The Magazine

Light in August

History lessons for atomic revisionists.

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