Earlier this year, the nation witnessed a massive media explosion surrounding the Smithsonian Institution's planned Enola Gay exhibit. As the 50th anniversary of the August 6, 1945, atomic bombing of Hiroshima approaches, Americans are about to receive another newspaper and television barrage. Any serious attempt to understand the depth of feeling the story of the atomic bomb still arouses must confront two critical realities. First, there is a rapidly expanding gap between what the expert scholarly community now knows and what the public has been taught. Second, a steady narrowing of the questions in dispute in the most sophisticated studies has sharpened some of the truly controversial issues in the historical debate. Consider the following assessment:
Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it. [Emphasis added.] The author of that statement is not a revisionist; he is J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nor is he alone in that opinion. Walker is summarizing the findings of modern specialists in his literature review in the Winter 1990 issue of Diplomatic History. Another expert review, by University of Illinois historian Robert Messer, concludes that recently discovered documents have been "devastating" to the traditional idea that using the bomb was the only way to avoid an invasion of Japan that might have cost many more lives. Even allowing for continuing areas of dispute, these judgments are so far from the conventional wisdom that there is obviously something strange going on. One source of the divide between expert research and public understanding stems from a common feature of all serious scholarship: As in many areas of specialized research, perhaps a dozen truly knowledgeable experts are at the forefront of modern studies of the decision to use the atomic bomb. A second circle of generalists--historians concerned, for instance, with the Truman administration, with World War II in general, or even with the history of air power--depends heavily on the archival digging and analysis of the first circle. Beyond this second group are authors of general textbooks and articles and, still further out, journalists and other popular writers. One can, of course, find many historians who still believe that the atomic bomb was needed to avoid an invasion. Among the inner circle of experts, however, conclusions that are at odds with this official rationale have long been commonplace. Indeed, as early as 1946 the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, in its report Japan's Struggle to End the War, concluded that "certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." Similarly, a top-secret April 1946 War Department study, Use of Atomic Bomb on Japan, declassified during the 1970s but brought to broad public attention only in 1989, found that "the Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies." This official document judged that Russia's early-August entry into the war "would almost certainly have furnished this pretext, and would have been sufficient to convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable." The study concluded that even an initial November 1945 landing on the...
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