Hiroshima Revisionism: An Interview with Robert Maddox
Mr. Fic is a Seoul-based freelance writer and broadcaster. This interview is part of Fic's "Voices of History" series with men and women who shape or interpret our world. He is at email@example.com.
"I regard Hiroshima [revisionism] as the greatest hoax in American history."--Robert Maddox
If the atomic bombing of Hiroshima released tremendous heat and blast physically, the debate over its justification can be intellectually incindiary. Robert Maddox, a veteran historian, is now the leading thinker in a broad effort that exposes revisionist critics of the atomic strike as guilty of impoverished or dishonest analysis. Maddox was trained at Rutgers University and taught at The Pennsylvania State University. He edited a volume of essays, The Myths of Revisionism: Hiroshima in History.
VF:Have you ever been to Hiroshima?
RM: I was in Japan in the early 1950s while in the army -- have never visited Hiroshima.
VF:How did you get interested in the complex topic of bombing justifications?
RM: [It was] in the 1970s while doing a book on what was then called “New Left Revisionism.” I [read] a number of blatant falsifications in the work of William Appleman Williams, and realized that other new left authors used some of his distortions. Williams, following the lead of [English scientist] P. M. S. Blackett, had accused [US President] Harry S. Truman of using the bomb to bully the Soviets rather than merely to end the war against Japan. Whereas Williams had devoted only a few passages to the subject, Gar Alperovitz published an entire, heavily footnoted book. Williams, Alperovitz and others were included in my 1973 book, The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (Princeton University Press: 1973).
VF:Cite the chief mistakes that you insist the leading revisionists make.
RM: Without question, Alperovitz’s most significant “contribution” was his assertion that Japan would have surrendered as early as spring, 1945 provided only that it be permitted to retain its sacred emperor. Truman and [Secretary of State] James F. Byrnes knew this through intercepted Japanese messages but refused to make the offer because they wanted the war to continue until the bombs could be used. This appeared to support his theme that the bombs were not dropped to defeat an already defeated Japan, but rather to awe the Soviets. His “evidence” consisted of pretending that whenever the word “peace” appeared in a Japanese message, it referred to surrender. See my first chapter in "Hiroshima in History" for details, and for other examples of his methods. Despite [how] this scam has been exposed numerous times, some revisionists still use it. See my essay on the recent Pulitzer Prize winning book, "American Prometheus" (www.http://shafr.org/newsletter/2007/december/index.htm).
VF:Your accuse Alperovitz of misusing ellipses to alter meaning and combining different passages into misleading combinations. Can you cite a concrete example of each?
RM: For examples, see pages 7-19 of "Hiroshima in History."
VF:You cite huge American casualty numbers in an invasion. Explain how you came to them.
RM: The 900,000 figure is from Edward J. Drea’s superb MacArthur’s Ultra: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan, published in 1992. The 900,000 figure...is the number of Japanese defenders on Kyushu by the time the war ended. This is significant because there were only about 350,000 there when Truman authorized the invasion on June 18th, 1945.
VF:The Dennis Giangreco chapter seeks to show that a large casualty count was bandied about before the bombing. How is this timing important?
RM: This is significant because many revisionists have argued that the [high] figure cited in Truman’s memoirs is a post war “creation” designed to make dropping the bombs more palatable to the American people, and that actual estimates were far lower. Giangreco has shown that such [massive] figures indeed were being talked about at the higher levels and that Truman knew.
VF:You claim a great discovery: Truman's papers reveal that Herbert Hoover's memo to Truman warned of those staggering casualties. Who found this? Is it revolutionary?
RM: [R]ead Dennis Giangreco’s chapter in "Hiroshima in History" as the whole story is far too involved. Giangreco did not “find” the Hoover memo, historians had known about it for years. His contribution, and it is major, is to show how seriously Truman took the memo...He circulated the memo among close advisers and asked for their responses. Not one of them questioned the high casualty figures Hoover cited. The memo also sufficiently impressed Truman that he had Admiral Leahy call a meeting with the Joints Chiefs of Staff on June 18th 1945 to discuss, among other things, casualty estimates.
VF:The Asada essay purports to prove that Tokyo was zealous about fighting on. He is Japanese -- does that stand out?
RM: I think Asada’s article is very persuasive because it is based largely on Japanese sources. Japanese militarists had vowed to keep on fighting to the last man, woman, and child. The atomic bombs permitted the peace faction to help the militarists “save face” by arguing that Japan had been defeated by superior science rather than by force of arms.
VF:Is his analysis isolated among experts?
RM: Richard B. Frank’s magisterial Downfall: The End of the Japanese Empire, also based on extensive use of Japanese sources, reinforces Asada’s conclusions. Frank wrote, “Those insisting that Japan’s surrender could have been procured without recourse to atomic bombs cannot point to any credible supporting evidence from the eight men who effectively controlled Japan’s destiny: the six members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal [Koichi] Kido, and the Emperor.” Revisionists proclaim that the Soviet declaration of war [not] the bombs, caused Japan to surrender. While this was an important setback to Japan, it did not come as a shock as did the bombs because the Japanese had been observing the Soviet buildup in the Far East for months.
VF:Is Asada's stance courageous?
RM: Asada has come under a lot of criticism in Japan but tells it like it is. He goes against the grain. He was trained at Yale rather than going through the Japanese education system so he sees both sides.
VF:Truman said that he sought to avoid another Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other. Did this battle obsess him?
RM: While I would not use the word “obsessed,” certainly Truman’s main concern was to avoid the bloodbath an invasion would have entailed.
VF:As late as August 9th, 1945, Japanese war minister Korechika Anami wanted to reject the Potsdam declaration calling upon Japan to surrender unless the Emperor system was retained, there be no large-scale occupation of Japan, and the Japanese preside over their own disarmament and conduct their own war crimes trials. Is this weighted well in the debate?
RM: Of course, the revisionists fail to mention Anami’s last three “absolute” conditions because they are devastating to the fiction that retention of the Emperor was the sole obstacle to surrender.
VF:The critics argue that Japan would quit if Washington guaranteed the Emperor system over unconditional surrender. Why didn't Truman relax the terms and so avoid the bombing?
RM: Truman and those around him believed said that after WW 1, the Allies missed the bus because they did not occupy Germany and root out the causes of militarism. Twenty years later, there was a second war. So liberals -- for instance Dean Acheson – wanted to get rid of the entire imperial system, as well as other Japanese institutions that they believed were responsible for causing the war. Conservatives, who feared the Soviet Union more than they did a resurgent Japan, tended to favor retaining the emperor. Some Americans were so tired of the war they would do anything to end it.
VF:A key revisionist charge insists that Truman bombed to scare the Soviets so they would not enter the war but would bow to US power after it. What is your defense?
RM: [He] asked the USSR all along to get into the war. Truman went to Potsdam for the main or the major reason of getting Stalin in. When the Soviets entered the war on August 8th, Truman called an impromptu press conference to make the announcement because he was enthusiastic. The US ambassador to Moscow Averill Harriman was told how effective he had been in following instructions for getting the Soviets in. It was psychologically important and would pin down Japanese troops on the homeland away from Kyushu [the designated invasion beach].
VF:But Tokyo was trying to negotiate surrender through Moscow. Doesn't that seem to disprove Maddox?
RM: The Japanese were not trying to negotiate a surrender through Moscow. They were trying to persuade the Soviets to broker a negotiated peace that would have permitted them to retain their imperial system as well as their prewar empire. Decryptions of Japanese diplomatic messages have been available in all good research libraries since the 1970s. Revisionists simply choose to ignore the many statements by the Japanese ambassador in Moscow that Tokyo’s efforts to gain a negotiated peace were futile: “Your way of looking at things and the actual situation in the Eastern Area [are] absolutely contradictory.” For a fuller discussion, see my Weapons for Victory (University of Missouri Press, 1995).
VF:But we read strong statements from American officials and officers who panned the bombing. Don't these contradict you?
RM: Revisionists are fond of citing various officials -- [General Douglas] MacArthur, [US Admiral Chester] Nimitz and [US Army Air Force General Curtis] LeMay, etc. -- who later criticized using the bombs. There is little doubt that some of these men had axes to grind. There is no credible evidence...that any of them criticized using the bombs before or immediately after they were dropped. Indeed, some Alperovitz cites as opposed to the bomb actually urged that a third bomb be dropped on Tokyo.
VF:Why not demonstrate the weapon on a desert island, as the critics say was possible?
RM: I treat the issue on pages 44, 63-64, and 67-69 of Weapons for Victory. When this question was raised during a March 31st, 1945 meeting between the Interim Committee and its Scientific Panel, head of the panel Robert Oppenheimer replied that he could think of no demonstration...sufficiently impressive to induce the Japanese to surrender. [Also], it might prove to be a dud...the Japanese might bring prisoners of war to the demonstration site, and that they would make every effort to destroy the carrier in flight.
VF:The peace movement condemns the attack as triggering the nuclear arms race. Is this the right cause-effect chain? If so, isn't it impossible to support the mission?
RM: This is absurd on its face. The Soviets had their own atomic program in place long before Hiroshima and knew through espionage all about the US effort. There would have been an arms race even if the US did not use the bombs against Japan. Can anyone imagine that, if only the United States had not used the bombs, Stalin would have permitted the US to enjoy a perpetual nuclear monopoly [with] the Soviets...helpless? The idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the arms race merely provides revisionists with another stick...to beat Truman.
VF:The Hiroshima Peace Museum displays a Byrnes memo noting that the bomb cost two billion dollars and so US politicians had to show the tax payer that it worked -- that is why they attacked the city. Agree?
RM: Use of the Byrnes memorandum [here] represents another..."grab at any straw" attempt to deny that the real goal was to end the war as quickly as possible. It is sheer nonsense. Byrnes was [then] skeptical about the Manhattan Project. He had recently received a memorandum from an aide suggesting that it was foisted on the government by "professors who dream that by [atomic bombing] the Japanese and others wars can be brought to a speedy and successful termination." (Robert L. Messer, End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Origins of the Cold War [University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1982, p. 251]). As Director of the Office of War Mobilization (OWM), he was sure to incur his share of the blame after the war...for wasting resources and manpower if the program proved to be a 2 billion dollar boondoggle. Like any good bureaucrat, he wanted to protect his fanny by proposing that the project be scaled back or...vetted by a committee of eminent scientists not directly involved. Byrnes lost his skepticism by May at the very latest [as] he was no longer head of OWM, and began urging...full speed ahead. The test explosion of July 16th proved [its] feasibility...thereby precluding future charges [of] wasted effort. [For] justifying costs, actually dropping the bombs became superfluous for the administration could boast that it had acquired...the most powerful weapon in history.
VF:Critics cite the US official Paul Nitze's post-war bombing survey finding that Tokyo would have quit the conflict because of conventional air attacks even without being hit with the nuclear stick. So the American study exposes a crime, correct?
RM: You will have to read Gian Gentile’s chapter in History in History as it is far too complicated to do justice to here...Gentile shows that the survey’s conclusion, written under the direction of Nietze, misrepresented what former Japanese officials stated to interrogators. With one possible exception, none of them claimed that Japan would have surrendered before November 1st. In one sense the issue is irrelevant, as the report was written after the war had ended and was not available to Truman at the time the bombs were used.
VF:How common is the revisionist view, say in major US journals?
RM: The three leading journals -- Journal of American History, American Historical Review, and Diplomatic History -- have long since been...house organs for revisionist history. They routinely give revisionist works to other revisionists or...those favorable to revisionism, while “orthodox” books are also sent to revisionists. One, for instance, sent my Weapons For Victory to a...coauthor of one of Alperovitz’s books. I wrote the book review editor asking him why he did not send it directly to Alperovitz, thereby eliminating the middleman. Not surprisingly, I received no reply. Many newspapers including the New York Times and Washington Post have swallowed revisionist fictions because they make good copy. Alperovitz, Kai Bird and others have on several occasions called press conferences to announce the discovery of some “new” document that proves their case...[that] invariably [were] public for decades...Surveys have shown that public approval of using the bombs has dropped sharply over the years. No doubt at least part of the reason is...revisionist distortions in the press, books and t.v. documentaries. The Peter Jennings special in 1995 provides a case in point. The entire program could have been written by a revisionist. I was the only “orthodox” scholar to appear. McGeorge Bundy was on, but he could easily be dismissed as a former [biased] official. [My] few statements were sandwiched in with others [as if] I supported the revisionist position.
VF:Can you at least assert that your perspective is heard on campus?
RM: Countless studies have shown that university faculties in the liberal arts are overwhelmingly on the left. The “hate America” view of history is congenial to them and has little to do with what the historical record actually says. Whenever revisionists are caught...the response inevitably is that this is nit-picking or...McCarthyism. Leftists owe a great debt to McCarthy for providing them with a shield. I know, for I [was] called a McCarthyite myself -- see the review of my new left book in the NY Times in 1973.
VF:What is the trend line among the US public?
RM: For now, most American history departments are skewed to the left. They are prone to look with favor on such obvious charlatans as Howard Zinn. They are impervious to evidence. But eventually the anti-revisionist interpretation will prevail. In the past 10 years or so, there has been some progress as we see more books that are anti-revisionist by authors such as Wilson Miscamble who says its time to retire revisionism
VF:Some 90% of Japanese condemn Truman. Do you know that you are arguing against Mt. Fuji-sized opposition?
RM: What is Hiroshima revisionism in the United States is orthodoxy in Japan. The Japanese, with few exceptions such as Asada, like to see themselves as victims -- this [distracts] from the some 20 million people they killed throughout Asia.
VF:These same Japanese insist that racism factored into their ordeal -- do you think it did? Your book overlooks the issue.
RM: I ignore the charge because it is preposterous. The bomb initially was developed to use against Germany, which surrendered months before it was ready. Surely the massive bombing campaigns by the US/GB air forces during the war indicated that there was little compunction about devastating German cities. Should the US have gone back and dropped one on a German city months after V-E Day just to show we were not prejudiced?
VF:Reveal your motive in exposing the revisionists' flaws and how wrong were they -- minor distortions, deceit?
RM: Back in the 1970s, I wrote a book criticizing what was then known as the "new left" version of the origins of the Cold War. I tried to show how these historians had falsified the historical record...to show that the United States bore primary responsibility for the conflict. Hiroshima revisionism was a part of this effort, and became enormously popular in academic circles. I regard it as the greatest hoax in American history [because] ideology trumped scholarship.
VF: Do you have a sense of mission?
RM: It became that way [after] I came to study the new left and saw its errors accumulating, especially regarding Hiroshima. I was shocked to find numerous professors, some with endowed chairs, writing such patent nonsense. They had to know better.
VF:Where does the debate between you and your sparring partners stand now?
RM: [See] the exchange between Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin and me in the latest issue of "Passport." Their response [is] a perfect example of the poverty of Hiroshima revisionism. They cite [Tsuyoshi] Hasegawa's book "Racing the Enemy" in support of their "early surrender" thesis when in fact it explicitly rejects the notion [see http://www.hup.harvard.edu]. Either Bird and Sherwin had not read the book or...hoped their readers had not. In any event, pretty shabby.
VF:As a capstone take home message, what is truly new in your book?
RM: All the information has appeared before with the exception of my essay on Alperovitz, which is a critique of his shenanigans over the years. The other chapters demolish revisionist positions on a number of issues: That Japan was ready to surrender, that expected casualties for the invasion of Japan were far lower than Truman would later claim, and that Truman wanted to keep the Soviets out of the war. Robert Newman has a chapter analyzing the Enola Gay fiasco that took place at the Air and Space Museum in 1995 [the] fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima.
VF:Professor Maddox, thank you for sharing your expertise on what is arguably the 20th century's leading controversy. Let us follow up one day to learn the new academic and public verdicts on the bombing.
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Kevin James Chiles - 12/30/2010
Hate to reply to my own post, but I mistook Richard B. Frank for a different writer. I apologize for the error.
Kevin James Chiles - 12/7/2010
Couldn't agree more, Donald. I don't know what Mr. Maddox is like in person, but his arguments have shown a pattern of astounding smugness, self-congratulation, and shrillness that I find repulsive. He smears and insults anyone who disagrees with his view that the bombings were completely justified and necessary, and this interview provided some great examples of his views. "The Japanese, with few exceptions such as Asada, like to see themselves as victims -- this [distracts] from the some 20 million people they killed throughout Asia." he says. He’s using the same tactic employed by Richard B. Frank, (a contributor to The Weekly Standard who accuses others of bias) which is to try to cast the victims as self-pitying and ignorant of Japanese atrocities in Asia. The goal of this tactic is make us believe that the Japanese are out-of-touch and out-of-perspective, and to disregard their opinions as irrelevant and unfairly biased against America. It’s a useful argument for Maddox and Frank, because it helps them avoid answering troubling questions about the morality of America bombing undefended civilian targets.
First off, I’ve been to Hiroshima—Mr. Maddox hasn’t—and seen the museum. The predominant theme was about the destruction and tragedy wrought by nuclear warfare, not self-pity and anti-Americanism.
And if the Japanese want to “distract” from Militarist crimes, then why is that Barefoot Gen, one of the most influential and popular depictions of the bombing, passionately opposes the Japanese Militarists who sparked the war? Maddox, of course, has no answer. He’s too busy trying to get us to believe in the absolute purity of Saint Truman’s motives, and the opinions of people who actually experienced firsthand the horrors of the bombing seem to be little more than a nuisance to him.
And racism having an effect on the decision was "preposterous?" Has this guy listened to the opinions of General DeWitt, or even looked at American wartime propaganda? What about the skulls taken from dead Japanese soldiers? Racism was common in World War II, and it is not “preposterous” to suspect that American leaders were influenced by these popular attitudes. Harry Truman wasn't Hitler, but I highly doubt that he viewed the Japanese as being just as worthy of life as Americans.
Before anyone gets me wrong, I do believe that there's some room for interpretation in the events and motives leading to the bombing. But it seems Mr. Maddox is driven more by a desire to gather evidence for his crusade against anyone he deems anti-American than to offer a legitimate critique of revisionism.
Erik Svane - 2/9/2009
Except, of course, that there weren't any civilians in Hiroshima, not a single one. Not in my viewpoint (I hasten to add), but in that of Japan's overlords.
To quote Thomas Sowell: "Japan's plans for defense against invasion involved mobilizing the civilian population, including women and children, for the same suicidal battle tactics" as the Japanese air force's Kamikazes.
And a apanese-American: "If it were not for the Hiroshima and, yes, the Nagasaki bombing, my Japanese grandmother would have had to fight the American forces, an event for which she and the other women in her neighborhood were preparing. Lance or spear practice was a regular women's exercise to practice for the anticipated U.S. landing"
More -- much more -- here:
Donald E. Staringer - 10/26/2008
The Maddox interview evolved into a diatribe against historians who have not accepted completely the orthodox interpretation regarding the use of the atomic bomb. These historians have “falsified the historical record” to show the US “primarily responsible” for the conflict. If he means these historian’s beliefs caused Pearl Harbor, he sounds like Rush Limbaugh rather than a responsible scholar.
The greatest “hoax” of American history is the misguided interpretation suggested by their “hate American view of history.” Howard Zinn is a charlatan (one who claims falsely that he has a certain skill!) and Gar Alperovitz practices shenanigans in his historical writings. There are many historians who find much to believe in the revisions in the orthodox interpretation of the bombing and to say they have a “hate America view of history” is demagoguery to say the least. Rather reminds one of the slogans “America: Love it or Leave It” or “My Country, Right or Wrong, but My Country.”
According to Maddox, those who opposed the bombings had “axes to grind.” To suggest that the $2 billion cost of the bomb had nothing to do with the final decision to use it was “sheer nonsense” It is “preposterous” that racism had anything to do with the final decision. Finally if an official like McGeorge Bundy raised questions about the orthodox interpretation, he was obviously “biased.”
History demands reinterpretation since later generations ask different questions of the historical record. History written as the unsullied truth will find itself re-evaluated and reinterpreted in spite of itself. Maddox’s efforts to influence that record would be enhanced without the venom.
A. M. Eckstein - 10/17/2008
Well, OC, I think the evidence is very strong that Olympic was going forward. The forces were being gathered. A tiny example: Lt. Paul Fussel, over in Europe, had been ordered to the Pacific despite ordinarily-incapacitating war-wounds already sustained in fighting in Germany (see his autobiography). Another tiny example: there's the 500,000 Purple Hearts that had been ordered and were in production. They were in fact made; some of them were still in use for Bosnia in the
In my view, the articles in Maddox's book (except perhaps for Maddox' own essay!) are a must-read.
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/17/2008
My father was also slated for the invasion--so perhaps we both would have been counterfactual!
I do wonder if the invasion had gone ahead. There is an extremely well documented desire to avoid invasion on the American side. I tend to think that desire would have led them to continue A-bombing, to the extent that bomb production allowed, perhaps augmented by conventional raids.
art eckstein - 10/16/2008
Mr. Chamberlain, I think we can assume that if the Japanese hadn't surrendered, then Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, would have gone forward on Nov. 1, 1945--with a horrifying bloodbath on both sides the result. Large parts of the Japanese govt were hoping either to defeat this invasion outright (a real possibility) or make the butcher's bill so high that a compromise peace retaining Japanese "honor" would have been the consequence.
I believe that there weren't any more A-bombs immediately available, though some were coming on-line at the end of the year.
But of course, this is all a counterfactual. (Since my father was in the 5th Marine Division, of Iwo Jima fame, if Olympic had gone forward, then I suspect that myself probably would have ended up a counterfactual.)
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/14/2008
Maddox has made many good points in critiquing--he would say debunking--Hiroshima revisionism. However, I do have a couple of disagreements with this interview.
1. He might be surprised at how often his views--or at least similar ones--do make it into university classrooms. Like many people, he assumes falsely that a few Tier 1 institutions set the content for all universities. Certainly they are influential, but those elsewhere do not slavishly copy them.
2. Part of the complexity of the debate over Hiroshima has to do with the moral question of using atomic weapons and, beyond that, the moral question of the deliberate maximization of civilian casualties in the locations targeted in both the firebombings and at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That does not condone or excuse bad scholarship. And he is right that revisionists have exaggerated the prospects for peace.
But part of what drove the unfortunate acceptance of that scholarship is that it also incorporated a critique of targetting masses of civilians. I may well have missed it (and would be happy to get references to the contrary), but I don't think the traditional scholarship on Hiroshima prior to the revisionists had considered carefully the ethical question of civilian targetting, even by applying the ethics of the time. That was an real gap that the revisionists claimed to fill. As the gap was real, they gained a certain credibility.
3. This is not a criticism so much as a follow-up question. The decision to drop the A-bomb is an area that has been haunted by poor counterfactual analyses. Still, such questions have their uses, and I would pose one in order to shed light on the ethical reasoning of the time:
"If Japan had not surrendered after Nagasaki, what would the US have done? Would it have built and dropped another couple of A-bombs and, if there were no surrender, a couple more after that, and after that?
In short, in the absence of a surrender, when was the U.S. likely to have said, "Hold, enough"?