A New Consensus On The Bomb

11 Mar

Atomic bombing of JapanI just finished watching Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s Untold History of the United States, and amid the five hypotheticals Stone and Kuznick present, is an alternative theory, that the United States didn’t need to drop the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The other four hypothetical cases are also very provocative, but it’s a relief to hear this particular account on mainstream television, because it’s a much more helpful explanation for why the Korean peninsula is such a mess than the standard version.

If there are no conspiracy theories here, Stone also eschews another line of argument that many might expect from him: that the ruling class is all-powerful, that Wall Street—the subject of one of his most memorable films—controls everything, along with bankers and the corporate elite, leaving ordinary people helpless. The thesis of the Showtime series, as well as its companion volume, is different: that history is not an iron cage, the keys to which are held by the ruling class. At many pivotal moments, Stone argues, history could have taken a radically different course. The missed opportunities, the roads not taken—these are Stone’s central themes, which he argues with energy, passion and a mountain of evidence (the companion volume has eighty-nine pages of footnotes).

In the third episode, Stone and Kuznick argue, that both theater commanders, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower, opposed the use of the atomic bombs. Furthermore, the president, Harry Truman, used the Bomb, to warn the Soviets about postwar aggression, not to compel Japan to surrender. Alex Wellerstein encapsulates both versions in the work of J. Samuel Walker, a retired historian from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Walker mapped out two major poles on the “decision to use the bomb” question. (I should say up front that this is my synthesis of Walker’s synthesis, re-written from memory. So it’s possible I may be inadvertently mangling this a bit, though I don’t think I am. There are other sub-arguments to this debate, of course, but to me this boils it down to the really crucial bits nicely.) The first is the “traditional” argument, which roughly follows the position put forward by Stimson in 1947. At its core, it argues, in brief:

  • that Truman made a decision to use the bomb on the basis of ending the war quickly;
  • the as far as the US was concerned, Japan would not surrender on acceptable terms without either the bomb or invasion;
  • and that of those two options, the bomb was the option that would cost the least number of American and Japanese lives;
  • and, as the Japanese Emperor acknowledged in his surrender statement, the bomb did in fact end the war promptly.

This is, of course, the argument that most people are familiar with. The other pole, according to Walker, is what is often called the “revisionist” take, a term acknowledged as potentially disparaging, and is expressed most forcefully in the work of Gar Alperovitz. At its core, it argues, in brief:

  • that Japan was already defeated at the time the decision to use the bomb was made, and that US intelligence already knew this;
  • that Japan had been suing for peace and was ready to surrender without an invasion;
  • that the real reason the bomb was used was so to demonstrate its power to the Soviet Union, in an attempt to exert more influence on them in the postwar;
  • and that Japanese Emperor’s surrender statement invoked the bomb only as a politically-acceptable “excuse” for his people, when actually he surrendered primarily because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.

There are, of course, more details that people have hashed out over the years, including the infamous “how many casualties in an invasion” question. In the 1990s in particular, these were fiercely debated. It was, of course, the immediate post-Cold War, and everybody was still in a mood of assessment of trying to make out what the Cold War’s legacy actually was.

Wellerstein goes on to compile a new consensus synthesizing the standard and revisionist theories of why the United States dropped the Bomb.

  • It’s not really clear that Truman ever made much of a “decision,” or regarded the bomb/invasion issue as being mutually exclusive. Truman didn’t know if the bomb would end the war; he hoped, but he didn’t know, couldn’t know. The US was still planning to invade in November 1945. They were planning to drop as many atomic bombs as necessary. There is no contemporary evidence that suggests Truman was ever told that the causalities would be X if the bomb was dropped, and Y if it was not. There is no evidence that, prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Truman was particularly concerned with Japanese causalities, radiation effects, or whether the bombs were ethical or not. The entire framing of the issue is ahistorical, after-the-fact, here. It was war; Truman had atomic bombs; it was taken for granted, at that point, that they were going to be used.
  • Defeat is not surrender. Japan was certainly defeated by August 1945, in the sense that there was no way for them to win; the US knew that. But they hadn’t surrendered, and the peace balloons they had put out would have assumed not that the Emperor would have stayed on as some sort of benign constitutional monarch (much less a symbolic monarch), but would still be the god-head of the entire Japanese country, and still preserve the overall Japanese state. This was unacceptable to the US, and arguably not for bad reasons. Japanese sources show that the Japanese military was willing to bleed out the country to exact this sort of concession from the US.
  • American sources show that the primary reason for using the bomb was to aid in the war against Japan. However, the fact that such weapons would be important in the postwar period, in particular vis-à-vis the USSR, was not lost on American policymakers. It is fair to say that there were multiple motivations for dropping the bomb, and specifically that it looks like there was a primary motivation (end the war) and many other “derivative” benefits that came from that (postwar power).
  • Japanese sources, especially those unearthed and written about by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, make it clear that prior to the use of the atomic bombs, the Japanese cabinet was still planning on fighting a long battle against invasion, that they were hoping to exact the aforementioned concessions from the United States, and that they were aware (and did not care) that such an approach would cost the lives of huge numbers of Japanese civilians. It is also clear that the two atomic bombs did shock them immensely, and did help break the stalemate in the cabinet — but that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria also shocked them immensely, perhaps equally, maybe even more (if you have a choice between being occupied by Truman or occupied by Stalin, the decision is an easy one). But there is no easy way to disentangle the effects of the bombs or the Soviet invasion, in this sense — they were both immensely influential on the final decision. That being said, using the bomb as an “excuse” (as opposed to “we are afraid of Russians”) did play well with the Japanese public and made surrender appear to be a sensible, viable option in a culture where surrender was seen as a complete loss of honor.

It pains me to say, that even Wellerstein’s “new consensus” is helpful in the Korean context, because it opens up a narrative about why the peninsula is still politically divided to this day. The answer is, that the Soviets controlled the northern half of the peninsula, and, as Stone and Kuznick present in their documentary, the Soviet invasion was prompted by an agreement Stalin and Roosevelt made to each other at Yalta. Mainstream accounts of the war airbrush these diplomatic machinations borne of the previous wars’ lessons for an anachronistic pro-nukes reading of how the United States won the war.

What I humbly hope is, that this new consensus view can replace the old standard view.

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2 Responses to “A New Consensus On The Bomb”

  1. jkmhoffman 12 March 2013 at 4:15 am #

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

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  1. Korea – Putting the Situation into Perspective | The GOLDEN RULE - 10 April 2013

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