the bomb


Bombing Hiroshima changed the world, but it didn’t end WWII

by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Los Angeles Times

May 26, 2016

President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima on Friday has rekindled public debate about the US atomic bombings of Japan—one largely suppressed since the Smithsonian canceled its Enola Gay exhibit in 1995. Obama, aware that his critics are ready to pounce if he casts the slightest doubt on the rectitude of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs, has opted to remain silent on the issue. This is unfortunate. A national reckoning is overdue.

Most Americans have been taught that using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was justified because the bombings ended the war in the Pacific, thereby averting a costly US invasion of Japan. This erroneous contention finds its way into high school history texts still today. More dangerously, it shapes the thinking of government officials and military planners working in a world that still contains more than 15,000 nuclear weapons.

What US citizens weren’t told about the atomic bombing of Japan

Truman exulted in the obliteration of Hiroshima, calling it “the greatest thing in history.” America’s military leaders didn’t share his exuberance. Seven of America’s eight five-star officers in 1945—Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and Henry Arnold, and Adms. William Leahy, Chester Nimitz, Ernest King and William Halsey—later called the atomic bombings either militarily unnecessary, morally reprehensible, or both. Nor did the bombs succeed in their collateral purpose: cowing the Soviets.

Leahy, who was Truman’s personal chief of staff, wrote in his memoir that the “Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…. The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” MacArthur went further. He told former President Hoover that if the United States had assured the Japanese that they could keep the emperor they would have gladly surrendered in late May.

It was not the atomic evisceration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Pacific war. Instead, it was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and other Japanese colonies that began at midnight on August 8, 1945—between the two bombings.

For months, Allied intelligence had been reporting that a Soviet invasion would knock Japan out of the war. On April 11, for example, the Joint Intelligence Staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff predicted, “If at any time the USSR should enter the war, all Japanese will realize that absolute defeat is inevitable.”

The Americans, having broken Japanese codes, were aware of Japan’s desperation to negotiate peace with the US before the Soviets invaded. Truman himself described an intercepted cable from July 18, 1945, as the “telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.” Indeed, Truman went to the mid-July summit in Potsdam to make sure that the Soviets were keeping their Yalta conference promise to come into the Pacific war. When Stalin gave him the assurance on July 17, Truman wrote in his diary, “He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.” Truman reiterated this in a letter to his wife the next day: “We’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed.”

In quickly routing Japan’s Kwantung army, the Soviets ruined Japan’s diplomatic and military end game: keep inflicting military losses on the US and get Stalin’s help negotiating better surrender terms.

The atomic bombings, terrible and inhumane as they were, played little role in Japanese leaders’ calculations to quickly surrender. After all, the US had firebombed more than 100 Japanese cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just two more cities destroyed; whether the attack required one bomb or thousands didn’t much matter. As General Torashirō Kawabe, the deputy chief of staff, later told US interrogators, the depth of devastation wrought in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only became known “in a gradual manner.” But “in comparison, the Soviet entry into the war was a great shock.”

When Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki was asked on August 10 why Japan needed to surrender so quickly, he explained, “the Soviet Union will take not only Manchuria, Korea, Karafuto, but also Hokkaido. This would destroy the foundation of Japan. We must end the war when we can deal with the United States.” Japanese leaders also feared the spread of Soviet-inspired communist uprisings and knew the Soviets would not look kindly upon their paramount concerns—protecting the emperor himself and preserving the emperor system.

Truman understood the stakes. He knew the Soviet invasion would end the war. He knew assuring Japan about the emperor might also lead to surrender. But he decided to use the atomic bombs anyway.

While at Potsdam, Truman received a report detailing the power of the bomb tested July 16 at Alamogordo NM. Afterward he “was a changed man,” according to Winston Churchill. He began bossing Stalin around. And he authorized use of the bomb against Japan. If his newfound assertiveness at Potsdam didn’t show Stalin who was boss, Truman figured, Hiroshima certainly would.

Stalin got the message. Atomic bombs were now a fundamental part of the US arsenal, and not just as a last resort. He ordered Soviet scientists to throw everything they had into developing a Soviet bomb. The race was on. Eventually, the two sides would accumulate the equivalent of 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs. And as Manhattan Project physicist I.I. Rabi astutely observed, “Suddenly the day of judgment was the next day and has been ever since.”


Oliver Stone is an Academy Award-winning writer and director. History professor Peter Kuznick is director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. They co-authored the Showtime documentary series and book, “The Untold History of the United States.”



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2 Responses to “the bomb”

  1. 1 matt
    June 3, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    And to what end do we rehash this decision yet again? Were the 80-146 thousand killed at Hiroshima or the 39-80 thousand killed at Nagasaki somehow more or less dead because of the type of weapon used? Lest you think that such numbers can only be achieved using nuclear weapons, I call your attention to the 80-200 thousand Japanese who died in three nights in the Feb/March 1945 fire bombings of Tokyo; are they somehow less dead because they died by thousands of American incendiary devices vice a single super bomb? And what of the 25 thousand Germans who died in the 13-15 Feb 1945 inferno caused by the British bombing of Dresden? And what about those killed in atrocities like the 300 thousand Chinese slaughtered by the Japanese at Nanking in ’37/’38?

    So what is Mr. Stone’s real issue with nuclear weapons; after all, we humans are quite good at slaughtering other humans without nuclear weapons? Idi Amin Dada, 300 thousand fellow Ugandans 1971-1979; Pol Pot, 2 MILLION fellow Cambodians (out of a population of only 8M) 1975-1979; 8 MILLION who died in the Congo 1886-1908; Hitler’s estimated 10 to 12 MILLION non-war deaths 1935-1945; Stalin, 50 MILLION non-war deaths by some estimates 1924-1953; and the undisputed king of them all, Mao Zedong, with an estimated death toll of 67 MILLION 1949-1975.

    Whether these people were vaporized in a millisecond or died over months of starvation, forced labor, and disease, they are all just as dead, and arguing about the morality or efficiency of the method is just obscene!

  2. 2 Frank Manning
    June 3, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    I wasn’t going to reply on this post until I read Matt’s comment. What Stone is doing here is rehashing the stalinist propaganda lie of Gar Alperovitz, a marxist revisionist at Toronto. Put briefly, this party line blames the cold war entirely on the United States and attacks the basic human decency of Harry Truman. Note to both Gar and Ollie: Stalin was no saint either! I’ve been in the archives myself, my friends. There is no evidence whatsoever of Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall, Leahy, King, even Stimson wanting to use the bomb primarily to show Stalin who was boss. They all were scared shitless of the American public’s negative resposne to hgh casualties, and wanted to end the war quickly and with minimial American casualties. Hey, guess what? It worked!

    Even if you don’t give a flying fuck about the million or so estimated American casualties and all us baby boomers who would have never been born had our fathers been killed in the invasion of Japan, consider this. Estimates are that as many as 7 million Japanese–soliders, militia, civilians, men, women, children–would have been killed in the Allied military conquest of the Japanes homeland. Get down off your high horse, stop with the moral pontificating, and give us a straight answer. Would you really have preferred 7 million dead Japanese instead of the 250,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Sure sounds like it to me. And for what? To justify a bloodsoaked tyrant who killed god knows how many tens of millions? Alperovitz and Stone simply have no credibility.

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