Jeffrey Lewis writes: It’s not clear to me Truman had carefully thought through the implications of using the bomb or really understood that it might be a dramatic escalation from the enormous bombing campaign already underway. It is hard to assign simple motives to any large group of people, like “the United States.” Why “the United States” does anything is always a complicated story involving people working both with and against one other. In the case of Hiroshima, if anything, there was no decision to use the bomb, just an enormous amount of institutional momentum that rolled over haphazardly raised objections and qualms. I have a lot of objections to strategic bombing, and what John Hersey called the “material and spiritual evil” of total war, to say nothing of the racist propaganda required to facilitate killing on such a scale. But to postulate a geopolitical rationale for using the atomic bomb elides the awful human cruelty that was on display in 1945 and not just in Hiroshima.
And the revisionists have something else wrong, too. World War II was over — but it had not ended. If you study war and violence, you know that people continue killing each other even after the original justifications for the killing are obsolete. Japan’s leaders knew the war was lost, but that wasn’t quite enough to convince them to surrender. And Japan’s war cabinet was focused less on an imminent U.S. invasion than the more immediate problem of domestic subversion from the left if the conflict continued and from the right if it did not. The Japanese materials now available to scholars seem to show that Soviet entry into the war was the event that produced the biggest shock. And what turned the tide in Tokyo, which was divided over the issue of surrender, was the diplomatic note issued by U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes that slightly softened the terms of Japan’s “unconditional” surrender. Even then, the story is a Japanese one. The historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that Japanese leaders interpreted the Byrnes note in a certain way because the translation into Japanese from the Foreign Ministry had been deliberately phrased to emphasize the possibility that Emperor Hirohito would remain in power.
But that’s a funny interpretation of Japan’s surrender, emphasizing people, places, and, above all, chance. Truman had his friend Jimmy Byrnes send a vague note, and a pair of obscure bureaucrats put a little English on the translation, so to speak. And that’s why your granddad didn’t die on some god-forsaken beach code-named after a car. That kind of account doesn’t really satisfy us, does it? Grand decisions require equally grand reasons. We want the story of the bomb to match the stakes in our own debates about who started the Cold War or the role that nuclear weapons played in our security. That’s because our debates about Hiroshima aren’t about understanding Truman, or the Japanese Foreign Ministry, or even the people who died. They are about ourselves.
Over time, the debate about the meaning of Hiroshima has shifted from responsibility for the Cold War to the question of whether we should plan, indefinitely, to base our security on the threat of nuclear destruction. Ward Wilson, in particular, has argued that the account of Hiroshima plays a central role in our modern myths about deterrence and the bomb as the winning weapon. [Continue reading…]