Hiroshima, Then And Now

Saturday will mark the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Neo-Neocon has some thoughts, including an interesting take on John Hershey’s highly influential New Yorker essay, which later became a best-selling book:


I was very young–perhaps twelve or so–when I read the book Hiroshima by John Hershey. It terrified and sickened me. The descriptions of the suffering of the innocent residents of the city, going about their business on a summer day and either instantly incinerated or subject to horrific injuries and sights out of a Bosch painting, were nearly unendurable even in the reading. Multiplied in my mind’s eye by many tens of thousands similarly suffering, they created a symphony of agony that reached such a crescendo it threatened to overwhelm me for a time.

Hershey’s book purposely gives his reportage on Hiroshima no context at all, the better to appreciate the appalling human cost. He simply describes, and the reader identifies with the victims. There is no way to read his book and not feel a deep and visceral revulsion towards what happened there.

Compare that with Frederick Taylor’s 2003 look at Dresden, which placed that doomed city into context, explaining its role, first within a millenia of history, and then during World War II as a cog in the Nazi’s war machine, as George Rosie wrote in fine review for England’s Sunday Herald:

Taylor is an assiduous researcher. He paints a picture which, while still terrible, is not quite the apocalyptic one of popular history. And in the process he deflates a number of myths.

One of them is that Dresden was an “innocent” city, a wonderland of art and architecture devoid of any strategic significance. Nothing more than Florence on the Elbe. This is nonsense. Dresden was home to any number of high-tech engineering firms all working flat out to supply Hitler’s war machine. One was Carl Zeiss-Jena, the lens-making company which was churning out optics for bomb sights, artillery sights and U-boat periscopes. Many of these factories relied on slave labour from concentration camps. In fact, the Dresden Yearbook for 1942 boasts that the city was “one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich.”

Dresden was also the site of one of the most important railway marshalling yards in eastern Germany. It was a nodal point on the network with hundreds of thousands of troops, guns and tanks being shunted through Dresden on their way to the eastern front. Politically, the city was solidly Nazi. Hitler’s visits were met with wild enthusiasm. There was an SS barracks in the suburbs. Hundreds of Hitler’s enemies had died on the blade of Dresden’s electric-powered guillotine. One way or another, Dresden was a “legitimate” target for the allied bombers (if bombing of any city can be regarded as legitimate).


A raft of evidence and research allows us to reassess Dresden after 50 years of propaganda by the Nazis, the East Germans and Holocaust denier David Irving, who made Dresden the subject of his first book, before he was later discredited as a legitimate historian.

Similarly, in his essay in The Weekly Standard, Richard B. Frank writes that “beginning in the 1970s, we have acquired an array of new evidence from Japan and the United States” about the dropping of the first atomic bomb, and the reasoning behind it:

By far the most important single body of this new evidence consists of secret radio intelligence material, and what it highlights is the painful dilemma faced by Truman and his administration. In explaining their decisions to the public, they deliberately forfeited their best evidence. They did so because under the stringent security restrictions guarding radio intercepts, recipients of this intelligence up to and including the president were barred from retaining copies of briefing documents, from making any public reference to them whatsoever at the time or in their memoirs, and from retaining any record of what they had seen or what they had concluded from it. With a handful of exceptions, they obeyed these rules, both during the war and thereafter.

Collectively, the missing information is known as The Ultra Secret of World War II (after the title of a breakthrough book by Frederick William Winterbotham published in 1974). Ultra was the name given to what became a vast and enormously efficient Allied radio intelligence organization, which secretly unveiled masses of information for senior policymakers. Careful listening posts snatched copies of millions of cryptograms from the air. Code breakers then extracted the true text. The extent of the effort is staggering. By the summer of 1945, Allied radio intelligence was breaking into a million messages a month from the Japanese Imperial Army alone, and many thousands from the Imperial Navy and Japanese diplomats.


A few paragraphs later, Frank adds:

After Hiroshima (August 6), Soviet entry into the war against Japan (August 8), and Nagasaki (August 9), the emperor intervened to break a deadlock within the government and decide that Japan must surrender in the early hours of August 10. The Japanese Foreign Ministry dispatched a message to the United States that day stating that Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration, “with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.” This was not, as critics later asserted, merely a humble request that the emperor retain a modest figurehead role. As Japanese historians writing decades after the war emphasized, the demand that there be no compromise of the “prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler” as a precondition for the surrender was a demand that the United States grant the emperor veto power over occupation reforms and continue the rule of the old order in Japan. Fortunately, Japan specialists in the State Department immediately realized the actual purpose of this language and briefed Secretary of State James Byrnes, who insisted properly that this maneuver must be defeated. The maneuver further underscores the fact that right to the very end, the Japanese pursued twin goals: not only the preservation of the imperial system, but also preservation of the old order in Japan that had launched a war of aggression that killed 17 million.

This brings us to another aspect of history that now very belatedly has entered the controversy. Several American historians led by Robert Newman have insisted vigorously that any assessment of the end of the Pacific war must include the horrifying consequences of each continued day of the war for the Asian populations trapped within Japan’s conquests. Newman calculates that between a quarter million and 400,000 Asians, overwhelmingly noncombatants, were dying each month the war continued. Newman et al. challenge whether an assessment of Truman’s decision can highlight only the deaths of noncombatant civilians in the aggressor nation while ignoring much larger death tolls among noncombatant civilians in the victim nations.

There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the critics’ central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood–as one analytical piece in the “Magic” Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts–that “until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies.” This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.

The displacement of the so-called traditionalist view within important segments of American opinion took several decades to accomplish. It will take a similar span of time to displace the critical orthodoxy that arose in the 1960s and prevailed roughly through the 1980s, and replace it with a richer appreciation for the realities of 1945. But the clock is ticking.


Read the rest of Frank’s essay (and Neo-Neocon’s post.)



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