Remember the Smithsonian's Atomic Bomb Exhibit? You Only Think You Know the Truth


Mr. Newman is Professor Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is Enola Gay and the Court of History (Peter Lang Publishing, 2004).

Related Links

● HNN Debate: Harry Truman on Trial: The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

● Tom Engelhardt: Hiroshima, 59 Years Later ... And Still There Are Silences We Can't Break

What is new in the argument over Truman’s atomic bomb decision since the aborted National Air and Space Museum exhibition of 1995? Nothing, and everything.

The veterans who opposed the text of the proposed exhibit still insist that their take on the Hiroshima bombing is correct: They knew, because they had observed (1) that Japanese would fight to the death rather than surrender; (2) that Japanese resistance to American advances grew more intense the closer the fighting got to Japan’s home islands, and that therefore casualties in the scheduled invasion would be horrendous; (3) Okinawa proved that outnumbered and under supplied Japanese troops could decimate attacking Americans; (4) Germany, though more completely devastated than Japan, surrendered only when Allied troops occupied the homeland; and (5) the Potsdam Declaration, offering reasonable conditions if Japan surrendered was rejected without qualification by the Japanese Government. Therefore veterans knew the atomic bomb prevented many casualties and shortened the war.

The anti-Truman forces who said veterans' memories were worthless, that the bomb was not necessary to secure Japan’s surrender, and who claimed scholarly support for their conclusion, have not changed their minds either.

Steadily since 1995, however, new scholarship, based on newly-available sources has eroded the claims of those who believe the atomic bomb should not have been used. So what has changed?

● The amazing braggadocio of the foundation for all anti-Truman polemics has finally had a serious inspection. Beginning with Gar Alperovitz’s 1965 Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, the case against the bomb decision has rested on a report by the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) in 1946, an investigation which was conducted under, and the report written by, Paul Nitze, arguably the arch-hawk of all time. Nitze claimed “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to December 31, 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

One need only to think about Nitze’s claim to realize its absurdity, yet generations of historians have swallowed it without demurring. One thousand USSBS members, of whom at best twenty knew any Japanese language, after three months in a land whose customs, lifestyles, language, history, everything was different from anything they knew, could obtain all the facts about something as complicated as why the Japanese finally surrendered. I am aware of only three scholars who questioned the accuracy of Nitze’s conclusion, Robert J.C. Butow, William L. O’Neill, and Barton Bernstein, but none had access to or digested the voluminous USSBS files now open in the National Archives.

Finally a PhD student, Gian Gentile, working under Bernstein at Stanford, did a thorough and critical study of the survey, and in his How Effective is Strategic Bombing? published by NYU Press in 2000, Gentile demolishes the Nitze contention. His bottom line: the Pacific Survey reports “If read as a collective whole . . . implicitly suggest that the atomic bomb was the sufficient cause that transformed the realization of defeat into surrender, thus contradicting the early surrender counterfactual.” To Gentile’s disgust, the wholly false claim became gospel truth.

Why did Paul Nitze issue such a mendacious statement? To begin with, Nitze was piqued at the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who rejected his plan for forcing Japan’s surrender offered in July 1945. Some of Nitze’s staff believed that his ambition to become the first secretary of the independent U.S. Air Force sure to be established after the war influenced his outlook; after all, if one plane carrying one bomb could destroy a city like Hiroshima, what need for their 70-wing air force? Most of their fliers would be out of business. This anti-nuclear posture of leading Army Air Force generals lasted for perhaps six months, long enough to skew the USSBS report.

● The second blockbuster to impact the Hiroshima debate came from the preeminent Japanese scholar of Japan’s decision to surrender, Sadao Asada. When he finally mastered the flood of documents released toward the end of the twentieth century, he published his conclusions in the Pacific Historical Review, November 1998: “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender – A Reconsideration.”

Asada shoots down definitively two of the anti-Truman lobby’s favorite claims: that Soviet entry, not the bomb, triggered the surrender, and that the surrender would have come as early as June if the United States had guaranteed the continuation of the emperor. The Soviet invasion, says Asada, “gave them an indirect shock, whereas the use of the atomic bomb on their homeland gave them the direct threat of the atomic extinction of the Japanese people.” As for guaranteeing the emperor, Asada notes that this was not the sole sticking point, that the Japanese military demanded also no occupation, no war crimes trials, and no forcible disarmament. Asada is clear that only after the Nagasaki bomb, proving that the atom was not a one-shot weapon, did the emperor prevail over Minister of War Anami and secure agreement to surrender. Asada’s stature in the scholarly world is sufficient to bury these two erroneous claims.

●  A third contested area where much sound and fury has been produced is the validity of various estimates of casualties predicted for the scheduled invasion of Japan on 1 November 1945. Truman, Stimson, all defenders of the decision tell us that the main motivation for using the bombs was to avoid the massive loss of American lives (and, for some observers, even greater loss of Japanese) that would have resulted had American armies landed on Kyushu.

There were, during 1944 and 1945, many casualty projections ranging from a low of some 35,000 per month to a high of two million. The low estimates were by government officials wishing to avoid alarming the public and the soldiers scheduled for the final push in the Pacific. The high numbers were produced by number crunchers in the Pentagon, and by a few journalists who had observed the carnage of Iwo and Okinawa.

William Shockley, a Nobel laureate credited with devising the winning strategy against submarines in the Atlantic, was turned loose on the casualty problem the summer of 1945. Shockley complained about the eccentric casualty figures produced by G-1, G-2, Army Ground Forces, and the Army Surgeon General’s Office; they were worthless. Shockley based his investigation on the assumption that if Japan were invaded, the Japanese would recapitulate the “fight to the death” behavior their soldiers had shown in recent battles. In that event, he wrote, “the Japanese dead and ineffectives at the time of defeat will exceed the corresponding number for the Germans. In other words, we shall probably have to kill at least five to ten million Japanese. This might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 to 800,000 killed.” This pessimistic report rests in papers of Stimson’s office in the Library of Congress. Outrageous? Not to anyone who fought the Japanese in an amphibious invasion.

Truman recalled different estimates at different times. The existence of some “low” estimates enabled anti-Truman polemicists beginning in the 1960s to resurrect P.M.S. Blackett’s charge that Truman did not drop the bomb because he feared massive U.S. casualties, but because he expected the power of the bomb to intimidate the Soviet Union. Hence Hiroshima was not the final act of World War II, but the opening act of the Cold War.

Some anti-Truman writers claimed falsely that estimates of half-a-million or more were “postwar creations,” that Truman had never seen such figures. These civilian analysts wandering in the thickets of millions of pages of World War II records, unfamiliar with the different assumptions, methods, purposes, and uses made of casualty estimates, found it easy to indict Truman. Fortunately an editor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, D. M. Giangreco, sorted out the mass of conflicting figures and made sense of them. His article on this in the Journal of Military History July 1997, won the Society for Military History’s Moncado Prize for meritorious research; and an expansion of that article, “A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas: President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan,” in the Pacific Historical Review of February 2003, put a civilian imprimatur on his analysis. Of course Truman and Jimmy Byrnes, his then Secretary of State, expected possession of atomic weapons “to make the Russians more manageable,” but positing that as the reason for using the bomb is not supported by the evidence.

● Another major development since 1945 impacts the bomb argument. John W. Dower, arguably the foremost American student of the American occupation of Japan, published Embracing Defeat in 1999. Dower, like the present writer, objects to the continued reliance on nuclear weapons, but his book establishes two things that bear heavily on the Hiroshima decision: the claim that we should have modified unconditional surrender to secure Japanese capitulation is untenable, and the disregard by Americans of the enormity of Japanese-caused carnage throughout Asia and the Pacific requires a new calculus of guilt for the Pacific War.

Commenting on the necessity for imposing reforms on the Japanese polity, which would have been impossible if unconditional surrender had been discarded, Dower notes: “Had men of influence from the emperor on down been left to their own devices , they would never have dreamed of initiating anything even remotely approximating such drastic reforms; and had the government actually been conceded a ‘conditional’ surrender in the closing stages of the war, it might have been in a position to cut American reformers off at the knees.” Dower also suggests a higher figure for the number of Chinese deaths at Japanese hands than has been accepted earlier; the significance of this will be discussed below.

The final change since the Enola Gay exhibit was cancelled in 1995 is the opening of Smithsonian archives with voluminous records of what the curators thought, did, and claimed they were doing. Whatever sanitizing might have occurred with these records, they tell a story quite at odds with the story told by Martin Harwit, Director of NASM whose program for the exhibit came under fire. We can now get a whole new outlook on NASM activities. My studies in these records yield three major indictments: the curators brought in to prepare the Enola Gay display were guilty of anonymity, hypocrisy, and ignorance. I only wish that the dozen or so boxes of records that Tom Crouch, one of the lead curators, had sitting in his office waiting to have taken to his home, were instead available in the archives.

But what is available in the archives shows a disregard for scholarship that is shocking, and it is hard to believe that the leaders of American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians rushed to the defense of these curators.

Anonymity? Why did the curators not want anyone to know what ‘authorities’ they used in developing the text for their exhibit? Odds are that the curators suspected that their sources were not accredited scholars but special pleaders. Anonymity was certainly contrary to good museum practice. As Otto Mayr, former curator of the National Museum of American History, wrote, “For the defense of its intellectual independence, a museum needs a base that can withstand attack and that is professional, not political.” Harwit did not have a base that could withstand attack, or that was professional, and it certainly was political.

For instance, the curators believed that Gar Alperovitz could not be named as a source. His conclusions outran his data, he was strident, and most writers on the matter, whether pro- or anti-Truman, rejected his extremism. The standard line in answer to inquiries was that the script was to reflect “consensus historians”; this would leave Alperovitz out. But lead curator Mike Neufeld eventually broke down and admitted to Wayne Dzwonchyk that “Even if Alperovitz is wrong and tendentious, I refuse to write him out of the historiography.” Just a bit of hypocrisy here: Alperovitz was out but he was in.

The serious hypocrisy was engendered by the great overarching lie that Harwit and crew stuck with to the bitter end: they were not presenting a judgment on the bomb, only presenting the competing points of view so visitors could make up their own minds. The archives tell a different story. From the start, Harwit wanted this exhibit to break from earlier NASM practice and display what he called “the dark side of aviation.” This phrase, of course. was kept from the public. To the veterans, NASM said that the exhibit would “most certainly honor the brave Americans who fought and suffered for this nation during World War II.” (Paul Tibbets, when he read the script, called it “a package of insults.”)

To the Japanese, from whom Harwit wanted to borrow tear-jerking relics of Hiroshima, he wrote “For most of us in America, the Enola Gay is an uncomfortable symbol. It represents a destructive act, which many of us feel to be incompatible with our perceived national character.” Hundreds of instances of these incompatible positions reside in the archives. There is no kinder word for it. This is contemptible hypocrisy.

And let us look at the mantra repeated by the curators over and over: this exhibit text was “based on the best modern scholarly research.” Who were these anonymous best modern scholars? There are five scholarly specialties relevant to the issues raised in the matter: expertise on Truman and his administration, Pacific War historians, students of the Japanese surrender, historians of the nuclear arms race (Martin Sherwin, one of the prominent anti-Truman writers asserts that dropping the bomb inaugurated the nuclear arms race), and war fighting moralists.

It is not difficult to find out who the modern scholars are in these areas. The historical journals, book reviews, philosophy journals, journals for Asian studies, authors of biographies, all the sources a good college senior would consult for a term paper. Harwit and his curators are ignorant of them all. Reinforcing my own reading with opinions of other academics I come up with a list of some forty first-class scholars in these five categories. Not one of them was a prime source or advisor for Harwit. His “scholars” were the polemicists against the bomb.

Did Harwit really want to know how Harry Truman made decisions, and what influenced him in the bomb decision? My nominee for best Truman scholar is Robert Ferrell, but there are five or six others who are prominent. Their names never occur to Harwit. (He did consult Bernstein, but only after the first draft of the text had been written.) Pacific War historians? The preeminent one, Ronald Spector, was a few blocks from NASM at George Washington University. Harwit never heard of him. Students of the Japanese decision to surrender? Already by 1994, Asada had surfaced as leader of this group. Harwit was ignorant of this. He sought help from Akira Iriye, a prominent diplomatic historian, who told Harwit to talk to four people in Japan, which Harwit managed to avoid. Asada could have been brought from Tokyo, and his presence would have lent a credibility to the operation which was sorely lacking. Nuclear arms race historians? The clear choice here was David Holloway of Stanford, author of Stalin and the Bomb. How could Harwit have not contacted him? War fighting moralists? Harwit didn’t know there were such people. Several prominent moralists, who engaged the nuclear question, were just up the road at Princeton. Nothing.

Of the forty scholars on my list, only one other than Bernstein ever appeared in Harwit’s paper trail: Dick Kohn of Chapel Hill, who was consulted much too late and with zero impact. Modern scholarly research? Tendentious opponents of Truman’s decision were the only sources of the script. Harwit’s index reveals seventeen Japanese names. They were employees of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki museums, Japan Airlines personnel, reporters, an astrophysicist, and similar irrelevancies. It is almost possible to assert that Harwit consulted none of the best authorities in relevant fields.

Even more serious, both sides in this argument were uniformly ethnocentric. Prospective American and Japanese casualties were their only concerns. The fact was that Asians and Pacific Islanders caught in the death throes of the Japanese empire were dying at a rate approximating 400,000 each month, every month Japanese occupation continued--even absent the bloodbath of a major battle. Dower’s explanation here is perhaps the most compelling: “Yet now, at a distance, the numbers have a capacity to shock as well as inform; and it is sobering to observe not only how many men, women, and children died in Asia, but also how many of these deaths occurred in the final year of the conflict, after Japan’s defeat was already assured. China aside, as many or more individuals died after the outcome of the war was clear as perished while there was still reasonable doubt about how events would unfold. . . In fact, cumulative estimates of the human cost of the war by Westerners have tended to neglect Asian deaths other than Chinese and Japanese, and to ignore the millions of Asians who fell victim to the economic chaos that accompanied the rise and fall of the mis-named Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

The Chinese, who suffered greater loss of life than any nation with the possible exception of the Soviet Union, knew that without the bomb their losses would have gone on into 1946. Some Chinese-Americans protested to Harwit that the projected exhibit text ignored them. Their plaintive letters are in Smithsonian Archives. I cannot fathom how any intelligent human being could have ignored them. Harwit did.

Finally, the peace forces. They pounded NASM to stick to a tough anti-Truman position. There was one pathetic meeting of peaceniks with curators, organized by Father John Dear of Pax Christi, who passed around a sign-up sheet for everyone present requesting signatures, affiliation, and phone number. No minutes were taken, but participants report curators sat stony faced before irate bomb opponents.

The worst thing about this whole affair, as this peacenik sees it, is that the fuss over events in 1945 eclipsed the dangerous decision of the Truman Administration to build the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer and most of his friends opposed this decision, and they were right. What has our 32,500 (at its peak) nuclear stockpile brought us? There was a fundamental miscalculation here. The one group which could have argued most powerfully against the H-bomb was the group of fliers who delivered the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They then, as I now, argue for the abolition of nuclear weapons. So do Tibbets and the rest of his crew. To a man they are peaceniks. Instead of castigating them, we should have welcomed them, incorporated them as the messengers whose credibility outshone all others because they had seen with their own eyes how horrible this weapon was.

The peace movement shot itself in the foot. So did Harwit, and the historical establishment that supported him. Truman, who knew the horror of the bomb only after its use, was probably right to use it that once to end a terrible bloodletting. After that, the militarization of the United States progressed to inducing us to take on wars of choice, and to bomb civilians without end, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not cause this. Those horrible bombings saved hundreds of thousands of Asian lives, and probably a hundred thousand Japanese, and many thousand American. This may not have been clear in 1945, but it is today.

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stephen Brody - 8/12/2004

“It's not simply the case that all or most Japanese fought "to the death" and to make that claim is to resort to a form of racial stereotyping that is simplistic and largely inaccurate..”

Really, Keith. Well then it is a simple challenge: If it is inaccurate that most Japanese “fought to the death”, then can you provide three examples during WWII, before the A-bombs were used, where Japanese surrendered in large numbers?

“In any case, there were more surrenders in the islands than on large land masses, and there's no particularly good reason to suppose that home-island civilians would replicate the island-bound soldiers pattern of fighting to the bitter end.”

I doubt that anyone familiar with the defensive preparations being made on Kyushu, the so-called Ketsu-Go plan, would agree with your statement. The fact is that thousands of Kamikaze aircraft, suicide submarines, and suicide boats were massed for suicide attacks. School age children were being trained to attach explosives to themselves and hurl themselves at tanks. Civilians were trained to attack Allied soldiers with pikes, hoes, or any handy sharp implement.

The evidence is overwhelming that the Japanese strategy in defense of the home islands was to engage in a brutal, suicidal operation in a bid to make the Allies re-think the goal of occupying Japan.

Keith P Knuuti - 8/12/2004


It may not be "bigotry," but there is more to the story than the numbers you cite. As Dower points out in War Without Mercy the casualty numbers during the island-hopping campaign were exceptionally high, and the surrender numbers were exceptionally low.

There were a number of reasons for this, including:
- the nature of the strategy and terrain (small islands and quick advanced meant little time, space, or manpower for dealing with prisoners);
- the dehumanized view each side held of the other;
- prior experiences (U.S. forces were skeptical of surrenders and sometimes sought revenge for comrades, Japanese forces were skeptical of the treatment they would receive, and often thought surrender would be a death sentence).

Okinawa is a different case, and as Norma Field shows in In The Realm of a Dying Emperor the civilian "suicides" were often coerced.

In any case, there were more surrenders in the islands than on large land masses, and there's no particularly good reason to suppose that home-island civilians would replicate the island-bound soldiers pattern of fighting to the bitter end. It's not simply the case that all or most Japanese fought "to the death" and to make that claim is to resort to a form of racial stereotyping that is simplistic and largely inaccurate. I'm confident that you're no bigot, but I'm sure you can see how this sort of thinking is characteristic of bigots.

stephen Brody - 8/9/2004

The 3% figure comes from battle experience during the campaign in the Pacific. Most people know that very few Japanese soldiers surrendered during WWII. Most people, however, don’t realize just how few the actual numbers of surrender were.

On Guadalcanal, two Japanese Garrisons fought to extinction. When 800 Japanese reinforcements arrived, the Marines quickly trapped and engaged them. A few Japanese escaped, but out of the 800, only 15 surrendered and twelve of them were wounded before capture. (2 %surrender rate, 98 % death rate).

The story was the same at Attu. Out of 2350 Japanese soldiers, 29 prisoners. (1.2%surrender rate, 98.8% death rate). Attu also saw hundreds of Japanese soldiers commit suicide.

This was the pattern all throughout the war:

Tarawa, 8 prisoners out of a garrison of 2600.

Makin Island, 1 prisoner out of 300 combatants.

Marshall Islands, 130 prisoners out of 8500 combatants.

Saipan, 921 prisoners out of a garrison of 30,000 Japanese combatants.

Iwo Jima, Pelileu, Okinawa, etc, etc. If you add them all up, you’ll come out with a surrender rate of approximately 3%. Many of the surrenderees only surrendered after being grievously wounded. In these battles, about 97% of the combatants fought to the death or chose suicide over surrender.

The point is that there was no significant history of Japanese surrender during WWII, prior to the dropping of the A-bombs. Nor was there any reason for anybody to expect the Japanese to surrender.

This is not “bigotry” as Chris asserts. This is a simple fact.

William Horton - 8/9/2004

"The surrender rate of Japanese soldiers throughout the war averaged about 3%. In other words, 97% chose to fight to the death. Pointing that fact out is not “bigotry”, it’s historical fact."

Please correct me if I am wrong, but I don't believe these numbers ever appeared in the above discussion.

With respect to those numbers, it would be nice if you could enlighten us as to what they mean and how they were created. They don't mean much to me given that a surrender rate of 3% does not seem to mean that 97% "chose to fight to the death." Consider the US surrender rate. What was it? How many US soldiers "chose to fight to the death"? Rather your statistics seem to suggest that 97% did not surrender (when, over what period, in what specific contexts?), but even what that means is a little unclear to me.

stephen Brody - 8/7/2004

“…but it seems like the pro-bombing assumptions are still based on a bigoted and unrealistic view of the Japanese, especially in light of the fact that there had been surrenders, evacuations, and whatnot.’’

Why is it, Chris, that your argument of first resort is to accuse those with which you disagree of “bigotry’? If you have some evidence or a persuasive argument that the Japanese were not prepared to “fight to the death”, why don’t you cite it?

Your statement implies that there was a history of surrender on the part of the Japanese during WWII. If that’s the case, why don’t you cite some examples of mass surrender by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific war?

The fact is that the Japanese never surrendered in large numbers during any major campaign during WWII. The surrender rate of Japanese soldiers throughout the war averaged about 3%. In other words, 97% chose to fight to the death. Pointing that fact out is not “bigotry”, it’s historical fact.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/7/2004

In light of the successful management of the Japanese surrender when it did come, it is clear that the only people who needed to be convinced were the top leadership. In that I agree with Price: the position of the Emperor was key to surrender.

But, though it pains me to say it, the fact that some Japanese positions in the south pacific were evacuated is not strong evidence that home island positions would be; the fact that some Japanese surrendered did not obviate the fact that many did not, either because of their own beliefs or because they were forced to suicide or suicide attacks.

The assumption that a significant component of the Japanese army and population would probably have fought very, very hard against a home island invasion is not necessarily a bigoted position. While I'm all for humanization in warfare, the Japanese military was a master of both other- and self-dehumanization. So, though I still think the bombs were atrocities, that's not a great historical argument.

chris l pettit - 8/7/2004

I know I will be flogged for the source,but maybe we can concentrate on the content for a change...


The author raises the question of something that even this author seems to take as gospel...the belief that the Japanese would continue the "fight to the death" and the dehumanization of the japanese fighters by the US media as well as the US government. We can argue all we want about the facts of the case...and both sides can cite information that supports their view. but it seems like the pro-bombing assumptions are still based on a bigoted and unrealistic view of the Japanese, especially in light of the fact that there had been surrenders, evacuations, and whatnot. The anthropological and sociological aspects of the fighting and the nature of the Japanese forces versus those of the Americans are often overlooked. it would have been nice if the author actually presented some evidence. This is not to say that the fighting in the pacific was not horrific, it is just to point out that if you base your analysis on a bigoted assumption that the Japanese were going to "fight to the death" and implicitly abandon their ability to reason strategically and sustain human qualities of logic and rationality, as well as basic humanity, you have bought into the classic case of dehumanization of the enemy in order to try and strengthen your own case.

There is also something called the precautionary theory that definitely relates to all this which states that when there is a doubt about the ramifications of the usage of a weapon or the actual circumstances of a particular situation (usually military or environmental) one should ALWAYS refrain from using the method in question until there is definitive analysis available. On the issue of the atomic weapon, there is most certainly no definitive analysis available under international legal standards. Therefore, the weapon should not have been used under the precautionary principle.


Ben H. Severance - 8/5/2004


Thanks for your comments. My personal theory about the '45 bombings (and I'd better go plural here lest someone think I forgot about Nagasaki) is something I've been pondering for several months. I appreciate your dissection of it, particularly since the comments come from a rising star (rising sun!) in Japanese history. Anyway, while you are correct to stress that the diplomacy of brinkmanship must reflect a real intention to strike, I still maintain that had the bomb not been used against Japan, it would probably have been used at a later time. Would Imperial Japan have submitted had America simply divulged the completion of the Manhattan Project and presented Japanese scientists with all the data, including the New Mexico film footage, to prove that an atomic bomb had been built and worked? Or would the Japanese have been impressed had the U.S. merely detonated Fat Man twenty miles off the shore of Honshu? No, it took the complete annihilation of not one but two cities and their people to make the point. If the point hadn't been made in 1945, it would have been made later. If brinkmanship only works when both sides know the other is serious, it can only work if both sides truly know the consequences (i.e., the bombs really can wipe you out as they did to H & N), as opposed to a scientist's certainty of an outcome without actually running the test.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/4/2004

[I'm going to address the substance of your comment http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=39457 here, to disentangle it from the discussion above.]

There is something attractive about the logic of your argument, that the bombs would have to be used once in order to 'inoculate' us against using them again, and that it was better to use the earliest, weakest versions of the bombs than later, more horrific weapons. But I don't agree.

First of all, it is not true that there was any confidence that either side would refrain from using nuclear weapons, either deliberately (as in the Cuban/Turkish crisis) or accidentally (we went to 'lauch-ready' a few times, and so did they). If there was any sense of restraint, it wasn't evident in the nuclear weapon stockpiles, or missile development, or missile placement (aside from the Turkish/Cuban deal) or in the operational doctrines of our military (no true soldier wants war, but they don't eschew any legal weapon, either). A bluff that everyone knows is a bluff is not an effective bluff.

Second, resistance to using the nuclear weapons, at least on the part of US leaders, seems more like a desire to avoid committment than horror. They didn't use nuclear weapons in Korea because it would bring Russia to China's aid; they didn't use them in 1963 because they didn't want to actually shoot anything at each other. Oh, and, aside from a few Korean scenarios, there was no situation in which atomic weapons would have made things better, tactically.

Finally, it shouldn't take evidence like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to realize that a city-destroying weapon is useless in legitimate military terms.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/4/2004

Actually, Mr. Newman cites several scholars with excellent Japanese language skills, most notably John Dower and Akira Iriye, in addition to Asada. I'd be happier if he had not dismissed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Peace Museums as sources; the Hiroshima one, in particular, is an exemplar of balanced curatorial discretion and historical impact.

And historians routinely write about things they did not personally experience, and do so with great skill and sensitivity. It is not necessary to experience something to understand it; it can be as much a barrier to understanding as an aid. Asada, in this case, is not just a Japanese, but a Japanese who has read and analyzed both the English and Japanese sources on the issue. That's as good as it gets: you can disagree with him, but it really helps to actually know something about the relevant evidence.

Newman is not, in this case, presenting himself as an expert on Japan, but an expert on American discourse and scholarship related to the American decision to use the atomic bombs. But your criticisms are neither well-founded nor do they effectively address the core of his argument.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/4/2004

Mr. Severance was talking about the "bomb" in the general sense, a very common usage. He clearly references 'Hiroshima and Nagasaki' so you need to refine your point.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/4/2004

We were speaking of a specific incident, not a comprehensive analysis of militarism, factionalism and kokutai ideology.

mike Wayne rogers - 8/4/2004

Wrong again. If you knew modern Japanese history, you'd know that there were coup de etat attempts almost every year since 1931 to 1945.

mike Wayne rogers - 8/4/2004

This logic is seriously twisted also.

If using the bomb prevented any future use - then why the second bomb?

Unless you don't know your history and are unaware of the fact that there were two bombs? Which could be excusable for someone who is the product of the American educational system.

mike Wayne rogers - 8/4/2004

I find Robert P. Newman's argument as seriously flawed. Why? He states: "One thousand USSBS members, of whom at best twenty knew any Japanese language," as a rationale for "poo-pooing" their arguments.

Yes, I would agree that someone who does not speak the language, could not understand the thinking. He's right there. I know this for a fact as I am 1/2 Japanese and have lived in Japan for over 20 years - And yes, I speak and write Japanese.

But then he goes on to contradict his own reasoning by quoting a litany of people who do not speak Japanese!

The only person who does speak Japanese is Sadao Asada. Newman's entire argument is defacto (using his own logic) based on the opinions of this one writer. All other writers on Japan who do not speak Japanese - Well, their opinions are missing a critical piece of the puzzle making them immaterial.

Considering that Asada was not an adult during the war, (was he even born?) I know, from experience, that he cannot speak for people of a different generation.

For every Asada who believes Truman was correct - I can find one Japanese scholar who thinks the opposite.

Also, Japanese kids who grew up during the occupation, seem to me, to not have an objective POV about Americans and the war - After all, America changed their educational system right?

Proffessor Newman, before you go and write nonsense about a country that you know nothing about - Come over here, learn the language - interview many people who lived through the war, as soldiers, civlians, and scholars - I have. After you do that, then I might think your ideas were based in knowledge.

Until then, I don't.

Can a non-English speaking person become an expert on America and the American Psyche? Of course not.

Kudaranai kiji wo kaku no wa yamete kure? Tondemonai!

Ben H. Severance - 8/4/2004

Sorry, see commentary thread above.

Ben H. Severance - 8/4/2004

While I agree with the Pro-Truman arguments as presented in this article, my overall support for the 1945 bombing lies in my belief that using it relieved the American government and people of any future temptation to use the bomb. In 1945, we discovered that the bomb worked and realized its capacity for destruction; scientific and military curiosity were satisfied. Image if the U.S. had not used the bomb in 1945 when the technology was primitive. Would the U.S. have dropped more and bigger bombs on China during the Korean War? Would the Soviets have obliterated Florida in 1963 prompting a massive U.S. retaliation? Instead, having used the bomb against Japan, the U.S. and the world adopted an ironic "containment" policy with regard to nuclear weapons. It was fine to use them as a deterrent or bluff in the Cold War game of brinkmanship, but everyone understood that an outright nuclear holocaust was highly unlikely because everyone knew what would happen. They didn't simply have scientific theories, they had physical proof: the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, thank you President Truman for unwittingly sparing the world a nuclear winter.

Grant W Jones - 8/3/2004

Yes, you are right. I did a little checking. The attempted coup occurred after the Emperor's decision to surrender, but before his public announcement of it. The coup was hatched, or at least discussed, just a few days after the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, before the Emperor's decision to surrender. After the second A-bomb the militarists must have realized that their time was up.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/2/2004

Yes, the decision to retain the Emperor as figure-head monarch was MacArthur's though it was made quite soon after surrender, in time to be a core component of the US-draft Constitution.

I think the militarists who attempted to halt the public surrender announcement (I don't remember offhand a coup attempt after the announcement itself) would have claimed that they were acting out of greater concern for the Emperor's status than were the leaders who had convinced the Emperor to declare surrender.

Grant W Jones - 8/2/2004

In my reading of the Potsdam Declaration there is no mention of the Emperor. When was the Emperor's position, as at least a figure-head Monarch, granted. Or was this concession made after the surrender by MacArthur? If memory serves, it was MacArthur's decision, but I'm not certain on that.

I'm just trying to get the timeline straight. Also, does the coup attempt after the surrender anouncement suggest that the militarist's motives where other than concern for the Emperor's position?

Thank's in advance, for any clarification on these points.