What Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin Got Wrong About Hiroshima


Mr. Newman is Professor Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh.

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Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, two indefatigable Truman bashers, were at work for the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender. They have a slightly new version of the big myth about this event: the bomb did not trigger surrender, Soviet entry into the war did. Their "Myths of Hiroshima" was syndicated by the Los Angeles Times.

Of course, most Japanese, and some American Japanophiles, believe this. Bird and Sherwin, finding Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. a Japanese with scholarly paraphernalia who will testify that Soviet entry into the war caused surrender, were ecstatic. Couple this with a false account of J.Robert Oppenheimer's position and you've got a slam dunk.

One problem: Hasegawa's bias is too blatant. In his Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, he sets out to prove that the Pacific War just happened; it "is a story with no heroes, but no real villains, either." So he can ignore the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the hundreds of thousands of Asian slave laborers who died building the Burma railway and starving in Japanese mines and factories. Not to mention beheadings, endless other atrocities, forcing native populations to jump off cliffs rather than be captured by the Americans.

UN and other figures put the number of civilians killed by the Japanese Empire at 10 to 25 million. Some Chinese historians claim 30 million Chinese alone perished. General Ishii and his chemical warfare operations were not villains, just guys doing a job. Sheldon Harris didn't write Factories of Death -- or did that somehow evade Hasegawa's attention?

But there were no villains, just "a human drama whose dynamics were determined by the very human characteristics of those involved: ambition, fear, vanity, anger, and prejudice." Maybe Ishii was prejudiced.

No heroes? If Hasegawa ever gets within earshot, I'll tell him about a few heroes, including some friends of mine who were jerked out of my division bound for Europe in the fall of 1944 because losses in the Pacific were beyond expectations. Oh yes -- Truman, Marshall, Stimson, Joe Stilwell, perhaps even Douglas MacArthur were heroes. Would I insist that there were some Russian heroes? Probably, but I could only identify some who fought in Europe, like at Stalingrad.

Were the Japanese all villains? Did they believe in the divine origin of Hirohito, and his right to bring everybody under one (Japanese) roof? No, but to claim moral equivalence with the nations Japan assaulted is repulsive. And every single Japanese leader interrogated after the war admitted they were in it to the bitter end absent the shock of the atom, and possibly also the Soviets.

Now Hasegawa insists "The Army General Staff . . . speculated that . . . the Soviets would not likely launch a large-scale operation against Japan until February 1946." This remarkable claim is attributed to Hata Hikosaburo, in a 1975 publication. So when it happened on August 8, 1945, it "caught the army by complete surprise." Every military history of the Pacific War notes that concentration of Soviet tanks on the Chinese border was accelerating in early summer 1945. Did the good general think that was because there was no room for them in Germany?

Ed Drea, the top American student of the end of the Pacific War, has read the ULTRA decrypts, and presents the one of May 30, 1945, which was an order to the Kwantung Army to "conduct a delaying action designed to exhaust the Soviet invaders." Japanese troops would withdraw to the rugged terrain near the Korean border, and should be able to hold out for six months. Either General Hata, or Professor Hasegawa, or both, are obscurantists. They had to know the Soviets planned to enter, and were building up to it the minute Germany surrendered. Bird and Sherwin love them though. Sadao Asada, who gives a much more plausible reconstruction of the Japanese decision to surrender in his Pacific Historical Review article of November 1998 makes mincemeat of the "Soviet shock" thesis.

Bird and Sherwin have other falsehoods. McGeorge Bundy may have claimed he pulled the "million lives saved" by Japan's early surrender estimate out of the air, but Bundy was not the source of at least five similar estimates. Readers who want to see for themselves can find in the Truman Presidential Library a memo Herbert Hoover sent to Truman in May 1945 assuming a million casualties if we had to invade Japan; and you will also find Truman's writing on that document in his charactersitic blue pencil, instructing his secretary to send copies to four trusted officials for their comments. If you want to know about the credibility of Hoover's information, go to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and look at the correspondence John Callan O'Laughlin, a close friend of George Marshall, sent to Hoover. You never heard of this intelligence pipeline? You won't from the likes of Bird and Sherwin.

There's more finagling the evidence here. J. Robert Oppenheimer is not ignored by these authors, they just misrepresent him. He supported the use of these two bombs to shock Japan into surrender. He never repudiated that judgment. What he did object to -- and I agree with this -- was the decision to build the H-Bomb, and the obscene creation of what became a 32,500 nuclear warhead arsenal. Bird and Sherwin would have you believe that Oppie thought Truman made the wrong decision. Oppie regretted bringing this horrible weapon into the world, but he knew the carnage Japan was creating every day the war went on, and he knew Marshall was hurting for GIs to finish the Pacific part of the war.

I admire the ingenuity these authors display in bringing Osama bin Laden into a diatribe on Truman's decision. I wish they had also brought some genuine evidence, instead of a "scholar" seeking to reinforce the Japanese victimization syndrome. It is the Hasegawas who legitimate the Yasukuni Shrine worship.

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Kevin James Chiles - 12/7/2010

I personally doubt the necessity of the bombings or the planned ground invasion, but at least you appreciate the ambiguity of the situation and the importance of human life. I respect that.

Warren Worth - 5/8/2009

The Truman-bashing of this pair can also be seen in "American Prometheus," where they describe Truman as "a man who compensated for his insecurities with calculated displays of decisiveness..." Amazingly enough, this aspect of Truman's personality has completely eluded biographers such as David McCullough, probably because it does not exist. It was at this point that I set down "American Prometheus" for a long rest, as the editorializing of this revisionist pair had made me tired.

vaughn davis bornet - 7/28/2008

For whatever it means: As Barracks Officer for NAS Alameda in 1944-45, I came to live with a wife and new baby in a quonset hut on the base by late summer, 1945.

We assumed that although the Admiral told my wife I was "indispensable" and "irreplaceable," that the Pacific War would have a long, long time left in it--and that I would Have to Go west and take great risks.

The end of the war with the totally unknown atomic weapons astonished us, but we spend little time discussing the morality of it.

I don't believe we even mentioned "the Russians" at the time. Those cities had been destroyed; we did it; OF COURSE the Japanese gave up!

I used to teach a summer seminar course on "Hiroshema" at So. Ore. Col. and read the contemporary American press (July-August). I read accounts from then and later about the awful losses we took in the far Pacific. Ships were sunk. Beach invadors were massacred. WE were at war with a serious and ruthless opponent. And now: we were, amazingly, ending it!

That was no time for Regrets....

Today, I'm sorry for the civilians of those cities, and skeptical that the second weapon had to be used. I wonder if negotiation and warning and a tiny bit of waiting would have been preventive of our Terrible Action. But it is just wondering. I can't know.

What I know is the relief we felt then. (And, my astonishment when the Navy stuck to its judgment that I was "essential" and wouldn't let me out until after Christmas, four full months later on. I was involved in demobilization, you see.)

Maybe this is interesting. Perhaps it should have been published somewhere else.

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. Stanford, 1951; --Ashland, Oregon

Tim Matthewson - 5/11/2006

I happened to be talking with one eminent historian of American foreign policy about the end of WWII, and it was his opinion that the Russian entry into the war that led to Japan's surrender. At the time of the surrender, he was a young line officer in the U.S. Navy and the announcement of the bombing of the two Japanese cities with A-bomb weapons made little impact on the men on the ship where he was serving. But when it was announced that the Russians had entered the war against Japan, the men on board gave a loud cheer. The officers and men of the US Navy had no idea what an A-bomb was; and even if the bombs leveled two cities, that made little difference to the sailors, for an invasion of the Japanese homeland would still be required and result in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and sailors. But the decision of Russia to enter the war against Japan, with Russia's virtually limitless manpower, that was something the men could understand. Much of what passes for the history of the end of WWII is written with the tacit assumption that the U.S. should not have used those horrible weapons, that is, the history is written with too much hindsight. People at the time, including the Japanese, Americans, Russians, and others, did not understand that an entirely new era had been born with the explosion of atomic weapons. But the Russian entry into the war was understood, and it was the Russian decision that led Americans to cheer, and that led Japan to realize that surrender was the only option left open to them.

HNN - 8/24/2005

If Nobile had read a half-dozen or so of the four dozen (plus or minus) estimates for Kyushu casualties in War Department files as discussed by Giangreco in his Pacific Historical Review article, or if Nobile actually did some legitimate research (the achievement of which he has yet to demonstrate) by actually going to the best source on this, the information available to former President Herbert Hoover from a close friend of George Marshall, which is available NOW at the Hoover Presidential Library, he would know that the one million estimate was credible enough to induce Truman to check it out. Did Truman believe it? We don't know. Did he think it worth pursuing? Come on, Nobile, get real.

Philip Nobile - 8/17/2005

Citing Herbert Hoover's estimate of a million casualties in the planned invasion of Japan is intellectually dishonest unless the War Department's dismissal of Hoover's number is included. David McCullough pulled this trick in "Truman" and was subsequently embarrassed into retracting and rewriting the misleading million-man passage. Prof. Newman should do the same.

Charles Lee Jackson - 8/14/2005

Professor Newman wrote:
One problem: Hasegawa's bias is too blatant. In his Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, he sets out to prove that the Pacific War just happened; it "is a story with no heroes, but no real villains, either." So he can ignore the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, . . .

I read Hasegawa's phrase "no heros, but no real villains" to apply to Japan's surrender and the related activities of the US and the USSR---not to earlier activities. I found Hasegawa's book quite interesting---particularly his examination of USSR actions that prolonged the war.

Chuck Jackson