What Europeans Believe about Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and Why it MattersHistorians in the News
tags: Japan, atomic bombs, World War 2, Pacific Theater
Did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shorten the war, and were they necessary to force the Japanese surrender? Many people believe the answer to both questions is yes: In dropping the Bomb, America chose the lesser of two evils.
Although historians have long challenged this narrative as wrong or misleading, a significant number of Europeans still believe it. That is the primary result of a recent survey of European views on nuclear affairs generally and the atomic bombings of Japan specifically. The survey, carried out in October 2019, involved approximately 7,000 respondents aged 18 and upward, carefully selected to ensure representative samples from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
The survey also shows that those who believe the bombings were necessary and effective at significantly shortening the war are more likely to harbor skepticism toward nuclear disarmament than those who do not. That being said, European publics remain on the whole staunch in their support for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Even in nuclear-armed France and the United Kingdom, large majorities reject the idea that nuclear weapons could ever be used morally. Although others across the world may hold similar views, to date there has been no broad survey posing these questions in the United States or elsewhere. Future surveys could investigate whether the same pattern exists beyond Europe.
While the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often portrayed as the epitome of the material vulnerability of human societies to nuclear weapons, those societies are also vulnerable to forgetfulness, misremembering, and myth-making, creating a gap between warranted and actual levels of confidence in particular claims. Seventy-five years after the events—and in spite of the progress of historical scholarship—the Stimson narrative [an ex-post-facto argument by Secretary of War Henry Stimson that the atomic bombs were the only way to avoid a protracted invasion of Japan and saved up to a million lives--ed.] continues to hold sway among large sections of the public, shaping views on nuclear policy issues. By contrast, nuclear close calls and enduring weaknesses in the command and control of nuclear operations dating back all the way to the bombing of Nagasaki tend to be overlooked. It is the responsibility of scholars and educators to work against such epistemic vulnerability to expose citizens to the latest advances of knowledge so that they can independently form their political views.