Jörg Friedrich: It Was to Impress Stalin that Truman Bombed Hiroshima

Roundup: Talking About History

Jörg Friedrich, in Arts & & Letters Daily (4-5-05):

[Jörg Friedrich was born in 1944. Since the 70s he has written extensively on the legal history of the Second World War, and the NS war crimes. His Book "Der Brand", on the Allied bombing of Germany, achieved international acclaim. Jörg Friedrich lives as a freelance author in Berlin.]

... Like the bombing of Hiroshima, Dresden's destruction has ever since been bound up with the question: "Why?" Two attacks with maximum overkill, each on a hopelessly defeated people! In the final spurt between the German and the imminent Japanese capitulations, the atomic physicists perfected their work with a test explosion whose lightning a blind woman claimed to have seen. Some of them started to grumble: "Why?" What had begun as an attempt to stop Hitler's world domination was being directed at the last convulsions of a checkmated aspiring power. Certainly, the last Samurais would have prepared a bloody welcome for the invading forces. But what was forcing the marines onto the treacherous beaches? America could rely on the strangling grip of its sea blockade, its airborne superiority and its precision bombing. Time was on its side.

Perhaps, said the sceptics, we could simply demonstrate the omnipotence of the wonder weapon, without using it on people. We could drop it over the ocean! Scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer, in contrast, saw through the logic of mass destruction: "It needs the impression". Threats don't impress, willingness does. If you don't kill 100,000 defenceless people, nobody will believe you. Technical know-how must be accompanied by an iron will. A nation must act with a clear conscience, the proof will suffice for a generation.

The puzzle of who President Truman wanted to impress has been solved by the records. He was hoping the test explosion would coincide with the opening of the Potsdam Conference in July. Oppenheimer named the test after the godhead: Trinity. But the three gods disagreed on many points, such as Russia's entry in the Japanese War. At Yalta, in a moment of weakness, Stalin had promised to attack the Japanese protectorate in Manchuria, the industrial paradise just north of Beijing. The strongest defence troops were stationed there.

But after all that had happened with Stalin in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, his comradeship was turning into something sinister. The two Atlantic empires now wanted less of it, but couldn't rid themselves of their Eurasian third, the devourer of continents. What was stopping Bolshevism from taking over China, and then Korea? Russia had always had its eye on Japan; invasion losses were of no importance to it. The only thing that could keep the giant in check were the apocalyptic 'Little Boy' – the slim uranium bomb – and 'Fat Man', the pot-bellied plutonium bomb.

Decisive was not Japan’s capitulation; that was already decided. But it had to capitulate as quickly as possible, and exclusively to the USA. The sequence of events speaks louder than words: August 6: 'Little Boy' on Hiroshima. August 8: the Soviets invade Manchuria. August 9: 'Fat Man' on Nagasaki. August 14: Japan capitulates to the USA. August 21: Japan capitulates to Russia. August 28: Japan capitulates to Mao Tse-Tung. The war ends....

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