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75 Years On: Reflections and Preflections on Hiroshima

We cannot change what happened, neither the heinous military nor the tragic moral stains that indelibly mark its occurrence.  But we can transcend it, rise above it, by naming it, acknowledging it, repudiating it, and committing ourselves to a greater expression of the people and society we imagine and hope ourselves to be.

A young person's solemn face appears in front of the 2011 Hiroshima Lantern Festival marking the atomic bomb. (Photo: Richard Riley/flickr/cc)

A young person's solemn face appears in front of the 2011 Hiroshima Lantern Festival marking the atomic bomb. (Photo: Richard Riley/flickr/cc)

This week is the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It is worthwhile re-examining what happened and what it can tell us about our world today. 

As is so often the case in complex—to say nothing of controversial—events, we have to scope out a little to see the context of what was going on at the time.  Doing so gives us a perspective rarely seen before. 

Though it wasn’t yet quit, Japan’s war in the Pacific was lost in October, 1944, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  There, the Japanese Imperial fleet was destroyed.  This was an ocean-based war and there was nothing left to defend the home islands from attack. 

So, beginning in March of 1945, the U.S. began uncontested saturation bombing of Japan.  Long range bombing runs over Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya, and Yokohama included scores, and later, hundreds of airplanes at a time. 

Regarding one such run, on March 10, 1945, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey wrote, “probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man.”  

On another run, in April 1945, 200 U.S. planes dropped 1,600 tons of incendiary explosives on Tokyo, obliterating 36 square miles of the inner city.  The updrafts from the heat tossed the airplanes around like toys.  The bombings were one of the most disproportional inflictions of sustained violence against a defenseless foe in the history of warfare.  Still, the Japanese had not surrendered. 

But by May, the Emperor recognized the inevitable.  The carnage was apocalyptic and escalating.  Defeat was imminent and unavoidable.  He instructed his cabinet to approach the Soviet Union and request its help in negotiating a surrender with the U.S.  The U.S. knew this because even before Pearl Harbor it had broken the Japanese codes. 

But the Soviet Union was conflicted.  At Yalta, in February 1945, Franklin Roosevelt had secured the promise from Stalin that ninety days after the end of the War in Europe, the Soviet Union would enter the War in the Pacific and help the U.S. secure the defeat of Japan.  So, Japan’s entreaties to the Soviet Union went nowhere. 

The War in Europe ended on May 8th, 1945.  May 8th plus 90 days is August 8th.  Remember, Hiroshima was August 6th.  The details of the timing are critical.

The first atomic bomb was exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16.  It held the possibility of inflicting such massive, instantaneous damage that Japan would be forced to surrender immediately, and unconditionally.  This was deemed imperative by U.S. authorities in order to keep the Soviets out of east Asia. 

If the Soviet Union entered east Asia, it would secure land there similar to what it had taken in eastern Europe while defeating Hitler.  There, it had occupied more than 150,000 square miles of what was Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and other countries. 

Also, before the War began in the Pacific, China had been in the midst of a civil war, between nationalists, supported by the U.S., and communists, supported by the Soviet Union.  That war had been interrupted by the World War, and would inevitably resume once the greater war was over. 

The communists, led by Mao Zedong, had the mass of the people behind them, and had been winning the civil war before it was suspended.  The Soviets would undoubtedly throw their weight behind the communists, tipping the most populous nation on earth into their camp.  This was crucial.

It would be the U.S.’s greatest nightmare to have fought the War to defeat one foe—fascism—only to lose it at the very end to another, perhaps even more menacing foe—communism.  There was also the important matter of the fate of the developing world. 

For the prior four centuries, European states had been colonial powers, amassing empires that spanned the globe.  The phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” was emblematic, and applied, albeit in lesser force, to other European nations as well:  France; Spain; Portugal; Germany; Belgium.  

But the Europeans had bankrupted themselves, both financially and morally, in two suicidal civil wars over the span of less than 40 years:  World Wars One and Two.  They would not be able to hold onto their colonies after the end of the War. 

That meant that the colonies—representing more than 90% of all the nations on earth—would be in play.  Most of them chafed under the yoke of Western imperial domination.  The Soviet Union, on the other hand, promised them a means to get out from under such servitude. 

It was going to be the greatest land grab in the history of the world, and the only plausible contenders for who would assume suzerainty over the developing world were the U.S. and the Soviet Union. 

It is important to remember, too, that during the 1930s, which had immediately preceded the War, capitalist economies throughout the world had collapsed in the Great Depression.  Industrial production plummeted, unemployment soared, and Western political systems approached instability.  It was the Depression that gave rise to Adolph Hitler.

But Russia’s economy had boomed during this decade.  Between 1929 and 1939, U.S. manufacturing output fell by 25%.  However, Soviet output exploded, growing by almost 500%.  This posed profound challenges to the viability of the Western economic system, and the legitimacy of Western leadership in the world. 

Finally, it was not lost on U.S. leadership that the greatest industrial enterprise in the history of the world, World War II, had been won, not by the laissez faire economic system of the U.S., but by the top-down, command-and-control system of the Soviet Union.  Allied victory was the greatest advertisement for the Soviet system that could have ever been contrived.

With all of these factors in play—east Asia, the Chinese civil war, the developing world, competing economic systems, and, of course, Japan itself—timing became critical. 

The first considered landing for U.S. forces onto the Japanese home islands was not until November, more than three months out.  The most likely invasion was not scheduled until January 1946, six months out.  But the War now had to be ended not in months, or even weeks, but in days. 

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So, a uranium-based bomb, named Little Boy, was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, two days before the Soviet Union was scheduled to enter the Pacific theater.  A plutonium-based bomb, named Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

Were they militarily necessary? 

Dwight D. Eisenhower, future president of the U.S. stated, "Japan was already defeated and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary."

This was echoed by Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Truman, who wrote, "The use of [the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender."

According to Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, "The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan." 

Major General Curtis LeMay commented on the bomb's use: "The War would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the War at all."

On August 14th, Japan announced its unconditional surrender.  General Douglas MacArthur accepted the surrender in a ceremony on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo bay on September 2nd.  The greatest war in the history of the world was over.  

The U.S. now stood astride the world like a colossus amid pigmies.  All of its traditional rivals had been destroyed in the War.  The Soviet Union itself had suffered 26 million casualties, 90 times the number of losses for the U.S.  The U.S. held more disproportionate power over all other nations than had ever occurred in the history of the world.  This was the moment where the U.S. ideology of Exceptionalism was truly born.

Harry Truman, who had ordered the dropping of the bombs, clumsily tried to paste together a belated exculpation, claiming that he had saved the lives of as many as one million American soldiers, lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan.  It was an entirely self-serving but vacant claim.  There is no record of any such estimate in any documents of the armed services of the time. 

The truth is that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, but they were used against the Soviet Union.  Truman admitted as much when he later wrote that he had ordered their use partially “in order to make the Soviets more manageable.”  It was the opening salvo in the Cold War which held the world in its menacing embrace for another 45 years. 

What can this history tell us about today? 

The U.S. is willing to use nuclear weapons even when they are not militarily necessary, to achieve its political and economic objectives.  This becomes important today as China challenges the U.S. for economic primacy in the world, and as the U.S. stumbles with its own self-inflicted injuries incurred through the COVID 19 crisis. 

In 2014, China passed the U.S. as the number one economy in the world in purchasing power parity terms.  The date estimated for its passing in absolute terms was around 2025.  But now, with the U.S.’s stumble, it is possible that by the time it finally emerges from the COVID debacle China will already be the largest economy in the world. 

The psychic shock to the U.S. as it is displaced as the “number one country in the world” will be profound, partly because the people are not prepared for it, but also because the politicians appear not willing to even broach the possibility.  We hear escalating rumblings about military efforts to “contain” China, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons and even full-scale war.  These are idiocy.

Far better would be for the U.S. to examine the sources of its relative decline, and work to fix those.  Those include the fact that it was U.S. corporations that eviscerated the industrial heart of America in order to establish lower cost operations in—wait for it—China.  They include the fact that the U.S. has spent more than $6 trillion in the past two decades on fruitless wars in the Middle East, money that could have completely rebuilt its crumbling infrastructure. 

They include the fact that the U.S. spends twice what other industrial nations spend on health care and gets inferior outcomes.  If it only spent the average of what other industrial nations spend, it would free up some $2 trillion a year for reinvestment in building a more competitive, sustainable economy and a more just, inclusive society. 

There’s one other perspective that might help us avoid an apocalyptic choice to use nuclear weapons again.  It is tied up in the same reconciliation about racism that the U.S. is going through right now in response to the George Floyd killing. 

The U.S. was born in a soil saturated with racism.  That was simply the milieu of the times.  And Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not have occurred without the same racism having informed the decision about using nuclear weapons on people deemed to be inferior. 

But though the soil of the founding was rancid, the seed itself contained the germ of great ideals:  that all men are created equal; that they possess natural rights that cannot be taken away; that they have the right to choose their own government; and that they have the right to be protected from abusive authority.  Those ideals remain available to us, still, today.  But only if we prove worthy of them.

The genetic DNA of America’s founding in a soil of racism and genocide cannot be extirpated, it cannot be changed.  We carry it inside of ourselves, as part of who we are.  But people and cultures are not plants.  If you plant an avocado seed, you cannot expect to harvest peaches.  But in the case of peoples and cultures, inherited traits can be changed. 

The determinative facts of U.S. culture are not where it came from, but what its people do with the opportunities, values, and tools they have.  They can rise above inherited racism and become the nation that its founders aspired to be, the one that still inspires noble action among people today. 

The same applies to the learnings from Hiroshima.  We cannot change what happened, neither the heinous military nor the tragic moral stains that indelibly mark its occurrence.  But we can transcend it, rise above it, by naming it, acknowledging it, repudiating it, and committing ourselves to a greater expression of the people and society we imagine and hope ourselves to be.  It is the only option for a sane, safe, and civilized future.

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series which includes World War I, The InterWar Years, The Cold War, and other titles. He is the founder of The Global Uplift Project which builds small-scale infrastructure projects in the developing world to improve humanity’s capacity for self-development. 

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