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The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, August 1945

In 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” told Nobel physicist Arthur Compton that he and scientist colleagues calculated that an atomic explosion might ignite the atmosphere and the oceans. Compton felt that if there were even the slightest chance of such a catastrophe, work on the bomb should stop. It didn’t, and in August 1945 Hiroshima was virtually destroyed.

About 140,000 people were dead by the end of 1945, and 200,000 by 1950. Thousands later died from burns and radiation poisoning.

After Harry Truman became president in April 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson told him that the U.S. was building “the most terrible weapon ever known in human history which might destroy an entire city.” Even though he was vice president, Truman was not informed about the bomb. Stimson had doubts about whether the U.S. should use such a weapon, but he, Truman, and other key American officials approved its use based on their “vision of omnipotence.”

The official view since 1945 is that the bomb was necessary to avoid an invasion, end the Second World War, and save American lives. The number to be saved has grown over time: 46,000 in 1945 (U.S. War Department), Truman’s 1945 estimate of a half-million lives, Stimson’s 1947 claim of over 1,000,000 casualties, and President George H.W. Bush’s assertion that the bomb “spared millions of American lives.” Actually, the bomb was the first blow in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. As Truman wrote in his diary in May 1945, it would be America’s “master card” in dealing with the Soviets.

Unknown by many, the decision to drop the atomic bomb was opposed by key military leaders for moral and/or tactical reasons — including Admiral Leahy, General Eisenhower, General MacArthur, and General LeMay.

Admiral Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff who also chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed that the atomic bomb was a terrible instrument of “uncivilized warfare.” He “was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” In 1949, he angrily stated that Truman told him they would “only hit military objectives [but] they went ahead and killed as many women and children as they could ...”

A few weeks before Hiroshima was attacked, General Eisenhower told Secretary Stimson of his “grave misgivings.” He believed that “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary,” and the U.S. “should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives ”

General MacArthur believed that if Truman had changed surrender terms so the Japanese could keep Emperor Hirohito, “the war would have ended months earlier.” The Japanese “would have accepted it and gladly I have no doubt.” Stimson urged that Hirohito be allowed to remain with conditions — supported by top military and civilian advisers — but Truman and Secretary of State Byrnes vetoed this move. John McCloy, assistant secretary of war, told Truman that “we ought to have our heads examined if we don’t explore some other method” to end the conflict. After Japan surrendered, the U.S. allowed Hirohito to remain emperor.

Even General Lemay, who commanded terror firebombing raids that destroyed some 100 Japanese cities and killed more people than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, leaving millions homeless, stated that “Even without the atomic bomb and the Russian entry into the war, Japan would have surrendered in two weeks.”

After Japan surrendered, U.S. occupation authorities seized all film footage of the bombing, and restricted research on human effects; they used victims for study, not treatment. U.S. footage was classified and hidden from the public. That American POWs in Hiroshima were killed was kept secret for decades. Casualty figures and were kept from Japanese citizens. Writer John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (1946), which had a powerful impact here at home, was banned. Occupation authorities controlled scientific and medical information about the bomb’s effects that was not shared with Japanese health officials;

Those who wish to know more about this issue should read historians Peter Kuznick (The Asia Pacific Journal, July 2007) and Gar Alperovitz (The Nation, Aug. 6, 2015).

Powerful individuals have worked hard to hide the brutal truth behind the decision to drop the bomb — and that key military leaders opposed it. Parts II and III will discuss their view that it was a sound moral and strategic act, and the role that racism played in the Pacific war and the attacks.

John Marciano lives in Talent.

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