In spite of the influence of WWII veterans in 1995, ABC News produced a one-hour special report that year that asked most of the uncomfortable questions that much of the American public didn’t want to hear. From the perspective of 2015, this report is a remarkable example of the mainstream media doing the job it is supposed to do. In this age of 24-hour cable news and reduced attention spans, it is difficult to imagine that such a report would be made this year. But I will just report. You decide.
Chronological Summary of the Special Report
Hiroshima: Why the bomb was dropped
Directed by Roger Goodman, Produced by Sherry Jones and Elizabeth Sams, Written by Peter Jennings and Sherry Jones, ABC News, August 1995
This special report on the 50th. anniversary of the end of WWII began by stating that Americans know very little about the decision to drop the atomic bomb. The reasons for the decision were never widely known.
The report begins by asking five questions that will be addressed:
a) Did the use of the atom bombs shorten the war?
b) Did it save American lives?
c) Was it necessary?
d) Were there alternatives?
e) Did the United States need to be the first and only nation to use an atomic bomb?
This report was produced as a reaction to the recent cancellation of the Smithsonian exhibit about the atomic bombings that was planned for 1995. It was to be an exhibit portraying the full context of the atom bombings, from the point of view of America and Japan, as well as the international community. It was shut down by strong opposition from WWII veterans and 81 members of the US Congress for being “unpatriotic.”
The official history has always claimed that the atom bombs were justified because they shortened the war and saved a greater number of both American and Japanese lives that would have been lost if the war had continued.
Official history came to be portrayed in such things as the Hollywood film called The Beginning or the End. It claimed to tell the story of how Truman decided to use the bomb. It had to be approved by the White House, which insisted on revisions. There were factual mistakes in the film. For example, it claimed that the Enola Gay came under Japanese attack as it approached Hiroshima, and that American planes had dropped warning messages on Hiroshima. Neither of these claims was true.
The Manhattan Project (the secret program to build the atomic bombs) was launched by President Roosevelt in 1942, but President Harry Truman learned of it only after Roosevelt died in 1945, and after Stalin had learned about it from his spies.
When Truman became president he was regarded as insignificant, a lowly figure whom no one had expected to become president—he had been vice president for only 82 days when Roosevelt died. The Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, was unimpressed by Truman. Stimson was cautious and conservative about using the bomb.
James Byrnes was not so cautious. He became Truman’s trusted advisor, even though he had once been a rival who had competed with Truman to be chosen as Roosevelt’s vice president. Byrnes was afraid of political scandal over the costs of the bomb, and he was eager to use its leverage in global and domestic politics after the war.
The American public had little nuanced thinking about Japanese people. Germans were likely to be seen as either good, ordinary people or as evil Nazis, but there was no such distinction in the public mind about Japan. The Battle of Okinawa had been a recent unprecedented horror, and Americans began to see the casualty numbers increase greatly.
Japan was close to collapse and defeat, but far from surrender. The US wanted an unconditional surrender, but Japan wanted the Emperor protected. The final year of the war was known as the “killing year.” It was vicious and suicidal, and unrestrained. This was the time when the kamikaze attacks on American ships began. The brutality of the final battles had convinced Americans that the Japanese would fight to the bitter end on the home front.
There were B29 air raids throughout Japan in 1944 and 1945, with heavier damage than what was caused by the atom bombs. The normal restraints against harming civilians during wartime had been erased during WWII. As the bomb was made, no one gave much thought to the rules on the use of the bomb, to what limitations there would be on its use. The decision to use it was made as circumstances were quickly changing. The original plan had been only to get it before the Germans had it, but now a plan was evolving to use it on Japan.
General Groves (leader of the atomic bomb project) wanted “fresh” targets preserved for the atom bomb—cities that would not be bombed by conventional air raids. Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Kyoto were on this list, but Kyoto was taken off because of its cultural significance to Japan. The planned targets (ground zero) were the centers of the cities, not military installations at the edges of urban areas.
Only the scientists building the bomb seemed to be aware of the impact the bomb would have on history. Some scientists started to fear the effect on the USSR. They could see that it would trigger an arms race. Leo Szilard led the opposition and wanted to meet the president to show him a petition advising against using the bomb and urging him to put the bomb under international control. He wasn’t allowed to meet Truman, but he was able to have a meeting with James Byrnes instead. Leo Szilard came away from that meeting utterly disappointed. He wrote afterwards, "How much better off the world might be had I been born in America and become influential in American politics, and had Byrnes been born in Hungary and studied physics."
Byrnes went on to become influential in government. He joined a special secret “interim committee” established by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, then he became Secretary of State. He was influential in creating hostility with the Soviet Union, turning it from a cooperative ally to an enemy within a very short time. Szilard’s petition was signed by 68 other nuclear scientists, but it had no impact on policy.
Stimson wanted the Soviets informed about the nuclear program, but Byrnes refused, and Truman let this hardliner run the show.
The hypothetical casualty figures, claims of how many people would have died if the atom bombs had not been used, became extremely flexible after the war, and grew as the decision became more controversial. They ranged from 250,000-1,000,000 casualties--figures that historians say has no basis in fact.
The big question was whether to wait for the Soviets to get into the war. There were several diplomatic options such as agreeing to a conditional surrender, waiting, blockading Japanese ports, or negotiating a surrender.
It was clearly understood, in Japan and America, that Japan would prefer American occupation to a conflict with Russia, and it was clear by the summer of 1945 that Russia would take advantage of Japan’s weakness.
Military men in the American government were the most prominent people urging negotiation and avoiding use of the atom bomb. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, worried about damage to America’s reputation if the bomb was used, but he raised the issue only once before the war ended and never again after the war. Stimson was alarmed by the appalling lack of conscience and compassion that the war had brought about. Admiral William Leahy, a prominent member of the White House staff, wanted Truman to offer terms of surrender that Japan would agree to. Otherwise Japan would be desperate and the final battles would be vicious.
The idea of demonstrating the bomb on an unpopulated area was discussed but ruled out. In all of the planning, there was no clear definition of “military target.” This might have been the case because the implicit understanding was that by this time late in the war, every place had come to be considered a military target. The destruction of a large city degraded the enemy’s ability to wage war.
There was a summit meeting in Potsdam, Germany, in mid-July with Churchill, Stalin, and Truman. Truman wanted Russia to enter the war, and when he got the promise of this help he emphasized for a short time that this was the thing that was going to end the war, yet after he heard about the successful atom bomb test (July 16, 1945), he de-emphasized this factor.
The world after the war was on everyone’s mind. Once the bomb test had succeeded, Byrnes moved quickly to make sure that communication with Japan revealed as little as possible. It did not mention the certainty of Soviet attack, and there was no offer to keep the Emperor, nor was there a warning about the possession of a new, powerful weapon. One historian said the idea at this time was to not let the Russians “in on the kill.”
Truman thought Stalin didn’t know about the bomb, but actually he knew about it before Truman did. Stalin was only surprised that the Americans actually used it on a civilian population when it was obvious the war was going to be over soon anyway. He interpreted it as a threat to Soviet cities in the post-war period.
Truman wrote about his intent to give a warning and to make an effort to spare civilians, but these were never acted on.
There were only two bombs, so many wondered why they were used so quickly, why there was not more restraint and caution about using up the supply of this special weapon.
The order to drop the bomb was signed by Stimson and Groves. It went out one day before the Potsdam meeting, and it was not signed by Truman. He claimed later that he ordered it, but he didn’t.
The total number of bomb victims was never known. Official studies did not begin until 1950, and by then thousands of people had died from various causes, or moved away.
After the atomic bombs were used, Stalin rushed to get into the war before the Americans made Japan surrender. Fearing that the Japanese would soon surrender, Groves wanted the plutonium bomb (used on Nagasaki) “field tested” as soon as possible. It too was dropped without a presidential order.
Truman issued an order to not use “that third bomb” but it is not clear what made him believe it existed. There wasn’t one, so this was an indication that he was not being provided with accurate information.
Japan surrendered August 15th, 1945. The surrender was called unconditional, but actually it was conditional. Emperor Hirohito stayed in place, as a figurehead with no constitutional powers.
80% of Americans approved of the use of the bomb during the first year after the war, but this number decreased as time went on. America had a monopoly on atom bombs until 1949, but after that Americans would come to understand that they too were potential nuclear bomb victims. In 1946, John Hirsey’s article Hiroshima in The New Yorker gave Americans their first look at what really happened on the ground, and this article was the beginning of a shift in public opinion. Americans could not see films or photos in the post-war years, and even fifty years later such photos were not wanted in the Smithsonian exhibition.
In 1947, Harper's Magazine published Stimson’s account of the decision to use the bomb. The issue was becoming controversial and it was necessary to respond. Debate and controversy had emerged, and Stimson succeeded in cutting it short. Here he made up the figure of “1,000,000 lives saved,” with lives confused with casualties. The article was actually ghost-written by McGeorge Bundy in Stimson’s name. Truman also raised his casualty figures after the war as the public began to ask questions about why the bomb was used.
The war had two bookends for US soldiers: Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. It is hard for people who didn’t witness the battles of 1945 to understand WII veterans’ feelings. Jennings concluded by saying that it was regrettable that some veterans bullied the Smithsonian into not showing a multi-faceted exhibit. After all, one of the values for which the war was fought was freedom of expression.
The narrator and co-writer of the documentary, Peter Jennings, expresses the common view that America is the only nation to have ever used the bomb, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only instances, but this is true only if one defines “use” as use in an act of aggression during wartime. Many countries used the atom bomb in what were called “tests,” and these uses of the atom bomb were actually very devastating. They damaged the natural environment, destroyed precious homelands, and left many victims of radiation who are now referred to throughout the world by the Japanese word hibakusha.
This documentary, like almost all histories of this era, carries an implicit understanding that America had to defeat Japan and control it in the post-war era. Even some who question the decision to use the bombs seem to agree that it was a natural thing to want to obtain a victory without risking the lives of American soldiers. American leaders never considered the option of simply going home, of ending the war and leaving Japan to its own devices. If they really wanted to save American lives, this was a choice. Japan was so devastated by this time that its ability to be an imperial power or threaten America had been completely destroyed. But a decision to not occupy Japan surely would have let the Soviets get “in on the kill,” so the assumption that occupation of Japan was necessary reveals that everyone understood what was happening in 1945: the division of the world into two spheres of influence, one American and one Soviet. Stalin was certainly willing to sacrifice his soldiers in order to grab territory in East Asia, so American thinking at this time was curious. America wanted victory but didn’t want to risk soldier’s lives for it, and it was willing to make Japanese civilians pay the price for this reluctance. A few military leaders voiced opposition at this time because they believed it was dishonorable to pursue a military objective without sending soldiers to obtain it, but their protests fell on deaf ears.
At the end of the war, the Soviets managed to grab Japan’s Northern Territories (the Kuril Islands), territory that belonged to Japan before its 20th century imperial project. The Soviets had a weak claim to these islands, and ever since Japan has demanded that they be returned. Though the Japanese government believes its claim is legitimate, there is the indisputable fact that Japan gave up its claim to the Kurils in the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952. Under international law, it is extremely difficult for a country to get back what it has surrendered in an international treaty. It can be seen that the Japanese government pays selective attention to this issue as it continually fails to speak out in solidarity against many annexations made without even legitimate treaties of surrender, carried out by its ally and protector, the United States. Land grabs by America and American allies of such places as Okinawa, East Timor, and West Papua (to mention only a few), are ignored by the Japanese government, as are the struggles for indigenous rights in Hokkaido and in many other nations. While the Japanese political establishment and society in general remain so oblivious to and ignorant of the struggles of other peoples, it is unlikely that the international community will ever pay much attention to Japan’s claims to small, sparsely populated islands. Even its best friend America has nothing encouraging to say about Japan's claim to them.