It Seems to ME -- Howard Zinn
The Bombs of August
Near the end of the novel The English Patient there is a passage in which
Kip, the Sikh defuser of mines, begins to speak bitterly to the burned,
near-death patient about British and American imperialism: "You and then
the Americans converted us. . . . You had wars like cricket. How did you
fool us into this? Here, listen to what you people have done." He puts
earphones on the blackened head. The radio is telling about the bombs
dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Kip goes on: "All those speeches of civilization from kings and queens and
presidents . . . such voices of abstract order . . . American, French, I
don't care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you're an
Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium, and now you have fucking Harry
Truman of the USA."
You probably don't remember those lines in the movie made from The English
Patient. That's because they were not there.
Hardly a surprise. The bombing of Hiroshima remains sacred to the American
Establishment and to a very large part of the population in this country. I
learned that when, in 1995, I was invited to speak at the Chautauqua
Institute in New York state. I chose Hiroshima as my subject, it being the
fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the bomb. There were 2,000 people
in that huge amphitheater and as I explained why Hiroshima and Nagasaki
were unforgivable atrocities, perpetrated on a Japan ready to surrender,
the audience was silent. Well, not quite. A number of people shouted
angrily at me from their seats.
Understandable. To question Hiroshima is to explode a precious myth which
we all grow up with in this country--that America is different from the
other imperial powers of the world, that other nations may commit
unspeakable acts, but not ours.
Further, to see it as a wanton act of gargantuan cruelty rather than as an
unavoidable necessity ("to end the war, to save lives") would be to raise
disturbing questions about the essential goodness of the "good war."
I recall that in junior high school, a teacher asked our class: "What is
the difference between a totalitarian state and a democratic state?" The
correct answer: "A totalitarian state, unlike ours, believes in using any
means to achieve its end."
That was at the start of World War II, when the Fascist states were bombing
civilian populations in Ethiopia, in Spain, in Coventry, and in Rotterdam.
President Roosevelt called that "inhuman barbarism." That was before the
United States and England began to bomb civilian populations in Hamburg,
Frankfurt, Dresden, and then in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.
Any means to an end--the totalitarian philosophy. And one shared by all
nations that make war.
What means could be more horrible than the burning, mutilation, blinding,
irradiation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, women, children? And
yet it is absolutely essential for our political leaders to defend the
bombing because if Americans can be induced to accept that, then they can
accept any war, any means, so long as the warmakers can supply a reason.
And there are always plausible reasons delivered from on high as from Moses
on the Mount.
Thus, the three million dead in Korea can be justified by North Korean
aggression, the millions dead in Southeast Asia by the threat of Communism,
the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 to protect American
citizens, the support of death squad governments in Central America to stop
Communism, the invasion of Grenada to save American medical students, the
invasion of Panama to stop the drug trade, the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait,
the Yugoslav bombing to stop ethnic cleansing.
There is endless room for more wars, with endless supplies of reasons.
That is why the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is important, because if
citizens can question that, if they can declare nuclear weapons an
unacceptable means, even if it ends a war a month or two earlier, they may
be led to a larger question--the means (involving forty million dead) used
to defeat Fascism.
And if they begin to question the moral purity of "the good war," indeed,
the very best of wars, then they may get into a questioning mood that will
not stop until war itself is unacceptable, whatever reasons are advanced.
So we must now, fifty-five years later, with those bombings still so sacred
that a mildly critical Smithsonian exhibit could not be tolerated, insist
on questioning those deadly missions of the sixth and ninth of August, 1945.
The principal justification for obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that
it "saved lives" because otherwise a planned U.S. invasion of Japan would
have been necessary, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands, perhaps
hundreds of thousands. Truman at one point used the figure "a half million
lives," and Churchill "a million lives," but these were figures pulled out
of the air to calm troubled consciences; even official projections for the
number of casualties in an invasion did not go beyond 46,000.
In fact, the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not forestall an
invasion of Japan because no invasion was necessary. The Japanese were on
the verge of surrender, and American military leaders knew that. General
Eisenhower, briefed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson on the imminent use
of the bomb, told him that "Japan was already defeated and that dropping
the bomb was completely unnecessary."
After the bombing, Admiral William D. Leary, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, called the atomic bomb "a barbarous weapon," also noting that:
"The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender."
The Japanese had begun to move to end the war after the U.S. victory on
Okinawa, in May of 1945, in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. After
the middle of June, six members of the Japanese Supreme War Council
authorized Foreign Minister Togo to approach the Soviet Union, which was
not at war with Japan, to mediate an end to the war "if possible by
Togo sent Ambassador Sato to Moscow to feel out the possibility of a
negotiated surrender. On July 13, four days before Truman, Churchill, and
Stalin met in Potsdam to prepare for the end of the war (Germany had
surrendered two months earlier), Togo sent a telegram to Sato:
"Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace. It is his Majesty's
heart's desire to see the swift termination of the war."
The United States knew about that telegram because it had broken the
Japanese code early in the war. American officials knew also that the
Japanese resistance to unconditional surrender was because they had one
condition enormously important to them: the retention of the Emperor as
symbolic leader. Former Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew and others who knew
something about Japanese society had suggested that allowing Japan to keep
its Emperor would save countless lives by bringing an early end to the war.
Yet Truman would not relent, and the Potsdam conference agreed to insist on
"unconditional surrender." This ensured that the bombs would fall on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It seems that the United States government was determined to drop those bombs.
But why? Gar Alperovitz, whose research on that question is unmatched (The
Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Knopf, 1995), concluded, based on the
papers of Truman, his chief adviser James Byrnes, and others, that the bomb
was seen as a diplomatic weapon against the Soviet Union. Byrnes advised
Truman that the bomb "could let us dictate the terms of ending the war."
The British scientist P.M.S. Blackett, one of Churchill's advisers, wrote
after the war that dropping the atomic bomb was "the first major operation
of the cold diplomatic war with Russia."
There is also evidence that domestic politics played an important role in
the decision. In his recent book, Freedom From Fear: The United States,
1929-1945 (Oxford, 1999), David Kennedy quotes Secretary of State Cordell
Hull advising Byrnes, before the Potsdam conference, that "terrible
political repercussions would follow in the U.S." if the unconditional
surrender principle would be abandoned. The President would be "crucified"
if he did that, Byrnes said. Kennedy reports that "Byrnes accordingly
repudiated the suggestions of Leahy, McCloy, Grew, and Stimson," all of
whom were willing to relax the "unconditional surrender" demand just enough
to permit the Japanese their face-saving requirement for ending the war.
Can we believe that our political leaders would consign hundreds of
thousands of people to death or lifelong suffering because of "political
repercussions" at home?
The idea is horrifying, yet we can see in history a pattern of Presidential
behavior that placed personal ambition high above human life. The tapes of
John F. Kennedy reveal him weighing withdrawal from Vietnam against the
upcoming election. Transcripts of Lyndon Johnson's White House
conversations show him agonizing over Vietnam ("I don't think it's worth
fighting for. . . .") but deciding that he could not withdraw because:
"They'd impeach a President--wouldn't they?"
Did millions die in Southeast Asia because American Presidents wanted to
stay in office?
Just before the Gulf War, President Bush's aide John Sununu was reported
"telling people that a short successful war would be pure political gold
for the President and would guarantee his reelection." And is not the
Clinton-Gore support for the "Star Wars" anti-missile program (against all
scientific evidence or common sense) prompted by their desire to be seen by
the voters as tough guys?
Of course, political ambition was not the only reason for Hiroshima,
Vietnam, and the other horrors of our time. There was tin, rubber, oil,
corporate profit, imperial arrogance. There was a cluster of factors, none
of them, despite the claims of our leaders, having to do with human rights,
The wars go on, even when they are over. Every day, British and U.S.
warplanes bomb Iraq, and children die. Every day, children die in Iraq
because of the U.S.-sponsored embargo. Every day, boys and girls in
Afghanistan step on land mines and are killed or mutilated. The Russia of
"the free market" brutalizes Chechnya, as the Russia of "socialism" sent an
army into Afghanistan. In Africa, more wars.
The mine defuser in The English Patient was properly bitter about Western
imperialism. But the problem is larger than even that 500-year assault on
colored peoples of the world. It is a problem of the corruption of human
intelligence, enabling our leaders to create plausible reasons for
monstrous acts, and to exhort citizens to accept those reasons, and train
soldiers to follow orders. So long as that continues, we will need to
refute those reasons, resist those exhortations.
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.