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Ronald Takaki: The Lessons of Hiroshima

[Ronald Takaki, professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb (Little Brown).]

Sixty-two years ago, on Aug. 6, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima changed the course of world history. We still live in the shadow of Hiroshima, though most of us do not know why or how it happened.

The U.S. deployment of this weapon of mass destruction did not have to happen.

In fact, from a military point of view, Gen. Douglas MacArthur considered the bombing “completely unnecessary.” In July, when MacArthur learned that Japan had asked Russia to negotiate surrender with the United States, he told his staff: “This is it. The war is over. Hold everything in place for Olympic and Coronet [names for the invasion plans], but drop all work on them and get busy on the occupation.” The general knew there would be no need for an invasion.

In July, the Joint Chiefs of Staff informed President Harry S. Truman that the enemy was already prepared to surrender, asking only for the retention of the emperor. The joint chiefs thought the emperor would be needed to order Japan’s armed forces to lay down their arms. They advised the president that the United States should simply accept a conditional surrender and declare victory.

Driven by strategic rather than military concerns, Secretary of State James Byrnes wanted to delay the ending of the Pacific War. He wanted more time to test the still-experimental weapon in New Mexico, and if it worked, to deploy it against Japanese cities. His aim was to intimidate Russia, then a U.S. ally but which was emerging as an enemy in what would become the Cold War. Byrnes calculated that “our possessing and demonstrating the bomb [on Japan] would make Russia more manageable in Europe.” He was willing to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians as a way to send an intimidating message to Russia’s Joseph Stalin.

President Truman did not fully share Byrnes’ strategy and preferred to work cooperatively with the Russians. In his diary on June 7, 1945, he wrote: “I’m not afraid of Russia. They’ve always been our friends and I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t always be.” The people of Russia “evidently like their government or they wouldn’t die for it. I like ours, so let’s get along.”...

The day after the bombing of Nagasaki, Truman privately told cabinet member Henry Wallace that “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible,” and that he did not like “the idea of killing all those kids.” This was a feeling Truman would never be able to acknowledge publicly.

The history of this world-shattering event offers us lessons on war, race, leadership, reason, judgment, and the importance of cross-cultural understanding. Those who do not know history, a philosopher warned, will be doomed to repeat it. Hiroshima is a past that is not even past, and we ignore it at our peril.

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