Blogs > Cliopatria > Michael Pearlman: Review of Robert P. Newman's Enola Gay and the Court of History (Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 2004, 201 pages, $24.95)

Mar 14, 2005 1:45 am

Michael Pearlman: Review of Robert P. Newman's Enola Gay and the Court of History (Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 2004, 201 pages, $24.95)

Michael Pearlman, in Military Review (March 2005):

Show me where someone stood on the nuclear-freeze movement in 1985, and 9 times out of 10, I will show you where they stand on the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Robert P. Newman, professor emeritus of political communication, is a noted exception. He was an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and a fierce critic of the fierce critics of President Harry S. Truman's use of the atomic bomb. Newman is one of the select people who want to learn about the past to simply learn about the past, not to distort it for political ammunition. In 1995, Newman published Truman and the Hiroshima Cult (Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 1995), a book that devastated the contention that Japan was already prepared to surrender but that Washington had hidden agendas, such as scaring the Soviet Union by flexing its atomic muscle against this third party.

Newman reiterates why Truman was correct--that he had to use the bomb or face perhaps a million American casualties during the invasion and the subsequent ground war to be waged in Japan. The six subsequent chapters are a history of the critique of Truman from its origins in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) in 1945 to its culmination in an exhibit at the Smith-sonian's National Air and Space Museum in 1994 of the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb.

The chief villain in the narrative is the chairman of the USSBS, Paul Nitze, a man Newman seems to loathe from the left or from the right. He says that subsequent to 1945, Nitze inflated the Soviet military threat in an irrational pursuit of nuclear overkill. His summary report in the USSBS was equally fallacious, but this time for holding that Japan would surrender before the prospective American invasion in November, subject or not to the atomic bomb.

Nitze certainly did not hold, as others would, that Truman was striking a blow against the Kremlin. Indeed, Nitze compiled a record criticizing government policy as being too soft on the Soviet Union. While investigating the bombing of Germany, before the bombing of Japan, Nitze concluded that leveling cities was virtually useless as opposed to taking out transportation networks, a tactic that could compel surrender. He applied this European Theater paradigm to the Pacific, where he concluded conventional bombing and a naval blockade was sufficient to win the war. For data, Nitze cited purported testimony from Japanese officials, something Newman has never been able to find in the records and the archives of the USSBS.

Whether Nitze's conclusions stood on fact or what Newman calls "fraud," it had the imprimatur of an official report. It hence became argumentative gold for people who normally would dismiss any government publication as a coverup, prima facia. In the 1960s and 1970s, New Left history cites the USSBS as definitive proof, another case where contemporary "peace movement" politics slanted views on events regarding Hiroshima. The USSBS was to have made up much of the story line in captions for the Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum. Because the Smithsonian Institution is semi-government, conservatives in Congress aborted the exhibit. One of Truman's critics wrote, "It was a humiliating spectacle, scholars being forced to recant the truth." Newman replies (although he was no political fan of the conservative bloc): "Scholars who confuse the fraudulent Nitze narrative with truth deserve humiliation."

Newman and company might have won the battle of the Smithsonian, but time does not seem on their side. According to the Gallup Poll, 10 percent of Americans disapproved of Truman's decision in 1945, 35 percent in 1995; young adults were divided 46 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed. One can only hope the citizenry reads Newman to discover the origins and the development of the fallacious thesis many now hold.

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Edward Siegler - 3/17/2005

True there is evidence that American leaders considered more about the atomic bomb than simply its ability to end the war with Japan. Who in their right mind, when faced with such a devastating weapon for the first time, would not? The problem is that statements considering the political implications of the bomb by American officials have been taken out of context and given a much greater significance than they ever had at the time. These distortions were done to further an ideological agenda, not out of a scholarly concern for historical truth.

A case in point (out of many) can be found in Atomic Diplomacy by Gar Alperovitz. Considered by many to be the bible of the Hiroshima revisionists, this book is riddled with basic errors of scholarship. Secretary of State Frank Burnes is quoted as saying that the bomb would "make the Soviets more managable in Europe." This quote is repeated endlessly throughout the book as though it is an important statement of U.S. policy. In fact the quote comes from one scientist's recollection of one private conversation he had with Burnes. This mercurial scientist, who was know to change his story about many things, has never had his version of this conversation confirmed by anyone, and Burnes never repeated this sentiment again, if in fact he ever spoke it in the first place.

The historical record shows that the military leadership was unanimously in support of the bomb's use. What these illegitimate - yes illegitimate - historians have done is to take quotes about the bomb from military leaders that were written or spoken AFTER the bomb was used without giving their dates, thereby implying that these leaders were opposed to the bomb BEFORE it was used. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki the world was shocked, and many understandably had second thoughts about the bombs use and its implications for the future. But the situation beforehand was quite different.

It is true that some scientific leaders had reservations about the bomb, however these reservations have also been exaggerated and one should keep in mind that the scientists were not policy makers. There was a debate over the issue of demonstrating the bomb. This plan was rejected for several reasons: The element of surprise would be lost, which was needed to shock Japan's leadership into surrendering; the bomb might have failed to detonate, which would have blown America's credibility; Japan's government could have refused to believe that the bomb was really atomic; and Japan would have had advance warning that such an attack was imminent and would have had an advantage in preparing for it. Just imagine if the aircraft carrying the bomb was shot down and the bomb was captured. In fact this almost happened anyway.

Take a look at books like Atomic Diplomacy and then read Truman and the Hiroshima Cult by Robert P. Newman; Weapons for Victory by Robert James Maddox or The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War, also by Robert James Maddox. This last book has a chapter that makes mincemeat out the claims in Atomic Diplomacy by comparing the claims in the book to the sources they were ripped from.

Yes, we've learned a lot from the efforts to discredit the decision to use the atomic bomb. We've learned the ways that wrongly respected ideologues can twist the historical record to their own liking. This lesson is invaluable when examining the claims of the Holocaust denyiers and other assorted charlatans.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/16/2005

There is evidence that important American leaders, including Truman, did think that one benefit of using the bomb would be its effect on Soviet policy. That is not made up. Knowing that it was natural for some historians to wonder how important that benefit was in making the decision to use the bomb. Not suprisingly those who did so tended to be ones who did not take government statements at face value.

When one looks one does find a somewhat divided military leadership and also a divided scientific leadership on whether or not the bomb should be used and, if used, whether there should be a demonstration first. With this information a circumstantial case could and was made that goals other than the defeat of Japan led to the dropping of the bomb.

With passing years, the case keeps looking weaker, but it was not illegitimate or stupid history. And we learned a lot from it.

D. M. Giangreco - 3/16/2005

"Casualty Projections" in the Journal of Military History focused on the Army's multi-level work in this area in the year or so before the Japanese surrender. Footnote 75 in that article touched on President Truman's knowledge of these efforts and was expanded into an article of its own for the Pacific Historical Review (an AHA pub), "'A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan." Unfortunately it is not available free on the web but can be obtained for a small fee from the University of California Press at,DM)s&cookieSet=1. However, another article, "Spinning the Casualties: Media Strategies During the Roosevelt Administration" in the current edition of Passport (published by SHAFR, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations) will be available free on their website within the next month or so. A highly condensed version of "Spinning the Casualties" is available on HNN.

Edward Siegler - 3/16/2005

What's really amazing is the way that an ideologically motivated group of writers has been able to take what was "common knowledge" in 1945 and distort it into a ridiculous conspiracy theory, and then sell this theory to the public so successfully.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/16/2005

I just looked quickly at the "Casualty Projections" article. I will read it more slowly when I have a chance. It looks like the author does a fine job documenting what I and many others had long suspected, which was that the high casualty estimates were part of "common knowledge" in 1945.

I'm less certain of his comments on Truman's understanding of the situation, but I need to read that far more carefully before I draw any conclusions.

D. M. Giangreco - 3/15/2005

Shipment to the Pacific of components for a third atom bomb to be used against the Japanese cities of Kokura or Niigata was halted on 9 August 1945 to await further developments, but production in the United States continued unabated. If President Truman was forced to continue dropping bombs and their use against these last two cities in the atom bomb target set failed in its strategic purpose of stampeding the Japanese government into an early surrender, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall was interested in using the growing stockpile tactically to support the invasion of southern Japan -- Operation Olympic. It was believed that seven bombs would be available in time for the initial landings.

A more complete appreciation of the dangers posed by nuclear radiation was still in the future, and plans called for the majority of the atom bombs -- approximately three for each corps zone of advance -- to be dropped on beach defenses, with hideous consequences for the hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines who would soon pass directly through the devastated areas after landing, and the tens of thousands more men using the same ground for base and airfield construction. It was also estimated by U.S. Military Government authorities that of the 2,200,000 Japanese civilians in the Olympic target area who were unlikely to evacuate north away from the fighting (or to have been killed in the preinvasion bombardments) perhaps as many as 180,000 would live in internment camps that we now know would have been located on or near the blast sites. In all, several million Japanese and Americans would be directly affected by nuclear fallout or residual blast radiation on southern Japan.

For more on this subject see Marc Gallicchio, "After Nagasaki: General Marshall's Plan for Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Japan," Prologue 23 (Winter 1991): 396-404, which, unfortunately, I don't think is available on the web, and "Casualty Projections for the Invasions of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications" from the July 1997 Journal of Military History at

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/15/2005

Interesting link. Thanks.

John H. Lederer - 3/14/2005 has some refernces to plans/capabilities after Nagasaki.

Somewhere I read that Hanford, running flat out, was producing enough radioactive materail to build a bomb every 3-4 months.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/14/2005

This does sound like an interesting book.

I, too, conclude that we used the bomb primarily to achived a quick end to the war (though I think Truman was pleased that it could also have the effect of intimidating the Soviets). However, the moral question does not stop there.

If the Japanese had not surrendered after Nagasaki, would we have stopped? I've seen nothing to suggest that. In fact, the public warning statement preceding the August bombings suggest an open-ended campaign, perhaps utilizing convention bombing until the next set of A-bombs could be prepared. And so on.

If the warning truly indicated what the policy would have been, then the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were demonstrations of a sort. They were demonstations of an American willingness to exterminate a large percentage of the Japanese people: men, women, and children.

In short, they were demonstrations of a willingness to commit genocide on a scale that could have equaled or even surpassed German actions toward the Jews.

Would we have done that? I don't know. I hope not. I hope that at some point we would have said, "Enough."

But those of us who have argued that Truman's decision is defendable must recognize that, if the Japanese had not surrendered, his decision might have opened the door to America committing far greater horrors.

Edward Siegler - 3/14/2005

Go ahead and call into question the morality of the entire Allied strategic bombing campaign during World War II, but don't single out Hiroshima based on the deliberate distortion of the historical record created by the "revisionists." Japan wanted to surrender but Truman wouldn't let them in order to create an opportunity to use the bomb and intimidate the Soviet Union, blah, blah, blah. The disturbing thing about this sort of garbage is the close similarity it has to the methods of the Holocaust denyers. The statistics cited at the end of this article showing that ever greater numbers of people believe the conspiracy theories regarding Hiroshima could likely be accompanied by similar statistics about increasing numbers of people who believe Holocaust denial. The problem here is historical illiteracy among the public and ideological agendas corrupting the practice of history among the "experts."

I highly recommend Robert P. Newman's Truman and the Hiroshima Cult - especially if you've had the misfortune of reading the laughable books like Atomic Diplomacy and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb both by Gar Alperovitz, or Hiroshima by Ronald Takaki that form the basis of the "revisionist" school.