Oliver Kamm: Paul Tibbets and Enola Gay ... About those Obits

Roundup: Talking About History

[ABOUT KAMM: I am an author, columnist and banker. I write regularly for The Times, and have written also for The Guardian, Prospect, The New Republic, Index on Censorship and The Jewish Chronicle. I am an advisory editor of Democratiya. My book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy was published in 2005. I was a contributor to Britain's Bomb: What Next?, edited by Brian Wicker and General Sir Hugh Beach, in 2006. I have worked at the Bank of England, HSBC Securities and Commerzbank Securities, and am a founder of an asset management and advisory firm, WMG Advisors LLP, based in London.]

November 1

Paul Tibbets, pilot of the plane that dropped the Hiroshima bomb, died today. (The plane he flew, the Enola Gay, was named after his mother.) You can read a jaundiced account of his career on BBC News Online.

There is much to be said about Gen Tibbets's long life and public service, but one characteristic stands out. He was, on the accounts of those who knew him, a humane man who reflected publicly and thoughtfully on the A-bomb decision, the lives it cost and also the lives it saved. His view never wavered:"It is the principle that we wanted to save lives. And I've had Japanese since [the end of WWII] tell me that we saved their lives, too, because the invasion would have been nothing but bloodshed. It would have been terrible."

Gen Tibbets's assessment was right. American casualties in a conventional invasion would have run into hundreds of thousands, and would still have been dwarfed by Japanese suffering. One of Japan's highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view an August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The evidence is overwhelming that the reason for that surrender was the shock inflicted by the A-bombs (Nagasaki as well as Hiroshima). These considerations do not resolve ethical debate on the A-bomb decision, but they should in my view powerfully inform that debate.

I take particular exception to the BBC report of Gen Tibbets's death where it states:"In 1995, Gen Tibbets denounced as a 'damn big insult' a planned 50th anniversary exhibition of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution that put the bombing in context of the suffering it caused."

The salient feature of the Smithsonian's exhibit, which provoked Gen Tibbets's entirely reasonable remark, was not that it referred to the immense suffering that the A-bombs caused. Rather, it was that the exhibit's treatment of President Truman's decision to drop the A-bomb was scandalously ahistorical. That was the cause of the controversy, which caused the exhibit's cancellation. One of my correspondents, the historian Robert P. Newman, examined the affair nearly ten years later with the benefit of the Smithsonian's own archives. He states:"[W]hat 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 [who proposed the exhibit]."

Professor Newman's political views have no bearing one way or the other on the scrupulousness and independence of his scholarship, but I will mention anyway that he is a longstanding activist in the American anti-war and anti-nuclear movement. From that standpoint, he concludes the article I've linked to with this observation about the Smithsonian fiasco (emphasis in original):

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.

Whatever your view on the nuclear issue, I hope you will read and bear in mind Professor Newman's remarks when, in the next few days, you read reports and obituaries for Gen Tibbets: a brave and decent man, who served with distinction in the cause of liberty and the cause of peace.

UPDATE: This, incidentally, is a piece I wrote for The Guardian in August, on the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. All of the points below are supported by recent historical research:

The decision to drop the bomb was founded on the conviction that a blockade and invasion of Japan would cause massive casualties. Estimates derived from intelligence about Japan's military deployments projected hundreds of thousands of American casualties.

Truman had to take account of this, and dropped the bomb for the reasons he said at the time. Contrary to popular myth, there is no documentary evidence that his military commanders advised him the bomb was unnecessary for Japan was about to surrender. As the historian Wilson Miscamble puts it, Truman"hoped that the bombs would end the war and secure peace with the fewest American casualties, and so they did. Surely he took the action any American president would have undertaken." Recent Japanese scholarship provides support for this position. Sadao Asada, of Doshisha University, Kyoto, has concluded from analysis of Japanese primary sources that the two bombs enabled the"peace party" within Japan's cabinet to prevail.

Paul Tibbets's mission was crucial to ending the Pacific War when it did end; very many American servicemen, POWs, Japanese civilians and the captive peoples of the Japanese Empire owed to their lives to the A-bomb decision.

November 2

The obituaries of Paul Tibbets that I've seen in the British and American press have generally given a better measure of his life and public service than the tendentious account I cited yesterday from the BBC. The final paragraph of this obituary in the Los Angeles Times I found dispiriting, however:"Because he feared giving protesters a place to demonstrate, Tibbets did not want a funeral or headstone.... He requested that his ashes be scattered over the North Atlantic Ocean."

Tibbets served in Europe as well as the Pacific War with skill and bravery. It is appalling that he had such apprehensions about his final resting place. In addition, in the post below and in the newspaper article it links to, I perhaps understated the historical importance of his mission. It isn't merely that the A-bombs (both of them) forced an unexpectedly early Japanese surrender and thereby saved very many lives. It is that the decisive conclusion of the Pacific War ended Japanese totalitarianism. The point is crucial in making a proper accounting of the Allied war effort.

Had President Truman not used the A-bomb, or if it had not been available, a conventional invasion and blockade would have cost the lives of - in all probability - many hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and POWs, millions of Japanese civilians, and millions of starving and maltreated people in the captive nations of the Japanese Empire. But that is not all. If the war had dragged on in such punishing and bloody conditions, it might never have been successfully concluded at all. Japan was already a defeated nation at the beginning of August 1945, but (a point frequently overlooked by critics of President Truman) defeat and surrender are different things. The first was a military fact; the second was a political decision that, before the A-bombs were dropped, showed no signs of coming.

The costs of the war for the US, especially against a background of domestic discontent and declining service morale, were enormous anyway. A Pacific War that lasted long after the conclusion of the war in Europe might have been politically impossible to sustain. An inconclusive settlement, perhaps in which Japan lost her Empire but retained her political system, would have been a plausible outcome. One writer whose political reasoning I admire and philosophy I'm close to, but whose views on this subject I find extraordinary, Michael Walzer, articulates approvingly exactly that counterfactual (Just and Unjust Wars, 1977, pp. 267-8): “The Japanese case is sufficiently different from the German so that unconditional surrender should never have been asked. Japan’s rulers were engaged in a more ordinary sort of military expansion, and all that was required was that they be defeated, not that they be conquered and totally overthrown.”

On the contrary, the Japanese case - an aggressive, expansionist racist totalitarianism - was sufficiently similar to Nazi Germany to make unconditional surrender essential. There could be no possibility of a myth of betrayal arising in post-war Japan. Japan's rulers had to be not only defeated but deposed and tried. The alternative would have been a continuing risk of resurgent and brutal imperialism - maybe in the mid-1960s, just as Germany became a racist aggressor two decades after its"betrayal" at Versailles.

I recommend, in this context, a new book called Reaping the Whirlwind: The German and Japanese Experiences of World War II by Nigel Cawthorne. It's a work of oral history, which, as the author puts it, uses"the authentic voices of German and Japanese people caught up in the conflict to relate their experiences". The result told me many things I didn't know and is often very moving. I should stress that the author has no doubts, and states clearly and immediately, that Germany and Japan were heinous aggressors and that the Allies had no choice but to fight back. The justice of our cause did not make any less the suffering on the other side, and the book faithfully conveys something of that suffering. The final chapter deals with the"Unimaginable End", namely the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first-hand accounts by Japanese children of the devastation the A-bomb caused make harrowing reading for anyone with a trace of sensitivity. And then, right at the end of the book (p. 279), comes an account from a Japanese soldier, George Kukui, who fought US troops on Cebi Island in the Philippines. After the war, he said this:

My parents expected me to become a Japanese citizen with the proper Japanese spirit... in a militaristic and totalitarian country such as Japan was back in those days, you would naturally be forced to make a drastic change in thinking. That's what happened to me. I became almost more American than an American because I was able to compare values. To this day I root for America in the Olympic games, believe it or not. I prefer the sight of Old Glory to the flag of Japan. The sound of your national anthem is real music to my ears. The Japanese national anthem, which is not even recognized as such, lauds the emperor and every time it is played I plug my ears. I thought I was about the only guy to do so in our veterans' association but to my surprise I found that there are other guys like me. I am not a very loyal Japanese, I'm afraid. You might regard me as a misplaced American.

The Pacific War was just and necessary, and our side's victory did incalculable good. Gen Tibbets should be remembered as a hero of that war, as he was a hero in the war against Nazi Germany.

Read entire article at Oliver Kamm at his blog (two entries from 11-1-07 and 11-2-07))

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 11/8/2007

After the Soviet Red Army entering the war against the Japanese Kwantun's Army the capitulation of Japan was just a matter of several months, as it actually happened.
The million-men Kwantun's Army fought fiercely, though desperately, against the Soviets, for the most part, without having any idea about the atomic bombing and its consequences. It was destroyed in about three months...
If Japan's leardership had some fanatism and courage left by the time the Soviets entered the war, it
lost those almost completely when the
fate of such an enormous military contingent in Manjuria and those fighting the US Army and Navy became obvious to Japanese
military and political commanders.
Plus hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed during criminal air raids over all major Japanese cities, which was not and could not be part of the "invasion preparations" or military necessity, which creates a conspicuous pattern
of the actual employment of the so-called "humanitary" considerations guiding the actions of the US political and military leaders. Therefore all those
humanitary considerations (saving lives on both sides, etc.), which allegedly comprised the leitmotive
for dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a post-factually invented red herring to convert the criminal deed into a noble one in the minds of US citizens and abroad.
The both facts have been decisively proven by the research of many (independent of mainstream ideological axiomatics) historians and military experts all over the world, including the US and Japan.

Thus, the issue of the military necessity of the usage of the A-bombs
in 1945 is as "debatable", as the issue of Armenian holocaust in 1915.

gerald r reynolds - 11/7/2007

I recommend Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb. After reading it, I fully understood why the US would use the weapons. Some may argue we alway were going to invade since the logistics and planning continued. But those efforts always have a momentum of their own and are near impossible to regain once halted. some may argue the one million US casualties but later information has indicated the Japanese had determined our landing beaches and had bulked up their kamikazi efforts. the navy's largest operational losses were off the coast of okinawa from those self same kamikazis. A japanese general whose name escapes me even used the estimate of 20 million dead Japanese if the invasion came to be. after reading the book and seeing the fanatical resistance of the Japanese in Okinawa and indeed preceded by each of the island battles that still resound through our military history, iwo jima, tarawa, guadacanal which were similar in nature. does anyone doubt that a similar conflict equal to or exceeding those battles in fanatic defense would have occurred? or at the least doubt the US military soldiers, sailors, and marines thought so as well?

Michael Glen Wade - 11/4/2007

Thanks for emphasizing the context within which the decision to drop the bomb and develop the H-Bomb occurred, especially the first. All too often, critics (especially ideologues, it seems) ignore the context. It was a vicious, racially-charged war on both sides. One may question the bomb's use on a number of grounds, but it seems clear that its use did lessen casualties on both sides enormously.

As to Mr. Tibbets: Since 9/11 Americans have enthusiastically, and stupidly, overused the word "hero" to the point where it no longer has any real meaning. I seriously doubt that Paul Tibbets, who was indeed a humane and unassuming man, ever thought of himself as a hero or of dropping the first a-bomb as heroic. He was simply a soldier doing his duty, albeit one with terrible human consequences, not unlike the rest of that war.

Tim Matthewson - 11/3/2007

The author's use of emotional words such as peacenicks, and the like is designed to strengthen a weak argument that is laced with red herrings and not supported by the facts. Typical of the author's logic is the resort to the patriotic flourish at the end. The author know that his view are not supported by the facts so he drawn in a patriotic call to arms against the bad guys (that is the peacenicks). "The Pacific War was just and necessary, and our side's victory did incalculable good."
The assertion is irrefutable but it is also a red herring, designed to draw attention away from the feeble logic permeating the entire piece.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/2/2007

No man, who carries direct responsibility for killing dozens of thousands of civilians, however noble (big controvercy here already) and efficient was the mission he accomplished can be proclaimed a hero from any moral standpoint.
Perhaps a loyal soldier, but not a hero.
But... employing vicious double standards of the US mainstream ideological sofistry, the feat has been performed with common brilliance.