August 6, 1945

August 6, 1945

This talk was presented at the UNESCO conference “Bauhaus and Brasilia, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. World Heritage of the 20th Century: Modernity and Barbarism” at The Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany 3-5 June 1999. Published as “Grunde und Hintergrunde des Bombenabwurfs auf Hiroshima” in Bauhaus und Brasilia, Auschwitz und Hiroshima. Weltkulturerbe des 20.Jahrhunderts: Modernitat und Barbarei. (Edited by Walter Prigge, translated by Marie Neumullers) Berlin: Edition Bauhaus, Jovis Verlag, 2003, 187-195.

By William Lanouette, Ph. D.

Hiroshima raises many profound questions about how the Twentieth Century will be remembered: Who defines world culture? How do we treat our cultural heritage?  Who remembers what, and for which purpose?

As U.S. President Harry S Truman toured war-torn Berlin on 16th July 1945, he looked at the rubble left by Allied bombing and remarked, “…I fear that the machines are ahead of morals by some centuries.”  And in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam that evening, Truman received word from home that the world’s first atomic bomb had just been tested. Three weeks later, an A-bomb destroyed Hiroshima.

My historian friends in Hungary like to say that “The past is less certain than the future.” They have in mind their nation’s constantly revisionist history, but the remark has special significance for Hiroshima as well, and may help us to answer those three questions.

Who defines world culture?

With Hiroshima as our example, I would answer, both the victors and the victims. It may seem that most history is written about victories, but many cultures also thrive by remembering — even venerating — their past defeats.

The victors in the Pacific War have found much to celebrate about Hiroshima. And from the very beginning, President Truman made their task easier. In his first public announcement, on6thAugust 1945, Truman said that “the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare” had been dropped “on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.” Truman added, “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold.”1 Thus, Truman defined Hiroshima as a military event and justified one act of barbarism with another.

Only later did Truman and his advisors assert that the bomb was used to spare the American lives that might have been lost had the Allies been forced to invade the Japanese home islands. In time, the bomb’s benefits grew — to a million casualties spared, then to “millions of lives” saved.2Truman’s justification was reinforced in a 1947 Harper’s Magazine article about “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” by his former Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson.3

In America, this “orthodox” view of Hiroshima holds that the city’s destruction was necessary to end the war and save lives. Several histories support this interpretation,4 which remains popular because it offers both simplicity and morality. This orthodox view suggests a simple cause-and-effect relationship between Hiroshima and Japan’s surrender eight days later. And it suggests that by obliterating Hiroshima, the bomb actually “saved” lives. As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

But since Hiroshima, a “revisionist” view has emerged based on declassified documents from U.S. government archives and private diaries by Truman, Stimson, and their aides.  (Nothing similar has occurred in Japan, partly because the government destroyed many of its archives for fear that the materials might be used for war-crimes trials.5)

* In 1947, P.M.S. Blackett, a British Nobel laureate in physics, published  Fear, War, and the Bomb: Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy.6 Blackett concluded that America’s use of the bomb had more to do with the early stages of its Cold War against the Soviet Union than with forcing an early Japanese surrender. According to this “atomic diplomacy” interpretation, Truman was urged on by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to end the Pacific War before the Soviet Union’s promised entry on 8th August.

* In 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz published Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima & Potsdam. The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power.7 Alperovitz concluded that the primary reason for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not to end the war with Japan, but, in Byrnes’s phrase, to make the Soviets “more manageable.”

* In 1975, historian Martin J. Sherwin published A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance,8 which emphasized the Soviet factor among many that influenced the decision to bomb Hiroshima.

* And in 1976, historian Barton J. Bernstein edited The Atomic Bomb: The

Critical Issues, raising doubts about Truman’s post-war estimates of the many lives saved by the bomb.9

In 1997, diplomatic historian J. Samuel Walker surveyed scholarship on the Hiroshima decision and refuted as a “widely held myth” the common belief “that Truman had to choose between, on the one hand, authorizing attacks on Japanese cities with atomic bombs or, on the other hand, ordering an invasion.” Instead, Walker concluded,

the historical evidence makes clear that the popular view about the use of the bomb is a mythological construct for the following reasons: (1) there were other options available for ending the war within a reasonably short time without the bomb and without an invasion; (2) Truman and his key advisers believed that Japan was so weak that the war could end before an invasion began;  that is, they did not regard an invasion as inevitable; and (3) even in the worst case, if an invasion of Japan proved to be necessary, military planners in the summer of 1945 projected the number of American lives lost at far fewer than the hundreds of thousands that Truman and his advisers claimed after the war.10

So, ironically, the first revisionist views of Hiroshima came not from the usual suspects — Blackett, Alperovitz, Sherwin, and Bernstein — but from Truman and Stimson. Indeed, Stimson’s ghost writer for the Harper’s article, McGeorge Bundy, later defended Truman’s announcement that Hiroshima was an “Army base” by insisting, “It’s a military target like New York.”11 Bundy also said that he could not recall any documentary source for Stimson’s claim that an invasion might cost a million casualties.12

And yet, most Americans are still eager to believe that killing some 200,000 people at Hiroshima was somehow a moral event. A 1995 Gallup Poll of Americans who were alive at the end of World War II reported that an overwhelming majority agreed with the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan, presumably because of the prevailing myth that the only alternative was an invasion.13 Stressing the lives saved by the bomb prevents the Americans from confronting what their leaders had done.

But the victims can also have a voice in defining world culture. In fact, for many Japanese the destruction of Hiroshima by an A-bomb provides a strong sense of what Japanese historian Sadao Asada calls “nuclear victimization.”  According to Asada, “the ‘orthodox’ interpretation in Japan has reflected the American ‘revisionist’ view”14 and “while the ‘atomic diplomacy’ thesis heightens the Japanese sense of victimization, it also accords with their general unwillingness to come to grips with their responsibility for the Pacific War and its consequences.”15 Thanks to the bomb, at 8:16 a.m. on 6th August 1945, in a flash, the villains of the Pacific War became its greatest victims.

Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai said just after Japan agreed to surrender that “the use of the atomic bomb and the Soviet entry into the war are gifts from Heaven….” Why? Not to force surrender on a reluctant military, Yonai said, but to avoid a post-war domestic political crisis — and perhaps even a coup by militant officers.16 By emphasizing the horrors of Hiroshima, the Japanese may feel less responsibility for the atrocities that their own military committed throughout the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s. These atrocities included the “Rape of Nanking” in China and continued with the sexual enslavement of “comfort women” in Korea and the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Stressing the lives lost by the bomb prevents the Japanese from confronting what their leaders had done.

When the UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided in 1996 to inscribe the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) on the World Heritage List, two countries objected. China complained that “During the Second World War, it was the other Asian countries and peoples who suffered the greatest loss in life and property.”  And, citing especially “the lack of historical perspective,” the United States disassociated itself from the Committee’s decision. “The events antecedent to the United States’ use of atomic weapons to end World War II are key to understanding the tragedy of Hiroshima,” the USA representative stated. “Any examination of the period leading up to 1945 should be placed in the appropriate historical context.”17

How do we treat our cultural heritage?

I would answer, to serve our present purposes. An example was the bitter dispute in 1995 over the Smithsonian Institution’s plan to display the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Many members of the U.S.Congress and lobbyists for military and veterans’ groups proclaimed the orthodox view of Hiroshima. They had expected the fiftieth anniversary of World War II’s end to be a celebration. Not a commemoration. And certainly not a controversy or a condemnation.

Thus, in 1995 the politicians and military professionals attacked the Smithsonian’s exhibition script for including revisionist evidence about the many reasons the bomb was used — military, diplomatic, and political.  As one official for the American Legion, a powerful veterans’ group, said, “The debate started fifty years ago and it has never been resolved.”18 Eventually the Congressmen won, using simplistic appeals to public sentiment and their control over the Smithsonian budget. In the end, the exhibition curators removed displays about the history of strategic bombing, about the top-secret Manhattan Project that designed and built the bomb, and about a petition to President Truman by Project scientists that raised moral questions about bombing civilians.  Gone, too, were gruesome photos and artifacts from Hiroshima. Instead, the exhibition featured parts of the bomber’s gleaming fuselage and a film of the flight crew bragging about how efficiently their mission had ended the war and saved lives.19

Who remembers what, and for which purpose?

I would answer, we all look to history for examples that support our current world view. For example, today’s arms-control activists look with admiration on the lives of two Manhattan Project scientists who worked to build the bomb before Germany could, but who then devoted the rest of their lives to halting nuclear weapons proliferation: Joseph Rotblat and Leo Szilard.

The Polish-born physicist Joseph Rotblat worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico, the secret laboratory where the A-bomb was designed and built. But in 1944, Rotblat learned that Germany had made little progress with its A-bomb program.  He also heard that General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s military director,  planned to use the bomb against Japan — and maybe the Soviet Union. Rotblat had been working on the bomb in order to build a defensive weapon against Germany, not an offensive one. He quit the Project and in England pursued research in nuclear medicine.  In 1955 Rotblat helped philosopher Bertrand Russell to frame the Russell-Einstein Manifesto urging scientists to join forces against weapons of mass destruction. This manifesto led to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, named for the first meeting place in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in 1957.  For this work, Rotblat and Pugwash received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard prompted the first U.S. efforts to race Germany to the A-bomb when, in 1939, he proposed and drafted Albert Einstein’s warning letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With Enrico Fermi, Szilard co-designed the world’s first nuclear reactor. Szilard worked as Chief Physicist for the Manhattan Project, but by 1944 he began to worry about how the bomb would be used during and after World War II. In the spring and summer of 1945, Szilard made three attempts to stop the bomb.

1) In March, Szilard drafted another Einstein letter to President Roosevelt, this time warning about postwar consequences of a nuclear arms race. But Roosevelt died on 12th April before receiving that letter.

2) In May, Szilard called on President Truman at the White House with a copy of Einstein’s letter but was sent by Truman’s appointments secretary to see James Byrnes, who Truman was about to name as Secretary of State. Byrnes saw the A-bomb as a useful weapon to intimidate the Soviets, and he dismissed Szilard’s appeal for international control of the atom.

3) In June, working with Manhattan Project colleagues in Chicago, Szilard helped draft the Franck Committee Report (named for physicist James Franck) that recommended demonstrating the A-bomb before using it against civilians.20 As we know, all three attempts to stop the bomb failed.

So, in July 1945, Szilard organized a petition to President Truman that urged him to consider his “moral responsibilities” before using the new weapon.21 In all, 155 scientists signed different versions of this petition in Manhattan Project laboratories at Chicago and at Oak Ridge in Tennessee — at Los Alamos, laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer banned the petition’s circulation. To undermine Szilard’s petition, General Groves ordered a poll of Manhattan Project scientists. But when 83% of those responding favored a demonstration of the bomb, the Army bureaucracy suppressed both the petition and the poll.22

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard led his scientific colleagues in successfully lobbying the U.S. Congress to shift the A-bomb’s control and development to a new civilian Atomic Energy Commission. To control the spread of nuclear weapons, Szilard urged talks between U.S. and Soviet scientists. He joined actively in the early Pugwash Conferences. And in 1960, during a private meeting with Nikita S. Khrushchev, Szilard persuaded the Soviet leader to agree to a Moscow-Washington “hot line” to help avoid an accidental nuclear war. In 1962, in Washington, Szilard founded America’s first political action committee for arms control, the Council for a Livable World, which continues to lobby against militarism and weapons of mass destruction. In his second career — molecular biology —  Szilard helped found the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. He died at La Jolla in 1964.

But while Rotblat, Szilard, and like-minded scientists saw Hiroshima as their ultimate failure, many others considered the event a stunning success. Twentieth Century American history is dominated by the Three Ms: the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, and the Moon Landing. Americans celebrate all three as examples of their dedication and “know-how.”  But what most Americans fail to realize is that all Three Ms were costly gambles that may well have failed. Indeed, General Groves raced to test and produce the first A-bombs for fear the war would end before they might be used.

General Groves’s target committee had put four Japanese cities off-limits to conventional fire-bombing so the full effects of an A-bomb might be seen. These cities were Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. Sometimes the military mind employs especially perverse logic, such as when an American army commander in Vietnam explained, “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”23 His mentor could well have been General Groves, whose similar but opposite strategy had to save four cities in order to destroy them. And Groves wanted to drop two bombs: a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb. Why two? To justify both the uranium enrichment facility at Oak Ridge, and the plutonium production facility at Hanford, Washington.

Americans remember President Truman as a decisive, plain-speaking chief executive, and after World War II he boasted that he “never had any qualms” about using the bomb. But I contend that Truman did not fully confront the reality of the bomb until after it had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President, Truman knew nothing about the Manhattan Project. He heard, vaguely, about a new weapon on the day he was sworn in as President after Roosevelt’s death. But then two weeks passed before he received a detailed briefing from Stimson and Groves. Truman was swept up by the Manhattan Project’s momentum, and he was dominated by Secretary of State Byrnes. At Potsdam on 25th July, Truman approved orders giving control over the bomb’s use to the Army.

I contend that Truman only acted decisively on 10th August 1945 when he stopped U.S. plans to use a third bomb, then expected to be ready in about 10 days. As General Groves had written the orders, the A-bombs were to be used “as soon as made ready.”  To see and record the results, “visual bombing” was essential. Hiroshima was destroyed on 6th August.  Kokura was the next target chosen, but on 9th August bad weather there sent the B-29 named Bock’s Car to Nagasaki. On 10th August, two days after President Truman was briefed about the destruction of Hiroshima he ordered that no more bombs be used without his express authorization. At a cabinet meeting that day, Commerce Secretary Henry A. Wallace recorded in his diary, “[Truman] said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible.  He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’”24

*     *     *

After considering these answers to three of the Twentieth Century’s most profound historical questions, you may wish to know what I think about Hiroshima.  Personally, I think that destroying Hiroshima was not necessary to end the war quickly; Soviet entry to the Pacific war on 8th August and continuous Allied bombing would surely have forced Japan’s surrender before the planned invasions of Kyushu in November 1945 and Honshu in March 1946. I think that destroying Nagasaki is a moral outrage — a perfect example of modernity and barbarism.

Based on my studies, I think Hiroshima was bombed for several reasons — but not primarily to save lives, as the orthodox view holds, and not primarily to intimidate the Soviets, as Alperovitz and some other revisionists believe. Before the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima, I chaired a roundtable discussion for historians at the U.S. Library of Congress, and from that session I synthesized their views for the Library’s magazine, Civilization.25 I have also conducted extensive research for a biography of Leo Szilard.26

These experiences lead me to conclude that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima for five reasons

1) To end the fighting quickly. The United States and the Allies were war-weary by the summer of 1945. Victory won in Europe still eluded them in the Pacific. Anything was worth a try to stop the fighting.

2) Postwar diplomacy. Truman’s new Secretary of State,  James Byrnes, and a number of military leaders saw the awesome weapon as a way to make the Soviets “more manageable” — first, by ending the Pacific War before they could join it in earnest; second, by countering political gains the Soviets had already made in Europe.

3) Bureaucratic momentum. Fearing that Germany was working on an A-bomb, President Roosevelt began America’s research in 1939 and agreed to make it a high-priority project just before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Building the bomb became a secret US$2 billion effort — equivalent to US$20 billion today. In the end, the commitment to build the bomb produced a powerful impulse to use it.

4) Political justification. Some American military and civilian leaders pushed the White House to use the bomb before Japan could surrender in order to justify those billions spent — without congressional knowledge or approval. As an aide to the Under Secretary of War said, “If this thing works, they won’t investigate anything and if it doesn’t work … they won’t investigate anything else.” And as Truman himself said in his 6th August announcement, “We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history — we won.”

5) Psychological factors. After four costly years of war, Americans in high office were eager to crush the enemy and bring the boys home.  Public feeling was running so high against the Japanese and their barbaric wartime behavior that many American leaders were in no mood to take additional casualties. (One post-war study found that 27% of Allied war prisoners died in Japanese custody, compared with 4% of those held by Germany and Italy.)  Racial hatreds against the Japanese were widespread.

In my view, all five of these reasons led to Hiroshima.  Historians will continue to debate which reason might have been dominant. There is no simple explanation for Hiroshima. But, history is seldom very simple. And, we should recall, when history is made simple, the results can become very dangerous.