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Volume 42, Number 14 · September 21, 1995



The War Over The Bomb

By Ian Buruma

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth
by Gar Alperovitz, by Sanho Tree, by Edward Rouse Winstead, by Kathryn C. Morris, by David J. Williams, by Leo C. Maley III, by Thad Williamson, by Miranda Grieder

Knopf, 843 pp., $32.50

Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb
by John Whittier Treat

University of Chicago Press, 487 pp., $29.95

Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Uncensored Script of the Smithsonian's 50th Anniversary Exhibit of the Enola Gay
edited and introduced by Philip Nobile, afterword by Barton J. Bernstein

Marlowe and Company, New York, 270 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial
by Robert Jay Lifton, by Greg Mitchell

Grosset/Putnam, 425 pp., $27.50

Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan—And Why Truman Dropped the Bomb
by Thomas B. Allen, by Norman Polmar

Simon and Schuster, 351 pp., $25.00

Nagasaki Journey: The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata, August 10, 1945
edited by Rupert Jenkins

IDG Films/Pomegranate Artbooks, 128 pp., $22.95 (paper)


The flight of the bomber called Bock's Car on August 9, 1945, from Tinian to Nagasaki was blessed but not smooth. In a Quonset hut at the air base before takeoff Chaplain Downey had prayed for the success of the plane's mission. "Almighty God, Father of all mercies," he said, "we pray Thee to be gracious with those who fly this night." He also said: "Give to us all courage and strength for the hours that are ahead; give to them rewards according to their efforts. Above all else, our Father, bring peace to Thy world."

But things went wrong from the start. A fuel pump wasn't working. So the captain, Major Charles "Chuck" Sweeney ("cheerful Irish grin"), decided to rendezvous with escort planes over Japan and refuel in Okinawa on the way back. The skies were thundery and turbulent. The rendezvous was missed: the planes lost contact and much time. The primary target, Kokura, an industrial city in northern Kyushu, was covered by smoke from a bombing raid on a neighboring city. Fuel was running low, but Sweeney flew his B-29 bomber on to the second target on the list: Nagasaki.

A thick deck of clouds had rendered Nagasaki invisible, too. "Skipper" Sweeney had to think fast. Fuel was running out. Ditching his load in the ocean was one possibility. But he decided against it. "After all," he said, "anything is better than dumping it in the water." He would ignore his orders, which stipulated that the target had to be visible, and drop the "Fat Man" by radar. Then, suddenly, Kermit "Bea" Beahan ("slow Texas drawl"; "crack bombardier"; "ladies' man"), shouted: "I've got it. I see the city. I'll take it now…."[1]

And so the "Fat Man" went down, slowly at first. It took a while for things to happen. Internal radar fuses had been activated in the bomb to sense its height. Chuck Sweeney was impatient. "Oh, my God," he said to his copilot, Charles "Donald Duck" Albery ("a deeply religious man"), "did we goof it up?" Moments later, the sky lit up, the plane was rocking like a rowing boat in a storm, and Sweeney could relax at last. "Well, Bea," said "Donald Duck" to the bombardier, "there's a thousand Japs you've just killed."

The "Fat Man," a plutonium bomb, exploded about three miles from the center of Nagasaki, above an area called Urakami, sometimes referred to in Nagasaki as Urakamimura, or Urakami village. The pressure generated by the bomb at the hypocenter—the point directly under the blast—was about ten tons per square meter. The heat at ground level reached 4,000 degrees Celsius. People near the hypocenter were vaporized. Others, who were not so lucky, died more slowly, often after shedding their skins like snakes. Some died weeks or months, or even years, later of various kinds of cancer. Altogether up to 70,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the bombing of Nagasaki. About half of them died on the day itself.

The landscape of Urakami, separated by mountains from Nagasaki proper, was marked by Mitsubishi weapons factories and the largest cathedral in east Asia. Urakami was a district with a low reputation. Its population included a large number of poor Roman Catholics and even poorer outcasts. It was as though a bomb had fallen on Harlem, leaving the rest of Manhattan relatively unscathed. Some residents of Nagasaki quietly voiced the opinion that the bomb had "cleaned up" Urakami. In August 1945, there were 14,000 Catholics in Nagasaki. More than half were killed by the bomb. There are 70,000 Catholics living in Nagasaki today. Southern Kyushu is still the only part of Japan with a large Christian minority.

The first missionary to reach Kyushu was Francis Xavier, who landed there in 1549. His high hopes for Japan were not disappointed. By the turn of the century about 300,000 Japanese had been converted to the Roman faith. Even Hideyoshi, the "Barbarian-slaying" Shogun himself, was seen in his palace fingering a rosary. This did not stop him from crucifying twenty-six Japanese and European priests in Nagasaki in 1597. Like his more ferocious successors, he was afraid that Japanese Christians might help Spanish invaders take over Japan—a fear that Dutch traders did their best to encourage.

After 1612 persecution began in earnest. Christianity was banned. Men, women, and children were burned to death while singing praises to the Lord. Priests were suspended upside down in pits of excrement or boiling sulfur, cut open, and bled to death, unless they agreed to renounce their faith and trample on images of Christ. A Christian peasant rebellion in 1632 was put down (with Dutch help) so brutally that hardly any of the 40,000 rebels survived. Naturally, missionary work became impossible and priests could no longer attend to their flock.

Even so, small communities of "hidden Christians" hung on, often reverting in time to folk religion: local deities were worshiped in the name of Jesus; a kind of Christian cargo cult developed, with fisherfolk praying for the return of priests in black ships. Only after Americans (in black ships) and Europeans had pried Japan open in the latter half of the nineteenth century did Japanese Christians dare to declare themselves. But they remained an often harassed and poor minority, forced to do religiously polluted work in the meat and leather trades, which were normally reserved for outcasts. The ban on Christianity was formally lifted in 1873. Twenty years later, the Nagasaki Christians managed to collect enough money to start construction of a wood and redbrick cathedral on a hill in Urakami. It was completed in 1925. It was above this cathedral that the "Fat Man" exploded.

Twice a day, the one surviving Angelus bell rings out from the new Cathedral. Visiting Nagasaki this summer I walked from the Cathedral to Peace Park. It is built on the site of an old prison, whose foundation stones recently emerged during the construction of an underground garage. The appearance of these prison foundations caused a political row in Nagasaki: Should they be preserved as a reminder of the war (among the prisoners were Koreans and Chinese)? A compromise was reached: the car park was completed, and a slab of the old prison wall is displayed in Peace Park, among the monuments and memorials.

Compared to the one in Hiroshima, Nagasaki Peace Park is a small and subdued affair.[2] There is the "Peace Statue," a large white figure pointing his right hand at the sky and extending his left hand sideways. According to a booklet on sale in the Peace Park bookstore, the right hand points to the nuclear threat and the left hand symbolizes eternal peace. The folded right leg and the extended left leg "symbolize meditation and the initiative to stand up and rescue the people of the world." In the rest of the park are various sculptures, some of them donated by countries that no longer exist: the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, the USSR. Two kindly ladies and an elderly man had set up a long table in front of the Soviet "Statue of Peace." They invited "all the people who love peace," including small children on school excursions, to sign an antinuclear petition to be sent to Washington.

But there is much less of this kind of thing than in Hiroshima, which is dominated by memorials to the bomb victims and messages of salvation. The main reason people visit Hiroshima is the bomb. This is not true of Nagasaki. Hiroshima, not Nagasaki, has become the mecca of international antinuclear activism. The Hiroshima bomb came first. It fell in the center of the city. More people died there—and few of them were despised Christians or outcasts. People say: "No more Hiroshimas." They rarely say: "No more Nagasakis."

Instead of dwelling on the bomb, Nagasaki has turned its history of foreign missionaries, Dutch traders, Chinese merchants, and Madame Butterfly into a tourist attraction. Nagasaki takes pride in once having been the nearest thing in Japan to a cosmopolitan city. When the rest of the country was sealed off from the outside world between the early seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, Nagasaki kept a Dutch trading post on Dejima Island. Western science first entered Japan through Nagasaki in the form of medical texts, which Japanese scholars learned to read by memorizing Dutch dictionaries. After Japan opened up, village girls acquired Russian by serving Russian sailors as prostitutes, and outcasts acquired foreign languages by supplying the Europeans with meat. Nagasaki had a large Chinatown, now a cute, touristy pastiche of its former self. A celebrated entertainer from Nagasaki, who sings French chansons and wears women's clothes, claims to be the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Christian martyr, thought to have been the incarnation of Deusu, the Lord. The most popular souvenirs in Nagasaki include all manner of Christian trinkets, as well as a spongecake called castella, introduced by the Portuguese four hundred years ago.

Nagasaki's most famous survivor was a Christian named Nagai Takashi. He became a symbol of his city's suffering, just as a schoolgirl, named Sasaki Sadako, became a symbol of Hiroshima. Sadako was two years old when the bomb exploded a mile from her home. She died of leukemia ten years later, but not before trying to fold one thousand paper cranes, as symbols of longevity. Her monument in Hiroshima Peace Park is covered in thousands of paper cranes, folded by schoolchildren from all over Japan.

Dr. Nagai was a professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki when the city was bombed. He had contracted leukemia before the war, perhaps as a result of his laboratory work, but radiation from the bomb cured the symptoms. Dr. Nagai was a devout Catholic and a Japanese patriot who exhorted his students to fight their hardest for the nation. He was devastated by Japan's defeat. But then, as he wrote in his best-selling book The Bells of Nagasaki, he had a flash of religious inspiration. The bomb, he decided, was "a great act of Divine Providence," for which Nagasaki "must give thanks to God." [3] He declared that Nagasaki, "the only holy place in Japan," had been chosen as a sacrificial lamb "to be burned on the altar of sacrifice to expiate the sins committed by humanity in the Second World War." In this vision, Dr. Nagai added the Catholic victims of the bomb to the long list of Nagasaki martyrs. They were the spiritual heirs of believers who had been crucified for their faith.

How noble, how splendid was that holocaust of August 9, when flames soared up from the cathedral, dispelling the darkness of war and bringing the light of peace! In the very depth of our grief we reverently saw here something beautiful, something pure, something sublime. Eight thousand people, together with their priests, burning with pure smoke, entered into eternal life. All without exception were good people whom we deeply mourn.

The symptoms of leukemia returned, and Dr. Nagai retired to a tiny hut near the cathedral, where he wrote his many books and was visited by dignitaries ranging from Emperor Hirohito to Helen Keller. The Bells of Nagasaki was completed in 1946, but out of fear that accounts of the nuclear bombings would encourage anti-American attitudes, the US occupation authorities only allowed it to be published in 1949. Two years later Dr. Nagai died. His hut is now a shrine, visited by Japanese schoolchildren and tourists from all over the world, who peer through the window at the bone-white image of the Virgin Mary next to his bed.

I asked Father Calaso, a Spanish priest who has lived in Nagasaki for many years, what he thought of Dr. Nagai's vision. He answered that it was "theologically correct. We cannot know why the bomb was good, but God cannot will anything evil." Of course, as John Whittier Treat points out in his excellent book Writing Ground Zero, a critical discussion of Japanese writing about the bomb, the Christian idea of martyrdom was not the only response of Nagasaki bomb survivors. Treat contrasts Nagai's Christian idealism with the existential despair of such non-Christian writers as Hayashi Kyoko, who express not just their own "leukemia of the soul" but also their fear that the atomic disease will be carried by future generations. Hayashi's view is radically secular. In a short story entitled "In the Fields," she writes: "These are deliberate wounds precisely calculated and inflicted by human beings. On account of these calculations, the very life that we would pass on to our children and grandchildren has sustained injury."

Nevertheless, the mood of Christian resignation has affected Nagasaki. There are social reasons for this, too. Like many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who returned to their native countries in Europe, Nagasaki Christians did not wish to dwell on their suffering lest it expose them to the public gaze. They did not want to stand out in a society obsessed with bloodlines and social conformity. It was difficult enough finding marriage partners for your children, if you were a bomb survivor, being a Catholic could only make things worse. So there is something to the cliché that "Hiroshima is angry, while Nagasaki prays." Compared to Hayashi's Angst, Dr. Nagai's beatitude makes the past easier to bear. We are told of Bock's Car's crew: "Today, they are all deeply religious men."[4]


Religion was linked to the nuclear bombs from the beginning. Witnessing the first successful nuclear explosion in New Mexico, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become Death the destroyer of worlds." President Truman, announcing the bombing of Hiroshima, thanked God that the weapon had "come to us instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes." Arthur H. Compton, a member of the Interim Committee for Atomic Bomb Policy, believed that "God had fought on our side during the war, supplying free men with weapons that tyranny could not produce."

What Truman and Compton had in common with Dr. Nagai—but absolutely not with Hayashi Kyoko—was the convenient view that God, not man, was ultimately responsible for the bomb. Opponents of the bomb often express themselves in equally religious terms. Treat quotes a poem from Nagasaki which goes: "In the Cathedral in the ruins of boundless expanse, I stayed one night cursing God." The bomb has been described on many occasions as a transgression of religious taboos, indeed a sin against God. In 1946, the Federal Council of Churches special committee explicitly said so: "As the power that first used the atomic bomb under these circumstances, we have sinned grievously against the laws of God and against the peoples of Japan." The Roman Catholic hierarchy concluded at the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that "every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man."

Even if one leaves God out of it, it is hard to disagree that deliberate mass murder of civilians by so-called conventional or nuclear bombing is a war crime. But "strategic bombing," including the use of the two atomic bombs, was not an act of God. It was the result of political decisions, taken by human beings acting under particular circumstances. The trouble with focusing on God, sin, transgression, and other moral or religious aspects of this strategy is that it makes it very hard to discuss the politics and the historical circumstances dispassionately. This is especially true when politicians, newspaper columnists, peace activists, and veterans enter the debate. Too often emotional moralism sets the tone.

Many defenders of the atomic bombs, beginning with President Truman himself, have tried to justify their use on moral grounds: i.e., that the bombings saved half a million, or even a million, American lives by preventing an invasion. These probably inflated figures are supposed to make the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem like acts of mercy. And opponents tend to boost their moral condemnation by adding evidence of bad faith: i.e., that the bombings were acts of racism, or scientific experiments, or merely opening shots of the coming cold war, or that they served no purpose at all. In other words, it is not enough for some critics to call the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a sin against God and man; to strengthen the moral case, they must be shown to have been unnecessary and politically reprehensible, too. Many critics find it impossible to accept, for example, that the A-bombing was a war crime that actually might have helped to bring the war to a quicker end. By the same token, political reasons, however justified, are not enough for some defenders of the bomb to feel vindicated. To them, the bombs must show that God was on our side, that only the purest of motives prevailed.

I think this helps to explain the debacle over the projected Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. The fault does not lie with the authors of the original text prepared by the Smithsonian to accompany the exhibition, now published as part of Judgment at the Smithsonian. Newt Gingrich was wrong: the script was not in the least anti-American, nor did it "espouse a set of values that are essentially destructive."[5] Historians—unlike many veterans, journalists, and politicians—have been debating the history of the bomb for years without invoking God or the Devil. And their different views are admirably and concisely reflected in the Smithsonian script. All the controversies about the atomic bombing are touched upon: whether it was an act of racism; whether the bombs were dropped to warn the Soviets, and keep them from invading Japan; whether Truman should have paid more attention to Japanese peace initiatives; and whether there were better ways than nuclear bombing of ending the war swiftly.

The Smithsonian consensus—evenhanded to the point of banality—is that racist attitudes existed, but that Roosevelt would have used the bomb on Germany if necessary. On the Soviet factor, the Smithsonian concludes that " 'atomic diplomacy' against the Soviets provided one more reason for Truman not to halt the dropping of the bomb." The Smithsonian writers believe it is possible the war might have ended without the bombings if the Allies had guaranteed the Japanese emperor's position. And it is not sure whether a warning demonstration—dropping the bomb in Tokyo Bay, for instance—would have sufficed. But despite all these "hotly contested" issues, its conclusion is that "the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…played a crucial role in ending the Pacific War quickly."

Here and there the Smithsonian text is too glib. I don't think Japanese forces kept on fighting because they feared that unconditional surrender would mean "the annihilation of their culture." Japanese forces had no choice. They went on fighting because their supreme commanders feared the annihilation of their power. Still, the projected Smithsonian exhibition would have provided an invaluable opportunity for the Hiroshima debate to break out of academic circles and reach a wider audience. This opportunity was lost when the Smithsonian caved in to protests from such organizations as the American Legion and the Air Force Association. The text was withdrawn and only the Hiroshima bomber is displayed now, without context or explanation, as just another great American plane, like the Spirit of St. Louis and the Kitty Hawk Flyer. This is a shame, for not only has it discouraged open discussion in the US, but it has fueled the self-righteousness of Japanese apologists for the Pacific War. If Americans refuse to question their war record, they ask, then why should Japanese risk the reputation of Japanese soldiers by questioning theirs?

Of course, none of this has anything to do with intellectual curiosity (the primary function of a museum, I should think), but everything to do with national pride. The American Legion and its intellectual defenders in the press were less interested in an argument than in a celebration. They wanted it to be taken for granted that the bomb was right and just. Barton Bernstein points out in a thoughtful concluding essay to Judgment at the Smithsonian that the dispute was not simply about history but about "a symbolic issue in a 'culture war.' " He writes that

many Americans lumped together the seeming decline of American power, the difficulties of the domestic economy, the threats in world trade and especially Japan's successes, the loss of domestic jobs, and even changes in American gender roles, and shifts in the American family. To a number of Americans, the very people responsible for the [Smithsonian] script were the people who were changing America. The bomb, representing the end of World War II and suggesting the height of American power, was to be celebrated…. Those who in any way questioned the bomb's use were, in this emotional framework, the enemies of America. The Air Force Association, the Legion, many individual vets, segments of Congress, and parts of the media accepted, and promoted, that interpretation.

Unfortunately, the editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian, Philip Nobile, is no less emotional than the conservatives he deplores. Reading his introduction, I almost felt sympathetic to the American Legion. Nobile not only believes the bombings were a moral outrage, which would be a respectable position. He goes further: he believes that anyone who defends Truman's decision is morally outrageous. To him, the defenders of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are not just wrong, they are "white male American intellectuals," who seek to "deny" Hiroshima. Paul Fussell, who argued that the bomb saved American lives, including his own, which might well be true, is smeared as the "Robert Faurisson of Hiroshima denial." This is not just nasty, it is dishonest. Faurisson is a right-wing extremist who maintains that the gas chambers never existed. Whatever the merits of Fussell's argument, he never denied that the bomb was dropped or that countless civilians died. To equate Fussell with Faurisson, or Paul Tibbetts, pilot of the Enola Gay, with Rudolf Hoess, commandant at Auschwitz, as Nobile does, is to kill the debate. For how can you argue with bad faith? But then Nobile is as little interested in a debate as the American Legion. Like them, he is concerned with moral gestures, not of celebration in his case, but of atonement, repentance, and so forth. He bandies about words like "original sin."

Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, in their analysis of Hiroshima's legacy in America, are not nasty, just woolly and moralistic. They believe that the bombings were morally offensive, and so the reasons for dropping them must necessarily have been politically misguided, dishonest, and irrational. Lifton takes it for granted that the bombs did not hasten the end of the war, since the Japanese would have surrendered anyway, if only Truman had listened to Joseph Grew, the former ambassador to Japan, and promised the Japanese they could keep their imperial system. He thinks that the Potsdam Declaration was mere propaganda, since it did not mention the atom bomb, the entry of Russia into the war, or the Emperor, "each of which would have pressed the Japanese towards surrender."

Was this really as obvious as Lifton and Mitchell, as well as many serious critics of Truman A-bomb policy, claim? Some historians, such as Gar Alperovitz, believe that the Potsdam Declaration was designed to be unacceptable to the Japanese, so that the US would have time to drop the bomb and demonstrate its supremacy to the increasingly aggressive Soviet Union.[6] Truman, on the advice of his secretary of state, James Byrnes, withheld a guarantee of the Emperor's status. In The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Alperovitz repeats over and over that Truman did this, fully aware "that a surrender was not likely to occur." The implication is that Truman did not want the Japanese to surrender before the bomb was used. On his way to Potsdam, in July 1945, Truman heard the news that the first atomic bomb had been successfully tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. With the bomb in his pocket, so to speak, he believed that the "Japs will fold up before Russia comes in." Which was precisely what he wanted.

Alperovitz makes his case for the above scenario with mountains of documentary quotes. He shows how Truman's desire to involve the Soviet Red Army in forcing a Japanese surrender cooled as soon as he heard the good news from Alamogordo. That the Soviet Union played a part in Truman's calculations is neither a new nor an especially controversial observation. Most historians agree with Alperovitz that "even those who still wished for Russian help (to say nothing of those who opposed it) began to see the atomic bomb as a way not only to end the war, but perhaps to end it as soon as possible—preferably before the Russians attacked, and certainly, if feasible, before the Red Army got very far in its assault."

But to say that Truman deliberately withheld a guarantee of the Emperor's status at Potsdam so that he could drop his bomb is to assume it was clear the Japanese would have surrendered with such a guarantee. Alperovitz has no difficulty finding quotes from US officials who thought so, but there is no reason to believe that they were right, and consequently that Truman was wrong, or merely Machiavellian to press for an unconditional surrender. There is no evidence that Japan would have surrendered, even with a guarantee of the Emperor's status, and there are good reasons to believe that it would not. As long as the Japanese were not ready to surrender on terms acceptable to the Allies, Truman had no option but to insist on a sharp ultimatum, bomb or no bomb.

What we know is that even some members of the so-called peace faction in the Japanese war cabinet were remarkably casual about the Potsdam terms—and not only because of the lack of guarantees for the Emperor. One of the "moderates," Navy Minister Yonai, said there was no need to rush because "Churchill has fallen, America is beginning to be isolated. The government therefore will ignore [the Potsdam Proclamation]."[7] Even after the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, half the Supreme War Leadership Council was still determined to fight on. Japan may have been "licked" militarily, as Eisenhower and other Americans said at the time, and later, but this did not mean it would give up. Instead of preparing for surrender, the Japanese government exhorted the population to defend the "divine land," in mass suicide actions if necessary. The press kept up a daily Die-for-the-Emperor campaign. Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar describe in their book Code-Name Downfall how Japanese schoolchildren were trained to fight the enemy with bamboo spears, kitchen knives, firemen's hooks, or, as a last resort, feet and bare knuckles. Children were told: "If you don't kill at least one enemy soldier, you don't deserve to die." Eight hundred thousand troops, including home defense forces, were gathered in Kyushu to resist an American invasion. If it had come to a final battle in Japan, after more months of firebombing and starvation, the human cost to the Japanese—leaving aside the Allies for a moment—would have been horrendous.

If saving Japanese lives was not Truman's concern, it didn't particularly bother the Japanese leaders either. The debate inside the Leadership Council at a crisis meeting on August 9 was not about whether to surrender but about whether to insist on one condition (retention of the imperial system, or kokutai) or four, including the demand that there be no Allied occupation. There had to be a unanimous decision. Without absolute consensus, the government would fall, more time would be wasted, and more lives lost. This is the Emperor's own account of the meeting, which took place in the sticky heat of an underground bomb shelter. The Emperor sat stiffly in front of a gilded screen, while his ministers sweated in their dress uniforms:

The meeting went on until two o'clock in the morning of August 10, without reaching an agreement. Then Suzuki asked me to break the deadlock and come to a decision. Apart from Prime Minister Suzuki, the participants were Hiranuma, Yonai, Anami, Togo, Umezu and Toyoda. Everyone agreed on the condition to preserve the kokutai. Anami, Toyoda and Umezu insisted on adding three more conditions: that Japan would not be occupied, and that the task of disarming our armed forces and dealing with war crimes would be in our own hands. They argued that at the present stage of the war, there was enough room for negotiation. Suzuki, Yonai, Hiranuma and Togo disagreed. I believed it was impossible to continue the war…[8]

And so, finally, after two atomic bombings, the Emperor spoke out in favor of the peace faction. It had become impossible to carry on the war. Not only had Hiroshima been obliterated, but on the day Nagasaki was bombed, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan. Some have argued that this, rather than the nuclear bombs, forced Japan's surrender. Perhaps, but the August 9 meeting had been convened before the Soviet declaration of war, and Alperovitz tells us that the Emperor, "on hearing of the Hiroshima bombing," had already "agreed the time had come to surrender." In the Emperor's own account, he mentions both the Soviets and the bombs: "The people were suffering terribly, first from bombings getting worse by the day, then by the appearance of the atomic bomb. Because of these factors, and the fact that the Soviet Union had unleashed a war in Manchuria, we could not but accept the terms of Potsdam."[9] In his broadcast to the nation, on August 15, the Emperor left the Soviet Union unmentioned, but referred to the bombs:

The enemy has begun to use a new and most cruel bomb to kill and maim extremely large numbers of the innocent…if the war were to be continued, it would cause not only the downfall of our nation but also the destruction of all human civilization…it is according to the dictate of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.

The Emperor's decision to accept surrender is called the seidan, or sacred resolution. The Japanese war cabinet needed the voice of God to make up its mind. And as the above words show, the supreme descendant of the Japanese gods, in his divine benevolence, would save not only the Japanese nation but all human civilization. As a result of the bombs, the Japanese had been transformed from aggressors to saviors, a magnificent feat of public relations. In fact, official Japanese reasoning was more complicated than the Emperor's speech suggests. The ruling elite of Japan, with the Emperor as its active high priest, was afraid that the Japanese people, exhausted, hungry, and sick of war, might become unruly. The atomic bombs offered a perfect excuse to end the war on terms that would not destroy the elite. Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, a member of the peace faction, said on August 12, 1945:

I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods. This way we don't have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances. Why I have long been advocating control of the crisis of the country is neither for fear of an enemy attack nor because of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war. The main reason is my anxiety over the domestic situation. So, it is rather fortunate that now we can control matters without revealing the domestic situation.[10]

It is not certain that a warning, or demonstration of the bomb, would have been enough of an excuse for the peace faction and the Emperor to stand up to the die-hards. Oppenheimer could think of no demonstration "sufficiently spectacular" to bring about surrender. Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy disagreed; he recommended a demonstration. The least one can say is that it would surely have been worth a try. For 200,000 deaths was a high price to pay for a gift from the gods.

Alperovitz, among others, suggests that an earlier war declaration by the Soviet Union, coupled with an American promise to protect the Emperor, would have been enough to make Japan give in. After all, the Emperor was protected after the Japanese surrender, so why not before? As soon as Japan showed its readiness to accept the Potsdam terms on August 10, so long as the Emperor would be protected, Truman was so eager to end the war that the Emperor's authority was recognized, "subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers" (SCAP).

Alperovitz finds this change of policy "puzzling." If then, why not before? But there is quite a difference between recognizing the Emperor's authority as a condition of surrender, and doing so under the auspices of SCAP, after Japan was defeated. For now the US was in control of the institution. The result was not entirely positive. SCAP, that is to say General MacArthur, used his powers to protect Emperor Hirohito not only from prosecution for war crimes but even from appearing as a witness. This had serious consequences, for so long as the Emperor, in whose name the war had been waged, could not be held accountable, the question of war guilt would remain fuzzy in Japan, and a source of friction between Japan and its former enemies.

Alperovitz thinks that Truman's uncompromising position at Potsdam had given "hard-line army leaders a trump card against early surrender proposals. The army could continue to argue that the Emperor-God might be removed, perhaps tried as a war criminal, possibly even hanged." Here I think he is missing the point. The hardliners, as well as the peace faction, were fighting to preserve a kokutai, which was hardly benign. Indeed, it was the very system that brought war to Asia. Herbert Bix, one of the most knowledgeable historians of the Japanese imperial system, has argued—I think, rightly—that even the peace faction wanted to retain an authoritarian system, which would have left substantial power in the Emperor's hands. He writes:

If Grew and the Japan crowd [in Washington] had gotten their way, and the principle of unconditional surrender had been contravened, it is highly unlikely that Japan's post-surrender leaders, now the "moderates" around the throne, would ever have discarded the Meiji Constitution and democratized their political institutions.[11]

Although Truman might have looked better in retrospect if he had guaranteed the Emperor's status earlier, before dropping the atomic bombs, such a guarantee alone was unlikely to have pushed Japan toward surrender before August 9. The hardliners rejected the idea of an Allied occupation, let alone the submission of the imperial institution to a foreign ruler. Indeed, some of the die-hards, including War Minister Anami, continued to argue against the surrender until August 14, when the Emperor, once again, spoke in favor of peace. After that, Anami resisted no more, and committed suicide in the traditional manner of a samurai.

Those who claim that Truman should have been more flexible tend to misunderstand the role of the imperial institution. Alperovitz writes that the Japanese regarded their emperor as a god, "more like Jesus or the incarnate Buddha," and that the US demand for unconditional surrender "directly threatened not only the person of the Emperor but such central tenets of Japanese culture as well." In fact, the Emperor was never regarded as anything like the Buddha; he was more like a priest-king, a combination of the Pope and a constitutional monarch. Alperovitz quotes, with approval, John McCloy's proposal in 1945 that "the Mikado" be retained "on the basis of a constitutional monarchy." But Emperor Hirohito already was a constitutional monarch. The problem was his other function, as the pope of Japanese nationalism. His position during the 1930s and early 1940s had less to do with central tenets of Japanese culture than with a political ideology, based in large part on nineteenth-century European nationalism. It was not culture or religion that the Japanese leaders tried to protect, but their own position in the kokutai. Without the Emperor, their power would have lacked any legitimacy. Since it was Truman's aim to break their power, he had to break the kokutai first.

The question at the heart of Alperovitz's book is "whether, when the bomb was used, the president and his top advisers understood that it was not required to avoid a long and costly invasion, as they later claimed and as most Americans still believe." He has proved that avoiding an invasion was not Washington's only aim. Secretary of State Henry Stimpson's statement (to McCloy) in May 1945 makes that pretty clear. The US, he said, had "coming into action a weapon which will be unique." The "method now to deal with Russia was to…let our actions speak for words." And the US might have to "do it in a pretty rough and realistic way." There is no doubt that at Potsdam Truman saw the bomb as a joker in his pack.

But Alperovitz does not prove conclusively that the Soviet Union was the only reason for dropping the bomb. There were other considerations, which did involve the possibility of an invasion. Truman wanted to end the war swiftly to stop the Soviet advance in East Asia, but also because Americans were getting tired of fighting. Truman worried that the prospect of a prolonged war in the Far East, including an eventual invasion, would put pressure on him to accept a Japanese surrender on less than favorable terms. In other words, before Hiroshima, Truman did think the defeat of Japan, on American terms, might require a long battle. The problem with Alperovitz's analysis is that he pays too little attention to the political situation in wartime Japan. In his famous book Atomic Diplomacy, published in 1965, there is only one reference to Prime Minister Suzuki, and none to his die-hard opponents Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda. His new tome still only mentions them in passing.

Alperovitz's case that the bomb was not dropped to prevent a final bloody battle rests entirely on the assumption that Truman and his advisers knew perfectly well that the Japanese were on the verge of capitulation before the destruction of Hiroshima. Closer examination of what went on in Tokyo shows that the Japanese were not. So long as there was no unanimity in the war cabinet and the Emperor remained silent, the war would go on. And so long as the hard-liners prevailed, any attempt by members of the peace faction, such as Foreign Minister Togo, to negotiate for peace had to be vague, furtive, and inconclusive. Alperovitz makes a great deal of Togo's dispatches in July 1945 to Sato Naotake, ambassador to Moscow, conveying the Emperor's wish to discuss peace terms through the good offices of Moscow. He makes less of the fact that Ambassador Sato told his foreign minister that the mission was hopeless since Japan had nothing specific to discuss. And he makes nothing at all of the other reason for approaching Moscow: important members of the peace faction, including Admiral Yonai, still hoped to forge a Japanese–Soviet alliance against the US and Britain.[12]

So I do not believe it was an irrational policy on Truman's part to insist on unconditional surrender. But analyzing rational policies is not the business of a professor of psychiatry and psychology, so Robert Jay Lifton ignores these political considerations, and dwells on such issues as Truman's "denial of death," or James Byrnes's "totalistic relationship with the weapon," or "the formation of separate, relatively autonomous selves" in the personality of Henry Stimson. From this psychiatric perspective, anyone mad enough to drop an atomic bomb, even in 1945, when any means to end the war had to be considered, must be a mental patient. And the policy of a mental patient has to be touched with madness.

Lifton and Mitchell claim, like Alperovitz, that since the successful test of the atomic bomb, "Truman and Byrnes began to focus on how to end the war sufficiently quickly that the Soviets would not gain a foothold in Japan." But again the authors do not consider the reasons why. To them it is but one more example of Truman's irrational state of mind, because he was suppressing his feelings and "any tendency to reflect," since he had been bad at sports as a child and was afraid of being "a sissy." Even if all these things were true, there were still compelling reasons for wishing to stop Soviet troops from entering Japan. There was concern in Washington about the swift expansion of the Soviet Empire in Eastern and Central Europe. The US ambassador to the Soviet Union, W. Averill Harriman, called it a "barbarian invasion." He believed, quite correctly, that Soviet control of other countries meant the extinction of political liberties in those countries and a dominant Soviet influence over their foreign relations. As subsequent events in China and the Korean peninsula have shown, Truman was right to worry about Soviet power in northeast Asia. It certainly would not have suited US interests, or those of Japan for that matter, if the Japanese archipelago had been divided into different occupation zones, with Stalin's troops ensconced in Hokkaido.

As he did in his book on the "genocidal mentality" of nuclear scientists and strategists,[13] Lifton uses the phrase "nuclearism," which he describes as "a spiritual faith that the ultimate power of the emerging weapon could serve not only death and destruction but also continuing life." Believers in this faith, such as Truman, feel like "merging with a source of power rivaling that of any deity." They are, in short, possessed. Here Lifton and Mitchell are close to the religious position of Dr. Nagai: the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were propelled by a force beyond human reason. Having established that, the authors can dispense with political arguments and concentrate on the corruption of American life by irrational forces. They can write that the "nurturing of this deified object [i.e., the bomb], as our source of security and ultimate power over death, became the central task of our society," without contemplating what the world would have been like if the sole possessors of this object had been the likes of Joseph Stalin.


Perhaps it helps to be a Nagasaki Catholic to take a more complex view of sin. Loyalty to their own deity must have given some Japanese Christians a skeptical view of Japanese politics when the kokutai was at the height of its divine imperial pretensions. One of the most controversial and interesting Nagasaki Catholics is the ex-mayor Motoshima Hitoshi. I first interviewed him seven years ago, in Nagasaki, when Emperor Hirohito was dying. Motoshima had just said in public that the Emperor bore some responsibility for the war and, by not ending it soon enough, for the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A conservative politician, he was disowned by the Liberal Democratic Party and blackballed by various patriotic organizations of which he was a member. He also received threats from right-wing extremists. One year later, he was shot in the back by one of them, and barely survived. This is the "Japanese culture" that remains from the war. It is no longer the main political tendency, but it is still intimidating enough to silence critics of the imperial system and other remnants of the old kokutai, which General MacArthur helped to protect.

This summer, Motoshima looked less robust than I remembered him, perhaps because of the assassination attempt, perhaps because of his recent loss of the mayoral election. He began by reading the late Emperor's statement of August 15, 1945, about the "new and most cruel bomb." He tapped the text with his finger and said the bomb did bring the war to an end. But then he made another point. The atomic bombs, he said, had done away with the idea of a good war. He himself had believed in a Japanese victory. Although he had been tormented as a Christian child by teachers who forced him to declare who was holier, Jesus or the Emperor, Motoshima was a patriot. He served in an army propaganda unit. But the atomic bombs had turned war into an absolute evil, like the Holocaust in Europe. He illustrated this view at a recent press conference in Tokyo, by comparing the innocent victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Jews killed at Auschwitz. The Japanese press made nothing of this. But the Western correspondents were full of indignation; yet another Japanese whitewash, they thought, another sob story of the Japanese as victims.

I asked him about this. Was there really no difference between the citizens of a nation that started a war and people who were killed for purely ideological reasons? Had he himself not said that the Japanese people bore responsibility for the war, as well as their emperor? He answered my question by asking me whether I thought Jewish soldiers in Hitler's army had been responsible for the war in Europe. Clearly, the precise nature of the European Holocaust had rather escaped him. But when pressed by others he has acknowledged that there was a difference between the atomic bombings and the Holocaust. The US was not planning to exterminate the entire Japanese people. The question remains, however, whether there is a fundamental more difference between dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many thousands of incendiary bombs on, say, Tokyo.

Miyazaki Kentaro, the son of bomb survivors, and a historian specializing in the "hidden Christian" communities in Japan, saw no moral difference. All forms of carpet bombing were a sin. But like the former mayor, he blamed the Japanese government for starting the war, and saw no reason to criticize the US. I also asked the opinion of Father Sebastian Kawazoe, the priest at Urakami Cathedral. Like Motoshima, with whom he went to school, Kawazoe was born on one of the Goto Islands, in a family of hidden Christians. He had the same straight, almost rough, manner of speaking as the ex-mayor. He told me most Catholics had not been keen supporters of the war. But they had to be careful, for they were always being treated as spies. He, too, saw no moral distinction between A-bombs and other forms of terror bombing.

I dwell on this point because I think it clarifies our thinking about the past. If we see the atomic bombs as morally unique, as something fundamentally different, in ethical terms, from large numbers of incendiary bombs or napalm bombs dropped on civilians, it is difficult to analyze the actions of men, such as Truman, who saw the A-bomb attacks as a logical extension of strategic bombing.[14] McGeorge Bundy wrote about this in his book Danger and Survival, in a chapter entitled "The Decision to Drop the Bombs on Japan."

Both military and political leaders came to think of urban destruction not as wicked, not even as a necessary evil, but as a result with its own military value. Distinctions that had seemed clear when the Germans bombed Rotterdam were gradually rubbed out in the growing ferocity of the war.[15]

This, rather than theological jargon about original sin or "nuclearism," is the nub of the matter. Truman, in response to an American advocate of "the Christian tradition of civilized war," said there was no such thing, that war "has always been a matter of slaughter of innocents and never civilized." This sounds good, a moral cri de coeur from a tough-minded, peace-loving leader, but it is disingenuous. For there is a difference between killing innocents in the heat of battle and killing them deliberately, in huge numbers, as a form of terror. Tens of thousands died horribly in Dresden without any apparent military or political justification. The possibility that the carnage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have brought the war to a speedier end made these mass killings expedient, perhaps, but no less morally disturbing. This does not mean, however, that it would have been any more ethical to go on fire-bombing Japanese cities, as Curtis LeMay, an opponent of the A-bomb strategy, wanted. More than 100,000 civilians had already died in one night in May, when LeMay's B-29s torched Tokyo with incendiary bombs. Truman's decision to drop the bombs was the climax of a horrible strategy, started by Germany and Japan, that had left much of Europe, parts of China, and most of Japan in ruins.

It would make sense for the Nagasaki Catholics, who suffered disproportionately from the A-bomb, to be active in the antinuclear peace movement. Actually they are not. Motoshima, who is a campaigner for world peace, is an exception. Father Kawazoe, himself a survivor, said: "I don't take part in the peace movement. It is used by people to expand their own sect. They talk about peace, but you don't know what's behind it." While acknowledging the checkered record of the Christian Church—"60 percent bad, 40 percent good"—he also said: "We Christians have a history of oppression, but we don't make a living out of our suffering. Emphasizing one's own suffering is just a way to win sympathy."

This is a bit harsh on the survivors in Peace Park, who devote their time to telling schoolchildren about the bomb. But as I watched those same schoolchildren, lined up in straight rows in front of the "Peace Statue" and solemnly shouting lines they had memorized about loving peace, I was reminded of demonstrations in the former East Berlin, where the masses marched past their leaders, raising their fists and bellowing slogans about "people's friendship." These peace ceremonies have become ritual gestures to ward off nuclear evil: "People who love peace, please sign your name here."

There is nothing in Nagasaki to tell those schoolchildren why the bomb was dropped, or what led up to it. It is indeed hard to explain why the bomb had to be dropped on Nagasaki. There is no evidence that it hastened the end of the war. Carl Spaatz, the commanding general of the US Army Strategic Air Forces, is quoted by Alperovitz as saying (to Averill Harriman) that he had no idea why a bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki. We will never know to what extent the fate of Nagasaki influenced the Emperor's decision to tell his soldiers to lay down their arms. But some historical context, some indication of what those Japanese soldiers had done to others, would not have been amiss. Instead, all one really hears in Nagasaki is the sound of prayer. And one only needs to walk past the Peace Park monuments, from China, the USSR, Bulgaria, Cuba, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic, to see how peace has been exploited.

On my last day in Nagasaki, I visited Urakami Cathedral, where Father Kawazoe was celebrating Mass. The cathedral was full, with more women than men. The women wore old-fashioned veils, a custom that has virtually died out in Europe. Almost all these people were descended from families who had clung to their faith through centuries of persecution. It was a moving spectacle, even if one had no special feeling for the Catholic Church. Father Kawazoe was preaching that God's will could not be known, and it was useless to expect favors from Him. God was not like some local deity, whom one could ask for a good catch or an abundant crop. I was puzzled by this. Here was a Japanese priest, in the Cathedral of a modern, sophisticated city, talking to people as though they were villagers on Goto Island who had to be weaned from their native gods.

I left the Cathedral feeling touched, but also with a sense of sadness and futility. Outside were some of the remains of the old Cathedral: a blackened statue of Christ, with a chipped nose and dark stumps where there had once been fingers; and there a damaged Saint Agnes; and there, in the grass, the charred heads of decapitated angels. People used to believe that Armageddon was a prerogative of God, or of the gods. Now we know it is in the hands of man. Hardly a consolation.


[1] These quotes are all from Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb, by Frank Chinnock (Allen and Unwin, 1970). The effects of the Nagasaki bomb are horrifically illustrated by the photographer Yosuke Yamahata in Nagasaki Journey. (Note: An exhibition of Yamahata's photographs produced by Judy Irving and Christopher Beaver is on view through October 1 at the International Center of Photography in New York City, and through September 23 at the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco.)

[2] For a detailed description of the Hiroshima Peace Park, see The New York Review, October 25, 1990.

[3] I have used the translation of William Johnston, an Irish Jesuit who believes that Dr. Nagai "takes an honoured place among the great prophets of Asia and of the world." The Bells of Nagasaki (Kodansha, 1984).

[4] Chinnock, Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb, p. 299.

[5] These views were expressed to Fred Barnes in The New Republic, March 13, 1995, p. 23.

[6] Gar Alperovitz first set out his ideas in Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (revised edition, Pluto Press, 1994). His new book, The Decision to Use the Atom Bomb, goes over the same ground in more detail, as well as dealing with postwar myths about the bomb.

[7] "Japan's Delayed Surrender: A Reinterpretation," by Herbert P. Bix, Diplomatic History (Spring 1995), p. 206.

[8] The Emperor gave this self-serving account before the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was convened. The text was circulated among General MacArthur's staff but then disappeared, until it turned up in America after Hirohito's death. The full text was published in Tokyo in Showa Tenno Dokuhakuroku (Bungei Shunju, 1991).

[9] Showa Tenno Dokuhakuroku, p. 121.

[10] Quoted in the fascinating article by Herbert P. Bix in the Spring 1995 issue of Diplomatic History, p. 218.

[11] Diplomatic History, p. 223.

[12] Japanese historians have paid attention to this, most recently in a discussion in the September issue of the monthly magazine Gendai.

[13] The Genocidal Mentality, by Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen (Basic Books, 1990). Reviewed in these pages October 25, 1990.

[14] In his article, "Understanding the Atomic Bomb and the Japanese Surrender: Missed Opportunities, Little-Known Near Disasters, and Modern Memory," in Diplomatic History (Spring 1995), Barton Bernstein emphasizes that "in 1945, American leaders were not seeking to avoid the use of the A-bomb. Its use did not create ethical or political problems for them" (p. 235).

[15] Quoted by Barton Bernstein in Judgment at the Smithsonian, p. 194.

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