Cut-and-pasted from my Tumblr. :)
It's been years since I sat down and read a whole book in a day. Historian Ronald Takaki's 1995 book Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb
makes a strong, concise argument, based on historical documents such as diaries, letters, and memoirs, that the bomb was not dropped with the intention of ending the war and saving lives, but as a show of force aimed at America's rival, Russia.
Being a historical ignoramus, I've long wondered about the reasoning behind the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Reading Professor Takaki's book was prompted by my encounter with this posting
inappropriately smug, if I'm honest
mixture of important points and odd mistakes.
The book supports some of the statements in that posting, while undercutting others, including the original image from White Is
: Germany was the original planned target for the atomic bomb, in response to a perceived German nuclear threat. (Germany surrendered in May before the first successful A-bomb test in July, so I suppose we'll never know if the US would have gone through with it.)
On to Takaki's core argument.
President Truman's statement that dropping the bombs saved "half a million" American lives is contradicted by the actual estimates provided to him in June 1945 by the Joint War Plans Committee for the invasion plan: 40,000 killed, not 500,000. The total expected to be killed, wounded, or missing was 193,500, still well short of "half a million".
General Eisenhower, in command of Allied forces in Western Europe, opposed the use of the bomb: Japan was all but defeated and seeking a dignified surrender, so dropping the bomb was "unncessary" and "no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives". General MacArthur, commander in the Pacific, was not consulted about the bomb's use, and called it "completely unnecessary from a military point of view". He, too, regarded the Japanese as already defeated. Admiral Leahy thought even the invasion wouldn't be necessary.
Keen to end the war, the Japanese asked Moscow to negotiate a conditional surrender on their behalf, one in which the emperor would retain his position. Despite a plan approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to offer this compromise, the President insisted on the "unconditional surrender" that had become a slogan popular with the public.
Takaki argues that the real purpose behind dropping the bomb was to demonstrate to Stalin that the US now possessed atomic weapons. Truman was to meet with Stalin and Churchill in Potsdam for negotiations; that meeting was delayed, and work on the Trinity test sped up, so that Truman was able to boast to Stalin of the successful test at the Potsdam meeting. At the same meeting, Secretary of State Byrnes advised the President that exploding an atomic bomb in anger could help to intimidate Russia. This was part of a general strategy of demonstrating US military power to the Soviets (the massive firebombing of Berlin and Dresden, which paved the way for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had earlier been part of the same strategy). Director Groves, leader of the Manhattan Project, similarly understood that "Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis."
IMHO, Takaki makes a powerful case that the most common justification for using the atomic bomb is incorrect. However - to return to the real topic of the original posting - he devotes a chapter to the importance of the "racialization" of the Japanese enemy in the decision to drop the bomb. By the time of the war, anti-Japanese racism had been an ugly part of American culture for decades; with Pearl Harbour, it exploded into a vicious, dehumanising frenzy.
As Takaki points out, in Europe, it was the Nazis who were the enemy, not the Germans, and they were not characterised as subhuman vermin who should be exterminated. I knew a little about the cruelties inflicted by Japanese soldiers - similarly indoctrinated with racial hatred - on their enemies; I didn't know that US soldiers took body parts as trophies. (tbh, this short chapter knocked the breath out of me.) Combining these attitudes with the statements of some military leaders - "For us, THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN." - makes it easy to believe that, given the choice between nuking Dresden and nuking Hiroshima, the US would have chosen the latter.
Let me end on a couple of points. Firstly, throughout the book, Takaki quotes military leaders, political advisors, and scientists who opposed the use of the bomb (or suggested alternatives, such as a demonstration or use on a strictly military target) not just on strategic grounds but on moral grounds. Thank gods. Secondly, two things about Nagasaki, which was destroyed just two days after the first bomb was used. With Hiroshima utterly destroyed, cutting off all communications, it's possible the Japanese simply didn't have enough time to surrender. And this: Truman didn't know the second bomb was going to be dropped (at least, not so soon); he immediately ordered the military not to drop a third. Blimey!
ETA: Hiroshima atomic bombing did not lead to Japanese surrender, historians argue nearing 70th anniversary
(ABC, 5 August 2015)