What Recent Scholarship Concludes About Hiroshima
A decade ago, heated controversy marked the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. Some historians said the bomb had been necessary to end the war and save hundreds of thousands of American lives, while revisionists insisted that Japan had been on the verge of capitulating and would have offered a surrender if only the Truman administration had facilitated it.
Since that contentious anniversary, a “middle ground” school of thought about the bombing has emerged. Writing in Diplomatic History (April 2005), J. Samuel Walker, the historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, surveys the recent literature. It seems that Japanese leaders were not, in fact, ready to surrender when the bomb was dropped on August 6, but had it (and the second A-bomb, dropped on Nagasaki three days later) not been used, they might have become reconciled to surrender before the U.S. invasion that was planned for 12 weeks later. ...
Drawing on Soviet as well as Japanese sources, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, parts company with many other “middle grounders,” says Walker, “by arguing that the bombing of Hiroshima was less important in convincing the Japanese to surrender than Soviet entry into the war.” But in Hasegawa’s view, neither of itself was a “knockout punch.”
Thomas W. Zeiler, a historian at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Unconditional Defeat: Japan, America, and the End of World War II (2003), argues, contrary to the view of [Gar] Alperovitz and some other revisionists, that the decision to use the bomb was not dictated by a desire to intimidate the Soviets: “The context of the ongoing Pacific War, and the objective of finally crushing an implacable foe, overrode considerations of U.S.-Soviet diplomacy at this time.”
Writing in various scholarly journals during the 1990s, Barton J. Bernstein, a historian at Stanford University, “rejected the revisionist contention that the war could have ended as soon [as] or even sooner than it did without dropping the bomb,” Walker says. “He argued that none of the alternatives available to U.S. policymakers would have brought the war to a conclusion as rapidly as using the bomb. And he doubted that any of the alternatives, taken alone, would have been sufficient to force a prompt Japanese surrender. Bernstein also suggested, however, that it seemed ‘very likely, though certainly not definite,’ that a combination of alternatives would have ended the war before the invasion of Kyushu began on 1 November 1945.”
Traditionalist historians “too lightly” dismissed that possibility, Walker contends. In the 12 weeks before the invasion, “the combination of Soviet participation in the war, the continued bombing of Japanese cities with massive B-29 raids, the critical shortage of war supplies, the increasing scarcity of food and other staples . . . , and diminishing public morale could well have convinced the emperor to seek peace.”
So though the bomb “was probably not necessary to end the war within a fairly short time before the invasion took place,” Walker concludes that it “was necessary to end the war at the earliest possible moment and in that way to save American lives, perhaps numbering in the several thousands.” And for the American president, saving those thousands of American lives that would be lost if the war continued was “ample reason to use the bomb.”
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