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Light in August

History lessons for atomic revisionists.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By RICHARD B. FRANK
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Hiroshima in History

The Myths of Revisionism

Edited by Robert James Maddox

Missouri, 224 pp., $34.95

This invaluable work comprises an introduction by the editor followed by nine essays on the highly contentious ending of the Pacific war. The individual essays assembled here display enormous merit, but this work is far more than the sum of its parts: It marks a key milestone in where the controversy has been, and where it is going.

Nearly two decades after the end of the Pacific war, Gar Alperovitz published Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam: The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power. This work upended the prevailing consensus supporting the employment of atomic bombs. The incendiary core of Alperovitz's thesis was that the use of nuclear weapons had nothing to do with ending the war, with an utterly defeated Japan seeking to surrender, and everything to do with intimidating the Soviets. Alperovitz not only ignited a controversy, but insisted that American motives for unleashing the bombs constituted the focal point.

Atomic Diplomacy came outfitted with the appearance of masterly scholarship, and enjoyed tremendous success in convincing scholars who did not specialize in the area, as well as laymen. From the outset, however, relatively few other scholars who actually had waded into the archives--even those who stood on the political left with Alperovitz--accepted his thesis unalloyed. These other scholars differed markedly with Alperovitz's framework and, in many instances, with his scholarship.

In the lead essay by Robert James Maddox, Alperovitz's scholarship is subjected to blunt trauma. Maddox provides a litany of instances where Alperovitz truncated quotations or moved their context in a manner that altered their meaning. For example, Alperovitz quoted Harry Truman as remarking, just eight days after Franklin Roosevelt's death, that he "intended to be firm with the Russians and make no concessions." Truman's actual statement included the additional phrase "from American principles or traditions in order to win their favor"--which materially alters the sense of Truman's views.

Like other critics, by no means all on the right, Maddox correctly points out that Alperovitz builds key parts of his case on a host of postwar statements by civilian and military officials expressing reservations about the atomic bombs, or speaking confidently that alternative means existed to end the war without them. As Alperovitz intended, these quotations beguile the unwary reader to assume such views were expressed in 1945. The reality is that the documented record shows the overwhelming majority of officials supported the use of such weapons, or expressed no reservation in 1945.

Although the most public airing of the controversy came in 1995 over the proposed exhibit of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian, the tectonic plates of the scholarly debate already had begun to shift around 1989-90. New revelations emerged to undermine fundamental premises of Alperovitz and his acolytes about Japan in 1945. The key findings in Edward Drea's seminal MacArthur's Ultra (1992) appear in this volume in his aptly-titled essay, "Previews of Hell." Drea demonstrates that, far from regarding their situation as hopeless, Japanese leaders believed fervently that if they could defeat or inflict terrible casualties on the initial American invasion of the Japanese homeland, they could secure a negotiated end to the war to their satisfaction. Just as critically, Drea shows that, thanks to code-breaking, American leaders knew this.

Buttressing Drea's work is Sadao Asada's essay, "The Shock of the Atomic bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender--A Reconsideration." Among historians working in this field, Asada deserves honor as the most courageous. The deep-seated sense of "nuclear victimization" that pervades both popular and scholarly opinion in Japan has manufactured pervasive taboos outclassing any faced by revisionists in this country. A key part of the victim mentality is a near-quarantine observed by Japanese historians over critical examination of decision-making by Japan's leaders. Asada not only breaches this barrier, he violates the ultimate taboo by concluding that the atomic bombs trumped Soviet intervention as the key factor in ending the war.

In the long run, however, Asada's most profound contribution is his reframing of the controversy from a focus on American motives to a rigorous examination of what, exactly, were the effects on Japanese decision-makers of the various military and diplomatic policy options available to U.S. officials in 1945.