Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18472
Michael R. Beschloss (review date 30 July 1995)
SOURCE: "Did We Need to Drop It?," in The New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1995, pp. 10-11.
[An American historian, Beschloss has written extensively on American diplomatic history. In the review below, he remarks on Gar Alperovitz's The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth and Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar's Code-Name Downfall.]
For 20 years after Harry Truman ordered the atomic bomb dropped on Japan in August 1945, most American scholars and citizens subscribed to the original, official version of the story: the President had acted to avert a horrendous invasion of Japan that could have cost 200,000 to 500,000 American lives. Then a young political economist named Gar Alperovitz published a book of ferocious revisionism, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965). While acknowledging the paucity of evidence available at the time, he argued that dropping the atomic bomb "was not needed to end the war or to save lives" but was Truman's means of sending a chastening message to the Soviet Union.
Now, in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Mr. Alperovitz, who is the president of the National Center for Economic Alternatives, writes that "oversimplified versions of my argument (together with some obvious graduate-student errors) were pounced upon by critics who could not abide criticism of the Hiroshima decision." Benefiting from documentary discoveries of the past 30 years and the less fractious post-cold war atmosphere, he has produced a more ambitious and far-reaching work. As the author notes, his earlier book focused on "how the bomb influenced diplomacy." With the advantage of greater hindsight and documentation, this volume seeks to deal more comprehensively with the decision to drop the bomb and to suggest why the public clings so tenaciously to the original explanation of why Truman gave the order. With piquant irony, he has chosen the same title that Truman's first Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, used in a famous 1947 essay in Harper's that did much to establish the original version of the story in the public mind. Mr. Alperovitz has lost none of his instinct for provocative judgments about one of the century's paramount historical controversies. He has written what will almost certainly serve as a bible for the next generation of revisionist scholars, a book that is elegantly documented (with the aid of seven research collaborators) and intensely argued.
Fifty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mr. Alperovitz declares that a final answer to why the atomic bomb was used is "neither essential nor possible." He continues with a more debatable premise: "What is important is whether, when the bomb was used, the President and his top advisers understood that it was not required to avoid a long and costly invasion, as they later claimed and as most Americans still believe." More orthodox historical critiques of the atomic bomb decision sometimes question the estimates of casualties to be expected from a full-scale invasion of Japan. The argument goes that if these appraisals were inflated, the President had less business justifying the horror of the bomb as a way of saving lives. This debate is less interesting to Mr. Alperovitz. He insists that without use of the bomb, Japan might still have been made to surrender before the first American landing on the island of Kyushu, planned for November 1945. He notes that many American military leaders then and later felt that using atomic weapons against Japan was unnecessary.
But, Mr. Alperovitz argues, Truman and his Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, were struck...
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by the notion that ending World War II without dropping the atomic bomb would not have brought added strength to American diplomacy against the Soviet Union in Europe. More than in the earlier book, Byrnes is the villain of this piece. Mr. Alperovitz insists that a decision not to drop the bomb could actually have bolstered American diplomatic objectives in Asia—for example, by helping to create the atmosphere for a more harmonious post-war American-Soviet relationship. He criticizes Truman for failing to issue a more explicit warning to Japan about the bomb and for attacking Hiroshima rather than a nonurban target, as his Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, had suggested.
As evidence of the link between the bomb decision and diplomacy toward Moscow, Mr. Alperovitz points to Truman's postponement of his Potsdam meeting with Stalin and Churchill until July 1945, when the new weapon would have been tested. At Potsdam, after hearing about the first successful detonation in New Mexico, Truman turned suddenly more truculent. According to Stimson, Churchill marveled that the President "was a changed man. He told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting." Truman confided to his crony and reparations negotiator Edwin Pauley that the bomb "would keep the Russians straight." Mr. Alperovitz argues that "the U.S. feeling of cheerfulness rather than frustration" over differences with the Soviets at Potsdam "makes little sense unless one realizes that top policy makers were thinking ahead to the time when the force of the new weapon would be displayed."
But how might Truman, if he were disinclined to use the bomb, have ended the war without the large number of casualties required, by any estimate, for the invasion of Japan? Mr. Alperovitz says that the President could have shown himself a lot more eager to welcome the Soviets into the Asian conflict. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, had wanted Stalin to help pin the Japanese down on the Chinese mainland, making it harder for them to reinforce their home armies when the Americans invaded.
Mr. Alperovitz suggests that on the issue of Soviet participation in the Japanese war, Truman zigged and zagged after taking office in April 1945. In mid-June, American officials like General Marshall were arguing that a Soviet war declaration might "prove to be the decisive blow to force a Japanese surrender." But at Potsdam, Mr. Alperovitz writes, Truman sought to delay a Soviet war declaration: although it might have precluded the use of the bomb on Japan, it would have given Stalin a large foothold in east Asia. Mr. Alperovitz says that the timing of the Hiroshima bombing—Aug. 6, 1945—was no accident. Two days later the Soviet Union declared war on the Japanese and then crossed the border into Manchuria.
Mr. Alperovitz offers another alternative for ending the war without using the bomb: relaxing the unconditional surrender demand issued by Roosevelt in 1943 at Casablanca. He suggests that the President might have provided assurances that if Tokyo surrendered, the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, would be permitted to retain his throne. This idea indeed found strong support among Truman's advisers. Stimson proposed that Truman allow the Japanese "a constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty if it be shown to the complete satisfaction of the world that such a government will never again conspire to aggression." Mr. Alperovitz notes that in mid-August, after the bombs had been dropped and the Russians had entered the conflict, Truman and Byrnes were willing to provide assurances about the Emperor. Doesn't the fact that these weren't provided earlier, when they might have helped end the war, indicate an eagerness to drop the bomb?
Mr. Alperovitz gives less weight than other scholars to the arguments against such an offer. As the Stanford historian Barton Bernstein has recently noted in the journal Diplomatic History, the Tokyo regime of mid-summer 1945 was badly split over what kind of American peace offer, if any, to accept. At that point, granting a concession on the Emperor's role could have drawn the United States into extended bargaining with the Japanese leaders. Haggling with a regime that Roosevelt and Truman had denounced as criminal, that had attacked Pearl Harbor and that had committed well-publicized atrocities was the kind of thing the unconditional surrender doctrine had been drafted to avoid. Not irrationally, Truman told Churchill that he did not think the Japanese had "any military honor after Pearl Harbor." (And there is also the possibility that ambiguity over Hirohito's role might have impeded America's ability to occupy the country and reform the political system from the ground up.)
Mr. Alperovitz devotes considerable space to showing how Stimson's article in Harper's, misleading official memoirs and the American Government's refusal over the years to release certain classified documents helped enshrine the original explanation of the atomic bomb decision. Yet, as energetically as he argues his case, he is unlikely to convert those who do not believe that finding an alternative to the atomic bomb should have been an overarching priority for Truman in the summer of 1945.
Moreover, Mr. Alperovitz's new volume lacks what the Harvard historian Charles S. Maier has called the "shock value" of his earlier one. One reason is that we are more skeptical about the motives of our leaders and the origins of the cold war than we were in 1965. But another is the degree to which Mr. Alperovitz's views have pushed other scholars to re-examine their assumptions about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In Code-Name Downfall, Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar, the authors of CNN: War in the Gulf and Rickover: Controversy and Genius, reveal new sidelights on the planning to invade Japan. Amid some purple prose (the book begins, "The United States was plunged into despair on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941," and later says, "MacArthur's life and career were a parade of superlatives"), they show how the fall of Okinawa in July 1945 became the prelude to the planned landing by seven Army and three Marine divisions on Kyushu and the 17-division landing on the main Japanese island of Honshu, the latter action scheduled for March 1946. They describe the fictitious attacks and feints devised to deceive the foe, and the possible American use of poison gas, anthrax germs and atomic weapons during the invasion. Told of Hiroshima, one American planner said he wanted "six of these things" for the Kyushu landing. Ignorant of the danger of radiation to his own troops, General Marshall pondered using atomic bombs on Kyushu before the Americans came ashore.
Mr. Allen and Mr. Polmar explain that before the atomic bombs were dropped the Pentagon expected to be faced with Japanese resistance until November 1946. Grimly recalling a March 1945 bombing attack on the Japanese capital, General Marshall said, "We had 100,000 people killed in Tokyo in one night, and it had seemingly no effect whatsoever."
The authors also describe Truman's effort to assess the possible casualties that would result from a full-scale invasion. Whereas Mr. Alperovitz laments Truman's manipulation of casualty estimates after his retirement (in 1959 he argued that the bomb saved "millions of lives"), Mr. Allen and Mr. Polmar are more intrigued by the manipulation of casualty estimates before Truman made his decision. They note a "worst-case scenario" in June 1945 that estimated the number of battle casualties at 220,000, but caution that the military was not averse to reshaping casualty estimates in order to influence Truman's thinking on whether or not to invade Japan: "High estimates would make the invasion a far less attractive alternative to the bomb."
The authors display little ambivalence about the question raised by the second half of their subtitle, "And Why Truman Dropped the Bomb." They dispose of the immensely complex problem of whether or not the bomb should have been dropped in a few paragraphs, writing, "As for the use of the atomic bomb as an implied threat to the Soviet Union, geopolitics may have been on the minds of some of Truman's advisers, but the war and American lives were on his mind. Preparations for the massive amphibious assault on Japan were under way, and Truman went to Potsdam in July seeking assurance that Stalin would enter the war against Japan. Then Truman learned on July 16 that the atomic bomb would work, and he ordered it used. It was a weapon, and it might end the war without an invasion." Mr. Allen and Mr. Polmar conclude that Kyushu "would have been the bloodiest invasion in history" and "could have been surpassed by the assault of Honshu." The debate goes on.
Michael Sherry (review date 30 July 1995)
SOURCE: "Guilty Knowledge," in The New York Times Book Review, July 30, 1995, pp. 11-12.
[An American educator and historian, Sherry has written extensively on American involvement in World War II. In the following review of Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell's Hiroshima in America and Ronald Takaki's Hiroshima, Sherry contends that both books fail to address the full complexity of the atomic bomb issue.]
Must we return to the question Ronald Takaki [in his Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb] raises in his subtitle? We seem to be stuck with coming back to it in a ritualistic, even fetishistic fashion, even though the ground has been so worked that there appears little new to say, except to shore up earlier interpretations—or reshape them in the light of current politics. Asking why we dropped the atomic bomb long ago became less a way to say anything new than a way to expiate our guilt or reassert our virtue. Revisiting the question also revisits the period when the world's fate seemed to hinge on what the United States did (even those who, like Mr. Takaki, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, challenge Americocentrism slip into it at times).
But many younger people haven't covered this ground before. Like other questions about America's past—why the North won the Civil War, how Japan pulled off Pearl Harbor—this one continues to draw succeeding generations (though, like historians, they ponder the question in ways that often reflect as much the time they live in as the past they presumably examine).
Surprisingly, the veteran scholars of the question have written the fresher book—awkwardly organized, repetitive, but page by page highly readable. In Hiroshima in America, Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell offer a sweeping account not only of why the atomic bomb was used but of "what Hiroshima means—and has done—to America." In their view, the bomb plunged the nation into a half-century of troubled denial of its capacity to inflict—and to ignore—mass death.
These basic claims and concepts are hardly new. Dr. Lifton, the author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, and The Protean Self, has long presented "denial" (refusing to accept a fact or event) and "psychic numbing" (distancing oneself by sealing off emotions and memories) as keys to American responses to the bomb. In this book, he and Mr. Mitchell, the author of The Campaign of the Century, on Upton Sinclair's California gubernatorial race in 1934, are sometimes too glib. They applaud those who bristled at the use of the bomb for recognizing that "human survival was now at issue." But in fact many of those who supposedly perpetuated the nation's denial simply drew a different conclusion from that same recognition. Truman used the threat to human survival to justify a mighty drive to outgun the Kremlin in nuclear weapons. And while Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell argue that Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson needed terms for the bomb like "the thing," "the dreadful" and "the diabolical" to sustain "his own psychic numbing," Stimson's terms don't seem to me bland or deceptive.
Concepts like denial and psychic numbing inadvertently work against themselves by making the general American response to the bomb seem natural. "Psychic numbing" is given a totalizing quality, used to explain almost everything, down to the United States' alleged indifference to "the 1990's genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda." And "denial" operates to divide Americans into the healthy few ("enlightened scientists") who appreciated the bomb's evil and the pathological many who did not. Artifacts of the atomic age as much as insights into it, these terms succeed more as polemical devices than as historical explanations.
Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell, do, however, breathe new life and specificity into the terms. If their framework is top-heavy, they offer such keen insights into so many particulars, especially into men like Truman and Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, that their book makes compelling reading.
One of the more interesting sections of Ronald Takaki's Hiroshima also turns on insight into personality. Mr. Takaki's reading of American leaders, especially Truman, as caught in the cult of "masculinity" is effective, though it overlooks how such a reading might apply to Japanese and Soviet leaders. Short, graceful and generally evenhanded, Hiroshima will nicely inform the novice on the basic issues. But the book presents problems, even as an introductory primer. Mr. Takaki barely mentions the Soviet Union's role in ending the Pacific war, widely noted at the time but later erased by Americans proud (or fearful) of the role their weapon played. He claims to draw on "recently declassified military documents," but most have long been available. Even on the role of racial ideology in the decision, Mr. Takaki, an Asian-American scholar of race turning to a subject long dominated by an unchanging cast of white male experts, mostly recycles familiar findings. In the end, he favors critics of the use of the bomb and fails to capture how so many Americans gratefully received the news and celebrated it.
In Hiroshima in America, perhaps more than Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell realize, denial emerges less as an emotional reaction to terrifying news than as a political construct, guiding Americans toward celebration of the bomb and then to a reliance on it in cold-war policy making. Their book helps us understand why veterans' groups demanded that stories of Japanese atrocities be included in the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit to quell doubts about the use of the atomic bomb. Atrocity stories have been at the core of Americans' atomic bomb discourse since its start. American authorities released them to justify the ferocious firebombing of Japan that preceded Hiroshima, and did so again after Aug. 6 and at key points later when public anxiety arose about the bomb's use. Such stories had a genuine place in moral debate, yet the timing of their release, as opposed to their content, suggests a ritual reassertion of American virtue rather than an interest in the atrocities per se. (Perhaps this is why atrocity survivors often felt used and then ignored rather than really heard.) In 1945, as in 1995, disturbing evidence of the effects of radiation, of American P.O.W.'s killed in the atomic blasts, of the improbability that any invasion of Japan would be needed, as well as film footage of the damage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was played down or censored outright.
Why did a great nation confident of its virtue resort to such deception? The cynic can respond, rightly, that great powers routinely do such things, and Washington's embrace of nuclear weapons as the counter to Soviet power vastly enhanced the temptation to deceive. Yet the conclusion is also inescapable that many Americans were hardly confident of the nation's virtue. However unsurprising politically, the recurring need to stack the deck betrays profound doubts, among defenders of the bomb's use as well as critics, from Truman in 1945 to the Smithsonian's opponents in 1995.
Both Hiroshima and Hiroshima in America also remind us how silly the claim was, in the debate over the Enola Gay exhibit, that critics of the bomb's use are now and have always been liberals, antimilitarists and the politically correct. Before Hiroshima, Gen. George C. Marshall, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adm. William D. Leahy, among other military officials, questioned or opposed use without warning. After Hiroshima, doubts or denunciations emerged from the conservative columnist David Lawrence, the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen (a cold-war hawk who judged the claim that the bomb's use saved lives "precisely the argument Hitler used in bombing Holland") and the diplomat John Foster Dulles. Even among crewmen of the atomic bomb flights there was a wide range of reactions. They all would have found curious the idea that endorsing the bomb's use was a litmus test of patriotism or loyalty. The harsh assertion of that test today testifies to the rancor of the 1990's, not to the realities of the 1940's. Moreover, as Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell shrewdly point out, the litmus test notion is oddly "self-diminishing for the veterans," for it "shifts the credit for defeating the Japanese" to the bomb makers and away from "the U.S. soldiers, pilots and seamen who had defeated the enemy, at great cost, in one battle after another."
Why, then, did the United States use atomic bombs in 1945? The truth is that no single reason prevailed, in part because no single individual prevailed. For some, like Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, the primary justification was to intimidate the Soviet Union and crowd it out of the Pacific war, as Gar Alperovitz's new book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, emphasizes. For others, like the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, it was to shock the world into forging international control of atomic weapons. For men like George Marshall, it was to gain quick victory, not only to save American lives but to address war-weariness at home. For still others—Secretary Stimson at times—it was the fatalistic sense that the firebombing of Japan's cities had already crossed the moral and political line that blocked use of such a terrible weapon. Rarely mentioned by officials—though certainly well known to them—was a visceral sense that the Japanese were a subhuman foe who deserved atomic retribution for the crime of Pearl Harbor and much else.
For many leaders, these reasons to use the bomb coexisted in a jumbled fashion over the summer of 1945—each rising or falling with the moment, none clearly singled out, especially by Truman, who erratically grabbed and discarded the various rationales offered. Only after the war did the saving of American lives—not even mentioned, Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell point out, in Truman's long initial statement on the bomb's use—get wrenched from this murky web and enshrined as the principal justification, as leaders worked to uphold the purity of American motives. As Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell note, once the bomb was successfully tested on July 16, invasion of Japan was not an option even if the war had dragged on: "For what sane power, with the atomic weapon securely in its arsenal," the sociologist Kai Erikson has asked, "would hurl a million or more of its sturdiest young men on a heavily fortified mainland?"
The nub of the "why" question—bothersome to men like Stimson but erased in more recent political debate—involves the timing of American assurances to Japan that it could retain its emperor system. By July 1945, American leaders sensed that Japan was a defeated nation: ferociously bombed, economically strangled and desperate to find a way to surrender without losing its monarchy. Before Hiroshima, the Truman Administration would not offer assurances about the Emperor, at least not in a form clear enough to convey anything meaningful. After Nagasaki, the Soviet entry into the war and Japan's inquiry about peace terms, assurances were forthcoming. (Later, Truman erroneously claimed that Japan's leaders "were offered the terms, which they finally accepted, well in advance of the dropping of the bomb.") That shift in the American approach, not just the bomb's use and Russia's entry, led to surrender.
The disquieting likelihood (though neither Dr. Lifton and Mr. Mitchell nor Ronald Takaki suggest it) is that the use of the bomb allowed the United States to offer surrender terms it previously withheld, giving the bomb as decisive an impact in Washington as in Tokyo. Before Hiroshima, the Administration was hamstrung by (among other things) a fear that softening the surrender terms would enrage Americans long fed promises of "unconditional surrender" and images of Japanese "fanaticism." Having carried out the final assault, having proved their atomic mastery (to the Soviet Union, among others), having "repaid" (as Truman put it) Japan for its treachery, American leaders freed themselves to be flexible—now they would not lose face by relaxing the surrender terms. Saving American lives, though a general goal of American policy, did not dictate the immediate decision to use the atomic bomb. Instead, American leaders bombed themselves into accepting Japan's surrender terms.
Suzanne Mantell (essay date 31 July 1995)
SOURCE: "Fifty Years of the Nuclear Age," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 31, July 31, 1995, pp. 23-4.
[In the excerpt below, Mantell surveys works published in 1995 that center on the development of the atomic bomb, the victims in Japan, and the American decision to carry out the attack.]
The 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is almost upon us. Many related books have been published in the half-decade since the bombings, including acclaimed and widely read volumes such as John Hersey's Hiroshima (Knopf), Robert J. Lifton's Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (UNC paperback) and Richard Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb (S&S). But an event this momentous demands attention over and over again, often, as is the case this commemorative year, from new and different angles.
The crop of books that will be published on Aug. 6 or soon thereafter can be divided roughly into two kinds: those that put a human face onto nuclear tragedy, and those that analyze what happened, in an attempt to understand why America did it. Boundaries, however, are not always clear-cut.
Volume Two of the Library of America's two-volume Reporting World War II: American Journalism, coming in October, is published in celebration of the war's end and makes newly available John Hersey's famous report on the human consequences of the destruction, published originally in 1946 as an entire issue of the New Yorker. Volume I, covering the years 1938–1944, contains material published during the war; together, the books contain 191 pieces by nearly 90 writers.
Hiroshima Notes by 1994 Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, coming from Marion Boyars with an Aug. 6 publication date, humanizes the war through a combination of reportage and reflection. Oe—who was 10 and far from the blast when the bomb dropped—visited Hiroshima several times in the 1960s to interview survivors and the doctors who cared for them and their children. This is the first American edition of the book; in Japan, where it was published in the mid-1960s, it is in its 30th printing, with 700,000 copies sold to date. Oe has written a new introduction for the American edition….
The Manhattan Project physicists who developed the bomb left a legacy beyond the scientific one—namely, their children and grandchildren. Now two of these offspring have created books that reflect their families' involvement.
Rachel Fermi, granddaughter of the physicist Enrico Fermi, has produced, with Esther Samra, Picturing the Bomb: Photographs from the Secret World of the Manhattan Project (Abrams). Richard Rhodes wrote the introduction to this photographic scrapbook filled with previously unseen pictures that were found in family albums and discovered in laboratory archives. Included are snapshots of the physicists and their families, and historical documentation of the first A-bomb explosions. Both Fermi and Samra are photographers.
A more verbal view of that era comes to us from Claudio G. Segré, who grew up in the shadow of his father, Emilio, who shared a 1959 Nobel Prize in physics with Owen Chamberlain for their work on antimatter. Segré also discovered Element 43 and several others. In the memoir, Atoms, Bombs & Eskimo Kisses, a September release from Viking, the younger Segré tries to answer the questions, "What was it like to live at Los Alamos while the atomic bomb was being built? What was it like to have Fermi, Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer over for dinner?" Segré is a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, so his memoir looks at his own past and his complicated relationship with his father with the light of history shining down on it….
A firsthand account in the Hersey-Oe genre (and the first eyewitness account published in the West, according to the publisher) is the University of North Carolina Press's Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, Aug. 9-Sept. 30, 1945 by Michihiko Hachiya, M.D., translated by Dr. Warner Wells, due Aug. 6 in a new paperback edition with a new foreword by MIT scholar John W. Dower. Immediately after the bombing, the author kept a diary in which he chronicled his attempts to aid the victims. The book has been in print continuously since it was first published in 1955.
Duke University Press publishes the memories of another medical witness in James Yamazaki's Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician's Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands, out in August. Written with Louis B. Fleming, the book is an attempt by Yamazaki, an L.A. pediatrician, to understand and document the impact of nuclear explosions on children, particularly those in utero at the time of the explosions.
Dominating the second category of book, those that want to figure out what was behind Truman's decision to drop the bomb, is Gar Alperovitz's The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, a book that Knopf embargoed prior to its Aug. 6 publication because of arrangements with ABC for a Peter Jennings special, and with the New York Times Magazine for an excerpt.
Alperovitz, a historian and president of the National Center for Economic Alternatives, probes the reasons we dropped the bomb and looks anew at the historic controversy about whether the war with Japan could have been ended by other means. In the second half of the 847-page volume, he tries to find out why Americans continue to believe that it was necessary to bomb Japan to put an end to the war, and why we resist thinking otherwise.
Alperovitz says that as the 50th anniversary of the bombing approached, he felt it was "simply wrong" to continue to pass over the troubling question of why we did it. He takes as a given that the use of the bomb was not needed to prevent an invasion and reckons that understanding what happened has less to do with the past and everything to do with the future.
Robert Jay Lifton returns to the subject of the bomb in Putnam's just-published Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, written with Greg Mitchell, a journalist who specializes in nuclear issues. Lifton and Mitchell want to understand how Americans have responded to the use of the bomb over the past 50 years. Their book reviews the official narrative of the bombing; offers a detailed analysis of the process by which Truman made his decision and then defended it; and examines the bombing's moral, psychological and political legacy….
Similar in intent to both the Alperovitz and the Lifton-Mitchell books is a Little, Brown August release, Ronald Takaki's Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at UC-Berkeley, uses original documents to consider the ways in which stereotypes of the Japanese influenced the decision of policy makers to drop the bomb and the public's subsequent acceptance of the decision. Like the other analysts, Takaki takes the position that Truman ordered the bomb to be dropped as a show of strength against the Soviet Union, rather than as a way to end the war quickly and avoid massive casualties….
A title that touches on the bomb through German eyes is Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall, annotated by writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein, due from the American Institute of Physics in October. The book, which is being marketed to the lay reader, uses recently declassified intelligence reports to refute the theory that Germany had developed its own bomb during the war.
The book contains verbatim conversations that took place among 10 top German scientists who were held in captivity at Farm Hall in England before, during and after the bombing of Japan. The tapes indicate the Germany didn't have the correct math to build the bomb, despite the claims of Werner Heisenberg, who had been in charge of the Reich's nuclear program, that he and his researchers purposefully stalled the project in order to keep the weapon out of Hitler's hands.
Finally, we come to Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Uncensored Script of the Smithsonian's 50th Anniversary Exhibit of the Enola Gay, edited by journalist Philip Nobile with an afterword by Barton J. Bernstein, a paperback original that was first scheduled for October release by the publisher, Marlowe & Company (distributed by PGW), but then made available June 27. The date was changed to coincide with the opening of the revamped Smithsonian exhibit, whose original wall labels were altered after veterans' groups and others objected to them on the grounds that they were too critical of the U.S. and insufficiently patriotic. In reproducing the original labels, the book is a testament—like all of these books, in their different ways—to the public's right to know.
Ian Buruma (review date 21 September 1995)
SOURCE: "The War Over the Bomb," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 14, September 21, 1995, pp. 26-34.
[Buruma is a Dutch-born journalist and nonfiction writer who specializes in the study of Japanese culture. Below, he discusses the bombing of Nagasaki and remarks on several books about the atomic bombing of Japan, focusing on questions concerning the motivation, purpose, and necessity of the attacks.]
The flight of the bomber called Bock's Car on August 9, 1945, from Tinian to Nagasaki was blessed but not smooth. In a Quonset hut at the air base before takeoff Chaplain Downey had prayed for the success of the plane's mission. "Almighty God, Father of all mercies," he said, "we pray Thee to be gracious with those who fly this night." He also said: "Give to us all courage and strength for the hours that are ahead; give to them rewards according to their efforts. Above all else, our Father, bring peace to Thy world."
But things went wrong from the start. A fuel pump wasn't working. So the captain, Major Charles "Chuck" Sweeney ("cheerful Irish grin"), decided to rendezvous with escort planes over Japan and refuel in Okinawa on the way back. The skies were thundery and turbulent. The rendezvous was missed: the planes lost contact and much time. The primary target, Kokura, an industrial city in northern Kyushu, was covered by smoke from a bombing raid on a neighboring city. Fuel was running low, but Sweeney flew his B-29 bomber on to the second target on the list: Nagasaki.
A thick deck of clouds had rendered Nagasaki invisible, too. "Skipper" Sweeney had to think fast. Fuel was running out. Ditching his load in the ocean was one possibility. But he decided against it. "After all," he said, "anything is better than dumping it in the water." He would ignore his orders, which stipulated that the target had to be visible, and drop the "Fat Man" by radar. Then, suddenly, Kermit "Bea" Beahan ("slow Texas drawl"; "crack bombardier"; "ladies' man"), shouted: "I've got it. I see the city. I'll take it now…."
And so the "Fat Man" went down, slowly at first. It took a while for things to happen. Internal radar fuses had been activated in the bomb to sense its height. Chuck Sweeney was impatient. "Oh, my God," he said to his copilot, Charles "Donald Duck" Albery ("a deeply religious man"), "did we goof it up?" Moments later, the sky lit up, the plane was rocking like a rowing boat in a storm, and Sweeney could relax at last. "Well, Bea," said "Donald Duck" to the bombardier, "there's a thousand Japs you've just killed." [This and preceding quotes are from Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb, by Frank Chinnock, 1970.]
The "Fat Man," a plutonium bomb, exploded about three miles from the center of Nagasaki, above an area called Urakami, sometimes referred to in Nagasaki as Urakamimura, or Urakami village. The pressure generated by the bomb at the hypocenter—the point directly under the blast—was about ten tons per square meter. The heat at ground level reached 4,000 degrees Celsius. People near the hypocenter were vaporized. Others, who were not so lucky, died more slowly, often after shedding their skins like snakes. Some died weeks or months, or even years, later of various kinds of cancer. Altogether up to 70,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki. About half of them died on the day itself.
The landscape of Urakami, separated by mountains from Nagasaki proper, was marked by Mitsubishi weapons factories and the largest cathedral in east Asia. Urakami was a district with a low reputation. Its population included a large number of poor Roman Catholics and even poorer outcasts. It was as though a bomb had fallen on Harlem, leaving the rest of Manhattan relatively unscathed. Some residents of Nagasaki quietly voiced the opinion that the bomb had "cleaned up" Urakami. In August 1945, there were 14,000 Catholics in Nagasaki. More than half were killed by the bomb. There are 70,000 Catholics living in Nagasaki today. Southern Kyushu is still the only part of Japan with a large Christian minority.
The first missionary to reach Kyushu was Francis Xavier, who landed there in 1549. His high hopes for Japan were not disappointed. By the turn of the century about 300,000 Japanese had been converted to the Roman faith. Even Hideyoshi, the "Barbarian-slaying" Shogun himself, was seen in his palace fingering a rosary. This did not stop him from crucifying twenty-six Japanese and European priests in Nagasaki in 1597. Like his more ferocious successors, he was afraid that Japanese Christians might help Spanish invaders take over Japan—a fear that Dutch traders did their best to encourage.
After 1612 persecution began in earnest. Christianity was banned. Men, women, and children were burned to death while singing praises to the Lord. Priests were suspended upside down in pits of excrement or boiling sulfur, cut open, and bled to death, unless they agreed to renounce their faith and trample on images of Christ. A Christian peasant rebellion in 1632 was put down (with Dutch help) so brutally that hardly any of the 40,000 rebels survived. Naturally, missionary work became impossible and priests could no longer attend to their flock.
Even so, small communities of "hidden Christians" hung on, often reverting in time to folk religion: local deities were worshiped in the name of Jesus; a kind of Christian cargo cult developed, with fisherfolk praying for the return of priests in black ships. Only after Americans (in black ships) and Europeans had pried Japan open in the latter half of the nineteenth century did Japanese Christians dare to declare themselves. But they remained an often harassed and poor minority, forced to do religiously polluted work in the meat and leather trades, which were normally reserved for outcasts. The ban on Christianity was formally lifted in 1873. Twenty years later, the Nagasaki Christians managed to collect enough money to start construction of a wood and redbrick cathedral on a hill in Urakami. It was completed in 1925. It was above this cathedral that the "Fat Man" exploded.
Twice a day, the one surviving Angelus bell rings out from the new Cathedral. Visiting Nagasaki this summer I walked from the Cathedral to Peace Park. It is built on the site of an old prison, whose foundation stones recently emerged during the construction of an underground garage. The appearance of these prison foundations caused a political row in Nagasaki: Should they be preserved as a reminder of the war (among the prisoners were Koreans and Chinese)? A compromise was reached: the car park was completed, and a slab of the old prison wall is displayed in Peace Park, among the monuments and memorials.
Compared to the one in Hiroshima, Nagasaki Peace Park is a small and subdued affair. There is the "Peace Statue," a large white figure pointing his right hand at the sky and extending his left hand sideways. According to a booklet on sale in the Peace Park bookstore, the right hand points to the nuclear threat and the left hand symbolizes eternal peace. The folded right leg and the extended left leg "symbolize meditation and the initiative to stand up and rescue the people of the world." In the rest of the park are various sculptures, some of them donated by countries that no longer exist: the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, the USSR. Two kindly ladies and an elderly man had set up a long table in front of the Soviet "Statue of Peace." They invited "all the people who love peace," including small children on school excursions, to sign an antinuclear petition to be sent to Washington.
But there is much less of this kind of thing than in Hiroshima, which is dominated by memorials to the bomb victims and messages of salvation. The main reason people visit Hiroshima is the bomb. This is not true of Nagasaki. Hiroshima, not Nagasaki, has become the mecca of international antinuclear activism. The Hiroshima bomb came first. It fell in the center of the city. More people died there—and few of them were despised Christians or outcasts. People say: "No more Hiroshimas." They rarely say: "No more Nagasakis."
Instead of dwelling on the bomb, Nagasaki has turned its history of foreign missionaries, Dutch traders, Chinese merchants, and Madame Butterfly into a tourist attraction. Nagasaki takes pride in once having been the nearest thing in Japan to a cosmopolitan city. When the rest of the country was sealed off from the outside world between the early seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, Nagasaki kept a Dutch trading post on Dejima Island. Western science first entered Japan through Nagasaki in the form of medical texts, which Japanese scholars learned to read by memorizing Dutch dictionaries. After Japan opened up, village girls acquired Russian by serving Russian sailors as prostitutes, and outcasts acquired foreign languages by supplying the Europeans with meat. Nagasaki had a large Chinatown, now a cute, touristy pastiche of its former self. A celebrated entertainer from Nagasaki, who sings French chansons and wears women's clothes, claims to be the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Christian martyr, thought to have been the incarnation of Deusu, the Lord. The most popular souvenirs in Nagasaki include all manner of Christian trinkets, as well as a sponge-cake called castella, introduced by the Portuguese four hundred years ago.
Nagasaki's most famous survivor was a Christian named Nagai Takashi. He became a symbol of his city's suffering, just as a schoolgirl, named Sasaki Sadako, became a symbol of Hiroshima. Sadako was two years old when the bomb exploded a mile from her home. She died of leukemia ten years later, but not before trying to fold one thousand paper cranes, as symbols of longevity. Her monument in Hiroshima Peace Park is covered in thousands of paper cranes, folded by schoolchildren from all over Japan.
Dr. Nagai was a professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki when the city was bombed. He had contracted leukemia before the war, perhaps as a result of his laboratory work, but radiation from the bomb cured the symptoms. Dr. Nagai was a devout Catholic and a Japanese patriot who exhorted his students to fight their hardest for the nation. He was devastated by Japan's defeat. But then, as he wrote in his best-selling book The Bells of Nagasaki, he had a flash of religious inspiration. The bomb, he decided, was "a great act of Divine Providence," for which Nagasaki "must give thanks to God." He declared that Nagasaki, "the only holy place in Japan," had been chosen as a sacrificial lamb "to be burned on the altar of sacrifice to expiate the sins committed by humanity in the Second World War." In this vision, Dr. Nagai added the Catholic victims of the bomb to the long list of Nagasaki martyrs. They were the spiritual heirs of believers who had been crucified for their faith.
How noble, how splendid was that holocaust of August 9, when flames soared up from the cathedral, dispelling the darkness of war and bringing the light of peace! In the very depth of our grief we reverently saw here something beautiful, something pure, something sublime. Eight thousand people, together with their priests, burning with pure smoke, entered into eternal life. All without exception were good people whom we deeply mourn.
The symptoms of leukemia returned, and Dr. Nagai retired to a tiny hut near the cathedral, where he wrote his many books and was visited by dignitaries ranging from Emperor Hirohito to Helen Keller. The Bells of Nagasaki was completed in 1946, but out of fear that accounts of the nuclear bombings would encourage anti-American attitudes, the US occupation authorities only allowed it to be published in 1949. Two years later Dr. Nagai died. His hut is now a shrine, visited by Japanese schoolchildren and tourists from all over the world, who peer through the window at the bone-white image of the Virgin Mary next to his bed.
I asked Father Calaso, a Spanish priest who has lived in Nagasaki for many years, what he thought of Dr. Nagai's vision. He answered that it was "theologically correct. We cannot know why the bomb was good, but God cannot will anything evil." Of course, as John Whittier Treat points out in his excellent book Writing Ground Zero, a critical discussion of Japanese writing about the bomb, the Christian idea of martyrdom was not the only response of Nagasaki bomb survivors. Treat contrasts Nagai's Christian idealism with the existential despair of such non-Christian writers as Hayashi Kyoko, who express not just their own "leukemia of the soul" but also their fear that the atomic disease will be carried by future generations. Hayashi's view is radically secular. In a short story entitled "In the Fields," she writes: "These are deliberate wounds precisely calculated and inflicted by human beings. On account of these calculations, the very life that we would pass on to our children and grandchildren has sustained injury."
Nevertheless the mood of Christian resignation has affected Nagasaki. There are social reasons for this, too. Like many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who returned to their native countries in Europe, Nagasaki Christians did not wish to dwell on their suffering lest it expose them to the public gaze. They did not want to stand out in a society obsessed with bloodlines and social conformity. It was difficult enough finding marriage partners for your children, if you were a bomb survivor, being a Catholic could only make things worse. So there is something to the cliché that "Hiroshima is angry, while Nagasaki prays." Compared to Hayashi's Angst, Dr. Nagai's beatitude makes the past easier to bear. We are told of Bock's Car's crew: "Today, they are all deeply religious men" [Chinnock].
Religion was linked to the nuclear bombs from the beginning. Witnessing the first successful nuclear explosion in New Mexico, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita; "Now I am become Death the destroyer of worlds." President Truman, announcing the bombing of Hiroshima, thanked God that the weapon had "come to us instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes." Arthur H. Compton, a member of the Interim Committee for Atomic Bomb Policy, believed that "God had fought on our side during the war, supplying free men with weapons that tyranny could not produce."
What Truman and Compton had in common with Dr. Nagai—but absolutely not with Hayashi Kyoko—was the convenient view that God, not man, was ultimately responsible for the bomb. Opponents of the bomb often express themselves in equally religious terms. Treat quotes a poem from Nagasaki which goes: "In the Cathedral in the ruins of boundless expanse, I stayed one night cursing God." The bomb has been described on many occasions as a transgression of religious taboos, indeed a sin against God. In 1946, the Federal Council of Churches special committee explicitly said so: "As the power that first used the atomic bomb under these circumstances, we have sinned grievously against the laws of God and against the peoples of Japan." The Roman Catholic hierarchy concluded at the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that "every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man."
Even if one leaves God out of it, it is hard to disagree that deliberate mass murder of civilians by so-called conventional or nuclear bombing is a war crime. But "strategic bombing," including the use of the two atomic bombs, was not an act of God. It was the result of political decisions, taken by human beings acting under particular circumstances. The trouble with focusing on God, sin, transgression, and other moral or religious aspects of this strategy is that it makes it very hard to discuss the politics and the historical circumstances dispassionately. This is especially true when politicians, newspaper columnists, peace activists, and veterans enter the debate. Too often emotional moralism sets the tone.
Many defenders of the atomic bombs, beginning with President Truman himself, have tried to justify their use on moral grounds: i.e., that the bombings saved half a million, or even a million, American lives by preventing an invasion. These probably inflated figures are supposed to make the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem like acts of mercy. And opponents tend to boost their moral condemnation by adding evidence of bad faith: i.e., that the bombings were acts of racism, or scientific experiments, or merely opening shots of the coming cold war, or that they served no purpose at all. In other words, it is not enough for some critics to call the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a sin against God and man; to strengthen the moral case, they must be shown to have been unnecessary and politically reprehensible, too. Many critics find it impossible to accept, for example, that the A-bombing was a war crime that actually might have helped to bring the war to a quicker end. By the same token, political reasons, however justified, are not enough for some defenders of the bomb to feel vindicated. To them, the bombs must show that God was on our side, that only the purest of motives prevailed.
I think this helps to explain the debacle over the projected Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. The fault does not lie with the authors of the original text prepared by the Smithsonian to accompany the exhibition, now published as part of Judgment at the Smithsonian.
Newt Gingrich was wrong: the script was not in the least anti-American, nor did it "espouse a set of values that are essentially destructive" [these views were expressed to Fred Barnes in The New Republic, March 13, 1995]. Historians—unlike many veterans, journalists, and politicians—have been debating the history of the bomb for years without invoking God or the Devil. And their different views are admirably and concisely reflected in the Smithsonian script. All the controversies about the atomic bombing are touched upon: whether it was an act of racism; whether the bombs were dropped to warn the Soviets, and keep them from invading Japan; whether Truman should have paid more attention to Japanese peace initiatives; and whether there were better ways than nuclear bombing of ending the war swiftly.
The Smithsonian consensus—evenhanded to the point of banality—is that racist attitudes existed, but that Roosevelt would have used the bomb on Germany if necessary. On the Soviet factor, the Smithsonian concludes that "'atomic diplomacy' against the Soviets provided one more reason for Truman not to halt the dropping of the bomb." The Smithsonian writers believe it is possible the war might have ended without the bombings if the Allies had guaranteed the Japanese emperor's position. And it is not sure whether a warning demonstration—dropping the bomb in Tokyo Bay, for instance—would have sufficed. But despite all these "hotly contested" issues, its conclusion is that "the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki … played a crucial role in ending the Pacific War quickly."
Here and there the Smithsonian text is too glib. I don't think Japanese forces kept on fighting because they feared that unconditional surrender would mean "the annihilation of their culture." Japanese forces had no choice. They went on fighting because their supreme commanders feared the annihilation of their power. Still, the projected Smithsonian exhibition would have provided an invaluable opportunity for the Hiroshima debate to break out of academic circles and reach a wider audience. This opportunity was lost when the Smithsonian caved in to protests from such organizations as the American Legion and the Air Force Association. The text was withdrawn and only the Hiroshima bomber is displayed now, without context or explanation, as just another great American plane, like the Spirit of St. Louis and the Kitty Hawk Flyer. This is a shame, for not only has it discouraged open discussion in the US, but it has fueled the self-righteousness of Japanese apologists for the Pacific War. If Americans refuse to question their war record, they ask, then why should Japanese risk the reputation of Japanese soldiers by questioning theirs?
Of course, none of this has anything to do with intellectual curiosity (the primary function of a museum, I should think), but everything to do with national pride. The American Legion and its intellectual defenders in the press were less interested in an argument than in a celebration. They wanted it to be taken for granted that the bomb was right and just. Barton Bernstein points out in a thoughtful concluding essay to Judgment at the Smithsonian that the dispute was not simply about history but about "a symbolic issue in a 'culture war.'" He writes that
many Americans lumped together the seeming decline of American power, the difficulties of the domestic economy, the threats in world trade and especially Japan's successes, the loss of domestic jobs, and even changes in American gender roles, and shifts in the American family. To a number of Americans, the very people responsible for the [Smithsonian] script were the people who were changing America. The bomb, representing the end of World War II and suggesting the height of American power, was to be celebrated…. Those who in any way questioned the bomb's use were, in this emotional framework, the enemies of America. The Air Force Association, the Legion, many individual vets, segments of Congress, and parts of the media accepted, and promoted, that interpretation.
Unfortunately, the editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, Philip Nobile, is no less emotional than the conservatives he deplores. Reading his introduction, I almost felt sympathetic to the American Legion. Nobile not only believes the bombings were a moral outrage, which would be a respectable position. He goes further: he believes that anyone who defends Truman's decision is morally outrageous. To him, the defenders of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are not just wrong, they are "white male American intellectuals," who seek to "deny" Hiroshima. Paul Fussell, who argued that the bomb saved American lives, including his own, which might well be true, is smeared as the "Robert Faurisson of Hiroshima denial." This is not just nasty, it is dishonest. Faurisson is a rightwing extremist who maintains that the gas chambers never existed. Whatever the merits of Fussell's argument, he never denied that the bomb was dropped or that countless civilians died. To equate Fussell with Faurisson, or Paul Tibbetts, pilot of the Enola Gay, with Rudolf Hoess, commandant at Auschwitz, as Nobile does, is to kill the debate. For how can you argue with bad faith? But then Nobile is as little interested in a debate as the American Legion. Like them, he is concerned with moral gestures, not of celebration in his case, but of atonement, repentance, and so forth. He bandies about words like "original sin."
Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, in their analysis of Hiroshima's legacy in America, are not nasty, just woolly and moralistic. They believe that the bombings were morally offensive, and so the reasons for dropping them must necessarily have been politically misguided, dishonest, and irrational. Lifton takes it for granted that the bombs did not hasten the end of the war, since the Japanese would have surrendered anyway, if only Truman had listened to Joseph Grew, the former ambassador to Japan, and promised the Japanese they could keep their imperial system. He thinks that the Potsdam Declaration was mere propaganda, since it did not mention the atom bomb, the entry of Russia into the war, or the Emperor, "each of which would have pressed the Japanese towards surrender."
Was this really as obvious as Lifton and Mitchell, as well as many serious critics of Truman A-bomb policy, claim? Some historians, such as Gar Alperovitz, believe that the Potsdam Declaration was designed to be unacceptable to the Japanese, so that the US would have time to drop the bomb and demonstrate its supremacy to the increasingly aggressive Soviet Union. [In a footnote, Buruma states: "Gar Alperovitz first set out his ideas in Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. His new book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, goes over the same ground in more detail, as well as dealing with postwar myths about the bomb."] Truman, on the advice of his secretary of state, James Byrnes, withheld a guarantee of the Emperor's status. In The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Alperovitz repeats over and over that Truman did this, fully aware "that a surrender was not likely to occur." The implication is that Truman did not want the Japanese to surrender before the bomb was used. On his way to Potsdam, in July 1945, Truman heard the news that the first atomic bomb had been successfully tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. With the bomb in his pocket, so to speak, he believed that the "Japs will fold up before Russia comes in." Which was precisely what he wanted.
Alperovitz makes his case for the above scenario with mountains of documentary quotes. He shows how Truman's desire to involve the Soviet Red Army in forcing a Japanese surrender cooled as soon as he heard the good news from Alamogordo. That the Soviet Union played a part in Truman's calculations is neither a new nor an especially controversial observation. Most historians agree with Alperovitz that "even those who still wished for Russian help (to say nothing of those who opposed it) began to see the atomic bomb as a way not only to end the war, but perhaps to end it as soon as possible—preferably before the Russians attacked, and certainly, if feasible, before the Red Army got very far in its assault."
But to say that Truman deliberately withheld a guarantee of the Emperor's status at Potsdam so that he could drop his bomb is to assume it was clear the Japanese would have surrendered with such a guarantee. Alperovitz has no difficulty finding quotes from US officials who thought so, but there is no reason to believe that they were right, and consequently that Truman was wrong, or merely Machiavellian, to press for an unconditional surrender. There is no evidence that Japan would have surrendered, even with a guarantee of the Emperor's status, and there are good reasons to believe that it would not. As long as the Japanese were not ready to surrender on terms acceptable to the Allies, Truman had no option but to insist on a sharp ultimatum, bomb or no bomb.
What we know is that even some members of the so-called peace faction in the Japanese war cabinet were remarkably casual about the Potsdam terms—and not only because of the lack of guarantees for the Emperor. One of the "moderates," Navy Minister Yonai, said there was no need to rush because "Churchill has fallen, America is beginning to be isolated. The government therefore will ignore [the Potsdam Proclamation]" ["Japan's Delayed Surrender: A Reinterpretation," by Herbert P. Bix, Diplomatic History (Spring 1995)]. Even after the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, half the Supreme War Leadership Council was still determined to fight on. Japan may have been "licked" militarily, as Eisenhower and other Americans said at the time, and later, but this did not mean it would give up. Instead of preparing for surrender, the Japanese government exhorted the population to defend the "divine land," in mass suicide actions if necessary. The press kept up a daily Die-for-the-Emperor campaign. Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar describe in their book Code-Name Downfall how Japanese schoolchildren were trained to fight the enemy with bamboo spears, kitchen knives, firemen's hooks, or, as a last resort, feet and bare knuckles. Children were told: "If you don't kill at least one enemy soldier, you don't deserve to die." Eight hundred thousand troops, including home defense forces, were gathered in Kyushu to resist an American invasion. If it had come to a final battle in Japan, after more months of firebombing and starvation, the human cost to the Japanese—leaving aside the Allies for a moment—would have been horrendous.
If saving Japanese lives was not Truman's concern, it didn't particularly bother the Japanese leaders either. The debate inside the Leadership Council at a crisis meeting on August 9 was not about whether to surrender but about whether to insist on one condition (retention of the imperial system, or kokutai) or four, including the demand that there be no Allied occupation. There had to be a unanimous decision. Without absolute consensus, the government would fall, more time would be wasted, and more lives lost. This is the Emperor's own account of the meeting, which took place in the sticky heat of an underground bomb shelter. The Emperor sat stiffly in front of a gilded screen, while his ministers sweated in their dress uniforms:
The meeting went on until two o'clock in the morning of August 10, without reaching an agreement. Then Suzuki asked me to break the deadlock and come to a decision. Apart from Prime Minister Suzuki, the participants were Hiranuma, Yonai, Anami, Togo, Umezu and Toyoda. Everyone agreed on the condition to preserve the kokutai. Anami, Toyoda and Umezu insisted on adding three more conditions: that Japan would not be occupied, and that the task of disarming our armed forces and dealing with war crimes would be in our own hands. They argued that at the present stage of the war, there was enough room for negotiation. Suzuki, Yonai, Hiranuma and Togo disagreed. I believed it was impossible to continue the war … [In a footnote, Buruma explains: "The Emperor gave this self-serving account before the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was convened. The text was circulated among General MacArthur's staff but then disappeared, until it turned up in America after Hirohito's death. The full text was published in Tokyo in Showa Tenno Dokuhakuroku, 1991."]
And so, finally, after two atomic bombings, the Emperor spoke out in favor of the peace faction. It had become impossible to carry on the war. Not only had Hiroshima been obliterated, but on the day Nagasaki was bombed, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan. Some have argued that this, rather than the nuclear bombs, forced Japan's surrender. Perhaps, but the August 9 meeting had been convened before the Soviet declaration of war, and Alperovitz tells us that the Emperor, "on hearing of the Hiroshima bombing," had already "agreed the time had come to surrender." In the Emperor's own account, he mentions both the Soviets and the bombs: "The people were suffering terribly, first from bombings getting worse by the day, then by the appearance of the atomic bomb. Because of these factors, and the fact that the Soviet Union had unleashed a war in Manchuria, we could not but accept the terms of Potsdam" [Showa Tenno Dokuhakuroku]. In his broadcast to the nation, on August 15, the Emperor left the Soviet Union unmentioned, but referred to the bombs:
The enemy has begun to use a new and most cruel bomb to kill and maim extremely large numbers of the innocent … if the war were to be continued, it would cause not only the downfall of our nation but also the destruction of all human civilization … it is according to the dictate of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.
The Emperor's decision to accept surrender is called the seidan, or sacred resolution. The Japanese war cabinet needed the voice of God to make up its mind. And as the above words show, the supreme descendant of the Japanese gods, in his divine benevolence, would save not only the Japanese nation but all human civilization. As a result of the bombs, the Japanese had been transformed from aggressors to saviors, a magnificent feat of public relations. In fact, official Japanese reasoning was more complicated than the Emperor's speech suggests. The ruling elite of Japan, with the Emperor as its active high priest, was afraid that the Japanese people, exhausted, hungry, and sick of war, might become unruly. The atomic bombs offered a perfect excuse to end the war on terms that would not destroy the elite. Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, a member of the peace faction, said on August 12, 1945:
I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods. This way we don't have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances. Why I have long been advocating control of the crisis of the country is neither for fear of an enemy attack nor because of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war. The main reason is my anxiety over the domestic situation. So, it is rather fortunate that now we can control matters without revealing the domestic situation. [Bix, Diplomatic History]
It is not certain that a warning, or demonstration of the bomb, would have been enough of an excuse for the peace faction and the Emperor to stand up to the die-hards. Oppenheimer could think of no demonstration "sufficiently spectacular" to bring about surrender. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy disagreed; he recommended a demonstration. The least one can say is that it would surely have been worth a try. For 200,000 deaths was a high price to pay for a gift from the gods.
Alperovitz, among others, suggests that an earlier war declaration by the Soviet Union, coupled with an American promise to protect the Emperor, would have been enough to make Japan give in. After all, the Emperor was protected after the Japanese surrender, so why not before? As soon as Japan showed its readiness to accept the Potsdam terms on August 10, so long as the Emperor would be protected, Truman was so eager to end the war that the Emperor's authority was recognized, "subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers" (SCAP).
Alperovitz finds this change of policy "puzzling." If then, why not before? But there is quite a difference between recognizing the Emperor's authority as a condition of surrender, and doing so under the auspices of SCAP, after Japan was defeated. For now the US was in control of the institution. The result was not entirely positive. SCAP, that is to say General MacArthur, used his powers to protect Emperor Hirohito not only from prosecution for war crimes but even from appearing as a witness. This had serious consequences, for so long as the Emperor, in whose name the war had been waged, could not be held accountable, the question of war guilt would remain fuzzy in Japan, and a source of friction between Japan and its former enemies.
Alperovitz thinks that Truman's uncompromising position at Potsdam had given "hard-line army leaders a trump card against early surrender proposals. The army could continue to argue that the Emperor-God might be removed, perhaps tried as a war criminal, possibly even hanged." Here I think he is missing the point. The hardliners, as well as the peace faction, were fighting to preserve a kokutai, which was hardly benign. Indeed, it was the very system that brought war to Asia. Herbert Bix, one of the most knowledgeable historians of the Japanese imperial system, has argued—I think, rightly—that even the peace faction wanted to retain an authoritarian system, which would have left substantial power in the Emperor's hands. He writes:
If Grew and the Japan crowd [in Washington] had gotten their way, and the principle of unconditional surrender had been contravened, it is highly unlikely that Japan's post-surrender leaders, now the "moderates" around the throne, would ever have discarded the Meiji Constitution and democratized their political institutions.
Although Truman might have looked better in retrospect if he had guaranteed the Emperor's status earlier, before dropping the atomic bombs, such a guarantee alone was unlikely to have pushed Japan toward surrender before August 9. The hardliners rejected the idea of an Allied occupation, let alone the submission of the imperial institution to a foreign ruler. Indeed, some of the die-hards, including War Minister Anami, continued to argue against the surrender until August 14, when the Emperor, once again, spoke in favor of peace. After that, Anami resisted no more, and committed suicide in the traditional manner of a samurai.
Those who claim that Truman should have been more flexible tend to misunderstand the role of the imperial institution. Alperovitz writes that the Japanese regarded their emperor as a god, "more like Jesus or the incarnate Buddha," and that the US demand for unconditional surrender "directly threatened not only the person of the Emperor but such central tenets of Japanese culture as well." In fact, the Emperor was never regarded as anything like the Buddha; he was more like a priest-king, a combination of the Pope and a constitutional monarch. Alperovitz quotes, with approval, John McCloy's proposal in 1945 that "the Mikado" be retained "on the basis of a constitutional monarchy." But Emperor Hirohito already was a constitutional monarch. The problem was his other function, as the pope of Japanese nationalism. His position during the 1930s and early 1940s had less to do with central tenets of Japanese culture than with a political ideology, based in large part on nineteenth-century European nationalism. It was not culture or religion that the Japanese leaders tried to protect, but their own position in the kokutai. Without the Emperor, their power would have lacked any legitimacy. Since it was Truman's aim to break their power, he had to break the kokutai first.
The question at the heart of Alperovitz's book is "whether, when the bomb was used, the president and his top advisers understood that it was not required to avoid a long and costly invasion, as they later claimed and as most Americans still believe." He has proved that avoiding an invasion was not Washington's only aim. Secretary of State Henry Stimpson's statement (to McCloy) in May 1945 makes that pretty clear. The US, he said, had "coming into action a weapon which will be unique." The "method now to deal with Russia was to … let our actions speak for words." And the US might have to "do it in a pretty rough and realistic way." There is no doubt that at Potsdam Truman saw the bomb as a joker in his pack.
But Alperovitz does not prove conclusively that the Soviet Union was the only reason for dropping the bomb. There were other considerations, which did involve the possibility of an invasion. Truman wanted to end the war swiftly to stop the Soviet advance in East Asia, but also because Americans were getting tired of fighting. Truman worried that the prospect of a prolonged war in the Far East, including an eventual invasion, would put pressure on him to accept a Japanese surrender on less than favorable terms. In other words, before Hiroshima, Truman did think the defeat of Japan, on American terms, might require a long battle. The problem with Alperovitz's analysis is that he pays too little attention to the political situation in wartime Japan. In his famous book Atomic Diplomacy, published in 1965, there is only one reference to Prime Minister Suzuki, and none to his die-hard opponents Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda. His new tome still only mentions them in passing.
Alperovitz's case that the bomb was not dropped to prevent a final bloody battle rests entirely on the assumption that Truman and his advisers knew perfectly well that the Japanese were on the verge of capitulation before the destruction of Hiroshima. Closer examination of what went on in Tokyo shows that the Japanese were not. So long as there was no unanimity in the war cabinet and the Emperor remained silent, the war would go on. And so long as the hard-liners prevailed, any attempt by members of the peace faction, such as Foreign Minister Togo, to negotiate for peace had to be vague, furtive, and inconclusive. Alperovitz makes a great deal of Togo's dispatches in July 1945 to Sato Naotake, ambassador to Moscow, conveying the Emperor's wish to discuss peace terms through the good offices of Moscow. He makes less of the fact that Ambassador Sato told his foreign minister that the mission was hopeless since Japan had nothing specific to discuss. And he makes nothing at all of the other reason for approaching Moscow: important members of the peace faction, including Admiral Yonai, still hoped to forge a Japanese-Soviet alliance against the US and Britain. [In a footnote, Buruma adds: "Japanese historians have paid attention to this, most recently in a discussion in the September issue of the monthly magazine Gendai."]
So I do not believe it was an irrational policy on Truman's part to insist on unconditional surrender. But analyzing rational policies is not the business of a professor of psychiatry and psychology, so Robert Jay Lifton ignores these political considerations, and dwells on such issues as Truman's "denial of death," or James Byrnes's "totalistic relationship with the weapon," or "the formation of separate, relatively autonomous selves" in the personality of Henry Stimson. From this psychiatric perspective, anyone mad enough to drop an atomic bomb, even in 1945, when any means to end the war had to be considered, must be a mental patient. And the policy of a mental patient has to be touched with madness.
Lifton and Mitchell claim, like Alperovitz, that since the successful test of the atomic bomb, "Truman and Byrnes began to focus on how to end the war sufficiently quickly that the Soviets would not gain a foothold in Japan." But again the authors do not consider the reasons why. To them it is but one more example of Truman's irrational state of mind, because he was suppressing his feelings and "any tendency to reflect," since he had been bad at sports as a child and was afraid of being "a sissy." Even if all these things were true, there were still compelling reasons for wishing to stop Soviet troops from entering Japan. There was concern in Washington about the swift expansion of the Soviet Empire in Eastern and Central Europe. The US ambassador to the Soviet Union, W. Averill Harriman, called it a "barbarian invasion." He believed, quite correctly, that Soviet control of other countries meant the extinction of political liberties in those countries and a dominant Soviet influence over their foreign relations. As subsequent events in China and the Korean peninsula have shown, Truman was right to worry about Soviet power in northeast Asia. It certainly would not have suited US interests, or those of Japan for that matter, if the Japanese archipelago had been divided into different occupation zones, with Stalin's troops ensconced in Hokkaido.
As he did in his book on the "genocidal mentality" of nuclear scientists and strategists [The Genocidal Mentality, by Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen, 1990], Lifton uses the phrase "nuclearism," which he describes as "a spiritual faith that the ultimate power of the emerging weapon could serve not only death and destruction but also continuing life." Believers in this faith, such as Truman, feel like "merging with a source of power rivaling that of any deity." They are, in short, possessed. Here Lifton and Mitchell are close to the religious position of Dr. Nagai: the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were propelled by a force beyond human reason. Having established that, the authors can dispense with political arguments and concentrate on the corruption of American life by irrational forces. They can write that the "nurturing of this deified object [i.e., the bomb], as our source of security and ultimate power over death, became the central task of our society," without contemplating what the world would have been like if the sole possessors of this object had been the likes of Joseph Stalin.
Perhaps it helps to be a Nagasaki Catholic to take a more complex view of sin. Loyalty to their own deity must have given some Japanese Christians a skeptical view of Japanese politics when the kokutai was at the height of its divine imperial pretensions. One of the most controversial and interesting Nagasaki Catholics is the ex-mayor Motoshima Hitoshi. I first interviewed him seven years ago, in Nagasaki, when Emperor Hirohito was dying. Motoshima had just said in public that the Emperor bore some responsibility for the war and, by not ending it soon enough, for the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A conservative politician, he was disowned by the Liberal Democratic Party and blackballed by various patriotic organizations of which he was a member. He also received threats from right-wing extremists. One year later, he was shot in the back by one of them, and barely survived. This is the "Japanese culture" that remains from the war. It is no longer the main political-tendency, but it is still intimidating enough to silence critics of the imperial system and other remnants of the old kokutai, which General MacArthur helped to protect.
This summer, Motoshima looked less robust than I remembered him, perhaps because of the assassination attempt, perhaps because of his recent loss of the mayoral election. He began by reading the late Emperor's statement of August 15, 1945, about the "new and most cruel bomb." He tapped the text with his finger and said the bomb did bring the war to an end. But then he made another point. The atomic bombs, he said, had done away with the idea of a good war. He himself had believed in a Japanese victory. Although he had been tormented as a Christian child by teachers who forced him to declare who was holier, Jesus or the Emperor, Motoshima was a patriot. He served in an army propaganda unit. But the atomic bombs had turned war into an absolute evil, like the Holocaust in Europe. He illustrated this view at a recent press conference in Tokyo, by comparing the innocent victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Jews killed at Auschwitz. The Japanese press made nothing of this. But the Western correspondents were full of indignation: yet another Japanese whitewash, they thought, another sob story of the Japanese as victims.
I asked him about this. Was there really no difference between the citizens of a nation that started a war and people who were killed for purely ideological reasons? Had he himself not said that the Japanese people bore responsibility for the war, as well as their emperor? He answered my question by asking me whether I thought Jewish soldiers in Hitler's army had been responsible for the war in Europe. Clearly, the precise nature of the European Holocaust had rather escaped him. But when pressed by others he has acknowledged that there was a difference between the atomic bombings and the Holocaust. The US was not planning to exterminate the entire Japanese people. The question remains, however, whether there is a fundamental moral difference between dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many thousands of incendiary bombs on, say, Tokyo.
Miyazaki Kentaro, the son of bomb survivors, and a historian specializing in the "hidden Christian" communities in Japan, saw no moral difference. All forms of carpet bombing were a sin. But like the former mayor, he blamed the Japanese government for starting the war, and saw no reason to criticize the US. I also asked the opinion of Father Sebastian Kawazoe, the priest at Urakami Cathedral. Like Motoshima, with whom he went to school, Kawazoe was born on one of the Goto Islands, in a family of hidden Christians. He had the same straight, almost rough, manner of speaking as the ex-mayor. He told me most Catholics had not been keen supporters of the war. But they had to be careful, for they were always being treated as spies. He, too, saw no moral distinction between A-bombs and other forms of terror bombing.
I dwell on this point because I think it clarifies our thinking about the past. If we see the atomic bombs as morally unique, as something fundamentally different, in ethical terms, from large numbers of incendiary bombs or napalm bombs dropped on civilians, it is difficult to analyze the actions of men, such as Truman, who saw the A-bomb attacks as a logical extension of strategic bombing. [In a footnote, Buruma adds: "In his article, 'Understanding the Atomic Bomb and the Japanese Surrender: Missed Opportunities, Little-Known Near Disasters, and Modern Memory,' in Diplomatic History (Spring 1995), Barton Bernstein emphasizes that in 1945, American leaders were not seeking to avoid the use of the A-bomb. Its use did not create ethical or political problems for them.'"] McGeorge Bundy wrote about this in his book Danger and Survival, in a chapter entitled "The Decision to Drop the Bombs on Japan."
Both military and political leaders came to think of urban destruction not as wicked, not even as a necessary evil, but as a result with its own military value. Distinctions that had seemed clear when the Germans bombed Rotterdam were gradually rubbed out in the growing ferocity of the war.
This, rather than theological jargon about original sin or "nuclearism," is the nub of the matter. Truman, in response to an American advocate of "the Christian tradition of civilized war," said there was no such thing, that war "has always been a matter of slaughter of innocents and never civilized." This sounds good, a moral cri de coeur from a tough-minded, peace-loving leader, but it is disingenuous. For there is a difference between killing innocents in the heat of battle and killing them deliberately, in huge numbers, as a form of terror. Tens of thousands died horribly in Dresden without any apparent military or political justification. The possibility that the carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have brought the war to a speedier end made these mass killings expedient, perhaps, but no less morally disturbing. This does not mean, however, that it would have been any more ethical to go on fire-bombing Japanese cities, as Curtis LeMay, an opponent of the A-bomb strategy, wanted. More than 100,000 civilians had already died in one night in May, when LeMay's B-29s torched Tokyo with incendiary bombs. Truman's decision to drop the bombs was the climax of a horrible strategy, started by Germany and Japan, that had left much of Europe, parts of China, and most of Japan in ruins.
It would make sense for the Nagasaki Catholics, who suffered disproportionately from the A-bomb, to be active in the antinuclear peace movement. Actually they are not. Motoshima, who is a campaigner for world peace, is an exception. Father Kawazoe, himself a survivor, said: "I don't take part in the peace movement. It is used by people to expand their own sect. They talk about peace, but you don't know what's behind it." While acknowledging the checkered record of the Christian Church—"60 percent bad, 40 percent good"—he also said: "We Christians have a history of oppression, but we don't make a living out of our suffering. Emphasizing one's own suffering is just a way to win sympathy."
This is a bit harsh on the survivors in Peace Park, who devote their time to telling schoolchildren about the bomb. But as I watched those same schoolchildren, lined up in straight rows in front of the "Peace Statue" and solemnly shouting lines they had memorized about loving peace, I was reminded of demonstrations in the former East Berlin, where the masses marched past their leaders, raising their fists and bellowing slogans about "people's friendship." These peace ceremonies have become ritual gestures to ward off nuclear evil: "People who love peace, please sign your name here."
There is nothing in Nagasaki to tell those schoolchildren why the bomb was dropped, or what led up to it. It is indeed hard to explain why the bomb had to be dropped on Nagasaki. There is no evidence that it hastened the end of the war. Carl Spaatz, the commanding general of the US Army Strategic Air Forces, is quoted by Alperovitz as saying (to Averill Harriman) that he had no idea why a bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki. We will never know to what extent the fate of Nagasaki influenced the Emperor's decision to tell his soldiers to lay down their arms. But some historical context, some indication of what those Japanese soldiers had done to others, would not have been amiss. Instead, all one really hears in Nagasaki is the sound of prayer. And one only needs to walk past the Peace Park monuments, from China, the USSR, Bulgaria, Cuba, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic, to see how peace has been exploited.
On my last day in Nagasaki, I visited Urakami Cathedral, where Father Kawazoe was celebrating Mass. The cathedral was full, with more women than men. The women wore old-fashioned veils, a custom that has virtually died out in Europe. Almost all these people were descended from families who had clung to their faith through centuries of persecution. It was a moving spectacle, even if one had no special feeling for the Catholic Church. Father Kawazoe was preaching that God's will could not be known, and it was useless to expect favors from Him. God was not like some local deity, whom one could ask for a good catch or an abundant crop. I was puzzled by this. Here was a Japanese priest, in the Cathedral of a modern, sophisticated city, talking to people as though they were villagers on Goto Island who had to be weaned from their native gods.
I left the Cathedral feeling touched, but also with a sense of sadness and futility. Outside were some of the remains of the old Cathedral: a blackened statue of Christ, with a chipped nose and dark stumps where there had once been fingers; and there a damaged Saint Agnes; and there, in the grass, the charred heads of decapitated angels. People used to believe that Armageddon was a prerogative of God, or of the gods. Now we know it is in the hands of man. Hardly a consolation.
Erika Lenz (review date September-October 1995)
SOURCE: A review of Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 5, September-October, 1995, p. 28.
[In the following positive review of Atomic Ghosts, an anthology of poems that examine the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, Lenz applauds the collection's structure and guiding principles.]
This year—the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima—arrives for a public so familiar with "the bomb," nuclear power, and their dangers as to create the illusion that microscopic atom-play is commonplace, a simple fact of life. The smallness—and paradoxically monstrous scale—of atomic and nuclear power is precisely what makes its impact so hard to grasp. To an average person living in the nineties, the effect of this technology on our day-to-day lives seems minor.
Atomic Ghost serves to remind us of the danger of this sort of denial, especially in a culture that often fails to pass down important stories to younger generations. Editor John Bradley writes in his Preface that the main impetus for this book was a student of his who didn't know about Hiroshima:
Her question made me realize that there are Americans who have no idea … how we are still dealing with the consequences, and the "ghosts."… Her question made me realize that I have an obligation … to see that future generations will know, and that they in turn will teach their children. How else, I wonder, can we have peace, can we have a future, if we do not remember?
To this end, Bradley collects an impressive array of emerging and established poets from several cultures, including Philip Levine, David Mura, Nanao Sakaki, Lucien Stryk, Antler, Jorie Graham, Adrienne Rich, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Forché, and others. As Bradley presents a variety of visions about the bomb, he also displays the range of styles and techniques in contemporary poetry. Poems range from lyric to conversational narrative, from 10 lines to 10 pages, from overtly political to highly personal. The collection also includes many translations, predominantly from Japanese poets. Bradley combines this array of personal visions into a chorus of witnesses that powerfully demonstrates the complexity of the nuclear issue.
Some readers of poetry might be put off by 300 pages of poetry on the same subject. Although this anthology is certainly not light reading, Bradley has created—with his keen editorial eye and sensitivity to the reader's experience—a surprisingly readable collection. The success of this anthology lies in both its contents and its structure. The various poets' approaches differ enough to keep the reader interested and challenged. In addition, by arranging this collection into six loosely chronological sections, Bradley creates a subtle "nuclear primer"—one more interesting than could be found in any history text because the lessons carry the weight of personal experience. For the reader unfamiliar with the development of this technology and the history of its use, this order facilitates entering directly into the experience of several generations. For those already all too aware of the dangers, this book provides an opportunity to explore multiple perspectives. Perhaps more significant than the historical element, however, is the emotional structure of the book. The sections, beginning with "Creation" and ending with "Prayer for Continuation," are consciously arranged to enable what Terry Tempest Williams describes in her Introduction as "a collective ritual, a ceremony to heal ourselves through poetry."
Like most anthologies, some poems in Atomic Ghost are better than others. A few succumb to the prosaic weight of historical detail. A large percentage, however, are strong poems by strong writers. Most retain subtlety and control where there could be a blinding rage that might overpower the aesthetic. Far from inundating the reader with tiresome activist diatribes, Bradley has chosen poems in which there is often only a lateral connection to the subject at hand. This is particularly effective and demonstrates the insidious, often nearly invisible, impact of nuclear technology. Despite this subtlety, it's apparent that for these poets there's a very real imperative to write. As Marc Kaminsky asks in his poem "Questions,"
if I fail to work all the horror into a play of voices in which the living and the dead live again who will forgive me?
At the base of all these poems lies the struggle to remind us that nuclear technology is not only a creation of humankind in the physical realm, but it also has an undeniable life in the mind. At the end of his poem "The Lightning," James Grabill repeats, "life as we see it, atomic war," reminding us of the equation between the two. Human dynamics created the bomb, and almost simultaneously, the bomb created a new human dynamic. Life and nuclear technology are now inseparable; these poets remind us that to deny this is to deny the true nature of the life we now live. Together in Atomic Ghost, their voices join in protest, awe, and grief, and by doing so, work to keep the machine of history from repeating itself through the power of collective memory.
Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: "Appendix: Cultural Responses to Hiroshima," in Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995, pp. 359-81.
[An American psychiatrist, nonfiction writer, and critic, Lifton received a National Book Award for Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1968). Mitchell is an American journalist and critic as well as the editor of Nuclear Times magazine. In the following excerpt, the critics discuss the American literary response to the atomic bombing of Japan.]
Television and cinema have slighted Hiroshima, but fiction has virtually ignored it. There is no major American novel about Hiroshima. Indeed, few American novels of any stature explore the consequences of using the atomic bomb. Only a handful of fiction writers have utilized Hiroshima or Los Alamos as a setting, or explored the emotions and attitudes of the scientists, the policy makers, or the airmen who dropped the bomb. The few novels that have approached the subject have all been forgotten.
"Hiroshima has had nothing like the literary impact of other great military events," Paul Brians recently observed in his book Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction. Brians chronicles over eight hundred "nuclear novels," most of them science fiction. Less than a dozen explore the building or use of the bomb; few of them sold particularly well or remained long in print. In contrast, Brians notes, some people read a dozen Civil War novels every year, and he asks: Where are the Hiroshima "buffs"?
There are reasons for this, of course, including moral ambivalence "Evil has no place, it seems, in our national mythology," asserts Tim O'Brien, author of the novel The Nuclear Age. Another factor is the technological nature of the atomic attacks. The bombing of Japan may have been efficient but it was hardly "stirring"; it involved only a small group of airmen, not vast armies; and it was uncomfortably one-sided. Still, it can be said that, as with cinema, Hiroshima is everywhere in postwar and contemporary fiction—in its themes of futurelessness and absurdity, and its predilection for violent or vengeful behavior by heroes and antiheroes alike. One critic has observed that the "usual place" for Hiroshima in Western literature is "the unconscious."
Like Hiroshima films, Hiroshima fiction often seems inappropriate to the subject, treating a revolutionary event far too realistically. What happened to Hiroshima is impossible to make explicit. (One recalls Walt Whitman's comment on the Civil War: "The real war will never get into the books.") Of the few published novels, most focus on the scientists—not the decision makers, the pilots, or the Japanese victims.
If there are any major novels exploring the decision to drop the bomb or the Enola Gay's mission to Hiroshima, no bibliographer has yet uncovered them. Many novelists of the postwar era seemed to follow the advice of William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Faulkner lamented that "the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat." There were no longer "problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?" Faulkner offered this advice to the modern writer:
He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart … Until he does so, he labors under a curse.
Others, however, believed that the "curse" itself must not be forgotten but rather addressed, directly or subversively. Alfred Kazin wrote: "I don't care for novelists who ignore what H. G. Wells himself called the 'queerness' that has come into contemporary life since the bomb." Kazin scored the "dimness," "flatness," and "paltriness" of many reputable novelists, calling them "ways of escape" from the nuclear reality.
The work of fiction most directly related to, and inspired by, Hiroshima—and certainly reflective of Kazin's notion of "queerness"—is a short story written by James Agee called "Dedication Day." Significantly, it was conceived in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima, before the event was covered over and it was easier for a writer to act as witness. Agee wrote in a feverish rage. The day after the attack on Hiroshima, he informed a Time colleague that it was "the worst thing that ever happened—so far: anyhow, that it pretty thoroughly guarantees universal annihilation, within not many years." As an American, he felt he was personally implicated in the killing of thousands of civilians. It was Agee who wrote the first Time magazine essay on Hiroshima [published in the August 20, 1945 issue], which brilliantly … rendered the splitting of American conscience no less than the atom. A few days later, he started work on what he called "a story … about the atomic bomb." This subject was "the only thing much worth writing or thinking about."
A satirical fantasy, "Dedication Day" (which was published in Dwight Macdonald's Politics in 1946) depicts the postwar celebration of the bomb in which any attempt to atone for Hiroshima must be viewed as evidence of madness.
The time is 1946. A great arch designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, made of fused uranium and meant to mark "the greatest of human achievements," is about to be dedicated in Washington, D.C., near the Capitol. Reporters, generals, statesmen (including Truman and Conant), and enthusiastic citizens gather. Agee spares no aspect of the American way of life: advertising, religion, science, the military, psychiatry, art. Vendors sell Good Humor bars. Church leaders offer prayers. The first major television hookup in history carries the event to New York City. But all is not well. A pregnant woman faints and miscarries. A bugler, assigned to play "Reveille," feels impelled to play "Taps."
An Eternal Fuse—which symbolizes America's growing nuclear-weapons arsenal—will feed a memorial flame. Made of cotton, it burns so swiftly that it must be manufactured on the spot, in an "irradiated workshop" directly beneath the arch. These keepers of the flame toil in twelve-hour shifts, behind glass, always under the gaze of tourists. One shift is made up of disabled American veterans. The other is composed of Japanese survivors "of the experiments at Hiroshima and Nagasaki," who had "been forgiven." The survivors have become a popular tourist attraction because of "those strange burns which have excited, in Americans, so much friendly curiosity."
The dedication ceremonies, however, are marred by "a pathetic incident." One of the scientists who invented the bomb, and had been seeking atonement ever since Hiroshima—which struck his colleagues as "a little queer in the head"—now insists on joining the Japanese custodians of the flame. To humor him, officials oblige. Tourists, watching him among the survivors, tearing at his hair and beating his face with his fists, try to cheer him up by flashing the V for Victory sign. Officials, feeling that "the intended dignity, charm, and decorum of the exhibit" is threatened, decide to send the scientist to a sanitarium. This he accepts, in return for being allowed to throw the switch that starts the burning of the Eternal Fuse. General Groves, who was to have performed this task, agrees to step aside.
Alas, a few minutes after he throws the switch, the scientist is found next to the great spool of cotton, dead, by his own hand. Pinned to his laboratory coat is a note revealing that "he regarded his suicide as obligatory—as, indeed, a kind of religious or ethical 'sacrifice,' through which he hoped to endow the triumphal monument with a new and special significance and … once more (as he thought) to assist the human race." As the scientist is buried with full honors at the Trinity site, philosophers and clergymen embark on a campaign of "controlled ridicule," pointing to the scientist as an object lesson for anyone "liable to the grievous error of exaggerated scrupulousness." Yet the narrator of Agee's story concludes that this view of the scientist was too harsh:
For misguided and altogether regrettable though his last days were—a sad warning indeed to those who turn aside from the dictates of reason, and accept human progress reluctantly—he was nevertheless, perhaps, our last link with a not-too-distant past in which such conceptions as those of "atonement," and "guilt," and "individual responsibility" still had significance.
Richly symbolic, if erratic, "Dedication Day" makes plain the "intensity and bitterness of Agee's feelings about the atomic bomb," Paul Boyer has observed. "The story's topographical structure—official celebrations aboveground contrasting with strange and disturbed goings-on underground—metaphorically suggests his sense of the complexity and partially hidden nature of the American response to the bomb." Yet the story would find only a limited audience, and Agee lamented his inability to turn it into a more complete work, in the end dubbing it a "Rough Sketch for a Moving Picture." More than anything, it offers eloquent evidence, according to Boyer, "of Agee's difficulty in translating anguish and dread into literature." Few have made this kind of attempt, regarding Hiroshima, since.
Agee fared no better with two other projects he began and then abandoned: a nonfiction book on the bomb and a treatment for a nuclear holocaust film, starring his friend Charles Chaplin (entitled Scientists and Tramp). Few serious writers shared Agee's passion and sense of personal connection to the atomic bombings. One who did was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
His book Cat's Cradle, published in 1963 shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, is probably the only widely read novel overtly related to Hiroshima. Many who read Cat's Cradle years ago probably still recall how it ends: with crystals of a substance called ice-nine destroying the world. Many forget how the book begins: with the narrator interviewing Americans about what they were doing on August 6, 1945 (he's writing a book on this subject). This leads him to the children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the A-bomb, who, as it turns out, also created ice-nine. Dr. Hoenikker doesn't have much use for people. When confronted with Oppenheimer's notion that the atomic scientists had "known sin," he replies: "What is sin?"
Vonnegut, educated as a chemist, based Hoenikker on the famous scientist Irving Langmuir, whom he met when he worked at General Electric after the war. "I want scientists to be more moral," Vonnegut once told an interviewer. The end of the world, or of distant planets, due to human greed or miscalculation would figure prominently in many of his novels.
This is not surprising, because Vonnegut is probably the only major fiction writer who personally experienced a near-apocalypse: the firebombing of Dresden, which he witnessed as a prisoner of war. This inspired his most acclaimed novel, Slaughterhouse Five, and surely influenced his lifetime obsession with nuclear weapons, global self-destruction, and human conscience. The parallels between Dresden and Hiroshima are obvious. Vonnegut has said that in response to Dresden he became a pacifist. Later, he instructed his sons that they were not to take part in massacres or work for companies that make "massacre machinery"; further, "the news of massacres of enemies" was "not to fill them with satisfaction or glee."
Another response to the bombing of Dresden: Vonnegut no longer believed what his government said. After all, the U.S. had claimed that it was not bombing civilians in the war; and later, when Vonnegut tried to obtain information on what had actually happened in Dresden, he ran into a government stonewall. Told that this information was still top secret, Vonnegut exclaimed: "Secret? My God—from whom?"
Vonnegut was "sickened" by Hiroshima. Having observed city bombings in Europe, he knew immediately "what bullshit it was" when he heard Truman's reference to Hiroshima as a military base. He compares his reaction to that of "being a devout Christian and then seeing some horrible massacres conducted by Christians after a victory." In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut quoted the first six paragraphs of Truman's August 6 announcement in their entirety—probably the widest airing this text had received since August 1945—and followed it with quotes by two Allied generals justifying the firebombing of Dresden as a "military necessity." Later, a fictional character comments on the Dresden raid: "Pity the men who had to do it."
Slaughterhouse Five is a survivor's effort to make sense of a world dominated by the threat of holocaust and the reality of numbing. It is about feeling and not feeling, about remembering and not remembering.
Like Slaughterhouse Five, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has never been considered a "nuclear" book, but its themes of absurd death and amoral bureaucracy could not be more relevant to Hiroshima. Catch-22 itself represents the dilemma facing all Americans in a nuclear era of secrecy and powerlessness: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." This includes ordering the use of nuclear weapons. As Heller shows, the American airmen in World War II had as much to fear from their own generals as they did from the enemy: an apt metaphor for the nuclear age.
The essence of both Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, Alfred Kazin observed, is that though both are ostensibly about World War II, "they are really about The Next War, and thus about a war that will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end only when no one is alive to fight it." In Closing Time, his recent sequel to Catch-22, Heller made this manifest. He portrayed General Leslie Groves engaged in a project to build an attack plane that flies so fast "you can bomb someone yesterday." An admiral asks arms merchant Milo Minderbinder if it can destroy the world. "I'm afraid not, sir," he replies. "We can make it uninhabitable, but we can't destroy it." "I can live with that!" the admiral replies.
This, in a sense, has been the grim message of countless postapocalypse novels: Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950), Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), Bernard Malamud's God's Grace (1982), and Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro (1985), among others, as well as accidental nuclear war novels such as Fail-Safe (1962). By now, the publishing pattern is predictable: nuclear novels appear when the bomb appears most threatening (for example, the fallout scare and "missile gap" of the late 1950s and early 1960s) and virtually disappear when the terror subsides. "The all-time high point of nuclear war fiction," according to Paul Brians, was 1984—not coincidentally a time of antinuclear fervor. But that trend quickly collapsed. Not much prose on this subject has appeared since the mid-1980s. And even at its high-water mark, nuclear fiction evaded Hiroshima.
In contrast, a number of major poets have written brilliantly on nuclear concerns, and they have invoked Hiroshima far more often than the novelists. This is especially significant when one considers that the tradition of political poetry in this country was "very, very thin" until Vietnam, as Galway Kinnell has observed [in Literature Under the Nuclear Cloud, 1984]. The subject of nuclear war is "inherently very difficult," Kinnell explains. "If a poem is to be useful, it has to give hope, but if it is to be realistic, it has to cause despair. Despair is built into the subject."
American poets have applied themselves to Hiroshima more imaginatively and persistently than filmmakers and fiction writers, perhaps because they are not constrained by the historical or documentary narrative common to those other forms of expression. They can attempt to get at the meaning of Hiroshima in a more personal, creative, imagistic, even fractured way—an approach the event practically demands. Atomic Ghost, a 1995 anthology, includes more than one hundred "nuclear" poems, with many (written by well-known poets such as Philip Levine, Mary Jo Salter, and Denise Levertov) relating specifically to Hiroshima.
Shortly after Hiroshima, Randall Jarrell informed a friend that he felt "so rotten about the country's response" to the atomic bombings that he wished he could become "a naturalized cat or dog." That year (in "Losses") he wrote of men in "bombers named for girls" carrying out missions to burn cities to the ground. The following year (in "1945: The Death of the Gods") he pondered the end of the world "when rockets rise like stars." Robert Frost, in "U.S. 1946 King's X," observed the hypocrisy of those who "invented a new Holocaust" yet believed that no other country had the right to use the bomb. John Berryman (in "The Dispossessed") considered individual versus collective guilt for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Years passed, but prominent poets would not let go of Hiroshima Robert Penn Warren's poem "New Dawn" rendered the flight of the Enola Gay in a dispassionate, documentary-like manner. Beat poets, on the other hand, railed angrily, vulgarly, against the bomb in the 1950s, but rarely invoked Hiroshima.
In the late 1980s, Marc Kaminsky created a cycle of poems about hibakusha called "The Road from Hiroshima." Campbell McGrath examined how the atomic bombings had psychologically affected his entire generation in "Nagasaki, Uncle Walt, the Eschatology of America's Century," noting that young people had "invested so much in World War III it seems a shame to miss it."
Also in the 1980s, two prominent poets, Galway Kinnell and Carolyn Forché, made highly significant visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Already antinuclear in spirit, they achieved a more direct artistic witness in the two cities. Indeed, the subtle brilliance of the poems that resulted shows the value, even the necessity, of such witness in exploring what happened in Hiroshima. "One of the things I've learned," Kinnell said afterward, "is that if one doesn't feel despair, one has not really understood what's happened in the world. From now on, it is certain that a kind of despair has to be a component of hope." That sense is expressed in the powerful poem "The Fundamental Project of Technology," which grew out of his visit, marked by the memorable repetition of the phrase "a white flash sparkled."
"We are the poets of the Nuclear Age," Carolyn Forché exclaimed in 1984, shortly after returning from Hiroshima, "perhaps the last poets, and some of us fear what the Muse is telling us. Some of us are finding it harder to write…. There is no metaphor for the end of the world and it is horrible to search for one." Nevertheless, she would compose one of the most haunting poems about Hiroshima, "The Garden Shukkei-en." An American visits a place in Hiroshima with a survivor who "has always been afraid to come here." Forché writes:
It is the river she most remembers, the living and the dead both crying for help.
The poem ends, however, with the hopeful line, "it is the bell to awaken God that we've heard ringing." Forché is telling us that Hiroshima can provide illumination, can "awaken God," and that the Hiroshima bell tolls for everyone. That is precisely the message Americans have resisted for so long and must now address after fifty years have passed.