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.