Why Another Book on Hiroshima?





Mr. Maddox is the editor of Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (University of Missouri Press, May 2007).

The use of atomic bombs against Japan in August 1945 has remained one of the most controversial issues in American history.  The conventional view is that these weapons were used to end a bloody war that would have become far bloodier if the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands had proven necessary.  Individuals who have become known as “Hiroshima Revisionists” have dismissed this explanation as a post-war myth concocted by Harry S. Truman and those around him to cover up their “real” goal, which was political rather than military.  They maintain that American officials knew by the spring of 1945 that the Japanese were trying to surrender, and would have done so if only an assurance had been given that they could retain their sacred emperor.  Truman and his Secretary of State James F. Byrnes refused to extend such an assurance, according to this view, because they wanted the war to continue until the bombs were ready.   Thus, the nuclear weapons that obliterated two cities were not used to defeat an already-defeated Japan, but to bully the Soviet Union through “atomic diplomacy.”  The purpose of Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (University of Missouri Press, 2007) is to expose the numerous myths that revisionists have spawned over the years. 

A sampling of revisionist fictions treated in Hiroshima is as follows:

1.  That intercepted messages between Tokyo and Japanese diplomats abroad during the summer of 1945 revealed Japan’s willingness to surrender.

None of these messages even hinted that Japan was prepared to surrender under any circumstances. Some members of what Robert P. Newman has referred to as the “civilian elite” were trying to enlist the Soviet Union in brokering a peace that would have permitted Japan to escape with its prewar empire and imperial system intact.  Several enterprising revisionists, including Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin in their recent Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus:  The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2006), have misrepresented these messages by the simple device of pretending that the word “peace” meant the same thing as “surrender.” They neglect to inform their readers that as late as 17 July 1945 the Japanese foreign minister stated that “we are not asking [for] the Russians’ mediation in anything like unconditional surrender. . . .”

Sadao Asada’s essay in Hiroshima, based largely on Japanese sources, shows how difficult it was for the Japanese “peace party” to prevail over the hardliners in the government even after both bombs had been dropped and the Soviet Union had entered the war.  That they could have done so before these catastrophic events is impossible to credit.

Edward J. Drea points out that regardless of what the diplomats were trying to accomplish, intercepted military traffic (ULTRA) revealed that the Japanese military was “struggling around the clock to turn Kyushu’s beaches [site of the first planned invasion] into massive killing grounds.”  And the generals controlled the situation, not the civilians.

2.  That Harry Truman sought to delay Soviet entry into the Pacific War because he was afraid such a move would precipitate Japan’s surrender before the bombs could be dropped.

There is abundant evidence that Truman actively sought Soviet participation in the war and welcomed it when it came.  Michael Kort’s essay in Hiroshima examines a recent version of this revisionist chestnut, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s prize-winning Racing the Enemy:  Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (2005).  Kort shows that the documents simply do not support Hasegawa’s contention that Truman engaged in a “race” to use the bombs before Stalin entered the war.

3.   That even if an invasion proved necessary, Truman’s claim in his memoirs that the invasion would have cost an estimated five hundred thousand American lives was a post war creation designed to justify the unjustifiable.  Actual casualty estimates were but a fraction of that number.

D. M. Giangreco’s “A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas” demolishes the “low” casualty    thesis.  He shows that figures as high or even higher than Truman claimed were commonplace at the upper levels of government and at least some were shown directly to the president.  The title of a second Giangreco (and Kathryn Moore) essay, “Half a Million Purple Hearts,” tells it all.  The number of these medals struck mocks the “low” casualty claim.

4.  That the debate over the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in 1995 was one between those who wished to rely on “trustworthy documents now at hand” and those who wished to present a “largely fictitious, comforting story.”

Robert P. Newman’s chapter in Hiroshima shatters this myth.  He shows that instead of consulting prominent scholars in the field, NASM relied on an unqualified in-house staff that had ideological axes to grind.

5.  That the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, a postwar study based largely on interviews with surviving Japanese officials, showed that Japan was on the verge of surrender and would have done so by 1 November 1945 “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.”

Criticizing Truman on the basis of information unavailable to him when the bombs were dropped is intellectually untenable, of course, but there is more.  Gian P. Gentile and Robert P. Newman make clear that the survey was “cooked” by Paul Nitze to fit predictions he had made earlier that conventional bombing alone would have caused Japan to surrender before 1 November.

Hiroshima in History reveals that although revisionists differ among themselves on particulars, the overall thrust of their work does a disservice to the historical record.

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: Hiroshima, What People Think Now
  • HNN Virtual Trial: Harry Truman on Trial


  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:


    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Amidst the rush to fight "myths" with "myths," important historical facts get left aside. There were TWO A bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. It is difficult to imagine that if BOTH were really necessary to force a Japanese surrender, and that, if saving lives were their main criterion, Truman et. al. couldn't have waited a few more days to prove more definitely that one was not sufficient before dropping the second thereby killing another 50,000, 100,000 or whatever the exact horrific number of civilians.


    Donald E. Staringer - 5/19/2007

    Why another book on Hiroshima? Well, for one, the traditionalists find it unacceptable that many younger people do not accept their explanation of the events. Gallup Polls in 2005 found that the general public approved the dropping of the bombs by 57% and disapproved 38%, whereas 18 to 44 year olds approve at 48%-46%.
    The reviewer of Kimball’s book notes five issues that have been used by the revisionists to undermine the traditional interpretation.
    1. Intercepted diplomatic messages showed the Truman administration that the Japanese were sending out peace feelers that the revisionists believed could have facilitated surrender. At Potsdam, evidently Truman and Byrnes were the only ones in the inner circle who opposed warning the Japanese that we had the bomb and or that we were willing to allow them to keep their emperor. The Potsdam Declaration demanded unconditional surrender even though some advisors felt the emperor was the only figure in Japan whose word would guarantee a complete surrender. Evidently Kimball chose not to examine these complexities.
    2. Traditionalists refuse to accept arguments that Truman may have hoped to delay Soviet entry in the Pacific War. He delayed the opening of the Potsdam Conference evidently to give the bomb makers more time. He told Stalin he had economic and budget problems that were more important than the conference. At Potsdam he learned Stalin needed until August 15th to begin his Pacific War and that Trinity had been successful. With the bomb on his hip, as Stimson said, Truman gained the time to use the bomb to end the war without Soviet help. If he welcomed the Soviet entrance, as Kimball suggests, why didn’t he wait until after August 15th to see the Japanese response? The invasion date had been set for November 1st so he had plenty of time. As we learned in Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq we can wait out the enemy for a propitious time to end the conflict protracted as it might be.
    3. The argument over the number of casualties as the result of a possible invasion evidently is settled since the military had 500,000 Purple Heart medals struck???? Traditionalists rarely relate that Marshall had ordered 7 to 9 bombs to be ready for the invasion.
    4. The brouhaha over the Smithsonian exhibition of the Enola Gay was an example of “unqualified in-house” staffers making a poor exhibit. This despite an Exhibition Advisory Board that included A-bomb scholars such as Barton Bernstein, Martin Sherwin, Richard Rhodes, and others. Maybe traditionalists did not want the general public to view scenes and interpretations that contradicted their view of truth.
    5. Lastly, Kimball attacks the analysis of the US Strategic Bombing Survey that questioned the necessity of dropping the bomb. He believes Paul Nitze “cooked” the survey to support his views but disregards work of the Survey in analyzing the effect of bombing in Germany.

    In any event, the facts surrounding Hiroshima will always be illusive and the controversies will continue but, of course, a reviewing and revision of accepted truths will always be challenged.


    D. M. Giangreco - 5/19/2007

    Oops, I was typing too fast. Again, with the missing word:

    Sadao Asada's piece in the Hiroshima in History anthology is very instructive on this subject. Originally published in Pacific Historical Review, it received the Louis Knott Koontz Memorial Award from the American Historical Association. The Maddox article briefly summarizes its findings.


    D. M. Giangreco - 5/19/2007

    Sadao Asada's piece in the Hiroshima in History is very instructive on this subject. Originally published in Pacific Historical Review, it received the Louis Knott Koontz Memorial Award from the American Historical Association. The Maddox article briefly summarizes its findings.


    Joseph Mutik - 5/19/2007

    If the Pacific war without the "A" bombs would have been the scenario, we can imagine USSR conquering at least part of Japan and having today, alongside N.Korea and S.Korea, a communist N.Japan and a capitalist (or who knows which kind of dictatorship) S.Japan.
    Even today the Russians don't want to return to Japan what they have conquered during WWII.


    Nancy REYES - 5/16/2007

    Hate to tell you, but the "conventional bombing" of Tokyo killed more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (an estimated half million dead; Hiroshima 40-60 000 Nagasaki 60-100 000 dead). And remember, most of the long term problems of radiation were not recognized at the time, and Truman saw it merely as a big bomb.

    Second: Saipan led to 40 000 dead civilians, at least half who committed suicide.

    Three: the estimated casualties that would come from a US invasion were seven million Japanese civilians and a half million US soldiers. My cousin and uncle were damn glad they didn't have to invade the place. Indeed, Truman's decision probably saved their lives.

    Four: The atomic bomb allowed the Japanese to keep face, i.e. surrender with dignity. It was as a psychological weapon that tipped the scales.

    Five: The targeted bombing of civilians was a "war crime". Fine. But so was the slaughter of half of a million Philippinos in the rape of Manila, where departing Japanese troops deliberately massacred civilians or as casualties of war because the Japanese forced civilians to stay in the war zone instead of allowing Manila to become an open city. The fate of those soldiers in northern Luzon by Pinoy farmers is an even more horrific story, but neither story seems to be known by the average American academic.

    Six: War is hell.


    D. M. Giangreco - 5/16/2007

    Variations on Mr Gogel’s account have appeared in print for literally decades. What has received much less prominence is that after the first atom bomb was dropped, seemingly everyone was trying to get into the act as senior military leaders, including Nimitz and two of the generals featured prominently in Gogel’s comment –- Spaatz and Twining -- made recommendations of a half-dozen other cities for the third bomb’s target on the afternoon of August 9, 1945.

    The upshot was that the original target set of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Kokura would have been expanded to include (in order of priority) Sapporo, Hakodate, Oyabu, Yokosuka, Osaka, and Nagoya if their proposal had been accepted.

    A ready reference on this aspect of the closing days of the war can be found in Richard B. Frank’s book Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (p303). The internal politics pushing all this and the future roles of various armed services including the soon to be established US Air Force, can be examined in detail in the Hiroshima in History anthology itself by reading the chapter by Gian Peri Gentile, “Advocacy or Assessment? The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Germany and Japan.” which was originally published in the American Historical Association publication Pacific Historical Review.


    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/16/2007

    Spaatz, LeMay and Twining were very high-ranking, basic generals in charge of bombing and the air forces. Of course they felt they won the war--had it won already. You wouldn't want a general who didn't think that way. Their thinking this, however, does not necessarily make it so. The Japanese were quite suicidal at that time, and might have held on a long while. In general the air force people were terribly surprised after the war that their heavy attacks had done much less damage than they had supposed, at least in Germany, but probably in Japan, too. You refer specifically to their quotes at the time, which might mean, also, before examination of damage on the ground. These quotes come as a bit of a surprise to me, but of course LeMay, Twining and Spaatz were firm anti-communists who wanted no part of a Russian ally in at the kill, a goal which seemed to be at odds sometimes with the agenda of the White House and the fellow travelers of the State Department. They could have exaggerated a bit to discourage making diplomatic concessions to the USSR to enter the Pacific War--this would not surprise me at all.


    gary gogel - 5/15/2007

    At least two very important Generals in charge of the AF bombing of Japan, Carl Spaatz an Curtis LeMay, were convinced that the bomb was not necessary. The following is from a paper I am preparing:
    On Guam the next day Spaatz and LeMay held a press conference to introduce some of the Enola Gay’s crew and describe the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima. While neither officer claimed that the war was, in effect, over, General Spaatz was quoted by the Associated Press; saying that if the army had had the new bomb in Europe, “it would have shortened the war by six to eight months.” LeMay, characteristically, followed this with a statement that if the bomb had been available there would have been “no need to have had D-Day in Europe.” (Kenneth McCaleb, “Hiroshima Goes Up in 40,000-Ft. Tower of Dust, Smoke; Fires Seen,” The Washington Post, August 8, 1945.) The statements brought an immediate rebuke from General Marshall. The Army was committed to the invasion. AF general Haywood Hansell (LeMay's predecessor at 20th AF Bomber Command) would later comment to the effect that the bomb was needed to save the Army from itself.
    In his 1965 autobiography ("Mission with LeMay") LeMay repeats statements made at the time by both Nathan Twining, his successor as 20th AF commander and himself, “General Twining is quoted by history: ‘I am convinced that the surrender would have occurred within a short time period even if the atomic bomb had never been used.’ And my own view is stated as well: ‘I think it was anticlimactic in that the verdict was already rendered.’”
    Ralph Nutter, LeMay's lead navigator who wrote about the Pacific campaign in his recent memoir, "With the Eagle and the Possum," remembers it this way, when Spaatz and Twining arrived on Guam on July 20, 1945 to inform LeMay that he was being reassigned, Spaatz also told LeMay that he, “had received oral orders to drop a nuclear bomb after 3 August…He said that he had requested that the orders…be in writing:”
    "LeMay replied that they didn’t need that firecracker to make the enemy surrender; they were already licked.
    Spaatz said he didn’t disagree, but the decision to drop atomic bombs was not just a military decision."
    (The orders in writing from Truman to Spaatz are posted on the Truman Library Website.)


    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/15/2007

    In addition to your estimated dead from assaults on the home islands, please remember those dying of starvation under Japanese internment, and the large number of Japanese, both civilians and military, who also would have died in any continuation of the war. I am surprised you did not deal here with the worst myth now in circulation: The revised number of actual deaths from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact the total from both bombs in both cities was an even 100,000, including a few some years later from radiation. Your garden variety story in USA Today or on PBS, will instead cite 150,000 or even 200,000 as the number killed. Current textbooks and reference books are usually polluted with this same fiction, mostly, I suspect, by "anti-war activists" as much as by Hiroshima revisionists, though of course Truman's decision looks worse when the number of actual deads is exaggerated, so this has been a very easy way to cheat.

    Subscribe to our mailing list