Sunday, August 6, 2017

Original Child Bomb: What We Talk About When We Talk About The Bomb (Part 3)

Today is the 72nd Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. This is the third section of the series, Original Child Bomb, some of which explores why it's important to acknowledge this anniversary each year. The past is present. The decision-making process that led to the dropping of the bomb has had a direct influence on both conventional US military strategy and US views about its nuclear arsenal. 

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

The Conventional Narrative

August 6th, 1945: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved countless lives.

This is the story we in the US are continually told: because of the fierce and almost suicidal fighting on Okinawa by the Japanese (true), and the appearance of kamikaze pilots in the war at sea (true), many in the Pentagon assumed that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would cost the lives of up to a million US soldiers. The story goes on to say that, because the US made the decision to drop two atomic bombs, Japan immediately surrendered - saving countless US and Japanese lives. As Ward Wilson said in Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013): "If nuclear weapons were a religion, Hiroshima would be the first miracle." (p 23)

The lesson learned - and the legacy for military strategy - was that overwhelming force caused the capitulation of the enemy. So, the question is: did the weapons work in the way American history says they did?

Five Months of Saturation Bombing

Nothing exists in a vacuum. The months leading up to the decision to drop the bomb are as important to remember as the dropping of the bomb itself. In the last five months of the war there was an intense fire-bombing campaign over Japan. Incendiary bombs, filled with napalm (what were then called "jelly bombs"), were dropped on a total of sixty-three cities.

Tokyo Firebombing
On March 9th, 1945, Tokyo was fire-bombed. 334 bombers dropped 2000 tons of bombs on a target measured three by four miles. Winds generated by the flames ranged from 28 to 55 miles an hour. It was claimed by B-29 crews flying at 6000 feet that "the heat was so intense the crews had to don oxygen masks." (John W. Dower, Cultures of War, p 181) Japanese authorities put the fatalities at about 84,000 (most historians find this a conservative number - it was probably more like 100,000). One million were left homeless.

Tokyo Firebombing
Because most of the buildings in Japanese cities were built of wood and paper, they easily burnt to the ground, leaving very little after the fire-storms. What John Swope, a photographer for Life Magazine, and one of the first American photographers to land on the islands, called "Ghost cities" or "Dead Cities." (A Letter From Japan: The Photographs of John Swope) Several thousand US airmen lost their lives in these raids - and the tragedy of most of these deaths is that they were predominantly due to mechanical failure. By this time, the Japanese offered very little resistance. There was nothing left to resist with. Many US airmen, in diaries and journals from the time, called the raids "milk runs."

Between March 9-19, 1945, there was the saturation bombing of Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, and Kawasaki. In late May, the saturation bombing continued on Tokyo. The NY Times headline on May 30, 1945 read: "Fifty-One square miles burned out in six B-29 attacks on Tokyo." (Dower, p 183) These raids were in keeping with the Allied strategy of saturation bombing in Germany, specifically targeting civilian populations, from 1942 through the end of the war.

Tokyo Firebombing (mother & child)
Franklin D. Roosevelt had, in 1939,  beseeched all nations to refrain from “inhuman barbarism,” of attacking civilian centers. In the recent past, he noted such assaults had “resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children.” (The German bombing of Guernica, The Japanese bombing of Shanghai) But by 1942, targeting civilian populations had become a routine Allied strategy. 

Callousness on Both Sides

A report from the US Office of Information Services that was released after the war claimed that in those five months 310,000 Japanese civilians had been killed, 412,000 injured, and 9 million rendered homeless. "For five flaming months…a thousand all-American planes and 20,000 American men brought homelessness, terror and death to an arrogant foe, and left him practically a nomad in an almost city-less land." ("Highlights of the Twentieth Century Air Force," Office of Information Services, Headquarters, Army Air Force, 1945; Dower, p 192) A side note about the saturation bombings: the transportation system that fed the industrial war machine was largely left untouched. The Americans did not want to have to rebuild the system when they finally occupied the mainland. If you think about it, the callousness generated over those five months made the decision to drop a nuclear bomb on civilians that much easier.

Hirohito walks through ruins of Tokyo
While these bombings were going on - rendering most of the cities to sticks and ash, US submarines were blockading the home islands. Nothing was coming or going from the mainland. Did the saturation bombing or the blockade cause the Japanese High Command to consider surrender? No, not to an unconditional surrender. But at the time, they were seeking back channels - through the Soviet Union and others - for a negotiated peace. What they were looking for was a guarantee that the imperial system would remain intact. While hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were dying all around them, they were still looking for a way out of unconditional surrender, for a "peace with honor." Honor, namely, for themselves. During the summer of 1945, war crimes trials were beginning in Germany, and it must not have been lost on Japanese generals that this would be their fate if they surrendered unconditionally.

The US Decision 

Meanwhile, back in the US, the Interim Committee (a secret high-level group created in May 1945 by United States Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, at the urging of leaders of the Manhattan Project and with the approval of Harry S. Truman to advise on matters pertaining to nuclear energy) were meeting to decide what to do with the nuclear weapon, the product of The Manhattan Project. The project had been started with the belief that the scientists were in a race against Germany. But through intelligence reports, it was clear that by 1944 Germany did not have the capabilities to build a bomb. So, who were we continuing to build the bomb for?

Oppenheimer with General Leslie Groves at Trinity Site
There were misgivings in the Interim Committee, and among the scientists who had created the bomb, about its use on civilians. There was the Franck Report of June 1945, a statement issued by scientists at the metallurgical laboratories in Chicago against the use of the bomb on civilians, and the Szilard Petition, a group of 70 scientists at Los Alamos who signed a petition that made a similar statement. It was much too little, too late. Only a few scientists actually quit the project because of ethical qualms. The project was, in Oppenheimer's terms, "too technically sweet" to walk away from. 

Oppenheimer himself was for the use of the weapon because, in his own convoluted thinking, he believed that "if the bomb is to make war impossible, it must have a very strong effect." So, like the military, he sought peace - even an ultimate global peace - through overwhelming use of force. He also said this: "The elements of surprise and terror are intrinsic to the use of nuclear weapons." (Dower, p 211) Between Stimson, on the government side, and Oppenheimer, on the production side, it was almost unanimous that the bomb be used as a test on some city that was relatively untouched - a test for both physical and psychological damage.

Surprisingly, there was a lone dissenter on the Interim Committee. Under Secretary of the Navy, Ralph Bard, who wrote the "Memorandum on the use of the S-1 Bomb," argued for warning the Japanese ahead of time of the exact nature of the bomb, fearing the decision to drop it on civilians would have an adverse effect on "the position of the US as a great humanitarian nation." (Dower, p 232)

When the decision was made, the actual invasion plans had already been drawn up, and were set to begin in November of 1945 on a southern island, followed by an invasion force into the Tokyo-Yokohama area around March of 1946.  Knowing what they knew about Japanese resistance during the bombings, and how few actual cities were left standing, why the extreme haste in using the bombs? By the fall, starvation alone, and the unrest it would have created for the government, would have brought the Japanese to the table. Surrender could have happened without the bombs, Soviet entry into the war, or an allied invasion.

By this time, because of the massive incendiary bombing of civilians (for years, on all fronts, by everyone), reliance on overwhelming force had become gospel and second nature. In May of 1945, the Interim Committee decided that "the number of people that would be killed by the bomb would not be greater in general magnitude than the number already killed in fire raids." (Dower, p 225)

Hiroshima aftermath

In the documentary The Fog of War, former US Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, recalled that General Curtis LeMay, the man who relayed the Presidential order to drop the nuclear bombs on Japan, had said: "If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals…" 

"And I think he’s right," McNamara said. "He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?"

Enola Gay flying from explosion over Hiroshima


Finishing the history of the decision making process (the Soviet angle, partisan politics, the bomb as the first shot fired in the Cold War, and the spread of the Bomb Myth with help from the Japanese High Command)

Shadow of someone running,
etched in stone by the Hiroshima blast

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