to power in exchange for peace, they would have surrendered.

But diplomatic messages intercepted by US intelligence, and only released to the public decades later from the 1970s onwards, revealed the overwhelming will of Japan’s upper-echelons to carry on fighting to the end.

Japan was forced to surrender because of the atomic bomb raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which cost lives in order to save many more. It was the lesser of two evils because, had the Allies been forced to invade the Japanese mainland, perhaps millions more may have died in the fighting – Japanese, Americans, Chinese, Russian, British and others.
It may be true that a consequence of the bombings would be to shock the Soviet Union (though Truman had fought hard to win Stalin over in the campaign against Japan). Even if it were true, it was secondary to the ultimate goal: a Japanese surrender. As has been demonstrated above, this was clearly the priority of the US because it meant not having to invade mainland Japan and spend even more lives to end the war.

Croucher writes “as has been demonstrated above,” yet his proof consists almost entirely of citing historians who cherry-pick evidence and openly speculate about dire consequences, while blithely dismissing alternatives to dropping the atomic bombs as mere wishful thinking.

“I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

Writing for TomDispatch and Salon, historian Christian Appy presents a very different story:

Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I’m wondering if we’ve come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world’s only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings. Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the “black rain” that spread radiation and killed even more people – slowly and painfully – leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?

Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear “modernization” in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I’ve been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story: “Love,” says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, “means never having to say you’re sorry.” It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.

It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you’re sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

Appy offers the ‘revisionist’ version: that Japan was ready to surrender on the same terms we ultimately offered after the bombing, or would have surrendered quickly in the face of starvation caused by a naval blockade. No invasion was necessary, and even if one were, there were several military estimates that put casualties for an invasion as low as 40,000 … far from the estimates of “hundreds of thousands, even millions” that took hold after the way.

“Architecture of an American myth”

The Hampton Institute’s Derek Ide offers a detailed examination and contrast of ‘traditionalist,’ ‘revisionist,’ and ‘consensus’ arguments about the atomic bomb:

Traditionalists, also referred to as orthodox historians and post-revisionists, studying the atomic bomb generally accept the view posited by the Truman administration and articulated most clearly in Henry Stimson’s 1947 Harper’s Magazine article. In short, this argument assumes that the use of the atomic bombs against Japan was justifiable on military grounds in order to prevent a costly invasion of the Japanese home islands. Often attached to such analysis is the notion that insofar as the atomic bombs ended the war prior to an invasion and saved hundreds of thousands or millions of lives, the use of the atomic bombs was also a morally sound decision. There tends to be a remarkable level of homogeneity amongst the traditionalist arguments. Whereas they may emphasize certain facts or aspects of the debate, they tend to present strikingly similar arguments, with a few exceptions.

The revisionists, in contrast, tend to be far more heterogeneous. Revisionist historians are unconvinced by the official narrative, and tend to emphasize the alternatives to the atomic bomb not pursued by the Truman administration. Furthermore, most revisionists accept, on some level, the “atomic diplomacy” thesis articulated first by Gar Alperovitz in 1965. To one degree or another revisionists argue that the Truman administration purposefully chose not to pursue alternatives to ending the war and that post-war diplomatic concerns vis-à-vis the Soviet Union were germane to, and in some historian’s view dictated, the use of the atomic bombs.

The third camp, the consensus historians, are those who J. Samuel Walker refers to as having “reached a broad, though hardly unanimous, consensus on some key issues surrounding the use of the bomb.” These include the fact that Truman and his advisers were aware of alternatives that seemed likely to end the war, that invasion would likely not have been necessary, and that the atomic bomb did not save hundreds of thousands or millions of lives. What distinguishes them from the traditionalists is the argument that the atomic bombs were not a military necessity. On the other hand, their rejection or hesitancy to incorporate atomic diplomacy into their analysis differentiates them from the revisionists.

Ide’s lengthy article is worth reading in full, and he concludes by considering the history of the debate itself:

Although [Paul] Boyer aligns neatly with revisionist historians, he does refocus the chronological lens. Where other historians have drawn a line of continuity between the development of the bomb and its use, or between the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, Boyer furthers that line of continuity by exploring the state’s role in managing post-Hiroshima public discourse. In this way Boyer’s work partially overlaps and agrees with but significantly transcends Alperovitz “architecture of an American myth.” By focusing on the state’s institution of a broad, far-reaching propaganda campaign that helped shape popular opinion, Boyer repositions the role of the state not just as user of the atomic bomb, but also as manager of the dominant discourse after its use. In this way, Boyer provides a unique historiographical contribution by arguing that atomic policies “transformed not only military strategy and international relations, but the fundamental ground of culture and consciousness” in the United States.

“Humility in recognising the frailties of the decision-makers”

Perhaps least persuasive is the argument offered a decade ago by military historian Max Hastings at the Guardian:

Those who today find it easy to condemn the architects of Hiroshima sometimes seem to lack humility in recognising the frailties of the decision-makers, mortal men grappling with dilemmas of a magnitude our own generation has been spared.

In August 1945, amid a world sick of death in the cause of defeating evil, allied lives seemed very precious, while the enemy appeared to value neither his own nor those of the innocent. Truman’s Hiroshima judgment may seem wrong in the eyes of posterity, but it is easy to understand why it seemed right to most of his contemporaries.

We can concede “the frailties of the decision-makers” without stubbornly defending their mistakes. Indeed that is a key benefit from the study history. It allows us to contrast how decision-makers saw events at the time with the wider and clearer view offered by distance and historical research. And in doing so, we can find repeating patterns of false analysis … where leaders’ judgments were clouded by tribalism, confirmation bias, dark vengeance, or starry-eyed naïveté.

Rather than blithely accepting that such mistakes are inevitable, historians should help us recognize conditions that make such mistakes more likely, so we can try to avoid them in the future. Otherwise history is merely a collection of self-serving myths.


Photo Credit: Phoenix House


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