Stalin, Hiroshima & American Myths
By Murray Polner
To historian David Murphy, author of What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa, Stalin was cunning and cruel yet a failure when confronted by one of the central events in Soviet history. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Stalin was equally cunning and cruel but a shrewd and unforgiving diplomat in the closing months of WWII. To me, both judgments are correct. And both their books are exemplary additions to the vast literature of WWII and the Cold War.
For decades, a major question raised by historians is why the Soviet Union was so unprepared for Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion on June 22, 1941. Until their defeat at Stalingrad, German forces threatened to overrun European Russia. Had they been successful, they might then have turned their full attention toward defeating the Americans and British in Western Europe or perhaps worked out a negotiated settlement, both of which could very well have happened.
As late as June 21, Stalin and his sycophants were gathered at his Kremlin apartment. “The atmosphere was tense,” said Anastas Mikoyan who was present. “Stalin still held to the view that Hitler would not begin a war.” The next morning, June 22, 1941, Georgi Zhukov awakened him with the news that German armies had attacked.
The problem was that Stalin turned his back on his intelligence operatives and associates who told him that the Germans had targeted the Soviet Union for attack. Instead, he foolishly believed Hitler’s denial in “confidential” correspondence the two dictators exchanged. It was the fear-ridden system he had developed, says Murphy, which led him to accept Hitler’s word. He alone decided what was and was not accurate intelligence. When the Soviet master spy Richard Sorge, whom Moscow’s spy apparatus had successfully placed inside the German Embassy in Tokyo, reported on May 15 that the German invasion was set to start between June 20-22, -- and again on June 13 that the date for the attack was June 22!-- Stalin, paranoid and self-centered, denigrated Sorge as “a little shit who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in Japan.” But of course Sorge was right and millions paid with their lives because of Stalin’s obstinacy and ignorance. And what, asks Murphy, was Sorge's reward? While awaiting execution, the Japanese proposed swapping him for a Japanese military officer. Murphy quotes Hasaya Shirai of the Japanese-Russian Center for Historical Research, who reported Stalin’s reply: “Richard Sorge: I do not know a person of that name.” [Interested readers may wish to consult a fascinating book, The Case of Richard Sorge by the British historians F.W. Deakin and G.R. Storry (Harper, 1966)].
Murphy, once chief of the CIA’s Berlin station and later its chief of Soviet operations, relied heavily on the two-volume collection of documents, 1941 god (The year 1941) published by the Moscow-based International Democracy Foundation, which casts the central blame for accepting Hitler’s word on Stalin.
What is clear is that Soviet military officers and intelligence were required to fit their findings to the state’s political requirements, a reckless and dangerous tactic for the Soviet Union then --- and for the U.S. in the Iraq War. “As is well known,” as Stalin was always fond of saying, fear of retribution or contradiction was endemic. When, for example, Pavel Rychagov of the Soviet Air Force appeared to blame Stalin for planes he described as “coffins,” Stalin took that as a criticism and told him, “You should not have said that.” Rychgarov, like other Soviet skeptics, had “sealed his fate” and was executed without trial in October 1941.
Scholars have always wondered why he also murdered so many of his senior military leaders, including Marshal Tukhashevsky. Murphy believes, quite reasonably, that it was to conceal his lethal blunders by intimidation or murder. Pavel Volodin, Air Force Chief of Staff, for example, was arrested five days after the invasion and shot in October. Why? Like so many others, he knew the truth about Stalin’s appalling policy of trusting Hitler. Comments Murphy: “Much of his [Stalin’s] concern, as the Red Army suffered its tragic losses on the battlefields, would be to ensure that others, then in prison, who knew or suspected the truth of his culpability would never live to testify against him.”
Sadly, despite the heroic work of Memorial, a Russian group that continues to remember and honor Stalin’s victims, no one has ever been punished for their crimes.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Professor History and Director of the Center for Cold War Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has also written an authoritative account based on American, Japanese and Soviet archives. He concludes, despite American mythology, that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not end the war with Japan.
What did bring it to a close, Hasegawa argues from his study of evidence released after the war, was Stalin’s invasion of Sakhalin and the Kurils --which were promised him at Potsdam-- and his refusal to heed Tokyo’s pleas that he help mediate a truce ending the war. The Japanese had good reason to fear Soviet power. Their military commanders had not forgotten the lessons of the Battle of Nomonhan, when in 1939, a Soviet army commanded by Marshal Georgi Zhukov smashed Japan’s crack Kwantung Army in a battle fought over a wasteland lying between Mongolia and Manchuria. In ten days, 70,000 Soviet and Japanese soldiers were killed. The preeminent scholar of that conflict, Alvin D. Coox, in his magisterial study, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, [Stanford, 1988] emphasized that the defeat scared the Japanese war lords who from then on, remained leery about challenging the Soviets, even signing a neutrality pact with them. Six years later, in yet another long forgotten crucial battle, the Soviets fought the Japanese in the battle of Shimushu in the Kurils on August 18, 1945—after the atom bombs were dropped.
Shimusu, where between 1000-1500 Soviet soldiers died needlessly, was World War II’s final battle. Why, asks Hasegawa, was it necessary when Stalin could have accomplished the same thing by negotiating a cease-fire? It may have been a “miscalculation” or a “bad judgment” but he wisely speculates that, “Stalin needed the blood of Soviet soldiers spilled on the battleground in order to justify his claim that the Soviet Union had earned the Kurils—all the Kurils—paid for with the blood of the sons of the motherland.”
Terrified that the Red Army might make a move toward Hokkaido, the northernmost main Japanese island, Japan surrendered the next day.
But what if Truman had not demanded unconditional Japanese surrender but instead permitted Tokyo to quit the war as a constitutional monarchy? Truman, Hasegawa believes, was determined to punish Japan because of Pearl Harbor and because he feared political repercussions at home.
The myth, as Hasegawa calls it, is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved American GI lives and ended the war. Nonetheless, this widely accepted but inaccurate invention is not supported by his examination of Japanese archives. What the myth did was justify “Truman’s conscience and ease the collective American conscience.” Hasegawa goes on to assert that his evidence also proves that alternatives to the A-Bombs existed, none of which the U.S. chose to pursue.
“And it is here, in the evidence of roads not taken, that the question of moral responsibility comes to the fore… Although much of what revisionist historians argue is faulty and based on tendentious use of sources, they nonetheless deserve credit for raising an important moral issue that challenges the standard American narrative of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
1945 marked the real start of the Cold War as Stalin and Truman sought to outmaneuver each other. World War II had left some sixty million dead; the ensuing Cold War would leave millions more killed and wounded. The killing has never stopped.