By Farhang Jahanpour
On the anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is important to look back at the reasons for those barbaric acts and to look forward to what needs to be done.
The First and the Second World Wars were the most devastating wars ever waged in history. Nevertheless, although those wars killed tens of millions of human beings and destroyed many cities, the end of the Second World War witnessed the use of a new category of weapons by the United States that have the potential to end human civilization as we know it.
Grotesquely called ‘Little Boy’, the bomb that flattened Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, was a uranium bomb that killed between 130,000-140,000 civilians instantly, and many thousands later. ‘Fat Man’ that blasted Nagasaki three days later, was a plutonium bomb and killed about 70,000 people instantly.
There has been a great deal of debate about whether the use of those bombs was necessary to force Japan’s surrender and to end the war. While these debates seem archaic and a part of history, nevertheless, it is important to see whether those weapons were necessary from a military point of view, or whether they had other purposes, something that would have relevance for us today.
First of all, it is remarkable that those two bombs were dropped on two non-military targets, and the vast majority of those killed were civilians.
The two bombs were of two different types, one was a uranium and the other a plutonium bomb. They constituted the two most horrendous single instances of mass slaughter in the history of the world, yet they have not received the attention that they deserve and appropriate lessons have not been learned. It is important to point out these facts to American citizens who have been kept mainly in the dark regarding their past history.
The Germans have apologized to the Jews and to the Poles for Nazi atrocities. The Japanese have apologized to the Chinese and the Koreans, and even to the United States for failing to break off diplomatic relations before attacking Pearl Harbor. The Russians have apologized to the Poles for atrocities committed against civilians, and to the Japanese for abuse of prisoners.
The Soviet Communist Party even apologized for foreign policy errors that “heightened tension with the West.” Pope John Paul II apologized for the Catholic Church’s past behavior towards the Jews. Britain has apologized for slavery. The Australian prime minister has apologized for the treatment of the aborigines.
Yet up till now there has not been an American apology for those two horrendous acts of genocide in Japan.
Reasons given for the use of atomic bombs
1. They shortened the war
The normal explanation given for the use of atomic bombs is that they shortened the war and saved many American lives. It is now clear that the Japanese had openly sued for surrender before the use of nuclear weapons. As early as July 12 1945, the Japanese emperor had notified Russia: “It is His Majesty’s heartfelt desire to see the swift termination of the war”. He sent an envoy “to communicate to the [Soviet] Ambassador that His Majesty desired to dispatch Prince Konoye as special envoy, carrying with him the personal letter of His Majesty stating the emperor wished to end the war.” (1)
On July 18, the emperor called for “Negotiations… necessary… for soliciting Russia’s good offices in concluding the war and also in improving the basis for negotiations with England and America.” (2)
There are many more such communications. On July 26, Japan’s Ambassador to Moscow, Sato, wrote to the Soviet Acting Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Lozovsky: “The aim of the Japanese Government with regard to Prince Konoye’s mission is to enlist the good offices of the Soviet Government in order to end the war.” (3)
Not only were the emperor and the Japanese government ready to surrender, but the same was also true of the Japanese military. As early as May 11, 1945, the American intelligence had intercepted military intelligence confirming that the Japanese military were ripe for surrender. One document kept in US military archives reads: “Report of peace sentiment in Japanese armed forces: On 5 May the German Naval Attaché in Tokyo dispatched the following message to Admiral Doenitz:
‘An influential member of the Admiralty Staff has given me to understand that, since the situation is clearly recognized to be hopeless, large sections of the Japanese armed forces would not regard with disfavor an American request for capitulation even if the terms were hard, provided they were halfway honorable.’ (4)
We also know that President Truman knew of the content of Japanese messages to the Russians. For instance, he noted in his diary on July 18, “Stalin had told P.M. [Prime Minister Churchill] of telegram from Jap [sic] Emperor asking for peace.” (5)
2. Unconditional surrender was necessary to keep allies together
It is sometimes argued that an unconditional surrender by the Japanese and the removal of the emperor was absolutely necessary for the purpose of keeping the allies, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, committed to participation in the Pacific war.
But Churchill had reservations about requiring Japan’s unconditional surrender. He stated them to Truman on July 18, 1945: “I dwelt upon the tremendous cost in American and to a smaller extent in British life if we enforced ‘unconditional surrender’ upon the Japanese.” (6) Churchill came away from his conversation with Truman believing “there would be no rigid insistence upon ‘unconditional surrender’.” (7)
Echoing the concern of Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy and Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence Captain Ellis Zacharias that the Allies became overly dependent on military means, Leon Sigal wrote, “At worst, withholding force might have prolonged the war for a while at a time when little combat was taking place; it would not have altered the final result. Yet restraint could have significantly reduced the gratuitous suffering on both sides, especially for noncombatants.” Leon Sigal continued: “It could be argued that the United States behaved as if the objective of inducing Japan to surrender was subordinated to another objective – in Stimson’s words, that of exerting ‘maximum force with maximum speed.’ American policy was guided by an implicit assumption that only the escalation of military pressure could bring the war to a rapid conclusion.” (8)
It didn’t take long after the atomic bombings for questions to arise as to their necessity for ending the war and Japan’s threat to peace.
One of the earliest accounts came from a panel that had been requested by President Truman to study the Pacific War. Their report, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, was issued in July 1946. It declared, “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” (9)
According to Barton Bernstein and Philip Nobile who studied the judgment “…the Japanese were prepared to negotiate all the way from February 1945…up to and before the time the atomic bombs were dropped; … if such leads had been followed up, there would have been no occasion to drop the [atomic] bombs.” (10)
3. There was no military logic behind the use of the bombs
What is distressing is that there was very little desire for the use of nuclear weapons by military commanders.
Norman Cousins was a consultant to General Douglas MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan. Cousins wrote: “When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.” (11)
In a February 12, 1947 letter to Henry Stimson (Secretary of War during WWII), Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew responded to the defense of the atomic bombings Stimson had made in a February 1947 Harpers magazine article:
“…in the light of available evidence I myself and others felt that if such a categorical statement about the [retention of the] dynasty had been issued in May, 1945, the surrender-minded elements in the [Japanese] Government might well have been afforded by such a statement a valid reason and the necessary strength to come to an early clearcut decision.
“If surrender could have been brought about in May, 1945, or even in June or July, before the entrance of Soviet Russia into the [Pacific] war and the use of the atomic bomb, the world would have been the gainer.” (12)
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was reported to have said in a press conference on September 22, 1945, that “The Admiral took the opportunity of adding his voice to those insisting that Japan had been defeated before the atomic bombing and Russia’s entry into the war.” (13)
In a subsequent speech at the Washington Monument on October 5, 1945, Admiral Nimitz stated “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war.” (14)
In his book, Mandate for Change, President Dwight Eisenhower who was the commander of the Allied forces in Europe wrote:
“…in [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.
During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…” (15)
Also, on or about 20 July 1945, General Dwight Eisenhower urged Truman, in a personal visit, not to use the atomic bomb. Eisenhower’s assessment was “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing . . . to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting [negotiations], was a double crime.” (16)
Admiral William D. Leahy (Chief of Staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman) wrote:
“It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.
The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” (17)
The main reasons for the dropping of the nuclear bombs
So if the use of the nuclear bombs did not have military logic what were the reasons for dropping them?
1. An opportunity to test the bombs
Some have suggested that the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was just an opportunity to test those awful weapons. On September 9, 1945, Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, was extensively quoted as stating that the atomic bomb was used because the scientists had a “toy and they wanted to try it out . . .” He further stated, “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment… It was a mistake to ever drop it.”
Albert Einstein in an article in The New York Times entitled “Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb”, tried to defend his fellow scientists. He wrote: “A great majority of scientists were opposed to the sudden employment of the atom bomb.” In Einstein’s judgment, the dropping of the bomb was a political-diplomatic decision rather than a military or scientific decision. (18)
2. To take revenge against Japan
The second reason seems to have been to take revenge against Japan. The critic and literary historian and World War II veteran Paul Fussell commented about the psychology and emotions of the United States at war. He wrote: “For most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese, and the reason the European part had to be finished first was so that maximum attention could be devoted to the real business, the absolute torment and destruction of the Japanese. The slogan was conspicuously Remember Pearl Harbor. No one ever shouted or sang Remember Poland.” (19)
3. To get Japan to surrender to the West
The third reason, as comes out of the remarks by Einstein quoted above and many military leaders, was that the use of nuclear bombs was primarily a political and diplomatic decision not a scientific and military one.
The political calculation involved the belated Soviet entry into the conflict through Manchuria, Korea, and Sakhalin and declaring war on Japan. Russia was in a position to occupy Japan and make it surrender before US forces arrived on the scene.
As happened in Europe where any bloc that occupied a country first, claimed hegemony over it, thus the Soviet Union getting Eastern Europe and East Berlin and America Western Europe, the same would have happened in Japan and it would have fallen under the Russian sphere of influence.
America wished to pre-empt that by forcing Japanese surrender by dropping the bombs, thus Japan came under US control. The U.S. did not even consult with her allies the Soviets on the Potsdam Proclamation, which contained the proposed terms of surrender, before sending it out. Not surprisingly, the Soviets were angered by this, but Truman decided to accept Japanese surrender without Soviet agreement. (20)
4. The first shot in the emerging Cold War
The fourth major reason was that in fact it was the first shot in the Cold War that came about between the West and the Soviet Union immediately after the end of the Second World War.
One enemy was vanquished, now it was the time to confront the Soviet Union. This mentality started a nearly fifty-year confrontation between the two super-powers during this period.
The Military-Industrial Complex
Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War did not end East-West hostilities. Instead of enjoying the peace dividends after a long and dangerous confrontation, the world was faced with what President Dwight Eisenhower had warned against, namely the emergence of a military-industrial complex, which today should be defined as a military-industrial-congressional-media complex.
With the end of the Cold War, there was an opportunity to move seriously towards peace, to dismantle NATO after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, to get rid of all nuclear weapons and lay the foundations of a new world order based on collaboration and multilateralism.
In his first major foreign policy speech in Prague on 5 April 2009, the new, young and idealistic President Barack Obama introduced an ambitious vision of getting rid of all nuclear weapons.
He said: “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. No nuclear war was fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, but generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light…
Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.”
He went on to say: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.” (21)
Sadly, those noble sentiments have not been put into action. With the demise of one enemy, the beneficiaries of the Military-Industrial Complex soon tried to find a new enemy. They latched on to the concept of a ‘clash of civilizations’, the war on terror, and presumably war without end.
Under the previous US administration, the so-called neocons advocated a “New American Century”, in which the U.S. military enjoys “full spectrum dominance” and makes use of “pre-emptive strikes” against potential rivals.
If President Obama’s promise of change is not to sound hollow, even at this late hour, he must tackle the rise of the military-industrial-congressional complex and must put an end to militarism. The United States of America must be powerful enough to defend herself and protect her ideals, but this can be done without relying on thousands of nuclear weapons.
One dangerous illusion is that nuclear weapons have prevented global wars, although there have been many proxy wars killing millions of innocent people. The problem with that argument is that nuclear deterrence works until it fails, and when it fails it will be the end of human civilization as we know it. Even if we can have many decades of relative peace in the shadow of nuclear bombs only to end up with a nuclear confrontation it is a very bad bargain indeed.
The most urgent step that needs to be taken now that the fear of an Iranian bomb – if ever one existed – has been indefinitely postponed, is to declare a nuclear-free zone in the whole of the Middle East. Apart from having the overwhelming support of the United States and Europe, Israel already enjoys massive conventional superiority over all Middle Eastern countries. The possession of nuclear weapons by a rightwing messianic regime that has already launched many disproportionate military attacks on her neighbors poses not only a threat to the region but to Israel itself. Nuclear weapons are apocalyptic weapons that are only of use if one wishes to bring about an Armageddon, but they do not bring lasting peace to a country that wishes to survive.
The renunciation of nuclear weapons by Israel would give a major boost to the cause of nonproliferation in the Middle East.
It would also rehabilitate Israel in the region and would greatly strengthen her security. The danger that Israel faces does not come from her neighbors, but from the unresolved Palestinian conflict at home.
Instead of relying on nuclear weapons, she should try to engage in serious peace talks leading to viable and realistic solutions that would enable the Israelis and the Palestinians to live in peace next to each other. In the same way that the West imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran to give up her non-existent nuclear weapons, it should put pressure on Israel to get rid of her existing nuclear arsenal.
There are a number of UN resolutions calling for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
Israel, supported by the West has so far prevented the implementation of those resolutions. It is time that the West showed the same concern about Israel’s nuclear arsenal and forced her to give up those weapons, perhaps by giving her guarantees of security against any outside threats.
The next area of concern is South-East Asia and the possibility of a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan. It is estimated that even a relatively minor nuclear exchange between these two countries, with the use of a few dozen nuclear weapons, would not only devastate these countries, but would bring about a nuclear winter in the rest of the world. In the context of new global organizations, such as the BRICS, and economic alliances between China and India, it should be possible to bring India and Pakistan closer together and encourage them to get rid of their nuclear weapons.
However, in the light of new tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, pipelines and regional alliances, the biggest danger to world peace is a new confrontation between Russia and the West.
Instead of intensifying the crisis with the use of irresponsible rhetoric, it is time that peace moves were resumed between the two sides, with new treaties for the reduction and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
At the moment, mankind is at a crossroads. Either we will pull together and create a much better world for ourselves and for our children, or we will march blindly towards collective destruction. The choice is ours.
As Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
In view of the world’s precarious situation and a multitude of problems that it faces, we either decide to destroy all nuclear weapons in keeping with the provisions of the NPT, or they will destroy us.
(1) See: U.S. Dept. of State, Potsdam 1, pp. 873-879.
(2) Magic-Diplomatic Summary, 7/18/45, Records of the National Security Agency, Magic Files, RG 457, Box 18, National Archives.
(4) Quoted by David Price in “In the Shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, Counter-Punch, August 6, 2004, http://www.counterpunch.org/price08062004.html
(5) Robert Ferrell, ed., Off the Record – the Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, (Paperback, 1997), p. 53.
(6) Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (The Second World War), paperback edition, 2008, pp. 547-548.
(8) Leon Sigal, Fighting To a Finish: The Politics of War Termination in the United States and Japan, 1989 p. 219.
(9) Barton J. Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb, 1976, pp. 52-56.
(10) Barton J. Bernstein in Philip Nobile, ed., Judgment at the Smithsonian, 1995, p. 142.
(11) Norman Cousins, The Pathology of Power, 1987, pp. 65, 70-71.
(12) Joseph Grew quoted in Barton Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb, pp. 29-32.
(13) Leon Sigal, Fighting To a Finish, 1989, p. 219.
(15) Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate For Change, 1963, p. 380.
(16) “Ike on Ike”, Newsweek, 11/11/63, p. 108.
(17) William D. Leahy, I Was There, p. 441.
(18) See “Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb”.
(19) Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford University Press, USA, 1990), quoted in by Benjamin Schwarz, “The Real War”, The Atlantic, June 2001.
(20) William Blum, Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire (Common Courage Press, 2005, paper), pp. 473-474.
* This is an edited version of a longer article by Farhang Jahanpour published by the TFF on 8 May 2009.