Monday, August 7, 2017

Original Child Bomb: What We Talk About When We Talk About The Bomb (Part 4)

This is a continuation of a short history of the decision to drop the bomb. The previous section, about the saturation bombing campaign as a precursor to dropping the atomic bomb, can be found below (part 3). 

The first part in the series can be found here (part 1). The second can be found here (part 2).

The Soviet Angle

The Soviet Union had promised to enter the Pacific War three months after victory in Europe. That would be mid-August. The Allies knew that the Japanese High Command feared this happening - since the Soviet army was only, by all calculations, ten days away from Tokyo.

After the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima two days went by before the Japanese High Command convened. Despite the strange communiques to the command about the power of the bomb and its devastation, the command did not convene immediately to discuss surrender. What was another city destroyed to them? They were only interested in a surrender that maintained the imperial system. The saturation bombing had been going on for five months. The callousness that had been created by the massive bombing campaign, that had gone into the decision to drop the bomb, existed with the military on both sides. 

But then, on August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. The High Command convened six hours after hearing this news. (Five Myths of Nuclear WeaponsWard Wilson, 2013, p 31) "In a careful analysis of Japanese records between August 6 and August 17, the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa found only two statements (out of twelve) referring to the impact of the bombs alone. The rest mentioned bombs and Soviet action or Soviet action alone." (Dower, 243

It is not that the bomb had NO EFFECT, it is that it was not the ONLY thing that ended the war. This is important - because the myth of the bomb being solely responsible for ending the war gave the US military free reign (for four decades) in creating and building a nuclear arsenal and using overwhelming air power in almost every conflict.

"Many other high-ranking Japanese, including the most militant diehards, regarded the Soviet attack as the true tipping point, sufficient in itself to prompt immediate surrender." (Dower, 242)

Red Army entering Berlin, 1945
It wasn't only the Japanese that feared the Soviet Union. The US had had a fearful eye on the Red Army as possibly the only threat to postwar world US hegemony since the middle of the war. General Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project, stated this in sworn testimony: "I think it's important to state…I think it is well known - that there was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project (September 1942), any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis. I didn't go along with the attitude of the country as a whole that Russia was a gallant ally. I always had suspicions and the project was conducted on that basis. Of course, that was so reported to the President." (Dower, p 246; Atomic Energy Commission, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, p 173; Groves' memoir, Now It Can Be Told, p 132, 141)

It's a cliché now, but it's still true. The dropping of the atomic bombs were not the last shots fired in WWII, but the first shots fired in the Cold War. It was very much a show of force, not against Japan, but directed at Stalin. They also wanted the war to end before the Soviet Union made claims on Japanese territory. The US did not want to share occupation duties with the communists in Japan as they were forced to do in Europe.

The Angle of Partisan Politics

 Another angle that is less talked about is the angle of partisan politics. The Manhattan Project had cost over a trillion dollars. This is in terms of the economy of the 1940's. It's an astronomical sum. Many people around President Truman were worried that if the bomb was not used, the opposing party (The Republicans) could point at this seemingly useless boondoggle and cry "Foul! You wasted taxpayer's money in a time of war! For what?"

Byrnes, Cover of Time, September 1945
Also, there was the question of continued research. James F. Byrnes, Secretary of State at the time, and member of the Interim Committee said: "How would you get Congress to appropriate money for atomic energy research if you do not show results for the money which has been spent already?" (Dower, p 250)

So, "using the atomic bombs as flamboyantly as possible…complemented this agenda but also introduced one by helping to ensure broad support for a post-hostilities commitment to developing nuclear energy."(Dower, p 245)

(A side note: The Franck Report referred to this political consideration as a warning: "Congress and the American public will demand a return for their money.")

It is important to understand that these politicians allowed partisan politics to help make the decision to drop the bomb for them. Instead of thinking "shame, shame" (what's the point?), for me, one question arises: how can we leave the production and possible use of these weapons to partisan politics? Adding to that, another question: how can we leave the decisions on the use of something that can annihilate the world to any group of human beings? The power is too great, too frightening, for anyone to handle. Partisan politics and individual flaws versus hundreds of thousands of lives?

Aftermath and Culpability

So, we've gone over the same ground that historians have been plowing for the last seventy years, and found some of the same old truths: that a good part of the decision to drop the bomb was to end the war quickly (before the Soviets had a chance to invade), intimidating the Soviet Union, and preempting partisan political criticism at home.

What I find missing from the story is that the Japanese High Command were culpable in helping maintain the myth that the bomb was what made them capitulate. Many in the military and the government commented that the Soviet entry AND the use of the bombs were "in a sense, a gift from the gods "(Hirohito and the making of modern Japan, Herbert P. Bix, 2000, 509-10). By pointing out that they were overwhelmed, they could surrender unconditionally with their honor intact. And the American military could point to their statements about the power of the weapon to bear up the myth that the bomb was the decisive factor in ending the war.

Reliance on Overwhelming Force: 
Legacy of Death & Ashes

It is sad that the US military and the culture in general still relies on this outdated story of the bomb - as the triumph of overwhelming force - as the truth of how WWII ended. The many threads that led to the end provides a much more complicated picture (I didn't even begin to crack the surface). The US continues this strategy of overwhelming force to this day in conventional terms (saturation bombing, drones, shock and awe), along with the constant background threat of nuclear annihilation.

But how has the use of overwhelming force worked in the last seventy years? 

It has been estimated that 667,557 tons of bombs (including 32,557 tons of napalm) were dropped on Korea (The Korean War: a history, Bruce Cumings, Modern Library, 2010, p 159) Was the US victorious? No.

The estimate for bombs dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos by US forces is somewhere around 7 million tons - 3 1/2 times the tonnage dropped in all of WWII (Micheal Clodfelter, Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars, 1792—1991. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 1995, p. 225) (See also, List of Bombs dropped in the Vietnam War/WikipediaThe US lost the war in Vietnam. 

And this, from Nick Turse, Senior Editor/Alternet, about bombs dropped over Iraq: "In 1991, the United States unleashed a bombing campaign of staggering proportions against Iraq: 120,000 sorties were launched and 265,000 bombs dropped. From then on, the missions never stopped. From 1991 to 2003, the U.S. and its allies conducted a low-level air war to enforce no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, while attacking Iraq’s air defenses and other targets. In February 2003, the U.S. would again conduct a blistering “shock and awe” campaign and, by mid-April, Iraq had been subjected to 41,000 sorties and 27,000 bombs dropped. The U.S. air war would continue on as, year after year, U.S. planes attacked targets, killing enemy fighters and civilians alike."  (Nick Turse/Alternet, November 14, 2011) Iraq is in chaos. No one won anything. 

The US is in its seventeenth year of fighting in Afghanistan. I could not find the statistics for tonnage of bombs dropped on Afghanistan during the US' seventeen year war there, but in 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped at least 26,171 bombs. As of this writing, I have no idea what the "Trump strategy" will be - but these strategies are less about who sits behind the desk in the oval office and more about groupthink and habit in the Pentagon. So, we can probably expect more of the same.  

What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Bombs:
Civilian Deaths

What I've failed to mention when citing all these statistics for bomb tonnage dropped is the grotesque and incalculable tragedy of civilian deaths. The estimated Korean civilian deaths in the Korean War is a staggering 2,730,000 (not all from falling bombs, obviously). The estimate for the Vietnam War is an equally horrifying two million. (Civilian Casualty Ratio/Wikipedia) Two million people! (For civilian dead in Iraq, see Iraq Body Count.) 
Can you process that in terms of your own culture, your own country? How have these staggering numbers, including the numbers for deaths with only one bomb (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) do in terms of numbing us to horrors suffered now, on a daily basis, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Yemen, all over the world, simply because the numbers are smaller?

 We need to end this legacy of the use of overwhelming force. Who has benefited from this? The only answer I can come up with is - a few military careers and those corporations who produce the machinery of war.  

I end this long section with some wise words from an Afghan soldier: “We know from the past 40 years that bullets don’t stop war.” (The War America Can't Win: how the Taliban is regaining control in Afghanistan, The Guardian, August 3, 2017)

Environmental Disaster, Economic Devastation & The New Nuclear Race (mini-nukes)

Hiroshima radiation burn victim

Research that asks questions about the role of the Bomb 
in ending the war:

Other Resources:

Cultures of War by John W. Dower

The Violent American Century by John W. Dower

A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist 

The Deaths of Others: The fate of civilians in America's wars  
by John Tirman

Article from the NY Times (2012): 
Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?

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