We Didn't Have to Drop the Bomb

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Seventy years ago this week, the United States ushered in the age of nuclear terror by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 200,000 and injuring another 100,000 who would eventually succumb to their wounds or radiation poisoning. At the time, the American public was led to believe that the bomb helped end the war and “saved lives.” This was never true.

As commemorations occur around the world to reflect on the bomb and its centrality to our past and present lives, it is an appropriate time to ask, “Was the use of nuclear weapons against civilians necessary for victory in Japan?”  

There is a trove of information revealing that many senior U.S. military officials believed the bombs were not needed to end the war in the Pacific. President Truman approved of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s destruction, but many of the top-ranking brass, from Douglas MacArthur to Chester Nimitz, knew better.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed Dwight D. Eisenhower, general of the armies, that the bomb would be dropped on Japan. In “Mandate for Change,” Eisenhower’s autobiography, Ike related this exchange: “I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face.’”

There are many more such testimonials, if someone takes the time to look:

--“When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the Emperor.” That’s from “The Pathology of Power,” by Norman Cousins.

-- “We didn't need to do it, and we knew we didn't need to do it, and they knew that we didn't need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.” That’s Brig. Gen. Carter Clarke, quoted in “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” by Gar Alperovitz.

--“The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.”-- Henry H. Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Pacific Fleet.

--“The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part from a purely military point of view in the defeat of Japan. The use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” - - Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

 --“Certainly, prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability, prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if atomic bombs had not been dropped.” -- Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of staff to President Truman, in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.

--“The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.” --Maj. Gen.  Curtis LeMay.

This is only a partial list I compiled in preparation for my efforts in Congress in 2012 to stop the creation of a national park in honor of the Manhattan Project, which created the bomb. (I held up the legislation for two sessions of Congress. The measure passed after I left the House.)

The dropping of the atomic bomb was not a military necessity, but a grim political calculation to dissuade our World War II ally, the Soviet Union, from global ambitions.  A three-pronged Soviet army attack upon the Manchurian region that Japan controlled, with an army of a million and a half men, commenced two days after Hiroshima was destroyed.  Japan’s army lasted through three more weeks. While a hot war ended, an ideological cold war emerged as a psychology of one-upmanship gripped political elites in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, incubating new nuclear threats.

The use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan requires a new era of truth and reconciliation between our two nations and between America and the world. Today America is being fed another false narrative, for strictly political purposes, that Iran is preparing nuclear weapons. 

The argument goes the U.S. must strike preemptively to stop Iran, notwithstanding a lack of evidence that Iran is developing the bomb.  I gave countless presentations in debate in the House of Representatives warning of the consequences of threatening Iran with a military attack (and in some cases unleashing our nuclear weapons against Iran) and urged diplomatic resolution.  

The Obama administration, led by Secretary Kerry, has crafted an agreement with Iran that sets the stage for an era of cooperation in nuclear threat reduction. Will America take a new direction? Or will we continue to be held captive by our own history and our own limited politics?

In 1945, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese were sacrificed to American geo-politics and the use by our political leaders of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.  Beginning in 2003, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and many of our soldiers, were sacrificed to American politics over a phony threat of WMD.  In 2012, the lives of thousands of Libyans were sacrificed to American politics and a false narrative of “responsibility to protect” and “humanitarian intervention.” The decision to attack Libya brought increased destabilization and spawned the growth of terrorism.

If the past 70 years have taught us anything it is that when it comes to our politics, truth gets buried so deeply and for so long that when it is finally exhumed few recognize it. It is time we start asking some hard questions about our own history as a nation, about the choices our leaders made and continue to make in our name, and whether those choices have made or will make the world safer or more dangerous.

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