immediate context of the A-bombings included the end
of the war in Europe, growing tensions among the Allies,
and the absurd US demand for unconditional surrender.
Few historians now doubt that for many months before
August 8 and 11, 1945, the Japanese government had
sought to surrender under a few conditions. Most important
to them was retention of the Emperor as living symbol
of the nation – in the face of US promises, or threats,
to democratize Japan. These threats followed from
the view that the whole worldwide bloodbath had been
caused, somehow, by the absence here and there of
that wonderful political form.
Grew, former US Ambassador to Japan, was among those
who tried to instill some realism into the US administration's
thinking on these matters. Military historian Capt.
B.H. Liddell-Hart writes that the unconditional surrender
policy needlessly prolonged the war in both theaters.1
leaders had been pressuring Soviet Russia, which had
remained at peace with Japan, to enter the Pacific
war. Russia denounced its nonaggression pact with
Japan in April. It has been suggested that with Russian
entry into the war and with disagreements looming
among the Allies over the future of Germany and Eastern
Europe, the new Truman administration had a strong
motive to use its new bomb on a real target, i.e.,
a city. This would impress and intimidate the Soviets
and make them more tractable about Poland and other
momentum doubtless played its role, too. There is
no evidence that anyone contemplated not using the
bomb, provided the war was still raging when the bomb
was ready. I mean, spend all that money and not
use the damned thing?
old saying is that "war is too important to be
left to the military." Evidently, it's too important
to leave to the civilians, either.
with Soviet troops slogging into Manchuria and US
leaders hiding behind their unconditional surrender
slogan so as to put off discussing real terms, the
bombing went forward and Hiroshima and Nagasaki largely
vanished. As for American lives "saved,"
the US military itself estimated losses at 46,000
in the event of full-scale invasion of Japan's home
islands.3 With Japanese
air and sea power destroyed, a simple blockade would
have sufficed while surrender negotiations were conducted.
Accordingly, many high-ranking officers doubted the
need for an invasion. As for the overall position,
General Eisenhower, told by Secretary Stimson at Potsdam
that the bomb would be used against Japan, answered
that "Japan was already defeated and that dropping
the bomb was completely unnecessary…."4
Historian Gar Alperovitz writes that "before
the atomic bomb was dropped each of Joint Chiefs of
Staff advised that it was highly likely that Japan
could be forced to surrender 'unconditionally,' without
use of the bomb and without an invasion."5
It follows that surrender with a couple of conditions
would have required even less effort.
THRESHOLDS' AND BAD HABITS
before I appear to concede too much to the odd logic
whereby one American life equals 10, 100, 10,000,
10n enemy civilian lives, let us look at Allied
bombing practices prior to US invention of its new
toy. It was Britain and the US that built their air
forces around heavy bombers, whose purpose would be
strategic terror bombing of enemy civilians. The German
National Socialists and the Soviet Communists – whatever
their crimes and faults in other areas – built light
bombers meant to support tanks and infantry near real
battlefields. Göring's attempt to terrorize Britain
into making peace, using planes unsuited to the task,
was a costly failure. It served to stiffen British
morale and resistance, an interesting point the Allies
might have noted had they not been so busy building
historian David M. Kennedy writes that "the great
nuclear blast that obliterated Hiroshima hardly represented
a moral novelty…. The moral rules that had long stayed
warriors' hands from taking up weapons of mass destruction
against civilian populations had long since been violently
breached – in the Allied attacks on European cities,
and even more wantonly in the systematic firebombing
of Japan." General Curtis LeMay presided over
the March 9 firebombing of Tokyo, which incinerated
90,000 civilians. All told, over the next few months
US firebombing killed off some 700,000 Japanese civilians.6
The shockwave felt after August 8, 1945 has something
to do with the fact that one bomb could now
do the good work previously done by thousands. But
where, indeed, is the moral difference?
THEN AND NOW
conservatives believe that to mention these things
is entirely out of order. War is Hell, kill 'em all
and let God sort 'em out, and so on. Very pat, I suppose,
but there's not much thinking in there. Left-liberals
sometimes complain that US use of the bomb was "racist."
I guess they'd be happier if Dresden had gotten one,
instead of merely being annihilated the slow way.
It is interesting to contrast the reaction of today's
Establishment conservatives with that of Felix Morley,
who wrote in Human Events that the atomic bomb
represented "the return to nothingness"
– a repudiation of the entire Western, Christian heritage.
Further: "The measurement of our [moral] loss
may be seen, for instance, in the miserable farce
put on by those who tried to reconcile mass murder
of 'enemy children' with lip service to the doctrine
that God created all men in his image."7
FINAL SORTIE, ER, WORD
Chomsky points out that, consistent with the spirit
of the times, "a thousand-plane raid [was] launched
after the Japanese surrender had been announced
but, technically, before it was officially received."8
many American lives did that post-surrender raid "save"?
I guess we'll never know, although the math looks
pretty easy. We do know it killed additional thousands
of Japanese civilians.
holy crusade. Some greatest generation.
Grew, see Martin J. Sherwin, A
World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance
(New York: Vintage Books, 1977), p. 225; on unconditional
surrender, see B. H. Liddell-Hart, History
of the Second World War (New York: G. P.
Putnam's Sons, 1970), pp. 712-713.
William Appleman Williams, The
Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York:
Delta, 1962), pp. 202-276; Gar Alperovitz, Atomic
Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (New York:
Viking Penguin, 1985).
Barton J. Bernstein, "A post-War Myth: 500,000
U.S. Lives Saved," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,
42, 6 (June/July 1986), 38-40.
in Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy, pp. 284-285.
p. 285 (his emphasis).
M. Kennedy, "Victory at Sea," Atlantic
Monthly, 283, 3 (March 1999), p. 76. In later
issues of the Atlantic Monthly, irate readers
gave Kennedy an earful for daring to mention these
Morley, "The Return to Nothingness" in
A Year of Human Events (Chicago: Human Events
Associates, 1947), pp. 144-147. Morley wrote the
piece in August 1945.
Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1969), pp. 167 and 210-211 (my emphasis).
wish to thank Prof. Ralph Raico for some of the references