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Fifty years downwind, the debate persists: Was the atomic bombing of Japan necessary?

In general, critics charge:- That the bomb was overkill, that Japan was already beaten and would have quit before long.

- That the bomb was political. Its real target was the Soviet Union, not Japan. In effect, the bomb was the opening shot of the Cold War.

- That the bomb was racist. The Japanese fell victim simply because their skin wasn't white.

- That the bomb should have been demonstrated, not dropped. A mushroom cloud in an empty quarter of Japan would have made the point morally.

Some critics build stronger cases than others. Still, the fact that case-building continues half a century after the event suggests a nagging conscience. Maybe all isn't fair in war, after all.

Those making judgments might reflect on the words of British historian C.V. Wedgwood. Although she was writing of 16th century Europe, her conclusion can carry through to Hiroshima and Nagasaki: "History is lived forward, but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning, and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only."

Still, we can try.

Fear of Germany built the bomb. The Japan of 1941 posed no high-tech threat. But Germany had scientists who could build an atomic bomb, and leaders who would have dropped it in a minute.

Only late in 1944 did the United States learn for sure that the Germans had long since given up on the bomb. The Germans gave up on the war itself in May 1945 - two months before the United States proved that the A-bomb would work by blowing one off in New Mexico.

Either the Americans would use this weapon against Japan or they wouldn't use it at all. And from the viewpoint of those in power, not using the bomb was simply out of the question.

"At no time, from 1941 to 1945, did I ever hear it suggested by the president, or by any responsible member of the government, that atomic energy should not be used in the war," Secretary of War Henry Stimson later wrote.

In Japan, wise men saw that the war was lost as early as the summer of 1944. That's when the Americans smashed through Japan's inner circle of defense in the Mariana Islands.

A quirk in the way Japan ran itself gave the militarists (most of them army generals) a veto. They could flush away any Cabinet that stated talking peace. Individuals who favored peace had to keep quiet, leery of hothead assassins within the army.

By any rational standard, that army - indeed, the whole nation - was utterly beaten by the summer of 1945. But this national corpse refused to topple.

Those voting for the bitter end believed that Japan couldn't survive what the Americans were demanding: unconditional surrender. Starting with the emperor, they felt the Americans would raze Japanese society - everything that made Japan uniquely Japan. Better to go out in bloody glory.

Still, if the Americans were willing to talk about something softer - say, a negotiated armistice - the Japanese might be willing to sit down. And what better way to find out than through the Soviets?

Although the Japanese army viewed the Soviets as the ultimate enemy, Japan had sat out Germany's war against the Soviets, even when the Soviets had their backs to the wall.

The Japanese foreign minister told his man in Moscow to sound out the Soviets - to see whether they'd act as a go-between. The ambassador reported back that the Soviets were crashingly indifferent to Japan's plight.

A sympathetic Kremlin wouldn't have made much difference.

Japan's terms reflected the unreality in which only an isolated island nation could cloak itself: No occupation, no war-crimes trials, the Japanese army to be responsible for disarming itself, the emperor to stay on the throne.

The Americans had long ago broken Japan's diplomatic code and were, in effect, reading Japan's mail. To their dismay, the message was negative.

America's leaders waged war under their own pressures. The closer the war crawled to Japan, the more Americans it killed.

On the other hand, could the United States afford to wait out the Japanese? The collapse of Nazi Germany vented much of the steam from America's war spirit.

And then there were the Soviets. Late in 1943, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin promised to join the Pacific war soon after the Germans fell. The Soviets were going to snatch some valuable Asian territory.

There was a time when the price seemed worth it. The Americans would need Soviet hordes to pin down the million Japanese soldiers in China and Manchuria.

But in mid-1945 the Japanese had no more sea power and no way to get those soldiers back to Japan to face an American invasion. What's more, giving the Soviets a share of the war meant giving them a piece of the occupation. After a few months of sharing Germany and Austria with Soviet occupiers, the Americans wanted no part of them in Japan.

This thing had to be wrapped up, finished off, done. Invasion was the only way - unless the atomic bomb worked.

Nobody except the physicists seemed sure that it would. Not even the physicists were sure what it would do. To the extent that statesmen and generals thought about the bomb, most thought it simply a step up from what they already had.

Stimson was an exception. The secretary of war peeked into the nuclear future and spoke with awe, using words like "revolutionary discovery" and "landmark."

He pulled together a panel to advise the new president, Harry S. Truman, but if the panelists saw the A-bomb as anything more than just a bigger bang, their advice failed to reflect it.

The committee rejected calls from conscience-stricken physicists in Chicago for a demonstration drop.

The panelists noted that the United States would have only two bombs. If a demonstration failed to jar the Japanese, half the arsenal would be squandered.

Most of all, they worried that a demonstration would be a humiliating dud. The panelists had no guarantee the thing would actually go off.

The committee said only a city was a worthy target for something with an outside chance of ending the war. The most dramatic demonstration would be on factories, flesh and blood.

On July 16, in the New Mexico desert, the world's first nuclear explosion punched out four times as much energy as physicists had anticipated. This thing not only worked; it had hair on it.

Stimson wanted to warn the Japanese. Truman, fretting about a possible dud, refused to be specific. In the Potsdam Declaration, he and Churchill spoke vaguely of "the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland."

Prime Minister Suzuki reacted to the warning with the word "mokusatsu." In the maddeningly fuzzy way of the Japanese language, that can mean "to withhold public comment" or "to reject by ignoring."

Truman read it as a flat rejection. The order went out: Drop it.

And yet, for those who could read between the lines, Truman had been hinting all along that the Japanese could salvage much from a surrender.

But everything hung up on the status of the emperor. The Allies kept silent on what his fate might be. Stimson and the State Department's Joseph Grew pleaded with Truman to reassure the Japanese they they could keep their emperor.

Truman stayed silent. He would leave the talking to the atomic bombs. The first fell on Hiroshima, on Aug. 6. The Japanese government reacted with an odd passivity. The state-run radio said nothing for a day, and then it said, "Hiroshima suffered considerable damage as the result of an attack by a few B-29s. It is believed that a new type of bomb was used. The details are being investigated."

Then, on Aug. 9, Japan got a double jolt: The Soviet Union, suddenly aware that the fighting might end before it could jump in, declared war and poured armies into Manchuria.

The second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. That night, Japan's top six leaders met in a shelter at Hirohito's palace. They deadlocked, 3-3.

Joining Suzuki in calling for peace were the foreign and navy ministers. Holding fast for holding out were the war minister and the chiefs of the army and navy.

Shortly after midnight, Suzuki took an "exceptional and unprecedented measure." He turned to the emperor and, in reverential tones, asked Hirohito to decide.

In the Japanese way of things, the emperor reigned but did not rule. He had vast influence but could wield it only indirectly.

On that fateful night, Hirohito tore tradition apart at the seams. In words that he would repeat to his people a few days later, he told his ministers, "We must bear the unbearable."

Japan was defeated - almost.

The surrender message that went to Washington via Switzerland on Aug. 10 offered to swallow the Potsdam Declaration whole - as long as the emperor stayed on.

In Washington, the debate began again. Finally, Truman told his advisers to finesse the question. Navy Secretary James Forrestal came up with the key words: "The authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers."

That gave both sides what they wanted.

World War II was over.

This year's flap over the Hiroshima display at the Smithsonian suggests that America has yet to come to terms with the bombs. Was all that cruelty necessary?

The majority view holds that nothing short of severe shock would have ended the war quickly and without the greater bloodshed of an invasion.

No second thoughts set in until the summer of 1946, when The New Yorker devoted a whole issue to one article, John Hersey's "Hiroshima." His account jarred many Americans.

The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sank in, and nobody since has dropped a nuclear bomb on anybody else. Nuclear war is a snakepit that everybody has backed away from, which is why the Cold War stayed cold until it went away.

In that sense - and its import is huge - Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not die in vain.

And Paul Fussell didn't die at all. Fussell works as a literary critic with full membership in America's intellectual class, the home address of most bomb critics.

In the summer of 1945, Fussell was an infantry platoon leader who had recovered from wounds suffered in Europe and had been tabbed to invade Japan.

"When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that `Operation Olympic' would not, after all, be necessary," he writes, "when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades, we broke down and cried with relief and joy.

"We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all."