What Presidents Talk About When They Talk About Hiroshima

tags: Hiroshima, Obama

Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science and an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey. He runs the blog Restricted Data.

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... Soon after the Second World War ended, the men who had been involved in the creation of the bomb, including General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, and Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, developed a standardized account of the decision to attack Hiroshima. By 1955, when Truman published his memoirs, this account had acquired the sheen of orthodoxy. The gist was that Truman and his advisers had carefully weighed the question of using the bomb on Japan, ultimately deciding that it was the lesser of two evils, since it would prevent the need for a land invasion and save many American and Japanese lives. Most of the historians who have studied the topic in depth agree that this narrative is largely false. Truman himself was a fairly peripheral figure, busy with many other pressing matters, like the disposition of Soviet-occupied Europe. There was no White House debate about whether the bomb should be dropped, no singular decision to use it, no suggestion that it was an alternative to invasion. (The plan was to bomb and then invade, if necessary.) It would be wrong to call the shaping of the orthodox narrative an outright conspiracy, but there was certainly an element of collusion. Personal legacies and political careers were at stake. As early as the late nineteen-forties, strong voices had started questioning the wisdom of the Hiroshima attack, and they did not come from the places that we might expect today.

One source of dissent was Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1948, he had just stepped down as Chief of Staff of the Army and was beginning his tenure as president of Columbia University. He published a wartime memoir that year, “Crusade in Europe,” which met with rave reviews. In the book, Eisenhower described a meeting in which he stated his misgivings about the use of the bomb to Stimson: “I expressed the hope that we would never have to use such a thing against any enemy because I disliked seeing the United States take the lead in introducing into war something as horrible and destructive as this new weapon was described to be.” The historian Barton Bernstein has concluded, after consulting as many corroborating sources as possible, that this discussion probably never took place and that Eisenhower likely misremembered it, perhaps in the service of making himself look like a morally centered military man. (It is true, though, that Eisenhower grasped the revolutionary power of nuclear weapons earlier than most of his fellow career officers. After the war, he set up a staff of young analysts to work through the implications and collaborate with government scientists.)

Eisenhower’s self-presentation was in keeping with the postwar statements of several other top military officials—a tinge of regret, a sense of skepticism about whether the bomb was necessary, or whether it even played the role in ending the war that people said it did. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946, for instance, concluded that “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” Admiral William Leahy, in his memoirs, called the bomb “barbarous” and said that it provided “no material assistance in our war against Japan,” since the Japanese were “already defeated and ready to surrender.”These critiques can seem shocking today, because they upset our understanding of how Hiroshima and Nagasaki map onto modern politics. We assume that Republicans, especially those in the military, are retrospectively pro-bomb, and that liberals see the attacks as something between a mistake and a war crime. But this interpretation removes the critiques from their historical context. Many commanders in both the European and Pacific theatres resented that the bomb got credit for ending the war. They saw their own strategic efforts, including the ruinous firebombing of at least sixty-seven Japanese cities, led by General Curtis LeMay, as being overshadowed by a scientific “gadget.” They feared that nuclear weapons would become an excuse to cut funding for conventional armed forces: if the bomb maintained the peace, who needed generals? (Their fears proved not entirely unfounded—Truman’s second Secretary of Defense, Louis A. Johnson, did try to slash military budgets—but they eventually learned to love the bomb.) When these leaders proposed that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary, they meant that they were unnecessary because Japan had already been bombed to dust. It was not a peacenik argument. ...

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