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Peter J. Kuznick: The Decision to Risk the Future ... Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative

[Peter Kuznick, author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America, is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University.]

In his personal narrative Atomic Quest, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton, who directed atomic research at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory during the Second World War, tells of receiving an urgent visit from J. Robert Oppenheimer while vacationing in Michigan during the summer of 1942. Oppenheimer and the brain trust he assembled had just calculated the possibility that an atomic explosion could ignite all the hydrogen in the oceans or the nitrogen in the atmosphere. If such a possibility existed, Compton concluded, “these bombs must never be made.” As Compton said, “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind.”[1] Certainly, any reasonable human being could be expected to respond similarly.

Three years later, with Hitler dead and the Nazis defeated, President Harry Truman faced a comparably weighty decision. He writes in his 1955 memoirs that, on the first full day of his presidency, James F. Byrnes told him the U.S. was building an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world.”[2] On April 25, 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Brigadier General Leslie Groves gave Truman a lengthy briefing in which Stimson reiterated the warning that “modern civilization might be completely destroyed” by atomic bombs and stressed that the future of mankind would be shaped by how such bombs were used and subsequently controlled or shared.[3] Truman recalled Stimson “gravely” expressing his uncertainty about whether the U.S. should ever use the bomb, “because he was afraid it was so powerful that it could end up destroying the whole world.” Truman admitted that, listening to Stimson and Groves and reading Groves’s accompanying memo, he “felt the same fear.”[4]

Others would also draw, for Truman, the grave implications of using such hellish weapons. Truman noted presciently in his diary on July 25, 1945, after being fully briefed on the results of the Trinity test, that the bomb “may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.”[5] Leading atomic scientists cautioned that surprise use of the bomb against Japan could precipitate an uncontrollable arms race with the Soviet Union that boded future disaster for mankind. The warnings reached Truman’s closest advisors if not the President himself. Truman nevertheless authorized use of atomic bombs against Japan, always insisting he felt no “remorse” and even bragging that he “never lost any sleep over that decision.”[6] For over sixty years, historians and other analysts have struggled to make sense of Truman’s and his advisors’ actions and the relevance of his legacy for his successors in the Oval Office.

In an incisive and influential essay, historian John Dower divides American interpretations of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into two basic narratives--the “heroic” or “triumphal” and the “tragic.”[7] The “heroic” narrative, shaped by wartime science administrator James Conant and Stimson, and reaffirmed by all postwar American presidents up to and including Bill Clinton, with only Eisenhower demurring, justifies the bombing as an ultimately humane, even merciful, way of bringing the “good war” to a rapid conclusion and avoiding an American invasion against a barbaric and fanatically resistant foe. Although Truman initially emphasized revenge for Japan’s treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, subsequent justifications by Truman, Conant, Stimson, and others stressed instead the tremendous number of Americans who would have been killed and wounded in an invasion.[8] As time passed, defenders of the bombing increasingly added generous estimates of the number of Japanese who the atomic bombings saved. While highlighting the decisive role of atomic bombs in the final victory had the unfortunate consequence of downplaying the heroic efforts and enormous sacrifices of millions of American soldiers, it served American propaganda needs by diminishing the significance of Soviet entry into the Pacific War, discounting the Soviet contribution to defeating Japan, and showcasing the super weapon that the United States alone possessed.[9]

This victor’s narrative privileges possible American deaths over actual Japanese ones.[10] As critics of the bombing have become more vocal in recent years, projected American casualty estimates have grown apace--from the War Department’s 1945 prediction of 46,000 dead to Truman’s 1955 insistence that General George Marshall feared losing a half million American lives to Stimson’s 1947 claim of over 1,000,000 casualties to George H.W. Bush’s 1991 defense of Truman’s “tough calculating decision, [which] spared millions of American lives,”[11] to the 1995 estimate of a crew member on Bock’s Car, the plane that bombed Nagasaki, who asserted that the bombing saved six million lives--one million Americans and five million Japanese. The recent inclusion of Japanese and other Asian casualties adds an intriguing dimension to the triumphal narrative, though one that played little, if any, role in the wartime calculations of Truman and his top advisors.

To this triumphal narrative, Dower counterposes a tragic one. Seen from the perspective of the bombs’ victims, the tragic narrative condemns the wanton killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the inordinate suffering of the survivors. Although Hiroshima had some military significance as a naval base and home of the Second General Army Headquarters, as Truman insisted, American strategic planners targeted the civilian part of the city, maximizing the bomb’s destructive power and civilian deaths. It produced limited military casualties. Admiral William Leahy angrily told an interviewer in 1949 that although Truman told him they would “only…hit military objectives….they went ahead and killed as many women and children as they could which was just what they wanted all the time.”[12] The tragic narrative, in contrast to the heroic narrative, rests on the conviction that the war could have been ended without use of the bombs given U.S. awareness of Japan’s attempts to secure acceptable surrender terms and of the crushing impact that the imminent Soviet declaration of war against Japan would have.

Each of these narratives has its own images. The mushroom cloud, principal symbol for the triumphal narrative, has been almost ubiquitous in American culture from the moment that the bomb was dropped. Showing the impact of the bomb from a distance, it effectively masks the death and suffering below.[13]

Survivors on the ground, however, unlike crew members flying above, vividly recall the flash from the bomb (pika), which signifies the beginning of the tragic narrative, and, when combined with the blast (don), left scores of thousands dead and dying and two cities in ruins. No wonder many Japanese refer to the bomb as pikadon and the mushroom cloud that so pervades the American consciousness has been superseded in Japan by images of the destruction of the two cities and the dead and dying.

The Smithsonian’s ill-fated 1995 Enola Gay exhibit was doomed when Air Force Association and American Legion critics demanded the elimination of photos of Japanese bombing victims, particularly women and children, and insisted on removal of the charred lunch box containing carbonized rice and peas that belonged to a seventh-grade schoolgirl who disappeared in the bombing. Resisting efforts to humanize or personalize the Japanese, they objected strenuously to inclusion of photos or artifacts that would place human faces on the bombs’ victims and recall their individual suffering. For them, the viewpoint should have remained that of the bombers above the mushroom cloud, not the victims below it. It is worth noting that, prior to the change in military policy in September 1943, U.S. publications were filled with photos of Japanese war dead, but no U.S. publication carried photos of dead American soldiers.[14]

For one who has confronted the still-smoldering hatred that some American veterans feel toward the Japanese six decades after the U.S. victory, it is stunning how little overt anti-Americanism one finds in Japanese discussions of the bombings. The Japanese, particularly the hibakusha (bomb-affected persons), have focused instead on their unique suffering. Drawing on the moral authority gained, they have translated this suffering into a positive message of world peace and nuclear disarmament. In fact, a vigorous debate about Japan’s responsibility for its brutal treatment of other Asian peoples began in the early 1980s, picked up steam with the revelations by comfort women in the early 1990s, and has raged unabated, especially among Japanese intellectuals and politicians, since 1995, fueled, in part, by regular criticism from China and South Korea.[15]

In recent summers, I have been startled, during my annual study-abroad course in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the frequency with which some Japanese, particularly college students, justify the atomic bombings in light of Japan’s wartime butchery and the emperor’s culpability for Japan’s colonialism and militarism. Perhaps this should be expected given the multi-layered silence imposed on Japan in regard to atomic matters--first by Japan’s own government, humiliated by its defeat and inability to protect its citizens, then by official U.S. censorship, which banned publication of bomb-related information, then by the political exigencies of Japanese dependence on the U.S. under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which blunted criticism of U.S. policy, and finally by the silence of many bomb victims, who faced discrimination in marriage and employment when they divulged their backgrounds.

Many hibakusha remain incensed over their treatment by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), which the U.S. set up in Hiroshima in 1947 and Nagasaki in 1948 to examine but not treat the bomb victims.

Adding insult to injury, the ABCC sent physical specimens, including human remains, back to the U.S. and did not share its research results with Japanese scientists or physicians, results that could have been helpful in treating atomic bomb sufferers.[16] Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, who spent three years studying weapons scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, explains the process of dehumanization whereby American scientists turned “the dead and injured bodies of the Japanese into bodies of data” and then sought additional American subjects for further experimentation. By turning human beings into dismembered body parts and fragments and calculating damage instead of wounds, coldly rational scientific discourse allowed Americans to study Japanese victims without ever reckoning with their pain and suffering. One scientist even got annoyed with Gusterson for saying the victims were “vaporized” when the correct term was “carbonized.”[17]

Although Dower is undoubtedly correct that the heroic and tragic narratives, those of victors above and victims below the mushroom clouds, dominated the discussions surrounding the 50th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these two narratives by no means exhaust the range of interpretive possibilities. Missing from much of the debate has been consideration of w
Read entire article at Japan Focus