Day 5

Question: Considering that there are 2,000 operational U.S. warheads on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched on 15 minutes' warning, with a destructive power 20 times that of the one dropped on Hiroshima, according to Robert McNamara's article in Foreign Policy, May/June 2005, does the history of the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki inform current U.S. nuclear weapons decision making policy? Can we learn anything that would help us step back from the brink? -D.P., Boston, MA

Answered by Herbert Bix:

Herbert Bix

I do not think hagiographic television documentaries that celebrate the B-29 and "patriot heroes" who waged incendiary warfare deliberately targeting civilians, like General Curtis LeMay did, have much educational value.Victory in the Pacific failed to state that even under international law such as it existed in 1945, the strategic bombing of non-combatant civilians and the atomic bombings were war crimes. The PBS program offered the traditional, one-sided view of U.S. actions. By placing all blame for Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Japanese intransigence, viewers were confirmed in their prejudices and inhibited from thinking critically about the past and how it connects with the present. The Victory certainly raised no questions about our flawed policy of continued reliance on nuclear weapons to impose our will.

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

Perhaps the most intriguing figures surrounding the atomic bomb project through Hiroshima and Nagasaki were Vannevar Bush and James Conant. Bush headed up the entire American scientific effort supporting the war and Conant oversaw the bomb program for Bush. They were the first to recognize that the critical Rubicon would be not when an atomic bomb was tested or used, but when a workable weapon came into being.

By late 1944, they saw that a workable weapon appeared certain. They believed that once a workable weapon existed, there would be no putting the genie back in the bottle. The only practical issue left was how the weapons could be controlled. They concluded that the only way to achieve control was for all nation states to surrender their sovereignty to an unprecedented degree to permit international control. They further believed that the only way nations would surrender so much sovereignty was by shocking their leaders and populations with a demonstration of the true hideous nature and scale of atomic weapons. That required that the bombs be actually used on cities.

In retrospect, we know that their overall aim was not achieved. True comprehensive control (or ban) of nuclear weapons has so far failed. I believe, however, that they accomplished at least part of their goal. The indelible and searing images of human suffering from Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the single most powerful source of restraint on their use. While there are films and pictures of tests, including demonstrations of weapons of incomparably greater potency than the weapons available in 1945, there is nothing as shocking as depictions of the effects on living beings. I would not claim that the fact that we have passed sixty years without further use of the weapons directly against any population is due solely to what happened in 1945. I do believe that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are of undeniable significance in producing this history.

 

Question: According to an answer to a question written by Mr. Drea, "Lieutenant General Leslie, director of the Manhattan Project, also wanted a target of such size that the damage would be confined within it, so that scientists could determine the power of the bomb." That's a pretty crass reason to bomb a civilian population. Also, the fact that the regiments may be spread out doesn't detract significantly from the bombs effects. A couple of well placed A bombs would have leveled the average army base. I think we are being to easy on our leaders for without a critical look at these actions, civilian populations will continue to be "legitimate military targets." - Stan, Oakland, California

Answered by Edward Drea:

Edward Drea

The target selection committee used the criteria given to them by senior authorities, and those guidelines mandated an atomic attack against a city.

It's correct that an atomic bomb could level a large army base because that would be a concentrated target. A major purpose of using the atomic bomb was to show the Japanese government its destructive power and shock the Japanese into surrender. If a division was dispersed over several miles, that shock effect was lessened. The "ideal target" (if there can be such a thing for an atomic bomb) would be a small island like Iwo Jima. The Japanese division defending Iwo Jima, a purely military target, was concentrated in a small area. Of course the atomic bombs were not ready for use in February 1945, and only two were available in early August 1945.

 

Question: Toward the end of the war, was Japan close to developing a jet fighter? If so, and if the atomic bomb had not been used how would this have changed the outcome? - D. F., Bloomington, Indiana

Answered by Edward Drea:

The Japanese had made test flights of jet aircraft before the end of the war, but they were not close to developing an operational jet fighter. Even without the atomic bomb, U.S. heavy bombers and navy carrier aircraft were attacking what remained of Japanese industry and would have continued with even heavier raids to prepare the way for the November invasion. I don't think that in such circumstances Japan would have been able to produce enough jet fighters to significantly alter the outcome. If somehow Japan had sufficient numbers of operational jet fighters in the summer of 1945, then the outcome would have been the same, but the cost to U.S. aircrews much higher.

 

Question: The program makes it clear that Emperor Hirohito was willing and complicit in the initiation, conduct and continuation of the war. And he appears to be particularly self-serving with respect to his priority of preserving his position and prerogatives instead of ending the war and the suffering of his people. Further, unlike some of the other Japanese war leaders, who committed seppuku, he seems to have no remorse or shame. -John Huck

Answered by Herbert Bix:

Herbert Bix

Both Hirohito nor Truman acted in disregard of the truth. Neither man ever expressed publicly any sense of remorse or shame at how they ended the war. Victory in the Pacific, however, overlooked Truman's culpability and failed to challenge the traditional, triumphalist view that places virtually all blame for the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese side.

 

Question: I was interested in knowing what the Imperial Japanese Army's plan for defenses were? Had they made many fortifications in the style of Iwo Jima and Okinawa? If so are there any records anywhere of the these? Thank you. -Erik, Kamloops, British Columbia

Answered by Edward Drea:

Edward Drea

The Japanese had fortified some possible landing beaches in the style of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but because they did not have sufficient time, material, or equipment, the fortifications were not as elaborate as those on Okinawa or Iwo Jima.

Two postwar studies, one by U.S. Army and one by U.S. Marine Corps, explain Japanese plans for the defense of Kyushu.

Headquarters Sixth Army, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, "The Japanese Plans for the Defense of Kyushu," 31 December 1945 which is available in John J. Tolson Papers, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA.

Headquarters V Amphibious Corps, "The Japanese Plan for the Defense of Kyushu," 30 November 1945, VAC Olympic Plans, Marine Corps Historical Center.

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

By 1944, the U.S. pre-landing bombardments reached such intensity that the Japanese abandoned their initial strategy of attempting to defeat American amphibious assaults at the water's edge. The Japanese adopted a new strategy of conducting protracted bloody defenses from fortified positions and caves well inland designed to wear down American units and national will by inflicting heavy casualties -- although in the end the Japanese garrison would be annihilated. They deployed this new strategy at Biak, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

For defense against the invasion of the Homeland, the Japanese switched to yet a third strategy with corresponding operational and tactical plans. As the program pointed out, the Japanese hoped to destroy up to a third of the invaders with suicide attacks by aircraft and a varied assortment of nautical suicide craft like mini-submarines and manned torpedoes. They left only very light screening forces to actually protect the water's edge (a platoon of about forty men per regiment of 2-3,000 men). The coastal defensive forces were massed further inland. Typically, about two kilometers or more inland there would be a checker board of three fortified company-size positions per regiment. The main positions of the regiment sat four to five kilometers inland and held the main body of the regiment. Behind them were artillery and reserve positions. The Japanese mingled many fake positions into the defended area to confuse the attackers. These coastal units were expected to stand and die in place. They had very little transport. They would check the American advance and hold the invaders near the coast while the counterattack forces marched to the landing sites within a few days.

The Japanese commenced an extensive field fortification program in the summer, but overall it was by no means complete when the war ended. (It was fairly far advanced around Ariake Bay, one of the prime landing beaches.) Had the invasion of Kyushu been attempted in November, those fortifications would have been very extensive and elaborate, on par with those on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. By way of comparison, Japanese fortifications on Okinawa were extremely formidable. The Japanese defenders on Okinawa, however, generally only had been preparing their final positions for less than four months at most when the battle started because they had radically altered their original scheme of defense relatively close to the date of the invasion. This fact should illustrate just how much progress the Japanese could have expected to make before the November landing.

The Japanese readied a large number of much better equipped and manned units, including all their really well trained divisions and brigades for what was intended to be a crushing counterattack within a few days after the landing. The counterattack would destroy the beachhead before the American forces became too strong. The beachhead was the area extending a few miles inland from the original landing beaches.

Allied radio intelligence revealed the essence of Japanese strategy and operational plans from a quantitative standpoint -- that is locating units and identifying their overall size and likely intentions. The intercepts showed the overall strategy and particularly the fact that the Japanese had precisely anticipated the landing areas on Southern Kyushu. Radio intelligence was not clear on qualitative aspects like the exact equipment status of some units and the distribution of quality manpower. (This was because the Japanese had not sent messages that were copied and decoded with this vital information.) By August 9, the senior U.S. naval officers, Admirals King and Nimitz, were poised to withdraw their support for the invasion of Kyushu based upon these intelligence revelations and the long standing navy opposition to the invasion strategy. In that event, I believe it is virtually impossible to conceive that President Truman would have allowed the Kyushu invasion to take place. He probably would have vetoed it just on the basis of radio intelligence disclosures of the radical change in the strength of the defenders. General Marshall was plainly looking for alternatives: either another site for the invasion like Northern Honshu, or using atomic bombs to bolster the firepower supporting the proposed invasion of Kyushu.

Details of Japanese defenses are discussed in the Japanese Defense Agency official military history of the plans to defend Kyushu. Unfortunately, that has not been translated. The Military History Institute (MHI) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as well as the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland, have copies of some post-war American inspection reports that are quite revealing. The reports are not comprehensive because the officers compiling them were unable to see all the Japanese plans or interview all the Japanese officers who could have shed light on the defense. Also, the Japanese preparations were not nearly as complete as they would have been by November. The best of the reports is the one by the staff of the V Amphibious Corps. There was also a report by the IX Corps, and a very interesting report by Edmund J. Winslett at Sixth Army Headquarters that can be located in his papers at the MHI. A British report can be found in the Public Record Office in Kew, U.K. Citations for all of these are in Downfall, p. 404.

 

Question: What did the test bomb in New Mexico reveal about radiation levels? Why were U.S. authorities so surprised about radiation's extent and potential for damage -- not only immediately after Hiroshima, but for many years afterward? -D.L., Chicago, Illinois

Answered by Richard Frank:

Good question. I do not recall seeing any direct explanation then or later as to why the scientists did not immediately adjust their appreciation of the radiation hazard. What I do know is that they did not, or at least the top level policy makers remained ignorant of the dangers. Both the majority of the scientists and the key policy makers were genuinely surprised when it became clear that the hazard was far more severe than the original estimates allowed.

One essential reason for the surprise which we now find hard to grasp is that virtually everything about the Manhattan Project worked from arcane theory directly to actual use of a weapon. There was no time for gradual and small scale experimentation to test the theories. My impression is that an another important reason for the surprise is that the Trinity test in New Mexico did not expose living creatures deliberately to determine what the radiation effects might be. They essentially could measure only the residual radiation effects on inanimate objects. My conjecture would be that this did not alert them quickly to the fact that the radiation danger on detonation was far greater than originally projected.

Knowing what we do now, it is very chilling to read the transcript of a conversation on August 13, 1945, between one of General Marshall's staff officers and a key official of the Manhattan Project. This conversation occurred via a telephone call Marshall ordered to explore the use of the remaining production of atomic bombs in what we would now call "tactical use" to support an invasion of Japan. The discussion does not begin to suggest any real grasp of the radiation danger to U.S. troops. The big hazard that is discussed is what happens if an atomic bomb is dropped and it does not explode.

 

Question: What did the test bomb in New Mexico reveal about radiation levels? Why were U.S. authorities so surprised about radiation's extent and potential for damage -- not only immediately after Hiroshima, but for many years afterward? -D.L., Chicago, Illinois

Answered by Edward Drea:

Edward Drea

Marc Gallicchio has pointed out that during the Trinity test at Los Alamos, much of the fallout produced by the blast settled in a valley beyond the test site. Thus scientists at Los Alamos initially detected very low levels of radioactivity near the test site and miscalculated the amount of radioactivity produced by the explosion. They were surprised when Japanese radio claimed a few days after the attack that people in Hiroshima were still dying from after effects of the bombing and dismissed it as Japanese propaganda reports of radiation sickness. I do not know how long it took for U.S. authorities to evaluate fully the radiation hazard.

 

Question: Although it is often overlooked in debates on the justification of using nuclear weapons against Japan, the very first night of the firebombing of Tokyo caused more deaths than either of the nuclear attacks, as was correctly pointed out in the film. It seems likely to me that this precedent of massive civilian deaths must have made it easier for the Truman administration to approve the use of nuclear weapons, knowing that this would unavoidably kill large numbers of civilians. One could have rationalized, with some justification, that nuclear weapons were not fundamentally more destructive than the extensive use of conventional explosives, but that they were simply much easier to deliver to a target.

However, the film implied that the low-elevation napalm bombing was initiated because of the inability of the B-29 crews to hit industrial targets with conventional bombs dropped from an elevation of 30,000 feet. If that was the problem, why wasn't low-elevation, conventional bombing of those industrial targets the solution? There must have been a simultaneous shift in thinking that made civilians legitimate targets.

If so, shouldn't LeMay's firebombing campaign be considered a significant step in the decision to use nuclear weapons?

Answered by Herbert Bix:

Herbert Bix

Most historians recognize that the firebombing campaign paved the way for the use of atomic bombs. But the celebration of LeMay and the B-29 in Part 1 "Death Before Surrender" made it difficult for television viewers to see the real moral and political issues involved in the U.S. terror bombing of civilian homes.

 

Question: Why didn't the Smithsonian want to cover all of the information presented in this PBS American Experience when it first planned on displaying the Enola Gay?

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

I did not participate in the controversy so I can only speak from the information published about the event. I regard the outcome of the event as lamentable for a number of reasons that I will not explore here. My dismay is not over whether the exhibit should have shown graphically the horrors of the atomic bombs. I do not find that objectionable. But I believe that any such exhibit should have presented fairly the context of events. The Smithsonian script failed to do this. I think the first draft was literally indefensible as a presentation of the actions and decisions of the Japanese compared to those of American service personnel and policy makers. That judgment is based just on the information available at that time, not on later scholarship. The revisions did not go far enough to improve the original slant. Moreover, you can not get the full degree of imbalance by reading the script. You must also see the arrangement of the visual sections of the exhibit to grasp fully just how skewed the proposed exhibit would have been.

 

Where did the Smithsonian go wrong? My impression until recently was that the fundamental reason for the disaster was that the Smithsonian staff had conducted a thorough review of the literature and then concluded that the critics of the atomic bombs were vastly more persuasive. They reached this conclusion because they themselves were not scholars of these events. They thus lacked the perspective to see the myriad problems with the critical scholarship -- or the other camp for that matter. Since then, Robert P. Newman has published an article online ("Remember the Smithsonian's Atomic Bomb Exhibit? You Only Think You Know the Truth," History News Network, August 2, 2004) revealing that the now available papers of the staff do not reflect that they actually tapped into a reasonably representative sampling of the work of the obvious scholars in the field. In other words, the staff apparently did not just honestly find some scholarship more persuasive, they did not commence their effort by casting a fair net in their research.

A second and important reason why the Smithsonian exhibit did not reflect what was in the program is that the program benefits from a good deal of additional information that has come to light since the controversy. Notably, much radio intelligence information was declassified since the time the script was prepared. Also, important information from Japan as well as important scholarship has since emerged.

Perhaps the only bright spot from the controversy is that it has spurred important additional work by scholars that expands our knowledge and understanding of these events.

Answered by Austin Hoyt:

Austin Hoyt

In its commemoration in 1995 of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war against Japan, the Smithsonian did plan to present a lot of the background on the Pacific war and the atomic bomb. It planned an exhibit centering on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with panels of text lining the exhibition hall. Veterans groups objected to the text. The Smithsonian curators and consultant historians tried to sort it out -- to no avail.

Congress got involved, and the result was the curators of the exhibit were roundly criticized, the director of the Air and Space Museum was forced to resign and all the text relating to the exhibit was simply dropped. In announcing this, the Smithsonian concluded, as Barton Bernstein notes, "it was impossible to have both a commemoration and an analysis." What was left was the display of a plane that helped end the war without any effort to understand what happened.

Judgement at the Smithsonian, edited by Philip Nobile, Marlowe & Co., New York, 1995, contains the script that was dropped and an essay by Barton Bernstein which reviews and assesses the controversy.

 

Question: With the growing distancing in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States after the fall of Berlin, The Potsdam Conference, and in regards to how post-war Europe would be run, how much would you say the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a sort of "flexing" of the American military muscle towards the Soviet Union? -J.B., Boston, Massachusetts

Answered by Austin Hoyt:

This is an interesting question, and scholars are divided on this. Some deny there were any anti-Soviet motives in dropping the bomb. Others feel they were primary -- that the bomb was dropped not to end the war against Japan but in order to make the Soviet Union more tractable in Eastern Europe.

Those who argue that the bomb was primarily a shot across Stalin's bow point to tensions between the Truman administration and the Soviet Union which developed after the war against Hitler ended, the increasing tensions during the Potsdam conference, Secretary of War Henry Stimson's diary entry in May expressing his hope the conference could be delayed until the U.S. had the bomb "in hand" (i.e., successfully tested), and Secretary of State James Byrnes' desire to end the war before the Soviet Union entered it. While all this may be true, it does not mean the bomb was dropped for anti-Soviet motives. The consensus among historians is that the bomb was dropped to end the war.

Some, like Barton Bernstein and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, feel that intimidating the Soviet Union may have been "a bonus" but it was not the reason Truman dropped the bomb.

For a detailed study of the tensions between Truman and Stalin at this time, see Hasegawa's book, just released, Racing The Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan.

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

On the question of the role of U.S. concerns about the Soviets in the decision to use atomic bombs, I concur with the basic formulation by Barton Bernstein. He framed the decision process in 1945 as the "implementation of an assumption." That assumption arose during the Roosevelt Administration. It existed practically from the moment the program began to build an atomic bomb. That assumption was that if a workable weapon could be made, it would be used. That assumption was shared by the entire cast of President Roosevelt's advisers, and they formed the same cadre of advisers for President Truman. Those advisers did not identify any reason to rethink the issue of whether the bomb would be used and thus no one raised the question to Truman.

By the summer of 1945, dealing with the Soviets in the post war world clearly was seen by senior leaders, including Truman, as a major issue. But to the degree that Truman and other members of his administration recognized that the atomic bomb might potentially be useful in dealing with the Soviets, they viewed it as simply a "bonus" that would flow from employing the bomb for other reasons. In other words, remove the Soviet Union and Stalin from the scene and they still would have employed the atomic bombs.

I would add to this basic framework the following points.

From the insight on radio intelligence information we now have, I am convinced that even if you hypothesized that for some reason there would have been a decision to not use the bombs in perhaps May or June 1945, by late July anyone who conceivably could have been president (that is FDR, Henry Wallace, William O. Douglas, Harry Truman, Jimmy Byrnes or Thomas Dewey) would have authorized the bombs. The radio intelligence picture of the sterile prospects for diplomacy and the evidence of the resolution of the Japanese to continue the war in hopes of inflicting huge losses on the initial invasion attempt would have overcome any prior reasons for restraint.

I also believe that Truman's often expressed strong sense of responsibility for the decision was very sincere. Because he only came into the process at the very end, he did not realize fully how the decision process was linked deeply to a prior assumption that drove his advisers. He believed the decision in a real sense was his because he understood very well that the president bore the final responsibility. Historians might see things differently now, but I think President Truman would have been amazed to discover that anyone would later doubt that the decision was really his.

I further would point out that halting Soviet expansion involved more that merely international political gamesmanship. As I explained in an earlier question, hundreds of thousands of Japanese, mostly civilians, who fell into Soviet hands on the Asian continent perished. The Soviets were poised to attack Hokkaido when the war ended. Had the war gone on, they likely would have succeeded and added hundreds of thousands more Japanese to the massive list of the victims of Stalin. U.S. leaders understood this from the evidence emerging in Europe of Soviet actions, notably Poland. Thus, there was a moral dimension to efforts by U.S. leaders to block Stalin's ambitions that should not be overlooked.

 


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