Tomorrow's opening by the Smithsonian Institution of an exhibit featuring the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, has occasioned the protest of hundreds of prominent scholars, writers and religious leaders. The reason is that the plane is being put forward with no mention of the huge number of civilians killed at Hiroshima (and subsequently at Nagasaki), and no acknowledgment of the ongoing domestic and worldwide controversy over the use of the atomic bomb. Instead, Air and Space Museum Director General John ''Jack'' Dailey has put the emphasis elsewhere -- on the plane ``in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement.''
News of the century
In 1999, a distinguished group of journalists deemed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the most important news event of the 20th century. A recent poll found that more Americans age 30-39 disapprove than approve of the bombings by a margin of 50 percent to 45 percent -- with almost as many (49 percent to 46 percent) also disapproving in the 18-29 age group. One of the main reasons why controversy still persists after almost 60 years is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is very little evidence that top U.S. military leaders at the time believed that the atomic bomb was needed to end the war without a costly invasion. Indeed, quite the opposite appears to be true.
Adm. William D. Leahy, President Truman's chief of staff and the man who presided over meetings of both the U.S. chiefs of staff and the combined U.S.-British chiefs of staff, minced few words. Seven weeks before Hiroshima, his diary shows that he believed that the war could be ended in a manner that achieved all U.S. security aims.
`This barbarous weapon'
In his memoirs, the conservative admiral wrote: ``[T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . . . [I]n being the first to use it, we . . . adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.''
Among the many other top World War II leaders who are on record as stating that the bomb was unnecessary are the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry H. ''Hap'' Arnold; Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet; Adm. William F. Halsey Jr., commander of the U.S. Third Fleet; and the famous ''hawk'' who commanded the 21st Bomber Command, Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall privately proposed that the bombs be dropped first on a military target such as a large naval base -- then, if that didn't work, that civilians be warned to leave before a city were targeted.
In his memoirs, President -- and former general -- Dwight D. Eisenhower reported the following reaction when Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed him that the atomic bomb would be used: ''During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression, and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.'' In a 1963 interview, he put it bluntly: ``[I] it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing.''
Notwithstanding these and many related facts, writers who defend the atomic bombings claim that a fanatical Japanese military leadership would have fought on, no matter what. It is, of course, impossible ever to fully resolve the historical dispute, because the bombs were, in fact, used. However, the evidence that we have strongly indicates that the Japanese emperor would likely have ended the war without the use of the atomic bomb -- just as so many U.S. military leaders believed.
Top U.S. leaders were advised as early as April 1945 -- four months before the bombing -- that a combination of the forthcoming declaration of war by the Soviet Union (which occurred almost simultaneously with the bombings) plus a clarification of the surrender terms for the emperor would almost certainly have brought an end to the fighting. With three months still to go before the November invasion could begin, the bomb could have been used if the shock of the Red Army attack failed to produce the expected results. When the Japanese Army general staff issued a statement on surrender, it explained that the existence of the nation was threatened ''as a result of Russia's entrance into the war.'' No mention was made of the atomic bomb.
There are also ongoing questions of morality and international law involved in the Truman administration's decision to sacrifice large numbers of civilians. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who during World War II helped plan the bombing of Japanese cities as an aide to LeMay, recently observed that he and LeMay ''were behaving like war criminals.'' A prosecutor, McNamara says, would have argued that directly targeting cities was not proportional to our war aims, thus prohibited under international law. He quotes LeMay as stating explicitly: ``If we lose the war, we'll be tried as war criminals.''
An additional reason why the bombing is still controversial is that it was done in a way that minimized the possibility of what later came to be called ''arms-control'' measures. Instead of initiating some kind of ''confidence-building'' negotiation in advance with the Soviets (as many had advised at the time), a major goal was to demonstrate what Stimson called the ''master card'' of American diplomacy in as dramatic a way as possible.
The role of force
Obviously, the issues surrounding Hiroshima still bear on the role of force in foreign policy and on the possible future use of nuclear weapons. The Clinton administration explicitly threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons in Korea, and the Bush administration's policies in general -- to say nothing of its new more-aggressive nuclear posture -- open the clear possibility that such weapons will be used in questionable ways.
In light of these many considerations, however one judges the numerous still-debated issues concerning the bombing of Hiroshima, the Smithsonian as one of the nation's premier educational institutions had, and still has, an obligation to present all sides and all important aspects of the continuing controversy.
Gar Alperovitz, author of The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, is Lionel R. Bauman Professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Copyright 2003 Miami Herald