Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nuclear War...

Facts still matter.
 
Weapons of Mass Destruction
The Atomic Bombing of Japan
 
 
   

"Now is the time to exterminate the Yellow Peril for all time… Let the rats squeal." 
—Congressman Charles A. Plumley, August 1945
 
Next to Vietnam, no topic in U.S. foreign policy generates as much historical controversy as the continuing debate over the use of atomic bombs to end the Second World War.  Aside from the obvious point that two cities were largely destroyed, instantly killing over a hundred thousand Japanese (95% of them civilians), why does the use of atomic bombs against Japan still provoke controversy?  After all, the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 killed nearly 100,000 Japanese in just two days, and B-29s dropped hundreds of tons of firebombs on other major Japanese cities.  One important distinction is that a single bomb (a uranium device nicknamed "Little Boy") was dropped on Hiroshima, followed by a second one (a plutonium bomb nicknamed "Fat Man") dropped three days later on Nagasaki.  Beyond the unprecedented explosive power (12.5 kilotons for the first bomb and 22 kilotons for the second one), the delayed effects of radiation were another important distinction.  Whereas the fire-bombing of Tokyo produced a death rate of about 100,000 fatalities among one million casualties (10%), the two atomic bombs produced a death rate of over 50% with the inclusion of deaths due to radiation.  By 1950 nearly 350,000 Japanese had died from the effects of Little Boy and Fat Man.
An obvious reason for the continuing controversy is that the U.S. is the only country to have used atomic bombs, immediately recognized as "doomsday" weapons with the potential to annihilate mankind.  (While observing the detonation of the first atomic bomb at a test site in New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the bomb’s construction, recalled the following line from Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.")  Aside from the moral issue of whether the use of such weapons of mass destruction can ever be justified except as a last resort in the face of a similar threat (which was clearly not the case in August of 1945), there is the question of what role the atomic bombs played in ending the war. The effects of the bombs and the rationale for using them have been, at the same time, both oversimplified and obscured in mythology. 
Why were the atomic bombs used, and what effect did they have?  The official rationale of the Truman Administration, which has become an article of faith for many people, is that the bombs were necessary to break the will of the "fanatical" Japanese to continue fighting, thereby averting an invasion of Japan, shortening the war, and saving hundreds of thousands of American lives.  However, a careful examination of historical evidence makes it clear that this popular view is actually a mythological construct.  And this is the second major reason for the continuing controversy surrounding the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.
The Manhattan Project was started in 1941 after a group of scientists, including Albert Einstein, informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany was working on atomic research.  Roosevelt concluded that the best defense was for the U.S. to develop atomic weapons first.  When the European war was almost over the U.S. learned that Germany had made little progress toward building an atomic bomb, but the project continued in earnest, with thoughts immediately turning toward the defeat of Japan.  In the end, at a cost of over $2 billion, three atomic bombs were manufactured and detonated as soon as they were ready: a test bomb, and the two dropped on Japan.
There are three basic elements which comprise the popular mythology about the decision to use the atomic bombs: (a) President Harry Truman was faced with the choice of using atomic bombs or invading Japan; (b) the Japanese would fight to the death in defense of their homeland; and (c) Truman gave the go-ahead in order to end the war quickly and avoid a million or more U.S. casualties.
The problem is that this logical construct is a distortion of historical reality, and it fails to take into account additional considerations which weighed heavily in the balance of thinking by American political and military leaders in 1945.  For example, Truman and Secretary of State James Byrnes also hoped that dropping the bombs on Japan would intimidate not only Emperor Hirohito but also Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. The only apparent impact on Soviet-American relations was the beginning of an increasingly costly and dangerous nuclear weapons competition which continued for the next forty years.  Of immediate concern, of course, was ending the war.  Four points need to be considered:
  • First, Truman and his advisors knew that the Japanese were already defeated and on the verge of surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped.
  • Second, there were other options for ending the war besides using atomic bombs or invading Japan.
  • Third, with or without the use of the atomic bombs, Emperor Hirohito probably would have moved to end the war before an American invasion.
  • Fourth, even if the invasion of Japan proved to be necessary (e.g., in the event of a military coup), it was estimated that the invasion of Kyushu would have cost around 25,000 U.S. deaths (much less than the absurd estimate of "half a million" later cited by Truman's advisors in an after-the-fact effort to justify the decision); and the subsequent invasion of the main island of Honshu was regarded as highly unlikely.
As early as July of 1944, Japanese military leaders realized that they could not win the war, and the government began looking for a way to end the war without sacrificing their national sovereignty.  Of special importance was the fate of the emperor, regarded in Japan as a deity whose removal (or worse, his trial as a war criminal) was unthinkable.  The issue of "unconditional surrender" (1943) was hotly debated by Truman’s advisors, but both Truman and Byrnes felt it was politically risky to negotiate with Japan.
On July 26, 1945 the Potsdam declaration ominously warned the Japanese that they must unconditionally surrender or face "prompt and utter destruction."  Several days later, three shocks hit the Japanese government in rapid succession: on August 6 the first bomb was dropped (on Hiroshima); on August 8 the Soviet Union announced that it was entering the war against Japan and invading Manchuria the next day; and on August 9 the second bomb was dropped (on Nagasaki).  On August 10 the Japanese government offered to surrender "with the understanding that the [Potsdam] declaration does not compromise… the prerogatives of [the emperor]."  On August 14 the U.S. sent a vaguely worded acknowledgement, and on August 15 the emperor announced his acceptance of the Potsdam declaration.  
"Despite the best that has been done by everyone . . . the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage . . . . Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives . . . . This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the [Potsdam Declaration]  --Radio Broadcast of the Japanese Emperor, August 15, 1945  
An additional factor, often overlooked, is revealed by Truman’s first public announcement about the bombing of Hiroshima, when he pointed out that the Japanese had been "repaid many fold" for their attack on Pearl Harbor.  Revenge (and racism) may well have played a subtle part in Truman’s willingness to go ahead with the atomic bombing of Japan.  As Truman explained, "When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast."  Throughout the war, many Americans viewed the Japanese as an inferior and barbarous race, deserving of annihilation.  (On the home front, it should be noted, Japanese aliens and Americans of Japanese descent were singled out for confinement in "relocation camps" for the duration of the war.)  Truman was a savvy politician with an innate sense of fairness, but he was not immune from wartime emotions and prejudice.  In the final analysis it seems fair to conclude that Truman recognized the usefulness of the atomic bombs, but he had nocompelling reason either to use them or to not use them.  Like most of his advisors, he simply assumed the atomic bombs would be used as soon they were ready.  While other factors clearly were at work, the bombs did help persuade the Japanese to surrender.

Postscript: Whether the "end justified the means" ultimately is a moral question, not a historical one.  Personally, I cannot ignore the fact that my father was a sailor on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, back in action in 1945 after a kamikaze attack had sent the ship to Pearl Harbor for repairs.  How many American soldiers and sailors would have died if the war had continued, even for a short time longer, is debatable.  (Claims of "half a million" American lives saved are preposterous; less than 300,000 Americans died in the entire war, including Europe and the Pacific.  Most experts put the estimate at 120,000 U.S. casualties, including 25,000 deaths.  Was my dad's life worth more than 300,000 Japanese civilians?)  In any case, the war ended quickly and he came home.  Of course, the war ended quickly for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, too.  As a student of history, I cannot ignore that aspect of the equation either.
 © David C. Hanson, Virginia Western Community College, November 1998

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

International March for Peace! End the Occupations!


"In Russia, in China, and here... very mediocre people
                                                     have the power to end life altogether."
                                                                            ~~Saul Bellow
Saturday, October 9th, 2010  (Also John Lennon's Birthday) 

Antiwar and Anti-Occupation March and Rally

Instead of cutting needed funds for education and social services, we should reconsider much of our trillion dollar
military budget and establish a Department of Peace!

It is time for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most thinking people are
opposed to the US spending $3 billion a year to help fund a siege of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank.  We are sick and tired of military threats against Iran and the criminal CIA drone attacks on Pakistan. 
So, we are organizing.  Whether you are an experienced activist or new to the antiwar movement, it is past time for a multinational antiwar march on Saturday, October 9th commemorating the 9th anniversary of the Afghanistan war.  End the Occupations!  Secure the Peace we all seek!  Send a message to our leaders.

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Editor, Tutor, Writer, Artist, Radio Show Host, Steering Committee: Jobs with Justice, Associate Editor of The Wordsmith Collection, Agent of The Northwest Alliance for Alternative Media & Education, Creative Artist, Activist, Organizer, Publisher, Teacher, Journalist,