Moral Low Ground

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The Truth About Hiroshima

“The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

-US President Dwight Eisenhower, formerly WWII Supreme Allied Commander, Newsweek, 11/11/63

Today in 1945 the United States launched the only nuclear war in human history. Our government did this, as you no doubt learned in high school history class, to save millions of lives—not only of the American troops who would have to invade Japan to bring the war to a close but also the millions of Japanese who would, we were told, die defending their homeland and their Emperor.

This is one of the biggest lies in US history, but many Americans still think dropping the bomb was the right thing to do—61 percent, according to a recent survey. What follows here is for that 61 percent. Perhaps if you knew some of the more seldom-acknowledged facts behind the bombing of Hiroshima you might reconsider your acceptance of the annihilation of an entire city that lacked any meaningful military or strategic value.

The Japanese had been trying to find a way to surrender for months before the atomic bombings and American leaders were fully aware of this, as the Eisenhower quote at the beginning of this post demonstrates. Militarily, Japan was utterly defeated. It had no natural resources and its cities were so devastated from years of constant American bombardment that General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Army Air Force, complained that there was nothing left to bomb in Japan but “garbage can targets.”

Ralph Bard, Undersecretary of the Navy:
“The Japanese were ready for peace and they had already approached the Russians and, I think, the Swiss. The Japanese war was really won before we ever used the atomic bomb. It wouldn’t have been necessary for us to disclose our nuclear position and stimulate the Russians to develop the same thing.” (US News & World Report, August 15, 1960)

Here is a declassified top secret memo from Bard to the War Department dated 28 June 1945 stating that he “had the feeling very definitely that the Japanese government may be searching for some opportunity which they could use as a medium for surrender.”

Paul Nitze, US Strategic Bombing Survey:
“While I was working on the new plan of air attack, I concluded that even without the atomic bomb, Japan was likely to surrender in a matter of months. Japan would capitulate by November, 1945.” (Paul Nitze, From Hiroshima to Glasnost, pp.44-45)

Japan could mount no defense of itself whatsoever against the relentless might of the American war machine. The people of Japan were completely broken by years of war and the leadership had had enough. The US had intercepted and decoded secret transmissions from Japanese foreign minister Shigenori Togo to Naotaki Sato, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow. These messages were nothing less than attempts to negotiate an end to the war. But the Japanese wanted a way to save face and to retain their Emperor, considered a sacred figure. Right up to July 26th Sato was desperately trying to negotiate a very reasonable surrender that included retention of the Emperor in order to keep Japanese national identity and dignity intact. The US knew all about this futile effort, but Washington would accept nothing short of unconditional surrender. On July 26th the Potsdam Declaration was issued, demanding just that.

Ellis Zacharias, Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence:
“Just when the Japanese were ready to capitulate, we went ahead and introduced to the world the most devastating weapon it had ever seen and, in effect, gave the go-ahead to Russia to swarm over eastern Asia. It was the wrong decision. It was wrong on strategic grounds. And it was wrong on moral grounds.” (Ellis Zacharias, “How We Bungled the Japanese Surrender” Look, June 6, 1950)

Again, Dwight Eisenhower:
“Japan was already defeated and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary. I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was no longer mandatory to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change p.380)

General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the war against Japan, was shocked by the Potsdam demands of unconditional surrender. “Retaining the Emperor was vital to an orderly transition to peace,” he opined, fully aware that there was no way the Japanese would accept a future without their god-like monarch. But that did not mean the much-touted land invasion of Japan would have been necessary to bring the war to a close…

Paul Nitze:
“Even without the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it seemed highly unlikely, given what we found to have been the mood of the Japanese government, that a US invasion of the islands (scheduled for November 1, 1945) would have been necessary.” (cited from US Naval Historical Foundation)

Remember what Nitze had said earlier about the war being over already by then?

Nitze had another great idea: Give top Japanese leaders a live demonstration of an actual atomic bomb explosion. Tell them the US had more than one (it had three) and that if they did not surrender at once, the bombs would be dropped on their cities. Nitze suggested detonating the horrific weapon over a Japanese redwood forest: “It seemed to me that a demonstration of this sort would prove to the Japanese that we could destroy any of their cities at will. Secretary (of the Navy) Forrestal agreed wholeheartedly with the recommendation.”

Besides, Japan was so bombed out by the summer of 1945  that dropping the atomic bomb would be of little practical use. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson knew this. On June 6th, he told President Harry S. Truman that “the Air Force would have Japan so bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength.” He later said that the American leadership made no attempt to induce a Japanese surrender in order to avoid using the atomic bomb. He knew unconditional surrender was mere propaganda and that the bombs would be used no matter what.

“His Majesty is extremely anxious to terminate the war as soon as possible.”
-Japanese communication intercepted by US just before the atomic bombs were dropped. (cited from Journal of Political Science; Clemson University, 1979)

Not possibly soon enough; the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and more than 100,000 people died.

Japanese Prime Minister Kintaro Suzuki, addressing the Japanese cabinet three days later:

“Under the present circumstances I have concluded that our only alternative is to accept the Potsdam Proclamation and terminate the war.” (Charles L. Mee, Jr, Meeting at Potsdam pp. 288-289)

Still not good enough for the US government. Later that day, the second bomb fell on Nagasaki and over 100,000 more people died. Why on earth would our government do such an awful thing? Eisenhower talked about “shocking world opinion” by dropping the bomb and that’s exactly what the US wanted. Especially Soviet opinion. American leaders knew very well that the USSR would feature prominently in the postwar world order. The US wanted to maximize its position as the dominant world power, and what better way to do this than to show the Russians that the United States had the cold resolve necessary to unilaterally wage nuclear war, even when the US enjoyed an atomic monopoly and using the bomb wasn’t even necessary? Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t only the final battles of World War II, they were the first battles of the Cold War.

Secretary of War (the title was more honest back then) Henry Stimson:
“In the State Department there developed a tendency to think of the bomb as a diplomatic weapon. Some of the men in charge of foreign policy were eager to carry the bomb as their ace-in-the-hole… American statesmen were eager for their country to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip.” (cited from Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb p. 482)

Noted historian Charles L. Mee Jr.:
“The Americans had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the Russians.”

From the New York Times, 8/19/46:
“Professor Albert Einstein said that [the atomic bombing] was probably carried out to end the Pacific war before Russia could participate.”

Then there was the more sadistic matter of trying out a new weapon in which so much time and treasure had been invested. But as you know from General LeMay’s “garbage can targets” comments, good un-bombed Japanese cities were hard to come by in the spring of 1945. There were, however, two cities that had remained unscathed—Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They would make perfect laboratories for testing the atomic bomb and there were hundreds of thousands of human guinea pigs ripe for incineration.

Brigadier General Carter Clarke, Intelligence Officer in charge of intercepted Japanese cables:
“When we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we didn’t need to do it, we used [the Japanese] as an experiment for two atomic bombs.” (cited from Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb p. 359)

These were, after all, just ‘dirty Japs.’ Since 1924 they’d been banned from even immigrating to the United States and all Japanese in America, whether citizens or not, were rounded up and forced into concentration camps for the duration of the war.

There was also the issue of cost. Unprecedented sums of money had been expended developing this awesome weapon. Admiral William Leahy, Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, believes this had something to do with the decision to use the bombs. Leahy also said that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.” He also prophetically declared that “the lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” (All Leahy quotes from: William Leahy, I Was There)

Many of the very men who invented the dreadful bomb also had grave misgivings, even before the bomb was used. These Manhattan Project scientists wrote what came to be known as the Franck Report in May 1945—three months before their horrific invention was utilized. It recommended a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese and questions whether atomic bombs would bring Japan to its knees when overwhelmingly devastating conventional bombing had failed to do so. Prophetically, the report predicted:

“If no international agreement is concluded immediately after the first demonstration, this will mean a flying start of an unlimited armaments race.”

One notable participant in the events of August 6, 1945 has no regrets. He’s Paul Tibbets, and he flew the B-29 bomber, named Enola Gay after his mother, that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that fateful morning. Asked at age 87 about doing it again, Tibbets said:

“Oh I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice. I’d wipe ’em out. You’re gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn’t kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: ‘You’ve killed so many civilians.’ That’s their tough luck for being there.”

That’s their tough luck for being there. Unnecessary, highly immoral—downright criminal, surely, and with historical implications for the rest of humanity’s existence, that is the legacy of Hiroshima. We say the Japanese deserved what they got for attacking Pearl Harbor. But for all the treachery of December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was an attack on a military installation. It was both retaliatory (the US had choked off Japan’s lifelines to natural resources) and preemptive (George W. Bush would have been proud). The US response was disproportionate beyond the wildest imagination, with more than a million Japanese killed and the nuclear destruction of two defenseless cities after Japan had attempted to surrender.

Americans have the audacity to blame the Soviet Union for ‘starting’ the Cold War when it was our side that fired the first fiery salvo and forced the Russians to develop their own atomic countermeasures. Isn’t it time we Americans took a long, honest look in the mirror?

“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.” -Gen. Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay

One last thing: Following Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito was allowed to remain on the Chrysanthemum Throne. So much for unconditional surrender.

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12 Comments

  1. tomarsandbeyondAugust 5, 2012 at 6:35 pmReply

    I agree with most of this. The last part I don’t; leaving the Emperor in place was a wise decision and saved Japan from possible anarchy and upheaval after the war.
    The real crime of Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn’t even the bombing of those two cities. It was the massive nuclear power and arms race beginning with the Manhattan Project that brought us to the present day where we have contaminated our world with tons of test explosions and foreseeable, preventable nuclear accidents. Some estimate Chernobyl has killed a million people. Very possible. Many other things happen besides cancer. Fukushima has only just begun.
    Manhattan Project was necessary but keeping a nuclear industry and scaling it up to massive proportions for decades was not. Hiroshima was unnecessary, terrible, but also just one small part of a larger, very dark picture.

    • Brett WilkinsAugust 5, 2012 at 7:44 pmReplyAuthor

      Indeed. And to think, 50 years ago the USSR proposed a total nuclear disarmament. The US rejected it.

  2. Jackson RyanJanuary 9, 2013 at 7:48 amReply

    I find it interesting that this article uses American military leaders as evidence for the Japense trying to surrender towards the end of WWII. Now thats interesting because this article is WRONG. Before Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima we warned the Japenese that distruction of this magnitude was coming if they did not surrender. The japenese refused both of our offers for unconditional surrender. Afterwards we dropped the first bomb. A day later we asked for them to surrender, they refused. 2 days later Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. Soon afterwards the Japenese surrendered. I cant believe this article could try and say that the Japenese wanted to surrender. They had stated when we were invading Okinawa that they would not surrender and would fight untill every last man, woman, and child on mainland Japan was killed. The bombs that were dropped saved Japan and the United States from MILLIONS more deaths that would have occured when the United States invaded Japan. When our generals and other leaders stated that the Japenese were “ready to surrender”, they were wrong, the Japenese not only never planned to surrender but also were set on fighting honorably to the last person.

    • Brett WilkinsJanuary 9, 2013 at 10:40 amReplyAuthor

      So goes the official narrative…

  3. Paul FlynnFebruary 2, 2013 at 11:39 amReply

    Utter crap. For four reasons.

    1. By early 1945, The Japanese were still killing give or take a as many civilians a month in China as were killed by the bombs. Had the war continued for another two months as as until the bombs were dropped, it was, more civilians would have died than did in the atomic attacks.

    2. There is no credible evidence that the Japanese were ready to surrender unconditionally and unconditionally was the only offer on the table.

    3. Given that America hadn’t started the war, and had the means to end it immediately, why should it have risked a single American life to do so?

    4. Since 1945, there hasn’t been a peep out of the Japanese. Which is a great relief to everyone who had to put up with them – ask anyone in Nanking if stopping the Japanese by any means necessary was worth it.

    Besides, which, what’s so special about an atomic bomb – far more people were killed in the incendiary attacks on Tokyo than in either of the two atomic attacks.

    And lastly, and this bears repeating – Japan started the war, conducted it with unmatched savagery and lack of concern for human life, Japanese or otherwise. As with the Germans, they simply had to be stopped by any means necessary and more importantly punished in such a manner as to make their behaviour unthinkable to their descendants.

    • Brett WilkinsFebruary 2, 2013 at 11:45 amReplyAuthor

      Good points, and #2 is absolutely correct, although we were really full of it re: that “unconditional” surrender in the end– one of the first things we did was agree to allow the emperor to remain on the throne. Another example of US hypocrisy and stubbornness costing untold thousands of lives. As for #3, did a surgical strike on a military installation– what Bush would have called ‘preventive war’– that resulted in a couple thousand dead sailors and a handful of dead civilians really warrant the slaughter of 1,000,000+ innocent Japanese in response? There is a principle known as proportionality that is one of the pillars of “just war” theory. Many top US military men at the time admitted that they would have been tried as war criminals had the US lost the war. You’re right about #4, and absolutely right about the death toll of the atom bombings being relatively low by comparison to some of the other savagery unleashed upon Japan. Try to imagine what our history would say if, say, Sudan was somehow able to level all our major cities in retaliation for a US attack on that one pharmaceutical factory back in 1998. Americans seem to have a lot of trouble grasping concepts of universality. Damed “American exceptionalism.”

  4. RichNovember 17, 2015 at 10:10 amReply

    My Dad was at Pearl Harbor. If he would have got his hands on Atomic Bombs, there would be no more Japan. And Paul is right….Japan asked for it with bombing Pearl Harbor.

    Japanese Proverb: “He who hits hardest…gets all da fortune cookies”

    Piss on Japan…. Semper Fi USA !!!!

    • Brett WilkinsNovember 17, 2015 at 1:29 pmReplyAuthor

      Is that a proportional response to a pinpoint strike on a purely military target?

  5. Bill lowryApril 14, 2016 at 7:26 pmReply

    First, let me say I love Japan and its people but for all you anti American history revisionists, facts are facts. The Hiroshima bomb actually caused far less casualties than the American fire bombing of some other Japanese and German cities. If America invaded Japan its people were prepared, men and women to fight to the death. They had over 5,000 Kamakazi aircraft in reserve and hundreds of mini subs. The combined deaths were estimated in the millions. As horrible as this one bomb was it ended the war that would have totally destroyed Japan and actually saved countless lives on both sides. The sheer terror of this one weapon shocked Japan and the Emperor into reality. If Obama makes any apologies he should be immediately removed from office..!

  6. Eric RiceApril 15, 2016 at 1:41 pmReply

    Not one of the people who were quoted were elected Commander in Chief of our military. Worse yet is it is dishonest to comport capitulation or surrender with the terms the CiC and allied command agreed on, there would be no terms only complete surrender. That my friends is why the war was ended they way it was. BTW, it’s horse hockey that Japan was looking for a way out of the war before being forced to capitulate without terms. No doubt there were a few who would have liked to be as outspoken as those subordinates quoted here but that requires one to take the moral low ground as the author of this piece did.

  7. MizzyApril 17, 2016 at 5:27 amReply

    My father was on Luzon in Feb. 1945 as a Sargeant in the Army. I have a letter he wrote to my mother stating that he was somewhere (censored) on Luzon. The Battle of Luzon was fought in Jan. 1945. Wikipedia states 10,000 Americans killed and 130,000 Philipino civilians and combatants killed…waiting on Japan’s unconditional surrender. Luzon was strategically important being so close to Japan. But even with this loss at their front door, Japan did not surrender. My father remained on Luzon (waiting on surrender) and probably would have been among those invading Japan. His discharge came within a week of the Hiroshimo bombing in Aug. 1945. He had fought in 5 Theater of Operations in the Pacific. It was time to bring him home.

  8. TruthSleuthMay 27, 2016 at 8:45 pmReply

    Let me say first that I can understand the author’s POV. There is no doubt that this country has done more than its share of immoral things. That said, I can’t agree with his argument. For one thing, IIRC, the U.S. repeatedly distributed leaflets warning the citizens of Hiroshima of what was coming and advising them to leave the city. The Japanese mentality however was to never admit defeat even when it was staring them in the face, and those who did want to leave were under intense cultural pressure to stay put.

    Not to sound like a simpleton, but I simply don’t buy the reasoning that Japan was “trying to surrender.” If they really wanted to, they could have surrendered at any time. How were they prevented from doing so? Was there an ink shortage in the country at the time?

    They started the war with the U.S. with a surprise attack, so it is perfectly understandable that the U.S. would not accept anything but an unconditional surrender. Note that they still wouldn’t surrender after Hiroshima; what more evidence did they need that they were defeated?!

    There is no doubt that nuclear weapons are the bane of humanity’s existence. There is also little doubt that hindsight is always 20/20. The Allies had been pulled into this war by two countries led by egotistical maniacs whose intent was literally to control the world. (Why Japan thought it was a good idea to align itself with a bunch of white supremacists is beyond me, but that’s for another debate.) It led to the most deadly and destructive conflict in the history of the world. Enough was enough.

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