Japan was ready to surrender, making the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki two days later, totally unnecessary and morally indefensible, say a panel of scholars in two video discussions.
The debate over the atomic bombings—a controversy that forced the Smithsonian Institution to abandon its Enola Gay exhibit 25 years ago—continues unabated in America today as we approach the 75th anniversary of the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Four historians, each of whom has written extensively on the topic, discussed the documentary evidence and explored the current state of knowledge about the bombings in two sessions with TV, print, radio, and internet journalists from around the world.
Among other points, they argue that the bombings were unnecessary as Japan was ready to surrender as long as they could keep the emperor (which the U.S. eventually allowed them to do); that U.S. generals, including Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, were opposed to the bombings; and that a real aim of the attacks was to send a message to the Soviet Union and not to avert a U.S. invasion, which was still months away.
The historians taking part are:
Gar Alperovitz, formerly a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge, the Institute of Politics at Harvard, and Lionel Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, is the author of Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. He is currently a Principal of The Democracy Collaborative, an independent research institution in Washington, D.C.
Martin Sherwin, University Professor of History, George Mason University, is author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies winner of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relation’s Bernath Book Prize, co-author with Kai Bird of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, forthcoming in September 2020.
Kai Bird, Executive Director, CUNY Graduate Center’s Leon Levy Center for Biography, co-author (with Martin Sherwin) of Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, co-editor (with Lawrence Lifschultz) Hiroshima’s Shadow, and author The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment.
Peter Kuznick, Professor of History, Director, Nuclear Studies Institute, American University, co-author (with Akira Kimura), Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japanese and American Perspectives, co-author (with Oliver Stone) of The New York Times best-selling The Untold History of the United States (books and documentary film series), and author “The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative.”
Former news executive at NPR, NBC, and CBS and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri Barbara Cochran moderated both sessions. The questioning in the first press briefing began with Owen Ullmann, former world news editor at USA Today, and current executive editor of International Economy Magazine, followed by former Washington Post columnist and current John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland Dana Priest, Walter Pincus, former reporter/columnist at The Washington Post and contributing senior national security columnist at the Cipher Brief, Pablo Pardo of El Mundo, and Yuliya Olhovskaya of Channel One Russia. The second briefing was kicked off by New York Times Tokyo station chief Motoko Rich, Masato Tainaka of Asahi Shimbun, and Miya Tanaka of Kyodo News.
The two press briefings, one for the Western press, and the other for journalists in Asia, can be seen here:
From Summer, 1945–Germany, Japan and the Harvest of Hate, by Thomas Goodrich:
War Secretary Henry Stimson revealed that even deadlier atomic bombs will soon be made. ‘Improvements,’ he said, ‘will be forthcoming shortly which will increase by several fold the present effectiveness of the terror weapon.’”57
Referring to American leaders and the use of the new weapon which could destroy entire cites and vaporize thousands of people in a split second, the Chicago Tribune commented that these “wise” US leaders by “being merciless, they were merciful.” To twist such Orwellian logic even further, the same paper displayed a sketch of the dove of peace flying over Japan, an atomic bomb in its beak.58
“Peace! Our bomb clinched it!” ran a headline from the Hanford, Washington, newspaper, the town where the plutonium was manufactured for the first atomic weapon.59
“This town just went totally nuts,” announced a resident of Hanford as workers’ children paraded through the streets beating pots and pans. “It was euphoria, just the whole atmosphere was party-time, patriotic.”60
Indeed, many Americans, for at least one reason, were unhappy that the war was over. A poll conducted by Fortune Magazine showed that a significant minority of US citizens (22.7%) wished that more atomic bombs could have been dropped on Japan.61 The words of the American President certainly did nothing to reduce that percentage.
First learning of the incineration of Hiroshima while sailing home after his meeting with Allied leaders in Potsdam, Germany, Harry Truman was ecstatic upon hearing the news. “This is the greatest thing in history!” exclaimed the president, his
voice “tense with excitement.”
Thank you CN and Joe Lauria for posting this most remarkable conversation. I wouldn’t have known of it otherwise. In dropping those bombs America lost whatever moral high ground it had in fighting the “good war.” It’s worth taking the time to read about how the victims died over the weeks, months and years that followed. Americans really need to know the extent of the horror and suffering we inflict. The U.S. empire cannot end soon enough and when it does there will be less evil in the world.
Some of the scientists had been recruited from Nazi Germany to create this weapon of mass destruction. As both our Presidential candidates race toward war with China, I am reminded of what Einstein said: “If we fight WW3 with nuclear weapons, the next war will be fought with sticks and stones.”
After US nuking Hiroshima & Nagasaki murdering 500.000 innocent civilians while Japan wanted to discuss PEACE. ThenWashington destroyed & bombed North Korea 1950-’53 murdering 3 million Koreans – mostly civilians – or 20% of its population. Then we go to Vietnam/Cambodja where again US air Force bombed & burned civilians alive with their AGENT ORANGE & NAPALM. In addition the destruction with ‘DIRTY Bombs – in Yugoslavia & Iraq. Indeed Oscar Wilde was right describing “America is the only country that went from barabarism to decadence without civilization in between”. How true even today sanctioning the Middle East, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador & occupying Germany & Japan! Yankee Go Home !!
How revealing. Four historians debunk popular misbeliefs of yesterday and famous journos of the day hem & haw in trying to defend what we tend now to call the popular narrative. Certainly an informative & intelligent discussion.
But isn’t it troubling that even after all this time and so much credible evidence available, what, less than half of people today accept a revision of the widely accepted but wrong story of why, basically two men decided to sow fiery & toxic death among Japanese civilians as a geo-strategic “message”? And then, when there were complaints, just hustle up & peddle a false narrative of why they did so?
If you revise what was a revision in the first place are you still writing revisionist history?
On top of that, in astounding hypocrisy, were the Nuremberg trials.
What came back to me, and I think Peter Kuznick alluded to it, was how some of the scientists there at Almogordo were truly worried that they actually might set the entire Earth’s atmosphere on fire with their first test but they went ahead anyway. I don’t know about you but that tells me something worth knowing. And I’m thinking not much has changed since then of how so few have so much power over the lives & well being of so many; something that needs to change, in my view, if there’s even a chance to get off this destructive path we’re on.
You want to talk about legacies, you political honchos & hacks, what kind of range of options for subsequent generations includes nuclear winter and permanent withering summer?
I read that the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki because it had a different trigger mechanism and they wanted to test that. The Americans knew the first trigger mechanism worked because it had been used at the test-bombing at Alamogordo then Hiroshima. The two types of bomb and trigger mechanisms were reflected in their shapes and their names Little Boy and Fat Man.
As I understand it the trigger mechanism of Little Boy had the radioactive elements blasted into each other from both ends toward the centre, while in Fat Man the radioactive elements were blasted toward the centre from all around the core.
You’re right about Little Boy and Fat Man being different in how the bombs were detonated. The designs were completely different and different fissionable isotopes were used: U-235 for Little Boy and Pu-239 for Fat Man. Detonation required “criticality,” i.e., creating enough U-235 in one lump for Little Boy, achieved by shooting two pieces together in a “gun barrel,” and increased density caused by compression for Fat Boy achieved by a spherically symmetric explosion of conventional explosives.
The test at Almogordo was done on the Fat Man design. There was so much confidence in the Little Boy gun barrel technique that it was never tested. Hiroshima was destroyed by Little boy.
Why Nagasaki? I understand that one important reason was the difference in terrain: one (Hiroshima, I think) was relatively flat while the other was more mountainous. My own belief is that Japan did not immediately surrender after Hiroshima, because the US refused (until 9 days later!) to let the Emperor stay on.
I’m not sure what you mean by saying the two bombs “had different “trigger” mechanisms. They had the same kind of “initiator”: a very small neutron generator was activated when either bomb was detonated.
IMO – The USA had developed the bomb, they ‘needed’ to test it, to ascertain it’s effectiveness. The rationale for the bomb’s development was to counteract the possibility of a Nazi bomb. As Germany had been defeated, the US couldn’t hold their ‘test’ in Europe (think about that for a minute). So Japan was made the test target.
Does anyone seriously doubt that once this bomb had been developed it was inevitable that it was going to be used ?
Politics, ending the war, protecting the troops, … it was all false. The military had a new toy, nothing has changed !
This discussion is vital. To make it more compelling it needs a robust presentation of the countervailing view.
Just the simple truth. Japan had sent out feelers about surrendering. Keeping the Emperor was their only condition.
But America’s government insisted on “unconditional surrender.” Complete humiliation.
There was a series of atomic bombings planned. I believe the number was a dozen for the number of bombs available.
You need to keep in mind, too, that Japan had already been horrifically bombed by General Curtis LeMay, a certifiable psychopath.
Massive bombings and fire-storm bombings.
It was said at one point before the atomic attack, that there were literally no primary or secondary targets left standing in Japan.
Hiroshima was of no military or strategic value.
The bombing was pure terror against civilians.
I remember reading that Eisenhower, a military man of some decency, was ashamed of it.
So that is the way America chose to enter its golden era, the time of “the American Dream.”
History is indeed biography because just maybe if Roosevelt hadn’t changed his Vice-presidential candidate for his fourth term, there might have been resistance to this war crime from Henry Wallace. But not with Truman, a cold-blooded man just like Obama, good at killing. North Korea was treated to massive carpet bombing in the early 1950s and had one-fifth of its entire population destroyed.
All so true, John Chuckman, and none more so than your last paragraph. Truman was but the first of all too many in the WH who have NO morals, ethics, humanity are simply barbarians in expensive suits (and it don’t matter which face they present with).
I see that it will come as no surprise to many here that Truman was exceedingly drawn to the protection of Mother Israel and a rabid supporter.
Zalman M. Shapiro incorporated NUMEC, SEE the Apollo Affair, 1956 in the Common Wealth of Pennsylvania and NUMEC’s most missing materials ( HE-U235 occurred in 1968.
I strongly believe that JFK and RFK died as a direct result of this diversion of highly enriched U-235.
Things with the CIA are never as they appear and no one who is rooting for Israel to get Nuclear weapons were one bit upset that a bunch of irate Cubans were blamed for killing JFK. All the bad guys got what they wanted, two dead Kennedys and an Israel with nuclear weapons.
Screw Israels policy of ambiguity.
Always remember that the diversion, (distraction) that is getting ignored may be the main attack! Lots of attention to Cuba none to NUMEC. For what ever reason, whether JJ Angleton was compromised or volunteered he was the man at the Israeli desk at CIA his entire career. CIA stonewall FBI investigations, the successful diversion then turned to a method to blackmail the U.S. government.
It sure seems in retrospect CIA and the government of the United States was and still is compromised. I believe that this might easily explain the stature of Israel being the most favored nation by the U.S. Government, for the last 73 years. A government which seems to care for Americans less and less every day.
I continue to insist that the CIA got hijacked from it’s very inception. Blum, Dulles, Keenan, Bisell.
In the end this agency aided those traitors at US Atomic Energy Commission who ensured that Zalman Mordecai Shapiro would succeed in his diversion Special Nuclear Materials from the US Atomic Energy Commission to Israel. This operation, I believe is the single reason Robert Oppenheimer was black balled by a kangaroo court and relieved him of his security clearance. He and Teller did not see eye to eye. The U.S. felt it had to have Teller to produce the “Super” as the thermo – nuclear bomb (hydrogen bomb ) was described at the time. SEE the Grey Board responsible for conducting that Kangaroo court .
Lewis Strauss was a strong supporter of Teller and a young JFK voted that Strauss not be appointed to Secretary of Commerce and it was a very big deal.
PS: If the King Flu Trump thinks the covid is no big deal why he hasn’t had a Covid party yet! May be a great Idea for Kaitlin Collins or Nancy Pelosi to tell him he can’t.
Exactly, and completely in alignment with all these pieces of the narrative. Too bad this couldn’t be published in the NY Times or WaPo. People who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
The Japanese were in fact ready to surrender, and Truman was aware of Japanese overtures to that effect. Seeing eventual conflict with the Soviet Union – America’s ally at the time – Truman wished to show the USSR the capability available to the American military.
So. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians paid the price for American statecraft. America’s war began with a lie, and ended with a lie. FD Roosevelt likewise was aware of the impending attack on Pearl Harbour, but took no action because he wanted Japan to take the first shot to enable America to enter the war. A war that the American people up to that time, resisted.
Truman should be designated a war criminal.
rgl – true enough. I would only add that alongside Truman and all those willing generals etc., the scientists who created these abominable weapons should also be designated war criminals.
Yes, absolutely nothing to do with forcing Japan to surrender. Even General Curtis Le May freely admitted it.
Japan had not surrendered when virtually all its cities had been destroyed. Destroying 2 more would thus not be expected to make any difference.
This was the first act of the Cold War.
These bombings were nothing short of terrorism. That those involved were not tried for war crimes says everything about the state of “justice” in this world.
The Japanese had made it known that they wanted to discuss peace since February 1945, and made a specific proposal in May 1945. They would surrender if the royal family was left alone. The Americans decided to accept this and began planning for Operation Blacklist, the occupation of Japan, but did not accept the offer until two atomic bombs could be dropped. Keep in mind that thousands of American GIs died fighting in the Pacific during this delay and it allowed the Soviets to take northern Korea, which led to that war. Details are found in this short video: