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Hiroshima in Debate — What Does it Mean

My commentary today, “Hiroshima and the Burden of History,” attempts to consider the moral issues that remain even now, sixty years after the dropping of the bomb. With the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing coming tomorrow, we should look for interesting and thoughtful reactions in the media.
Today, The Los Angeles Times published a rather disappointing editorial commentary by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Bird and Sherwin are coauthors of American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, published earlier this year. They place themselves squarely in the revisionist camp of historians. There are responsible revisionists who argue that the dropping of the bomb was not, at least taken alone, the actual cause of the Japanese surrender. But their statements in this commentary are misleading, to say the least. Take this paragraph, for example: The bomb was dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said in November 1945, on “an essentially defeated enemy.” President Truman and his closest advisor, Secretary of State James Byrnes, quite plainly used it primarily to prevent the Soviets from sharing in the occupation of Japan. And they used it on Aug. 6 even though they had agreed among themselves as they returned home from the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 3 that the Japanese were looking for peace.
All half-truths are problematic, but this one is especially dangerous. Yes, President Truman was very concerned about the possibility of a Soviet domination of Asia — and rightly so. We should remember that the Soviets did not declare war on Japan until two days after the Hiroshima bombing — the very night before the Nagasaki bomb was dropped. In the few days between the Soviet declaration of war and the Japanese surrender, Soviet troops moved quickly to seize the Kuril Islands and territory in Manchuria. Truman was right to be concerned.
The real problem with the Bird and Sherwin article is their simplistic claim that “the Japanese were looking for peace” before the bombs were dropped. This is just not a fair or responsible way to present the true situation. Interestingly, Bird and Sherwin cite historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa with appreciation. But Hasegawa’s important book, Racing the Enemy, argues conclusively — using documents from the Japanese high command and war council — that the “peace” the Japanese were then seeking was nothing like an unconditional surrender, much less a surrender of all military authority. Hasegawa does believe that the Soviet declaration of war was the decisive event, but he is brutally honest about the fact that the Japanese war council was divided over the question of surrender right up until the Emperor’s decision ended the debate –and there was an attempted coup lead by army officers the night before the Emperor’s address was broadcast to the Japanese people.
The Wall Street Journal takes a very different approach in the paper’s lead editorial for today. Looking back after 60 years, who cannot be grateful that it was Truman who had the bomb, and not Hitler or Tojo or Stalin? And looking forward, who can seriously doubt the need for might always to remain in the hands of right? That is the enduring lesson of Hiroshima, and it is one we ignore at our peril. The editorial also dismisses the suggestion that nuclear weapons can simply be eliminated: Yet the notion that the nuclear genie can be willed out of existence through the efforts of right-thinking people is as absurd as it is wrongheaded. Just as guns and knives will be with us forever, so too will the bomb.
Another very insightful article is found in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. In “Why Truman Dropped the Bomb,” Richard B. Frank uses declassified military documents to determine what President Truman and his advisers really knew about the Japanese war council and its intentions [a very great deal -- almost all information drawn from decoded messages]. As Frank argues: There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the critics’ central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood–as one analytical piece in the “Magic” Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts–that “until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies.” This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.
TIME magazine also published an important pair of articles timed for the anniversary. See “Living Under the Cloud” by Michael Elliott and “Crossing the Moral Threshold” by David M. Kennedy.