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Friday, August 06, 2004  

Hiroshima -- 59 years ago today

Thanks to Zeynep Toufe and the rest of the non-mainstream media for reminding us that the United States invaded Hiroshima 59 years ago on this day in 1945. This horrible event should never be forgotten, and it should be a constant reminder of why no country should ever use nuclear technology to harm others. It's sad to know that we're the only country that has gone and used this technology to harm others, and while we warn others not to do the same, we often justify our inhumane killing of so many Japanese residents back in 1945. Sojourner's magazine has an interview with Gar Alperovitz, author of Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. Howard Zinn discusses some of the same motivations that Alperovitz discusses, in his book, A Peoples' History of the United States. I've pasted pieces of the interview below -- pieces that address myths about the invasion, reasons for bombing, parallels to today, and citizen empowerment on the issue:

Sojourners: What's the consensus among experts about the decision to bomb Hiroshima? Was it necessary to use the bomb to forestall an invasion of Japan?

Alperovitz: The use of the atomic bomb, most experts now believe, was totally unnecessary. Even people who support the decision for various reasons acknowledge that almost certainly the Japanese would have surrendered before the initial invasion planned for November. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stated that officially in 1946.

We found a top-secret War Department study that said when the Russians came in, which was August 8, the war would have ended anyway. The invasion of Honshu, the main island, was not scheduled to take place until the spring of 1946. Almost all the U.S. military leaders are on record saying there were options for ending the war without an invasion. So minimally, as Hanson Baldwin, The New York Times writer, put it, if the goal of the bombing was to end the war without an invasion, that was unnecessary, so it was "a mistake." That's Baldwin's phrase. Now, did American policy-makers know this at the time? That's a slightly different question. Many scholars now believe that the president understood the war could be ended long before the November landing. J. Samuel Walker, a conservative, official government historian, states in his expert study, perhaps with slight exaggeration but not much, that the consensus of the scholarly studies is that the bomb was known at the time to be unnecessary.

Sojourners: How do you explain the large gap between that consensus and the prevailing popular opinion, which is that the bombing was necessary to prevent the invasion?

Alperovitz: The popular myth didn't just happen, it was created by several official acts, and by many things President Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson did. During the early postwar period, there was a slow growth of criticism of the bomb, including from the religious community and from some of the important radio spokespersons of the time. Many conservatives at that point, actually more than liberals, were raising serious questions about the bombing. The Calhoun Commission of liberal Protestant theologians for the Federal Council of Churches-Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett were members-criticized the bombing, both as unnecessary and as immoral, a sin demanding some sort of contrition. As the criticism grew, there was an organized, semi-official response to put it down. The argument was that the bomb was the least abhorrent choice we had available. The documents available show that isn't true-but it was an extraordinarily successful propaganda effort.

They wanted to close down the debate for several reasons. One was to protect the president. Two, it was the beginning of the Cold War period, and they wanted no one tampering with the moral importance of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons build-up was going on, and they saw it as necessary to fight against communism. Any undercutting of the moral legitimacy of nuclear weapons might undercut the fight against communism. Besides, they had reputations to protect-they were all involved.

Sojourners: Why is there a responsibility in a democracy for historians to speak honestly about the past, even if they're critical of leaders or institutions?

Alperovitz: It's not just important for historians. One of the lessons from Hiroshima is how terribly small the group of people was who made decisions that had incredible world-shaking implications. It raises the most fundamental questions about the future. How do we organize decision making in a democracy when the possibility of destroying the planet is in the hands of one person? If we study the only time nuclear weapons were actually used, we might possibly learn something about how we can prevent future use.

Sojourners: Is the decision-making structure any more accountable today than it was in 1945?

Alperovitz: It's a little more complex than it once was, but I don't think it's greatly changed. I think the Gulf war decision was made very much the way the Hiroshima decision was made-by a small group in the White House, against the basic views of the military. I don't think the military wanted the bomb to be used, on the whole. They were not asked much about it. The other thing we learn from this is the way information can be manipulated so that for 50 years a whole society is taught to believe a myth. That is a critical issue for democracy. Can we find ways to challenge the myth making of a small group of elite policy-makers protecting themselves to support their policies?

Sojourners: Some people have posited a moral equivalence between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, especially in the response of the two countries toward reconciliation.

Alperovitz: There's no excuse for Pearl Harbor, but it is among the least of the brutalities the Japanese committed. There is the rape of Nanking, the bombing of Shanghai, the brutality against prisoners, the Korean "comfort women," the notorious Unit-731 that did vivisection on prisoners to teach medical students-outrageous things the Japanese have to come to terms with. They have a long way to go. They have come close to expressing sorrow, but not regret. Pearl Harbor was an unjustified surprise attack, but it was a military target. I think the latest figure is 2,500 people killed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both civilian targets predominantly-that's why they were targeted. Hiroshima was selected because it was a significant, unblemished, mainly civilian target, available for the psychological effect of terror bombing. That's very explicit in the documents; it's not controversial. That's what they were doing. And ultimately some 300,000 civilians were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki...

And Alperovitz on citizen empowerment on the nuclear weapons issue:

In general, there is a tendency among some politicians and military leaders, though not all, to think of nuclear weapons as essential to American security. Some keep pushing for more nuclear weapons, even though it means other people are going to get them. The notion of us having a threat is bound to create counter-threats...

What's interesting is that some of the most hardheaded Cold War politicians, Paul Nitze and Robert McNamara for instance, have been saying that these weapons may have once had a role, but they don't anymore. Now they are so easy to make and so small that they can be smuggled into this country and blow up the next World Trade Center or Oklahoma City. They are much more a threat to us than they are an advantage. The question is how we begin to move to a different stage. It's not about proliferation talks, it's about whether citizens speak up about any of these questions...

I'm from Wisconsin, the state McCarthy dominated in the 1950s. If you looked around in the 1950s, people were very frightened to speak, and the idea that you could begin moving in a different direction was ridiculous. It seems somewhat similar to the current situation. But what's obvious, if you have any historical perspective, is that these stages don't necessarily last forever...

The way you change things is by slowly beginning to push forward. Over time something begins to happen. It happened in the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement. All of those movements were totally dominated by a conservative culture that didn't seem to allow any progress until people of goodwill began to build and slowly, patiently, changed the culture. I believe it's possible to do that with regard to nuclear weapons...

One of the lessons is how easy it is in our current democracy for very important things to be distorted and for people to believe-on the basis of limited information-that the only thing to do is go to war or drop a major bomb. Democratic societies are not well-structured for getting information out. I don't think any of us have faced how to deal with that.

posted by Anjali Taneja | 8/06/2004 08:47:00 PM | |


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