It’s a myth that the United States needed to drop atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II, say scholars armed with freshly disclosed government information.
But myths are powerful, and veterans groups are angry about the “new history” that’s surfacing on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II.
They believe President Harry S. Truman’s pronouncement that the bombs saved the lives of “a half-million boys on our side.”
The question whether the United States should have used the world’s most destructive - and morally difficult - weapon is exploding into renewed debate.
“Part of each of us wishes to believe that the decision to use the bomb was reasonable, but another part remains uncomfortable with what we did,” said Robert Jay Lifton, a noted psychiatrist and co-author of a new book, “Hiroshima in America.”
Reaction from veterans groups shows how controversial the subject remains.
Veterans’ anger boiled over in the recent debate over the Smithsonian Institution’s plans to exhibit the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
In a lobbying campaign led by the Air Force Association, veterans attacked the proposed exhibit as too sympathetic to the Japanese, even anti-American.
Bowing to the ideological fallout, the institution’s Air and Space Museum scaled back its plan to a simple display of the plane’s 60-foot fuselage.
The furor over the Enola Gay exhibit made headlines. But few people are aware of a more extensive re-examination of the atomic bombings of Japan.
Newly declassified documents debunk the widely held belief that the bombs saved up to 500,000 American lives.
They include a recently discovered top-secret War Department study that concludes that Japanese leaders had decided to surrender in 1945 and a full-scale invasion of Japan in 1946 would not have occurred.
Even an initial November 1945 landing on the southern island of Kyushu was only a “remote” possibility, according to the study.
“The bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan,” said J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it,” Walker said in a recent overview in the journal Diplomatic History.
Alternatives for Truman included a demonstration of the bomb’s power on an uninhabited island and more overtures to Japan about terms of surrender, Walker said.
“A lot of what we know is quite new. But most people still think the choice was between the bomb and the invasion because that’s what they’ve always heard,” Walker said.
“If they were alive when the bomb was dropped, that’s what they were told. Textbooks haven’t caught up yet.”
The new historical debate glosses over the psychology of Americans in 1945, who had suffered through Pearl Harbor, the Bataan death march and other Japanese atrocities, say two men who lived through the war.
“We didn’t start the war, and we wanted to end it,” said Obie Amacker, 74. He is a retired chemist who worked in Hanford’s secret plutonium factories, which supplied the fuel for nuclear weapons.
Cornell University professor Paul FussellcomMemo: cq was a 21-year-old second lieutenant in an infantry division training for the invasion of Japan when he heard the bombs had been dropped.
“We broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all,” said Fussell in his essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”
But historians say it’s important to set the record straight.
Even if there had been an invasion, the number of troops killed might have been much smaller than the hundreds of thousands Truman subsequently claimed, said author Norman Polmar. His new book, “Codename: Downfall,” is about U.S. plans to invade Japan.
Polmar’s book reveals military planning documents that anticipated casualties in the range of 20,000 to 26,000.
Many high-ranking military leaders were opposed to the bomb’s use. Ironically, they said at the time what historians are saying now - Japan already was defeated by the summer of 1945.
Its ships sunk, its fuel supplies low, Japan was helpless to stop the waves of B-29 bombers that systematically had been firebombing Japan’s cities since March.
Both Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adm. William D. Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, said the atom bombs were a mistake, writes Gar Alperovitz in his new book, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.”
Eisenhower was deeply troubled when told the bomb would be dropped.
“I voiced to (Truman) my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary,” Eisenhower said.
Leahy was equally blunt. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender,” he said.
In his postwar memoirs, Leahy said the United States “adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages” by being the first nation to use the bomb.
“Wars cannot be won by destroying women and children,” Leahy wrote of the deaths from the blast and the lingering radiation poisoning of nearly 400,000 civilians.
But in 1945, as hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were massing in the Pacific, other voices won out. There were no major debates within the president’s Cabinet about the morality of using the bomb.
The line between killing soldiers and civilians repeatedly had been crossed. Firebombings already had scorched London, Tokyo and Dresden, Germany.
Bureaucratic momentum also played a role in the bomb’s use.
Gen. Leslie Groves, in charge of the Manhattan Project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had spent $2 billion on the bomb - $26 billion in today’s dollars - and was determined to demonstrate its effectivenesss.
In 1945, he rushed production schedules at Hanford to obtain enough plutonium for the bomb he called “The Gadget.”
Groves worried the war would be over before he could use the bomb. And he feared a congressional investigation of the Manhattan Project, said Groves’ biographer, Stanley Goldberg.
Groves was elated by the incredible power the bomb had displayed at the Trinity test in July 1945. The bomb, made with Hanford plutonium, had a yield of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT far greater than the 2,000 tons scientists had predicted.
After Trinity, Groves cabled Henry Stimson, Truman’s secretary of war: “Little Boy is husky.”
“Little Boy” was the code name for the uranium-fueled bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The bomb’s awesome punch dazzled Truman, who decided to use it.
Truman’s insecurity about his ability to lead the nation after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 and diplomatic saber-rattling against Joseph Stalin also were factors in his decision.
Most historians now accept the once-controversial idea that postwar diplomatic considerations were weighed in making the decision.
The atomic bombings really were the first overture of the Cold War to check Stalin’s growing power, according to author Alperovitz.
Showing the power of the bomb could make the Russians more “manageable,” said James Byrnes, Truman’s secretary of state.
Although Stalin already knew about the American atomic bomb program through his spies, he was stunned when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The next day, he signed the order for the Red army to invade Manchuria.
“It was Hiroshima that brought the atomic bomb squarely into Soviet strategic calculations,” leading Stalin to order on Aug. 20 a crash program for his own bomb, said Stanford University Professor David Holloway.
“It was a small lab project up to then. It suddenly became the top priority,” Holloway said.
Four years later, in August 1949, the Soviets exploded “Joe One,” their first atomic bomb - sharply escalating the nuclear arms race.
Public opinion in America supporting the dropping of the atomic bombs was strong immediately following the war.
People were euphoric about the end of the war. They were told very little about the Japanese men, women and children who had been vaporized instantly or who died later of burns and radiation sickness.
A three-hour documentary by American and Japanese filmmakers was classified top-secret in 1946 and locked away for 22 years.
The only journalist allowed to witness the bombing of Hiroshima was William Laurence of The New York Times.
The public didn’t know Laurence was secretly on the payroll of the Manhattan Project, notes former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in his 1994 book, “The Myths of August.”
Laurence played a major role in “mythologizing” the bomb as a gift from God which would bring a future Utopia, Udall said.
Aboard the observation B-29, Laurence described the Hiroshima blast:
“Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth…. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.”
But U.S. public opinion changed in 1946 with the publication of “Hiroshima” in the New Yorker magazine, John Hersey’s powerful account of the agonies experienced by six survivors of the nuclear holocaust.
“I supported the bomb at the time, but I changed my mind. Too many innocent people were killed,” said Fred Wilson, 73, a Hanford foreman during the Manhattan Project who is retired in Spokane.
On the brink of the Cold War in 1947, Truman’s secretary of war wrote a classic defense of the bomb for Harper’s magazine. It was ghost-written by McGeorge Bundy, later one of the principal architects of America’s Vietnam policy.
Henry Stimson’s “The Decision to Use The Bomb” emphasized the huge potential loss of lives in an invasion of Japan.
Stimson’s article swayed public support back in favor of the bombing. With the advent of the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear arsenal grew nearly unchallenged - fiscally or politically.
U.S. taxpayers have spent $4 trillion on the nation’s nuclear arsenal since the early ‘40s, said Stephen Schwartz, a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.
Schwartz’s “Atomic Audit,” a new report on the cost of the atomic arsenal, was released on the anniversary of the Trinity explosion in mid-July.
Building the bomb also led directly to the secrecy and paranoia of the Cold War, Udall said.
“Unelected national security wizards” and their allies in Congress gave unprecedented powers to the agencies that guarded the bomb, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Atomic Energy Commission, Udall wrote.
“The attitudes of the cold warriors poisoned our nation’s politics.”
Now, the public can see the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian. But in the cities where the bomb was built, there are few 50th-anniversary commemorations.
This spring, the Richland City Council rebuffed a proposal by a citizens group to begin a “sister city” relationship with Nagasaki, the city the Hanford bomb had incinerated.
The U.S. Department of Energy has slashed money for the Hanford Science Center in Richland, which includes a display on Hanford’s role in the Manhattan Project.
“They want to de-emphasize it,” said Floyd Harrow, a retired Hanford graphics director working at the science center.
“It’s a mistake. The history of Hanford belongs to the people of Washington state - it should be known.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ABOUT THE BOMB Books on the atom bomb, listed by date of publication (from most recent to oldest): Gar Alperovitz, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” (1995) Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, “Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial” (1995). Norman Polmar, “Codename: Downfall” (1995) Stewart Udall, “The Myths of August” (1994) David Holloway, “Stalin and The Bomb” (1994) Martin Sherwin, “A World Destroyed” (1987) John W. Dower, “War Without Mercy” (1986) Richard Rhodes, “The Making of The Atomic Bomb” (1986) John Hersey, “Hiroshima” (1946) Compiled by Karen Dorn Steele