Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The morning of August 6, 1945 was devastating to Japan. The United States B-29 bomber Enola Gay had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Nicknamed “Little Boy”, it was the first nuclear weapon to be used in warfare and packed an explosion equal to that of 20,000 tons of TNT. Just three days later, another bomb, called “Fat Man”, was released on the industrial city of Nagasaki. Combined, the death toll was above 200,000 people. Leading up to these attacks, much research had been done in what was called the Manhattan Project. The program was headed by Leslie R. Groves and was created to research and build an atomic bomb. Secretly located in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the bomb was built and tested by a team of Allied scientists and engineers. The team of scientists on the project, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, successfully oversaw the first test of the “Fat Man” atomic bomb model in what was called the Trinity test. This trial adequately showed the true power of the bomb and its capability of destruction. With this realization came much controversy over how, where, when, and even if the bomb should be used. Strong opinions from powerful members of the government varied. For example, Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy William Leahy believed that the bomb “killed civilians indiscriminately” and was strongly opposed to using it. On the other hand, Secretary of State James Byrnes believed that the U.S. should drop the bomb on Japan without warning. These mixed emotions over the bomb put much pressure on the president as to whether or not to use it. However, in his own opinion, President Harry S. Truman “regarded the bombs as a military weapon and never had any doubts that it should be used.”
This is the historical account of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings told generally throughout American history. Minor details may change as it is told through the years with varying opinions; however, the American description of the attacks remains overall the same. This heroic, cinematic version describes the attacks as those which “saved countless lives” (Dower, 5). Although this is true, hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens were killed as a result. The book Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, written by Jason Hook, discusses the Japan attacks as any American history book would. Describing the inevitable need to use the atomic bomb, it explains the Manhattan Project, the bombing itself, and the Japanese surrender. Unlike the textbook, however, this account of the attacks includes a look into the Japanese perspective. After the detonation of Little Boy, the people of Hiroshima “found themselves in a flat, black, burning wasteland” (Hook, 28). The power of the weapon was so great that even 1.2 miles away, “every wooden building burst into flames and people suffered blistering burns unlike anything seen before” (Hook, 26). The level of destruction done to Hiroshima is not talked about on any matter in the textbook, only saying the factual number of people killed. It fails to discuss the agony felt by the Japanese and what they experienced. By not explaining the damage done to Japan, the bombs are kept justified. Readers are only told of a number of people, not allowing for any sympathy to be felt for those killed. The textbook jumps from the bomb on Nagasaki being detonated directly to August 15, when the Emperor surrendered. No consideration is given to the Japanese reluctance to surrender. In Hook’s telling, “many ministers believed that the atomic bomb attacks offered the perfect opportunity to surrender without loss of honor” (Hook, 32). Also not mentioned in the textbook is the Soviet interaction with the war in the Pacific around the time of the bombing. November 28, 1943, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt all met in Tehran, Iran. Here they discussed and made an agreement for the Soviet Union to join the U.S. in the war against Japan after Germany had been conquered. This agreement is often confused as being made at the Potsdam conference, which occurred in early 1945. What the textbook fails to acknowledge is the Soviet’s entrance into the war the day Nagasaki was bombed. Hook writes that “the Soviet would have invaded Japan. This was one reason why President Truman wanted to end the war quickly. The Americans were afraid that the Soviets might steal their victory. Some historians argue that the bomb was dropped not only to defeat Japan, but also to demonstrate the United States’ new military power to the Soviet Union, and give the Americans the upper hand in their post-war victory” (Hook, 37). This would clearly not be discussed in the textbook in order to again preserve the United States’ honor and justify the use of the atomic bomb. If this concept had been used in the textbook, opinions would be more turned against the use of the bombs. The American consciousness brands WWII as “the Good War” (Dower, 136). In this “Good War” view, the bombs were necessary to get Japan to surrender. Without them, the invasion of Japan may not have succeeded and countless American lives would have been lost. The power of Little Boy “receives lavish, even loving, attention. By contrast, commentary about the human consequences of the bombs on the largely civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki generally is shunned” (Dower, 163). This distortion of the Hiroshima story hides the fact that the bomb caused so much damage and negatively affected so many lives. The American translation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings repeatedly fails to voice the Japanese perspective. In the book Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering, written by John W. Dower, the historical event is shown in light of the Japanese mind. It says that in response to the attacks, the Japanese people felt rage and “singled out deficiency in science and technology as an obvious explanation for their defeat” (Dower, 142). The country blamed their downfall on the fact that their “material backwardness” contrasted so much with the scientific capability of the atomic bomb (Dower, 141). From then on, an emphasis on basic science was put on all education programs in Japan and the country itself became “built on science” (Dower, 143). This is perhaps the reason for the nation’s advancement in technology today. The shock felt by Japan following the attacks was shown no mercy by the invasion of U.S. troops shortly after the bombings. The occupational troops not only violated the privacy of Japanese citizens, but they also censored much media regarding the bombs. Dower writes that “public struggle with this traumatic experience was not permitted” (Dower, 147). By not allowing the Japanese people to grieve, United States troops “tended to emphasize physical damage and minimize human loss and suffering” (Dower, 145). No consideration is given whatsoever in the textbook neither to the U.S. occupation nor to the censorship of media. Reasons for this could be that if it were mentioned, American opinion regarding the bombs could be swayed towards Japanese sympathy; or, it may not be mentioned in order to justify the use of the bombs. Either way, these are key facts that should be discussed in history textbooks, rather than ending “with the mushroom cloud, followed by a quick fast-forward to Japan’s surrender nine days later” (Dower, 162).
The collection of documents and articles in Hiroshima’s Shadow, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, includes many controversial pieces discussing several topics from Soviet affairs with the U.S. to scientific opinions of the atomic bomb. However, the most questionable of these would be the documents regarding the Japanese surrender. Only once does the textbook address the outreach of the Japanese government for peace. It does not express their full attempt in willing to surrender. The Emperor himself repeatedly asserted his desire “to avoid more bloodshed” (Bird, 7). In an article written by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, much evidence is shown that the Japanese government was trying again and again to resolve the war in the Pacific. Their attempts were not made shortly before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, evidence shows that highly ranked Japanese officials “had decided as early as May of 1945 that the war should be ended even if it meant acceptance of defeat on allied terms” (Bird, 501). With knowing this, it is unclear as to why the United States had to drop the bomb. If the Japanese were willing to surrender, why would an atomic bomb need to be released? It is because Americans often “blamed the war on the emperor and wanted him removed from his throne” (textbook, 522). Respecting the American people, the government set terms for an unconditional surrender with Japan. The need to drop the bomb can be justified as the only way to “force Japan to surrender without any conditions” (textbook, 522). This explanation, however, is put down in The July 17th Petition of the Manhattan Scientists. It expresses the scientists’ opinions that “the war had to be brought speedily to a successful conclusion and the attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attack on Japan should not be justified. At least not until the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender” (Bird, 552). Even the scientist who built the bombs cannot rightly justify them. Opinions such as these often vary in the United States as to whether or not the attacks were just. However, the official U.S. position justifies “that use of the bombs had been necessary” (Dower, 150). This is the only viewpoint expressed in the textbook in order to preserve that justification.
Also in the collection of documents in Hiroshima’s Shadow are articles discussing the Soviet interaction with the war in the Pacific. The textbook makes only one reference to the Tehran Conference (where Stalin agrees to help the United States with the war against Japan) and speaks of no further Soviet involvement. It fails to recognize the actual entry of Soviet forces into the war on August 9, 1945, just hours before the bombing of Nagasaki. This entrance is significant because of the impact it had on Japan. The bombs themselves were devastating, but the force of the Soviet troops was no match for the now vulnerable Japanese military. It is even written that “the entry of the USSR into the war would, together with the foregoing factors, convince most Japanese at once of the inevitability of complete defeat” (Bird, 8). This was known well by Truman and, once he discovered the success of the Trinity Test, “reversed course entirely and attempted to stall a Red Army attack” (Bird, 13). His goal now was to prevent the Soviet Union from entering the war with Japan because it was known to him that the U.S. was completely and independently capable of the victory. This aspect of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings is not referenced in the textbook for unknown reasons. It could be simply because the focus is kept primarily on the view of a strong American victory. It seems as though it is not discussed in order to assert the strength and capability of the U.S. rather than to say the victory came with assistance.
In order to accurately tell an event of any context, all viewpoints must be considered. For the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, these views would include that of both the Americans and the Japanese. Also needed to correctly tell this event in history is the involvement of the Soviet Union in the war with Japan. Without each of these aspects, the overall view of these attacks would be distorted. The textbooks used in any average American history class generally only share the American view of the bombings. This leaves out the Japanese suffering and the Soviet interaction, both of which would sway a reader’s opinion of the justification of the bombs. Of all the sources studied, the most accurate would most likely be Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, written by Jason Hook. This is because it explains the generic, factual view as well as the Japanese perspective filled with suffering and anguish. It also discusses the Soviet involvement, making it the source which tells the most complete account.
It is amazing how many sources can be found regarding any moment of history; however, only few tell the whole story. In the study of historiography, it is important to know all of the different opinions and perspectives. Much research goes into historiography, but in the end, the topic at hand will always be better understood.