The Magazine

Light in August

History lessons for atomic revisionists.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By RICHARD B. FRANK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Before we get to the significance of Asada's contribution, however, there is some vital ground covered in the other essays. Gian Peri Gentile's "Advocacy or Assessment? The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Germany and Japan" performs an invaluable service by smashing one vital foundation stone of revisionism. In 1946, Paul Nitze inserted into the Strategic Bombing Survey's summary Report on the Pacific War the conclusion "based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders" that "prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

Revisionists have seized upon this as a godsend, an authoritative judgment that the use of atomic bombs was not necessary.

Together with work by Barton Bernstein and Robert Newman, Gentile's review of the actual interrogation records of Japanese officials revealed their statements were literally the reverse of Nitze's assertion. Every Japanese official questioned but one (and he was contradictory) said he expected the war would have continued absent the shocks of the atomic bombs and Soviet entry. Further, Gentile notes the internal reports differed so widely on their interpretation of the data that they "settled nothing," in the words of George Ball. Gentile concludes that Nitze was actually steered by a hidden agenda of justification for a postwar Air Force with a huge conventional, not just nuclear, bombing capability.

The formidable Robert Newman contributes two essays. One addresses what he terms the trashing of Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Newman correctly points out that Stimson "was easily the least bloodthirsty and vengeful of our World War II leaders." Stimson's personal intervention spared Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, a center of priceless cultural artifacts, from atomic bombing. Stimson was also the most effective exponent of the Potsdam Proclamation that "defined" unconditional surrender. (Actually, it provided a set of terms remarkable for their generosity to ordinary Japanese and stern only toward the leadership.) Newman particularly confronts charges that Stimson failed to subject the question of the use of atomic bombs to scrutiny commensurate with the moral implications. Newman points out that Stimson devoted much more time to the issue than his critics acknowledge.

A major eye-opener is Newman's essay based on the archived records of the protracted private gestation and swift, but highly public, death of the proposed 50th anniversary exhibit of the Enola Gay. Newman contrasts the public pronouncements and later defensiveness of Smithsonian officials with the damning evidence of their own words.

Two essays address one of the hottest, if not the hottest, flashpoints of the controversy: potential American casualties from invading the Japanese home island. In a key 1947 essay, part of Stimson's justification for the use of atomic bombs was the argument that an invasion of Japan might have produced a million American casualties. Revisionist historians have charged that they could not find archival documentation that senior American leaders were presented with any such number. D.M. Giangreco sets out his case that, from 1944, War Department planners labored under an assumption that an American invasion of Japan would cost at least 500,000 casualties, and possibly as many as two million. Giangreco maintains that scholars who attacked the high numbers erred because they did not comprehend how the armed forces went about the business of formulating casualty estimates--estimates everyone understood were necessarily speculative.

Michael Kort finds that Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's recent Racing the Enemy "makes the rubble bounce" of two essential pillars of the revisionist case. Hasegawa discredits the idea not only that Japan was close to surrender prior to Hiroshima, but that even an American offer to preserve the status of the emperor would have secured Japan's surrender. Hasegawa does not dispute that halting the war and saving American lives constituted a key motive for American leaders, and after dealing devastating blows to prior models of revisionism, Hasegawa presents his own retooled variant. He depicts events in the summer of 1945 as a "race," whereby President Truman and Secretary of State James Byrnes expedited the use of atomic bombs before Soviet entry into the war both to force a surrender of Japan without an invasion and to forestall Soviet advances. Hasegawa also makes an invaluable contribution with a sophisticated and thoughtful argument (with which I disagree) that it was Soviet entry, not the atomic bombs, that induced the Japanese to surrender.

Kort cites a variety of evidence that challenges not just Hasegawa's conclusions on key points, but also the idea of a "race," or the primacy of Soviet entry. In particular, Kort makes his most astute point by observing that the race thesis depends on the notion that American officials were confident that one or two atomic bombs would produce Japan's surrender. On the contrary, as Kort points out--and as Michael Gordin's Five Days in August develops in depth--there was pervasive doubt about what combination of events, including atomic bombs, it would take to secure Japan's surrender.

So where are we now in the controversy? I see Hiroshima in History as the tombstone over the original and most pernicious version of revisionism. This version focused on American motives and insisted that intimidating the Soviets, not ending the Pacific war, prompted use of the atomic bombs. This collection of essays comprehensively demonstrates the faulty structure of that case. But it does not mean that Truman's defenders can declare victory. The mainstream of the controversy is shifting to follow Asada's insight: The real historical issue is not American motives but the effect on Japanese leaders of the various options available to the United States. In that light, Hasegawa's Racing the Enemy marks a significant transition: He continues the argument about American motives but shrewdly moves beyond motives to ground an equal part of his case on effects.

A debate here is legitimate, but Truman's defenders should have no trepidation. It might have been possible to force Japan's capitulation with a campaign of blockade and (nonnuclear) aerial bombardment, but such a campaign aimed to end the war by starving the Japanese, mostly civilians, by the millions. Soviet intervention, added to an American blockade and bombardment, might have bolstered the likelihood of Japanese surrender. But Soviet intervention harbors not just geopolitical but profound moral implications. Historians who argue that Soviet intervention would have been preferable to atomic bombs fail to acknowledge the fact that a realistic death toll for Hiroshima and Nagasaki (100,000 to 200,000) is at least matched, and probably exceeded, by the cost of Japanese civilian deaths in Soviet hands--and would have been exceeded if the Soviets had secured still more Japanese territory and citizens.

Newman's hero Henry Stimson had it right: The bombs were not the best, but the "least abhorrent," choice facing American leaders.

Richard B. Frank, a historian of World War II, is the author, most recently, of MacArthur.