"Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons." Bertrand Russell

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The myths of Hiroshima

By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, KAI BIRD and MARTIN J. SHERWIN are coauthors of "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," published earlier this year by Knopf.

SIXTY YEARS ago tomorrow, an atomic bomb was dropped without warning on the center of the Japanese city of Hiroshima. One hundred and forty thousand people were killed, more than 95% of them women and children and other noncombatants. At least half of the victims died of radiation poisoning over the next few months. Three days after Hiroshima was obliterated, the city of Nagasaki suffered a similar fate.

The magnitude of death was enormous, but on Aug. 14, 1945 — just five days after the Nagasaki bombing — Radio Tokyo announced that the Japanese emperor had accepted the U.S. terms for surrender. To many Americans at the time, and still for many today, it seemed clear that the bomb had ended the war, even "saving" a million lives that might have been lost if the U.S. had been required to invade mainland Japan.

This powerful narrative took root quickly and is now deeply embedded in our historical sense of who we are as a nation. A decade ago, on the 50th anniversary, this narrative was reinforced in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first bomb. The exhibit, which had been the subject of a bruising political battle, presented nearly 4 million Americans with an officially sanctioned view of the atomic bombings that again portrayed them as a necessary act in a just war.

But although patriotically correct, the exhibit and the narrative on which it was based were historically inaccurate. For one thing, the Smithsonian downplayed the casualties, saying only that the bombs "caused many tens of thousands of deaths" and that Hiroshima was "a definite military target."

Americans were also told that use of the bombs "led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands." But it's not that straightforward. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has shown definitively in his new book, "Racing the Enemy" — and many other historians have long argued — it was the Soviet Union's entry into the Pacific war on Aug. 8, two days after the Hiroshima bombing, that provided the final "shock" that led to Japan's capitulation.

The Enola Gay exhibit also repeated such outright lies as the assertion that "special leaflets were dropped on Japanese cities" warning civilians to evacuate. The fact is that atomic bomb warning leaflets were dropped on Japanese cities, but only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed.

The hard truth is that the atomic bombings were unnecessary. A million lives were not saved. Indeed, McGeorge Bundy, the man who first popularized this figure, later confessed that he had pulled it out of thin air in order to justify the bombings in a 1947 Harper's magazine essay he had ghostwritten for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

The bomb was dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said in November 1945, on "an essentially defeated enemy." President Truman and his closest advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes, quite plainly used it primarily to prevent the Soviets from sharing in the occupation of Japan. And they used it on Aug. 6 even though they had agreed among themselves as they returned home from the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 3 that the Japanese were looking for peace.

These unpleasant historical facts were censored from the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit, an action that should trouble every American. When a government substitutes an officially sanctioned view for publicly debated history, democracy is diminished.

continued... LA Times