Why Americans Have Been Duped over the Use of the Atomic Bomb

Paul Ham is an Australian historian who specialises in the 20th century history of war, politics and diplomacy. His latest book is “Hiroshima Nagasaki” (Thomas Dunne, 2014).

One day somebody in high office in Washington will have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge, if not apologise for, a grotesque distortion of the truth that the Truman Administration visited on the American people in the pages of Harper’s Magazine in 1947.

In an article bearing the name of Henry Stimson, the then octogenarian former War Secretary, and written by Truman fixers, the American government invented the notion that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ‘our least abhorrent choice’, avoided a land invasion of Japan and saved hundreds of thousands of American lives (a figure the media rounded off to ‘a million’ soon after publication).

This line of thinking has since insinuated itself into the public consciousness as the official version of the history of the nuclear destruction of two cities, in which 100,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed instantly and hundreds of thousands have since succumbed to cancers linked to radiation poisoning.

Yet, the Harper’s defense of the bomb was a gross political deception. It recast the story of the use of the weapon in soothing phrases the American public wanted to hear, and which have, for 70 years, been accepted as the atomic gospel, or, as historians like to say, the orthodox version of history (as distinct from revisionist versions that post-date Stimson’s original deception).

In fact, the Harper’s article was itself the first revision of history. It has since been replayed in thousands of news articles, history texts and online commentary, by a thoroughly gulled media and mainstream America, who have gorged themselves on this Hollywood ending to the war, the atomic slam dunk that avenged Pearl Harbor.

They all repeat, more or less, the Truman Administration’s original lie: that the atomic bombs forced Japan to surrender unconditionally, ended the war and saved hundreds of thousands if not a million American lives. So entrenched is this line of thinking in America that any deviation is branded ‘revisionist’ and hence inadmissible, perversely ignoring the fact that the ‘orthodox’ line grotesquely revises the facts and is the original travesty of the truth.

To demonstrate how far that travesty plays out, we need to compare the actual narrative of the last days of the war with Stimson’s 1947 reconstruction. In so doing, we do not expect to change the minds of the present and older generation, who will admit no deviation from their line on the bomb whatever evidence is thrown in their path. We hope merely to enlighten younger and/or future generations of Americans who are less susceptible to the lies of politicians and the compassionless hatred of the post-war generation.

In 1947, President Truman and members of his administration were concerned at the cumulative voices of churches, scientists, a few prominent journalists and the embryonic anti-nuclear movement, who felt they had been misled over what actually happened to the people of Hiroshima on 6th August and Nagasaki on 9th August, 1945, and were concerned at the alarming evidence of radiation sickness in the cities’ populations two years after the end of the war (cases of lymphoma linked to the bombs would peak in the early 1950s).

The Truman administration, on the suggestion of James B. Conant, a Harvard professor who had been closely involved in the bomb’s development, decided to try to quell these concerns by commissioning a long article, in Stimson’s redoubtable name, sourced to a memorandum from his assistant, Harvey Bundy, and written largely by Harvey’s precociously clever son, McGeorge. General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project (which built the bomb) and several senior officials edited the draft. The article, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” first appeared in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s, was reprinted in major newspapers and magazines, and aired on mainstream radio. It purported to be a straight statement of the facts, and quickly gained legitimacy as the official, ‘orthodox’ case for the weapon.

The Harper’s article (and a parallel piece in the Atlantic Monthly by Karl Compton) introduced the American public to the tendentious idea that the atomic bomb ‘saved’ hundreds of thousands (perhaps “several millions,” Compton claimed) of American lives by preventing an invasion of Japan. The article’s central plank was that America had had no choice other than to use the weapon. There was no way to force the Japanese to surrender other than to drop atomic bombs on them. By this argument, the atomic bombings were not only a patriotic duty but also a moral expedient:

“In the light of the alternatives which, upon a fair estimate, were open to us,” Stimson/Truman wrote, “I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face. The decision to use the atomic bomb brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. No explanation can change that fact and I do not wish to gloss over it. But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of the clash of great land armies.”

Editors and the public warmly approved: here, they felt, was an honest justification for this horrific weapon: the A-Bomb did good, in the end. The Harper’s article put the American mind at ease, slipped into national folklore, and the Stimsonian spell appeared to tranquillize the nation’s critical faculties on the subject.

Yet the article’s case for the use of the weapon was profoundly flawed. Most erroneously it argued that a land invasion of Japan and the atomic weapons were mutually exclusive – a case of either-or. This nexus was made up after the war. In 1945, it was never a case of “either the bomb or the invasion.” The question did not arise. The facts show that in early July 1945, about two weeks before the bomb was tested, Truman and senior military advisers abandoned plans to invade Japan. The success of the atomic test had no bearing on this decision. In fact, Truman had already decided that it made no sense to risk American lives invading a nation that was already comprehensively defeated, ringed by the US navy blockade, possessed few supplies or raw materials, and was being daily flattened by General Curtis LeMay’s conventional firebombing air raids, which had already burnt down 66 Japanese cities (including the air strike on Tokyo on 9-10 March 1945, which incinerated more than 100,000 civilians in a single night and is today remembered as the single most deadly bombing raid in history).

Basic errors of fact and sins of omission compounded this monstrous deception. The article was plain wrong, for example, to claim that the ‘direct military use’ of the bomb had destroyed ‘active working parts of the Japanese war effort’. This was post-facto propaganda. Nobody on the powerful Target Committee (set up in early 1945 to decide which cities to target with the first nuclear weapons) pretended that Hiroshima was a military target of any significance: its barracks were barely functioning in 1945 and more than 90 per cent of Hiroshima’s war-related factories were on the city’s periphery. Hiroshima was shortlisted for nuclear destruction for very different reasons: in mid-1945 it remained a pristine city, full of ‘working men’s homes’ as yet undisturbed by LeMay’s conventional air raids. Its annihilation would thus show off the weapon’s destructive force, and supposedly ‘shock Japan into submission’. The Harper’s article made no mention of this, peddling the notion that ‘workers’ homes’ could somehow be construed as legitimate military targets.

As to Stimson’s claim that America used the bomb reluctantly – ‘our least abhorrent choice’ – suggesting that Washington and the Pentagon had wrestled painfully with alternatives, the facts demonstrate precisely the opposite. Everyone involved in making the bomb wanted, indeed hoped, to use the weapon as soon as possible, and gave no serious consideration to any other course of action. The Target and Interim Committees (the latter set up to examine the control of nuclear weapons after the war) swiftly dispensed with alternatives – for example, a warning, a demonstration, or attacking a genuine military target. In fact, Secretary of State James Byrnes rejected most of these possibilities in a few minutes over lunch in the Pentagon. No doubt they were fraught with risks, and possibly unworkable, but if Truman was serious about considering alternatives to the bomb, he might have more closely examined them.

Byrnes argued that a prior demonstration of the bomb would imperil the lives of Allied POWs whom the Japanese would move to the target area (the US Air Force had shown no such restraint during the conventional air war, which daily endangered POWs); that a demonstration may be a dud (unlikely, given the successful test of the plutonium weapon near Alamogordo, and the fact that Manhattan scientists saw no need even to test the gun-type uranium bomb used on Hiroshima); they had only two bombs so had to use them (untrue – at least three were prepared for August, and several in line for September through to November); and that there were no military targets big enough to contain the bomb (Truk Naval Base was considered and rejected; no other military target was seriously examined except Kokura, a city containing a large arsenal. The attempt to bomb it was abandoned due to bad weather, and Bockscar, the delivery plane, dropped the weapon on Nagasaki instead). In short, the use of the bomb was an active choice, a desirable outcome, not a regrettable or painful last resort, as Truman insisted. Every high office-holder believed, and supported, its use at the time: ‘I never had any doubt it should be used,’ Truman said on many occasions. The Harper’s phrase ‘our least abhorrent choice’ thus grossly misrepresents a gung-ho, diabolically zealous, enterprise.

Stimson’s least persuasive claim was that the atomic bombs prevented hundreds of thousands of American casualties (dead, wounded and missing). This number has since been rounded up to 1 million or ‘millions’, and has become a particularly stubborn zombie. Yet a school child’s arithmetic is enough to do the job of killing it: in 1945, the number of American (and allied) combat troops earmarked for the planned (but never approved) invasion of Japan numbered about 750,000. That is well short of a million, of course. Yet for the sake of clarity, let’s believe the post-war consensus of a million casualties. If true, that means every American soldier would have been killed, wounded, or MIA during the land invasion of Japan. The notion is absurd, of course, and hardly reflects well on the fighting ability of the US armed forces, who would have confronted a hungry and demoralized nation whose airforce and navy had been destroyed, and whose skies were totally controlled by American bombers and fighters. Yes, Japan retained substantial ground forces, as well as the fierce loyalty of its people, but they were undersupplied, ill-equipped and lacked artillery and air cover: sitting ducks, in other words, to US strafing raids.

In truth, the actual estimate of likely casualties of a land invasion, drawn up by the Joint Chiefs in a meeting with Truman in July 1945, was 31,000. The count was later lifted to between 60,000-90,000, nowhere near the post-war estimate of up to one million, which can now be seen for what it was: a post-facto justification for the bomb, conjured by Washington out of thin air, to ease America’s troubled conscience.

The Harper’s article also claimed, wrongly, that the atomic bombs had forced Japan to ‘unconditional surrender’. While the bombs obviously contributed to Japan’s general sense of defeat, not a shred of evidence supports the contention that the Japanese leadership surrendered in direct response to the atomic attacks. On the contrary, when they heard of the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s hardline militarists shrugged off the news – that a ‘special bomb’ had destroyed two more cities – and vowed to continue fighting.

If you disbelieve this, read the Minutes of the epic meetings of the samurai leadership in August 1945. The ‘Big Six’, the ministers who ran Japan from a bunker beneath Tokyo at the time, barely acknowledged Nagasaki’s destruction when a messenger arrived with the news on 9th August. The messenger, who had interrupted their meeting to discuss Russia’s invasion of Japanese occupied territory the day before, was abruptly dismissed. The loss of another city of civilians was hardly of interest. In fact, state propaganda responded to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by girding the nation for a continuing war – against a nuclear-armed America.

Nor would a nuclear-battered Japan consider modifying its terms of ‘conditional surrender’. The Big Six clung stubbornly to their last condition – the retention of the Emperor – to the bitter end. A regime that cared so little for its people except insofar as they served as cannon fodder in a last, miserable act of national seppuku; a nation so fearful of the Soviet Union that it sent message after message to Moscow imploring it to intervene and start peace negotiations (on Japan’s terms, of course, which Truman rightly rejected); a people so steadfast in their refusal to yield that they were preparing to defend their cities against further atomic bombs – this was not a country easily ‘shocked into submission’ by the sight of a mushroom cloud in the sky (and it is worth remembering that, the day after, Tokyo had no film or photographs of the bomb; only US pamphlets and military reports claiming it had been used).

A greater threat – in Tokyo’s eyes – than nuclear weapons drove Japan finally to contemplate a (conditional) surrender: the regime’s suffocating fear of Russia. The Soviet invasion on 8 August crushed the Kwantung Army’s frontline units within days, and sent a crippling loss of confidence across Tokyo. The Japanese warlords despaired; Russia, their erstwhile ‘neutral’ partner, had turned into their worst nightmare: the invasion invoked the spectre of a Communist Japan, no less. Russia matched iron with iron, battalion with battalion. This was a war that Tokyo’s samurai leaders understood, a clash they respected – in stark contrast to America’s incendiary and atomic raids, which they saw as cowardly attacks on defenceless civilians.

In the end, Japan surrendered conditionally, on 14th August, after Washington had agreed to Tokyo’s final terms: that Emperor Hirohito would be allowed to live, and the Imperial Dynasty, to continue. This condition the US government effectively met in the Byrnes Note, sent on 11th August, two days after Nagasaki’s destruction. In sum, the atomic bombs had had no direct influence on Tokyo’s decision, despite Hirohito citing the ‘cruel weapon’ in his surrender speech (one of the more grotesque pieces of propaganda in this sorry episode).

In the end, what are we left with? America used the bomb, without warning, in an attempt to extract ‘unconditional surrender’ from a defeated foe, ‘manage’ (ie draw a line against) Russian aggression in Europe and Asia, and avenge Pearl Harbor, as Truman and Byrnes later said. The bomb achieved none of those goals (unless the neutron saturation of two cities is accepted as proportionate punishment for Pearl Harbor). In fact, Tokyo surrendered with its sole condition intact; and Russia, unperturbed by the first use of atomic weapons in anger, continued to stamp and snort and foment communist revolution around the world, before rushing to join the nuclear arms race.

In short, the Truman administration’s attempt, in Harper’s magazine, to justify the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has no basis in fact, and was merely a post-facto piece of propaganda. Yet it has been accepted as ‘orthodox’ history. Let us call it by its correct name: a ‘revision’ of the truth, which is a polite way of saying it was a pack of lies. This article asks the reader do reconsider the source of those lies. Nothing, no twisted logic or ethical somersault or infantile ‘they started it’ etc can justify the massacre of innocent civilians. We debase ourselves, and the history of civilisation, if we accept that Japanese atrocities warranted an American atrocity in reply.