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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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.