That terrible weapon
Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the unending fallout
- Published 21.08.15
The author has written Tibet on the Imperial Chessboard: The Making of British Policy towards Lhasa, 1899-1925
On August 6, 1945, the president of the United States of America, Harry S. Truman, gave the signal for the world's first atom bomb to be dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima from an aircraft. On August 9, the gruesome exercise was repeated on the city of Nagasaki, razing both to the ground. Thousands of inhabitants were incinerated where they stood, many thousands were maimed and many were condemned to a lingering death. Truman rhapsodized over the event from his Oval Office in the White House, proclaiming jubilantly the scientific achievement, the saving of American and Japanese lives, and the conclusion of the Second World War in the Asia-Pacific theatre.
It took nearly a month longer for the formalities of Japan's Unconditional Surrender to be completed and sealed. It was the Soviet Union's defeat of the Kwantung army in Manchuria - the intervention apprehensively viewed in Washington and London, when both had once sought Soviet help in the war against Japan in order to minimize American casualties should an assault be mounted on the Home islands - that finally convinced the Japanese prime minister, Kantaro Suzuki, that Japan's cause was hopeless, that Unconditional Surrender was the only way out for his devastated nation.
Yet, Japan's military rulers had begun, prior to these developments, to sue for peace, negotiating only the terms that would protect the Emperor Hirohito from the indignity of trial as a war criminal. Truman stalled, waiting impatiently at the Potsdam Summit of the Big Three for the results test of the atom bomb to come through. When the detailed report from General Leslie R. Groves arrived from the US on July 22, it confirmed the test to have been an outstanding success, beyond the expectations of the seniormost scientists responsible for the Manhattan Project. The news "pepped up" the American president.
Next, inevitably, came its use, a brutal demonstration of the awesome power at the disposal of the US. Truman's attitude to the Russians underwent a dramatic change. He became brusque to the point of rudeness, unyielding on post-war territorial arrangements. His secretary of state and alter ego, James F. Byrnes, concluded that "the overriding significance of the atom bomb would only sink into the remarkably obtuse Soviet consciousness after its power had been demonstrated in combat with Japan." Britain's wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, was as buoyed as Truman by the destructive power of the bomb and its likely impact on Russia. According to Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Britain's chief of the imperial general staff, Churchill "he was letting himself be carried away... was already seeing himself capable of eliminating all the Russian centres of industry... He had at once painted a wonderful picture of himself as the sole possessor of these bombs and capable of dumping them where he wished, thus all-powerful and capable of dictating to Stalin."
Truman, Byrnes, Churchill et al were determined to repudiate the Churchill-Stalin understanding in Moscow, in October 1944, on their respective spheres of influence in the Balkans; then sweep away all traces of Soviet influence in Europe and Asia - an intoxicating mirage that continues to inebriate their successors. The British pre-war prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, addressed Stalin as if he were a bey in Samarkand, wrote the English historian A.J.P. Taylor with characteristic wit. Neither was Stalin the head of a banana republic in America's backyard, nor an Arab sheikh in need of a British adviser. The atom bomb had produced delusions of grandeur in men who, otherwise, were eminently sane, not given to absurdist flights of fancy. Alanbrooke's assessment of Stalin in his War Diaries is arrestingly relevant. After his first meeting with the Soviet leader in Moscow, in August 1942, he "had already formed a very high idea of his ability, force of character and shrewdness"; at their second encounter at Tehran, in November 1943,"and in all the subsequent ones... I rapidly grew to appreciate the fact that he had a military brain of the very highest calibre. Never once in his statements did he make any strategic error, nor did he ever fail to appreciate all the implications of a situation with a quick and unerring eye... Winston [Churchill], on the other hand, was far more erratic, brilliant at times, but far too impulsive..." Anthony Eden, arguably the most experienced British foreign secretary of the 20th century, wrote that if he had to choose the 12 most accomplished negotiators of his time, Joseph Stalin would be his first choice. Russia's Man of Steel would prove a formidable adversary to his opponents.
Truman, economical with the truth, provided the staple of the officially approved American narrative for the past 70 years, but was challenged by the testimony of US Admiral William D. Leahy, who issued the following statement: "It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and were ready to surrender... My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."
Leahy was not a typical critic of American policy. Not only was he the five-star admiral who presided over the US joint chiefs of staff, but he was a good friend of Truman's and the two men respected and liked each other: his public criticism of the Hiroshima decision was scarcely personal. Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Truman's successor in the White House) also spoke of his deep misgivings over the use of such a terrible weapon "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'". Truman was not going to allow such sentiments to obstruct his determination to use the bomb.
This, surely, is the appropriate time to read (and read again, if necessary) and meditate on the magisterial work of the American historian, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision To Use The Atomic Bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki signalled the slow descent into the Cold War abyss, its intensifying arms race, nuclear proliferation and the looming spectre of Armageddon.
Alperovitz's massively researched tome is robustly analytical, scrupulously calibrated and informed by luminous integrity. It provides most, though not all, of the clinching answers to the puzzles and purposes behind the production and management of the atom bomb, on the manipulation of information from on high, on the doctoring and disappearance of critical documents, in which notable influences, among them those of the president himself, were plainly visible.
Imperial Japan was guilty of its own horrendous crimes against the peoples of Korea, China and Southeast Asia, not to speak of the barbarous treatment of prisoners of war, including those from India, who were frequently the targets of live bayonet practice by Japanese army units. That said, the incineration of entire cities and civilian populations, for no good reason save aggrandizement, were themselves acts of unspeakable barbarity. An American presidential expression of regret for the atom bomb attack on Japan might have been a healing balm, but this, given America's sacramental Manifest Destiny, it's record of carpet bombing and chemical defoliation of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, is a moral gesture beyond the diminished capability of a nation gripped by a fever of self-righteous denial and driven by an insatiable quest for enemies: today, Iran, tomorrow, possibly, Ruritania. Such hubris is invariably followed by nemesis as surely as night follows day.