Column No. 73 By Steven Jonas, M.D., M.P.H. - August 25, 2005

The sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan by the United States has brought out much discussion of the appropriateness and the politics of the decision to bomb, on both the Right and the Left in this country.  (Around the rest of the world, there are few defenders of the decision left.) The standard US defense is well known: the bombings, both of them, had to be done in order to avoid an invasion of Japan by US ground force which might have cost upwards of blank-blank-blank US casualties (you fill in the number).  (There never seems to be any mention of concern for casualties in the Soviet Army, which Stalin had already committed to the conflict.  But what the hey, they were only Russians and what have you.)

That the standard defense of the US decision has been debunked many times over the years, with much evidence on the side of us debunkers, does not prevent the proponents of the company line from repeating it over and over again. Nor does it prevent them from engaging in name calling when what they call “evidence” in support of their position does not stand up very well under scrutiny.  Having seen both some evidence debunking the standard defense of the US decision that I had not seen before, as well as a well-written repeat of that US-standard defense, accompanied by some of the usual name calling that often goes with it, I thought to revisit the issue myself.

In an email, a friend of mine noted that “in her 1956 book [one with which I was not previously familiar] entitled The Enemy at His Back, journalist Elizabeth Churchill Brown supplied overwhelming evidence to counter the inaccurate views about the close of the war. She wrote, ‘With this knowledge at hand, I quickly began to see why the war with Japan was unprecedented in all history. Here was an enemy who had been trying to surrender for almost a year before the conflict ended [emphasis added].’ “For the latter statement, Brown supplied a huge stack of documentary evidence, way back in 1956, no less.

In response to that email, taking the US-standard, another friend had this to say, in part: “This ground has been plowed before. US casualties on Iwo Jima and Okinawa convinced the US that Japanese resistance to an invasion of the home islands [of Japan] would be equally bitter and drawn out and we would incur at least 75,000 deaths. A demonstration bombing was suggested and rejected, on grounds we had no assurance the Japs [sic] would attend a demo blast, or be convinced if they did. Truman did not take Japanese casualties into consideration, after the depredations of the Japanese in Manchuria and China since 1931, the attacks on Pearl and Manila in 1941, and subsequent treatment of US prisoners in the Philippines. The bleeding heart left merely makes itself look silly as it resurrects this canard every year. This nonsense demonstrates how universal is gullibility and devotion to doctrine.”

Sounds good, don’t it?  Well, not so fast.  Let’s look at some of the holes in the argument.  The battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, while resulting in relatively heavy US casualties, consumed much of what was left of trained Japanese troops after three years of brutal fighting in the Pacific.  The US still had plenty left. After the Philippine Campaign and the huge losses they suffered in it, the Japanese no longer had a functioning Navy because of the lack of ships as well as experienced sailors.  They no longer had a functioning Air Force because of the lack of trained pilots.  That was one of the main reasons they resorted to the Kamikaze attacks using barely trained youngsters at Okinawa.  (By the way, “kamikaze” means “Divine Wind,” referring to a providential typhoon that broke up a potentially disastrous Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century.)

The Japanese just might have attended a demonstration bombing if invited, but we will never know that.  For the above defender of the US-standard revenge is apparently an appropriate motivation for a particular tactic of war.  Also in that view it would appear that one dastardly sneak attack (Pearl Harbor) justifies another (or two).  That one needs to engage in character assassination of critics of the US-standard also indicates some of the problems with the US-standard that this particular friend upholds.  Of course, let’s assume for the moment that character assassination is okay in this kind of argument.  Would the following personages qualify as “bleeding-heart liberals?”

“General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing." General Curtis LeMay [he of the Tokyo fire-bomb raid of March, 1945, that killed more people than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined] declared that the atomic bomb had nothing to do with Japan's surrender. And Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to both Roosevelt and Truman, stated angrily 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 ... in being the first to use it, we ... adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages (‘Bush and the Bomb,’ Marjorie Cohn, t r u t h o u t | Perspective, Wednesday 10 August 2005)."  I guess that it all depends upon how you define “bleeding-heart liberal,” just as exactly what Cheney meant when he described the Iraqi insurgency as being in its “last throes” depends upon how you define the words, as he took pains to tell us.

Now looking further at the reality of the time, I happen to believe Churchill Brown's version of the events from mid-1944 onwards, that the Japanese were trying in one way or another to arrange for a surrender, with which I was not previously familiar. Her version is highly sourced. One position that supporters of the US policy take is that “unconditional surrender” was the unified demand of the Allied Powers, and Japan wanted to negotiate. Therefore the US had no choice, they contend. But in the end, the US did negotiate with Japan on conditions, the principal one being the preservation of the Imperial House, de-deified to be sure. No one less than General Macarthur thought this was necessary if for no other reason than to assure that a US occupation, given that the Emperor publicly accepted it, would proceed unopposed by any force on the Japanese side. And it was. If a negotiation on conditions could take place after the atomic bombings, why could it have taken place before? During the summer of 1945, the highly placed Prince Konoye, who was well-known to diplomats the US side, was desperately trying to find someone to talk with about surrender. He found only deaf ears.

Further still, even if none of that had occurred, Japan had six months oil supply left. The US Unterseebooten, Wolfpack U-boat campaign against Japanese shipping in the Pacific Ocean and China Seas was much more effective than the German campaign against British-US shipping in the North Atlantic had ever been.  (Oops, sorry.  That “U-boat/Wolf-pack” stuff was the work of the dastardly Germans.  Even though the US campaign relied heavily on tactics learned from the Germans, especially in firing at merchant ships without warning, I meant to say heroic US submariners risking their lives.)  At any rate the blockade was getting ever tighter. There were no more military targets left to bomb in Japan, the conventional terror (oops, sorry, once again I'm using words that are verboten when applied to the US side)/incendiary bombing campaign had been highly effective. In fact, it killed many more people than the atomic weapons did (an estimated 250,000 in the above-mentioned firebombing of the then-paper city of Tokyo in March, 1945 alone). Further, to repeat, the US could have done an atomic bomb demo. If it failed to explode (unlikely given the testing) and the Japanese didn't bite, then a bomb could have dropped. Further still, why not drop a bomb on open territory in Japan, say on the sparsely populated island of Hokkaido, rather than on two cities, neither of which was a military target. And so on and so forth.

You know, why do not the defenders of the US use of the Bomb just come out and say it: the US dropped the bomb as the first strike in the Cold War (which it was --- see Gar Alperovitz’ book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb), and have done with it. Fighting the commies was just as important as fighting the fascists, wasn't it? And oh yes, if the real consideration was unconditional surrender, which it obviously wasn't, wouldn't it have been worth it to explore an agreement that we eventually agreed to anyway, to save a few hundred thousand Japanese lives, regardless of what happened at Nanking (talk about the revenge factor). But oh yes, doing so would have allowed Stalin to take over the whole of the Korean peninsula and land troops on Hokkiado at a minimum. It also might have allowed him to intervene directly in the Chinese civil war. Couldn't have that now, could we?

Had the Bomb not been dropped, the entire geo-political history of our world might have been different. For one thing, there likely would have been no nation to date that had used the Bomb as a weapon. That the US did use it, once, established a precedent that numbers of Right-Wing American politicians have been tempted to follow right up to the present day (Dick Cheney [oh what a great whipping boy], anyone?). Even more important however, there would have been a precedent established that one country did have the Bomb, could have used it, and didn’t.

Note:  An earlier version of this column appeared at as a “Dr. J’s Short Shot.”