Howard Zinn: Accused of failing to research the claims he makes about Hiroshima

Historians in the News

[Mr. Kamm writes a column for the Times of London.]

I've referred a few times on this site to a lobbying organisation called Media Lens. Media Lens purports to be a watchdog detecting bias in the press and broadcasting media. It is in reality a shrill group of malcontents who exploit the patience of practising journalists. Journalism is a public medium and its practitioners should certainly be prepared to expound their professional methods. The practice of Media Lens, however, is - in the description by Andrew Marr, the BBC's former political editor - pernicious and anti-journalistic. I explained why and how in this post a few months ago.

I described the methods of Media Lens as including "unprofessional and often comically inept exegesis". More recently I came across a near-perfect example of this type of thing, and wrote a post about it here. One of the editors of Media Lens, David Cromwell, had written to the film critic of The Independent - yes, a film critic - taking the poor man to task for not commenting, in an article about the film Flags of Our Fathers, on "the propagandistic basis for western leaders' claim of 'half-a-million' allied lives being saved by dropping atomic bombs on Japan".

Cromwell is not a historian, but, according to his organisation's web site, a "researcher in ocean circulation". His dogmatic assertions on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki evinced no acquaintance with the historiography of the Pacific War. He even got wrong the name of his own principal cited source (about whom I shall have more to say in a moment). In the circumstances, I thought it constructive to write to the film critic, David Thomson, to assure him that Cromwell's assertions were not to be taken seriously, let alone believed. The text of my letter, including citations to recent scholarly literature debunking Cromwell's assertions may be found in the post I have linked to. I copied it to Cromwell, so he would know not only the extent of his factual errors but also the inaptness of his criticisms of Thomson. Media Lens's customary technique (as I have found when replying to emails I had assumed came from genuine inquirers) is to post on its web site private emails from journalists without first asking permission, and I was curious whether Cromwell would do so with my letter. Prudently, he didn't.

Unfortunately, Cromwell apparently didn't do either what he ought to have done. The proper course would have been for him to write again to David Thomson to apologise for having sent a hectoring letter on a subject wholly outwith Cromwell's competence. Instead, Cromwell appealed to one of his friends to bail him out, judging by this message that has been posted by Cromwell on his organisation's message board here:

We've just received an email from US historian Howard Zinn after asking him for his response to Oliver Kamm's blog entry on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (link below). Kamm had argued that "Truman based his decision [to use the atom bombs on Japan] on estimates that American casualties in a ground invasion might surpass one million". The Eds

Dear David:
Sorry to take so long in getting back to you on this, but I've been traveling and just getting to my pile of correspondence.

Of course you will always find scholars with different points of view on this, because no one can say conclusively 1) how many Americans would have died in an invasion of Japan (all guesses) or 2) how soon the Japanese would have surrendered without the dropping of the bombs.

But I don't think anyone has successfully refuted Alperovitz. To say that Truman "based his decision" on the estimate of a million casulties is naive. The "million casualties" claim was after the fact, as a justification for that horrific act. It was a number pulled out of the air. Truman's mind was made up no matter what number of casualties would be involved. As General Groves himself said, Truman was like "a litle boy on a toboggan, already going downhill" no way to stop the momentum. Certainly, a lower estimate would not have changed Trumans' mind.

At most one can argue that the bombs speeded the end of the war by weeks or months. In Japan, the Emperor was supreme, and he clearly wanted to arrange surrender terms, hence the dispatch of an envoy to Moscow.

It is often said that given the Japanese ferocious defense of Iwa Jima and Okinawa they would have continued the war except for the bomb. But if they were such fanatics why would even the bomb have caused them to surrender. After all, they endured 100,000 dead in Tokyo and still fought on.
Iwo Jima is an interesting episode. Two years ago in the Journal of Military History, an army captain who had done extensive research on that battle concluded it was unnecessary, another example of the momentum of war leading to needless death.

There is no moral argument which to me is all-powerful. Even if the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war sooner did that justify killing several hundred thousand innocent people? Would the defenders of the bombing agree to kill 100,000 American or English children in order to shorten the war? If the answer is no, it means that Japanese children do not deserve to live as our children do. If the answer is no, one must use the word "racism" to describe the conclusion that the bombs should have been dropped.

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn is a grand old man of the American far Left. I have only once posted a comment on this blog about him; in it I stated that "trying to reason with Professor Zinn is a near-textbook case of futility". How prophetic that was.

Zinn's best-known work is a polemical history of the United States. His scholarly contributions to the study of the Pacific War amount, so far as I am aware, to zero. (This tract, which you can read in a few minutes, contains the name 'Hiroshima' in the title but is not a work of scholarly inquiry into the conclusion of the Pacific War.) It was unfair of Cromwell to appeal to Zinn for assistance when, as I shall demonstrate, Zinn is not up to providing it. But Zinn replied, and is therefore a legitimate target.

You will note that in his message, Zinn does not even attempt to deal with the sources that I cited. Judging by the internal evidence of his message, and nothing else, I have to conclude that Zinn has never heard of that material, still less read it. I say that principally because of Zinn's assertion that "I don't think anyone has successfully refuted Alperovitz".

Gar Alperovitz is the principal populariser (though not the originator) of the theory that the A-bomb was an instrument of "atomic diplomacy". Truman dropped the bomb not to defeat Japan - which on this reading had already indicated a willingness to surrender - but to intimidate the Soviet Union. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, in Alperovitz's view, not the concluding acts of the Pacific War but the initial acts of the Cold War.

It is technically true in one very restricted sense that no one has refuted this thesis. There is no direct evidence in support of Alperovitz's claim. There is not a single statement in the documentary record made by a US diplomat to a Soviet counterpart in 1945-6 to the effect that "you'd better not cross us, because we have the bomb". Given this paucity of evidence, Alperovitz turned his thesis into something unfalsifiable. In the words of the historian Robert H. Ferrell, who is widely regarded as the pre-eminent authority on President Truman (Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists, 2006, p. 20): "Alperovitz was reduced to relying on the powers of psychology: possession of the bomb, he declared, influenced American officials more than they knew or said."

Whatever else this is, it's not diplomatic history. Alperovitz presented a thesis, and - being unable to prove it with any documentary evidence – refashioned it to be impervious to the canons of evidence. If that were all, then Alperovitz would be merely a trivial figure. But unfortunately, it is worse than this. Historians have pointed to the fact that Alperovitz's use of source material is unscholarly. Ferrell, in the work cited, gives a sobering example (p. 21, and expounded at length in the accompanying footnote) of Alperovitz's taking a quotation from General George Marshall and then "trimm[ing] the quotation so as to give it a quite different meaning from what Marshall intended".

Alperovitz's book, "despite the appearance of meticulous documentation ... was based on pervasive misrepresentations of the historical record", declares Robert Maddox of Pennsylvania State University, in his Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision, 1995, p. 2 - and Professor Maddox proceeds to give examples. Alperovitz updated his thesis in a 1995 work, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. Robert P. Newman, of the University of Pittsburgh, has noted that none of the 15 Japanese rulers who testified that the A-bomb was instrumental in securing Japan's surrender is quoted accurately by Alperovitz, and the account of one of them is edited to misrepresent its intent. (I am indebted to Professor Newman for sending me material including an unpublished paper.)

In short, Professor Zinn has demonstrated something more serious than error here. He has misrepresented the state of scholarly research into the subject Cromwell sought his advice upon. But even that is less of a disqualification to his being taken seriously than his dismissal of my cited sources with the airy formulation that "of course you will always find scholars with different points of view on this". As the scholar of German history Richard Evans has put it: "The possibilities of legitimate disagreement and variation [among historians] are limited by the evidence in front of their eyes. An objective historian is simply one who works within those limits. They are limits that allow a wide latitude for differing interpretations of the same document or source, but they are limits all the same." (The quotation comes from the author's study of the David Irving libel case, Lying About Hitler, 2001, p. 250. By citing it, I am obviously not drawing a comparison between Professor Zinn and David Irving. I am making a point about the nature of historical objectivity. I am certain Zinn is an honest historian, but equally certainly – on the subject on which Media Lens has sought his advice, at least – he is an incompetent and ill read one.)

Zinn's assertion that "the 'million casualties' claim was after the fact" is refuted by the evidence I cited, and that Zinn has ignored. The leading authority on casualty estimates in the Pacific War, D. M. Giangreco (a reader of this blog and a regular correspondent), has shown from the primary sources that the figure was most certainly not constructed after the fact. In his paper "'A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan", Pacific Historical Review, Feb 2003, pp. 93-132, he demonstrates that "Truman's much-derided accounts of massive casualties projected for the two-phase invasion of Japan are richly supported by US Army, White House, Selective Service, and War Department documents produced prior to the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and stretching back through the last nine months of the Roosevelt administration". In another essay (co-authored with Kathryn Moore), "Half a Million Purple Hearts", Giangreco notes that the sheer numbers of these medals produced before the conclusion of the Pacific War indicate the extent of the casualties expected in an invasion of Japan. (Correspondence related to this article can be seen here.)

If Zinn wishes to argue that the estimates of mass casualties were manufactured after the war to justify the dropping of the A-bomb, then he is making an empirical assertion that he must substantiate with reference to the primary sources that Giangreco has consulted. Zinn needs to come to terms with the evidence presented by scholars with relevant expertise. He doesn't do this, because he can't. He has no business engaging in the evasive tactics that have so impressed his admirers at Media Lens. Zinn should have said privately he wasn't up to the task, rather than publicly demonstrate that condition....
Read entire article at Oliver Kamm (Blog)

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

HNN - 12/28/2006

Thanks for the spelling correction.

Alan Allport - 12/26/2006

Mr. Camm is actually Mr. Kamm.