Hiroshima and the Myths of Empire
Editor’s Note: A pivotal moment in modern world history occurred 65 years ago when President Harry Truman authorized the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II.
However, the mythology that the U.S. government then constructed around the attacks to rationalize the horrific slaughter to the American people represented the start of a new conflict, a propaganda war that would justify the transformation of the U.S. political system from a Republic to an Empire, as Gary G. Kohls notes in this guest essay:
Since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, millions of Americans have not wanted to address honestly the horror of that moment. Many were willing to swallow the post-war propaganda about the destruction of the city as necessary to avert the even worse death and devastation from a full-scale U.S. invasion of Japan.
To conceal the full, horrible truth about the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, General Douglas MacArthur applied censorship of post-war information coming out of Japan, especially the photographic documentation of what the atomic bombs had done.
Even the passage of time did not end the determination of some Americans to insist on the moral high ground, despite living in the only nation ever to detonate an atomic bomb against human targets.
In 1995, when the Smithsonian Institute was preparing an honest, historically-accurate display dealing with the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings, the balanced presentation ran into political trouble.
Amid much right-wing reactionary wrangling from various ultrapatriotic veterans groups all the way up to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the GOP-dominated Congress, the Smithsonian was forced to eliminate all the painful but contextually important parts of the story, especially the Japanese civilian stories.
So, we had another example of politically powerful conservative groups heavily influencing public policy - and altering real history - because they were afraid of revealing unpleasant and potentially “unpatriotic” historical truths.
The historians did have a metaphorical gun to their heads, of course, but in the melee, the mainstream media - and therefore the public - ignored a vital historical point. And that is this: The war could have ended quickly without the atomic bombs and without much additional bloodshed.
Diplomacy could have ended the war without the American land invasion of Japan, which the subsequent propaganda campaigns (rationalizing the use of atomic weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations) had claimed would otherwise be necessary.
American intelligence, with the full knowledge of President Harry Truman, was aware of Japan's desperate search for ways to honorably surrender weeks before Truman gave the fateful order to incinerate, without warning, nearly 100,000 defenseless civilians of Hiroshima.
American intelligence data, revealed in the 1980s, showed that the contingency plans for a large-scale U.S. invasion (planned for no sooner than Nov. 1, 1945) likely would have been unnecessary.
Japan was working on peace negotiations with the Allies through its Moscow ambassador as early as April of 1945 (roughly the point when its Axis ally Germany faced total defeat in Europe). Truman knew of these developments, the U.S. having broken the Japanese code years earlier, and all of Japan's military and diplomatic messages were being intercepted.
On July 13, 1945, Foreign Minister Togo said: "Unconditional surrender (giving up all sovereignty) is the only obstacle to peace."
The war could have ended through diplomacy by simply conceding a post-war figurehead position for the emperor – who was regarded as a deity in Japan. That reasonable concession was refused by the U.S. in its demand for unconditional surrender.
Still, the Japanese continued searching for an honorable peace through negotiations but the devastating bombs were dropped anyway. And after the war, interestingly, the emperor was allowed to remain in place as spiritual head of Japan, the very condition that made the Japanese leadership refuse to accept the surrender terms of the Potsdam Declaration.
So the questions that need answering to figure out what really happened are two: 1) Why did the U.S. refuse to accept Japan's only demand concerning its surrender (retaining the emperor), a point that was conceded after the fact, and 2) with the war essentially at an end without needing to use the bombs, what were the reasons to proceed?
Shortly after WWII, military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote: "The Japanese, in a military sense, were in a hopeless strategic situation by the time the Potsdam Declaration (insisting on Japan’s unconditional surrender) was made on July 26, 1945."
Admiral William Leahy, top military aide to President Truman, said in his war memoirs, I Was There: "It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.
“The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. My own feeling is that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."
And General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a personal visit to President Truman a couple of weeks before the bombings, urged him not to use the atomic bomb. Eisenhower said: "It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing . . . to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting [negotiations], was a double crime."
Truman proceeded with the plans to use the bombs. There are a number of factors that contributed to Truman’s decisions.
1) The U.S. had made a huge investment in time, mind and money ($2 billion in 1940 dollars) to produce three bombs, and there was no inclination - and no guts - to stop the momentum.
2) The U.S. military and political leadership – as did many ordinary Americans - had a tremendous appetite for revenge because of Pearl Harbor and other bloody battles in the Pacific.
Mercy wasn't in the mindset of the U.S. military or the war-weary populace, and the missions against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were accepted -- no questions asked -- by those who were fed the sanitized version of events.
3) The fissionable material in Hiroshima's bomb was uranium and Nagasaki’s was plutonium. Scientific curiosity was a significant factor that pushed the project to its completion, even if peace was at hand.
The Manhattan Project scientists and U.S. Army director of the project, Leslie Groves, wanted answers to the multitude of questions raised by the project, including “what would happen if an entire city was leveled by a single nuclear bomb?”
The decision to use both bombs had been made well in advance of their actual deployment, with the first attack leaving no time for a war-devastated Japan to respond before the second bomb was dropped.
The three-day interval was unconscionably short, especially since Japan’s communications and transportation capabilities were in shambles, and no one, not even the U.S. military, much less the Japanese high command, fully understood what had happened at Hiroshima on Aug. 6.
The Manhattan Project was so top secret that even General Douglas MacArthur, commanding general of the entire Pacific theatre, had been kept out of the loop about the existence of the bombs until five days before Hiroshima.
4) The Russians had proclaimed their intent to enter the war with Japan 90 days after V-E Day (Victory in Europe, May 8), which would have been Aug. 8, two days after Hiroshima was bombed.
Indeed, Russia did declare war on Japan on Aug. 8 and was advancing eastward across Manchuria when Nagasaki was incinerated. The U.S. didn't want Japan surrendering to Russia (soon to be fingered as a future enemy) so the first nuclear "messages" of the infantile Cold War were sent.
Russia indeed received far less of the spoils of war than they had anticipated, and the two superpowers were instantly mired in the Cold War stalemate that eventually resulted in their mutual moral and economic bankruptcies that happened a couple of generations later.
An estimated 80,000 innocent and defenseless civilians, plus 20,000 essentially weaponless young Japanese conscripts died instantly in the Hiroshima bombing.
Hundreds of thousands more suffered slow deaths from agonizing bums, radiation sickness, leukemia and infections for the rest of their shortened lives, and generations of the survivor's progeny inherited horrible radiation-induced illnesses, cancers and premature deaths.
Largely withheld from the American public was the fact that 12 American Navy pilots, their existence well known to the U.S. command, were instantly incinerated in the Hiroshima jail on Aug. 6.
The 75,000 Nagasaki victims who died in the Aug. 9 carnage were virtually all civilians, except for the inhabitants of an allied POW camp near Nagasaki's ground zero. They were incinerated, carbonized or instantly vaporized by a scientific experiment carried out by obedient, unaware scientists and soldiers who were just doing their duty.
The War Department knew of the existence of the POWs and, when reminded, simply replied: "Targets previously assigned for Centerboard (code name for the Kokura/Nagasaki mission) remain unchanged."
So the official version of the end of the war in the Pacific contained a new batch of myths that took their place among the long lists of myths that Americans are continuously fed by our corporate, military, political and media opinion leaders, the gruesomeness of war being altered to glorification in the process.
Some of the other sanitized realities, of course, include what really happened in the U.S. military invasions and occupations of the countries of North Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Philippines, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Colombia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, etc.
This list doesn’t cover the uncountable Pentagon/CIA covert operations and assassination plots in the rest of the known world.
But somehow most of us still hang on to our shaky "my country right or wrong" patriotism, desperately wanting to believe the cunningly-orchestrated myths that say that our nation only works for peace, justice, equality, liberty and spreading democracy while being blind to the obvious reality that the U.S. mainly supports right-wing quasi-military dictatorships that make the world safe for exploitive predatory capitalism.
While it is true that the U.S. military has faced down the occasional despot, with necessary sacrifice from American soldiers, more often than not the methods of rationalizing the atrocities of war are identical to those of the "godless communists" or "evil empires" on the other side of the battle line.
Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, are just two more examples of the brutalization of a "total war” political agenda, which is always accompanied by the unforgivable human slaughter that is euphemistically called "collateral damage" or "friendly fire."
It might already be too late for Americans to stand up for real justice and real peace to effectively confront the usually well-hidden ruling elite.
However, rather than being silent about the bankrupting and insurgency-provoking war-making that our multinational corporations (with the eager assistance of the Pentagon and the heavily-lobbied Congress) are provoking all over the planet, people of conscience need to start acknowledging, and then courageously teaching, the whole truth of history.
We need to start owning up to the innumerable international war crimes that have been orchestrated in our names by the multitude of war profiteers, both foreign and domestic, that have been in positions of power and influence during the last 65-plus years.
Doing what is right for the whole of humanity for a change, rather than just doing what is advantageous for our over-privileged, over-consumptive and unsustainable American way of life, would be real honor, real patriotism and an essential start toward real peace.
Dr. Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who practiced holistic mental health care, dealing extensively with the totally preventable and difficult to treat reality known as posttraumatic stress disorder, which is always a consequence of violence. He is also a student of European fascism. He is a member of the Community of the Third Way (a local Every Church A Peace Church affiliate) and the Just Peace Committee of Peace Church UCC in Duluth, Minnesota. On Aug. 8, 2010, these two organizations will be sponsoring a public showing of “White Light Black Rain,” the powerful documentary about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as told from the perspective of the hibakusha, the survivors of the bombs.
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