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Reflections on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

August 09, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, David Krieger, David Swanson, Family, Keith McHenry, Politics

(Editor’s Note: August 6th was the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima; and today commemorates the attack on Nagasaki. In remembrance of these events, which helped usher in the atomic age and the permanent war economy, we present three critical reflections by leading voices for peace.)

Truman Lied, Hundreds of Thousands Died

by David Swanson

On August 6, 1945, President Harry S Truman announced: “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T.  It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British ‘Grand Slam’ which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.”

When Truman lied to America that Hiroshima was a military base rather than a city full of civilians, people no doubt wanted to believe him. Who would want the shame of belonging to the nation that commits a whole new kind of atrocity? (Will naming lower Manhattan “ground zero” erase the guilt?)  And when we learned the truth, we wanted and still want desperately to believe that war is peace, that violence is salvation, that our government dropped nuclear bombs in order to save lives, or at least to save American lives.

We tell each other that the bombs shortened the war and saved more lives than the some 200,000 they took away. And yet, weeks before the first bomb was dropped, on July 13, 1945, Japan sent a telegram to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan’s codes and read the telegram. Truman referred in his diary to “the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Truman had been informed through Swiss and Portuguese channels of Japanese peace overtures as early as three months before Hiroshima. Japan objected only to surrendering unconditionally and giving up its emperor, but the United States insisted on those terms until after the bombs fell, at which point it allowed Japan to keep its emperor.

Presidential advisor James Byrnes had told Truman that dropping the bombs would allow the United States to “dictate the terms of ending the war.” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote in his diary that Byrnes was “most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.” Truman wrote in his diary that the Soviets were preparing to march against Japan and “Fini Japs when that comes about.” Truman ordered the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th and another type of bomb, a plutonium bomb, which the military also wanted to test and demonstrate, on Nagasaki on August 9th. Also on August 9th, the Soviets attacked the Japanese. During the next two weeks, the Soviets killed 84,000 Japanese while losing 12,000 of their own soldiers, and the United States continued bombing Japan with non-nuclear weapons. Then the Japanese surrendered.

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that, “certainly prior to 31 December, 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”  One dissenter who had expressed this same view to the Secretary of War prior to the bombings was General Dwight Eisenhower. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy agreed: “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 ready to surrender.”

Whatever dropping the bombs might possibly have contributed to ending the war, it is curious that the approach of threatening to drop them, the approach used during a half-century of Cold War to follow, was never tried.  An explanation may perhaps be found in Truman’s comments suggesting the motive of revenge:

“Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, and against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international law of warfare.”

Truman could not, incidentally, have chosen Tokyo as a target — not because it was a city, but because we had already reduced it to rubble.

The nuclear catastrophes may have been, not the ending of a World War, but the theatrical opening of the Cold War, aimed at sending a message to the Soviets. Many low and high ranking officials in the U.S. military, including commanders in chief, have been tempted to nuke more cities ever since, beginning with Truman threatening to nuke China in 1950. The myth developed, in fact, that Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for nuking China led to the rapid conclusion of the Korean War. Belief in that myth led President Richard Nixon, decades later, to imagine he could end the Vietnam War by pretending to be crazy enough to use nuclear bombs. Even more disturbingly, he actually was crazy enough. “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? … I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes,” Nixon said to Henry Kissinger in discussing options for Vietnam.

President George W. Bush oversaw the development of smaller nuclear weapons that might be used more readily, as well as much larger non-nuclear bombs, blurring the line between the two. President Barack Obama established in 2010 that the United States might strike first with nuclear weapons, but only against Iran or North Korea. The United States alleged, without evidence, that Iran was not complying with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), even though the clearest violation of that treaty is the United States’ own failure to work on disarmament and the United States’ Mutual Defense Agreement with the United Kingdom, by which the two countries share nuclear weapons in violation of Article 1 of the NPT, and even though the United States’ first strike nuclear weapons policy violates yet another treaty: the U.N. Charter.

Americans may never admit what was done in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but our country had been in some measure prepared for it. After Germany had invaded Poland, Britain and France had declared war on Germany.  Britain in 1940 had broken an agreement with Germany not to bomb civilians, before Germany retaliated in the same manner against England — although Germany had itself bombed Guernica, Spain, in 1937, and Warsaw, Poland, in 1939, and Japan meanwhile was bombing civilians in China. Then, for years, Britain and Germany had bombed each other’s cities before the United States joined in, bombing German and Japanese cities in a spree of destruction unlike anything ever previously witnessed. When we were firebombing Japanese cities, Life magazine printed a photo of a Japanese person burning to death and commented “This is the only way.”

By the time of the Vietnam War, such images were highly controversial. By the time of the 2003 War on Iraq, such images were not shown, just as enemy bodies were no longer counted. That development, arguably a form of progress, still leaves us far from the day when atrocities will be displayed with the caption “There has to be another way.”

Combating evil is what peace activists do. It is not what wars do. And it is not, at least not obviously, what motivates the masters of war, those who plan the wars and bring them into being. But it is tempting to think so. It is very noble to make brave sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life, in order to end evil. It is perhaps even noble to use other people’s children to vicariously put an end to evil, which is all that most war supporters do.  It is righteous to become part of something bigger than oneself. It can be thrilling to revel in patriotism. It can be momentarily pleasurable I’m sure, if less righteous and noble, to indulge in hatred, racism, and other group prejudices. It’s nice to imagine that your group is superior to someone else’s. And the patriotism, racism, and other isms that divide you from the enemy can thrillingly unite you, for once, with all of your neighbors and compatriots across the now meaningless boundaries that usually hold sway.

If you are frustrated and angry, if you long to feel important, powerful, and dominating, if you crave the license to lash out in revenge either verbally or physically, you may cheer for a government that announces a vacation from morality and open permission to hate and to kill. You’ll notice that the most enthusiastic war supporters sometimes want nonviolent war opponents killed and tortured along with the vicious and dreaded enemy; the hatred is far more important than its object. If your religious beliefs tell you that war is good, then you’ve really gone big time. Now you’re part of God’s plan. You’ll live after death, and perhaps we’ll all be better off if you bring on the death of us all.

But simplistic beliefs in good and evil don’t match up well with the real world, no matter how many people share them unquestioningly. They do not make you a master of the universe. On the contrary, they place control of your fate in the hands of people cynically manipulating you with war lies.

And the hatred and bigotry don’t provide lasting satisfaction, but instead breed bitter resentment.

David Swanson is the author of War Is A Lie (from which this piece is excerpted) and Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org, where this article originally appeared.

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Remembering the Nuclear Bombing of Hiroshima

by Keith McHenry

August 6th has always haunted me. My mother’s father, John Vanderpool Phelan, was proud of his participation in the bombing of Japan. Lt. Phelan was and Intelligence Officer with the 468th  Bombardment Squadron in 1944 and 45. When he returned from Asia decorated the den at his home in Needham, Massachusetts with the 50 framed black and white photos of the fire booming of Tokyo. He took each photo so he could determine the length of time his squadron would need to fly before dropping more fuel bombs on the civilian population of Japan. His photos were evidence that he helped burn perhaps millions of people alive.  My family took me to several 468 Conventions to hear stories of  near misses and missed targets. His men would brag about  Lt. Phelan’s work to provide General Curtis LeMay with a flight plan for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that would have taken “Little Boy” over the Himalayas to its target.

I visited my grandfather’s home often during the time of the Vietnam War. Every Christmas Grampy Phelan would pace below his photos of the fire bombing in heated phone conversations to General LeMay about the value of dropping a nuclear bomb on Hanoi.  Decisions about taking so many lives was a burden our family had to endure.

One sunny spring day in 1977, I took a break from my job at the Old South Meeting House telling tourists about the history of the Boston Tea Party and walked over to Park Street Station to eat lunch on the Commons.  A small woman stood on a Hood Dairy Milk Crate explaining that there were thousands of nuclear missiles that could be launched in a minuted notice. The Soviet Union could kill millions of Americans if they believed the United States was about to attack and the U.S. Military could kill millions in the Soviet Union. I later found out she was Doctor Helen Caldicott and was seeking to end the threat of nuclear war.

I could see how regular people, people like my mother’s father, could rationalize horrible acts like the use of nuclear weapons and the murder of millions in a quest to defend corporate power. A few years later I happened to have a job trimming produce at an organic grocery in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was alarmed by how many cases of nutritious produce I was expected to discard so I took it to the hungry residence at the housing projects near the store. Very skinny children played outside the dilapidated brick buildings in the shadow of a modern glass tower where scientists were developing guidance systems for intercontinental nuclear missiles. Our society clearly valued bombs over food. That August 6th, the new group Food Not Bombs marched from Cambridge City Hall to the front of that weapons laboratory. I took the Boston phone book from a bucket of  gas and held it up to those assembled. “If a one megaton  nuclear weapon were to hit Boston today all the people listed in this phone book would die in a flash!” I set a match to the book and up it went in flames.

Thirty years later we still face this very real danger.  As we feared, Reagan  started a policy of redirecting our resources from healthcare, education, and the real security that Americans need to the world’s largest military build up.  On the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki I will be going to court in Orlando, Florida along with many others for the “crime” of sharing free vegan meals with the hungry in protest to war and poverty.

Food Not Bombs could sure use your support. The most important thing you can do is join or start a local Food Not Bombs group.  The number of people needing food increases every day.  We could also use financial support for our legal expenses as well as to help us recover, prepare, and provide food to the hungry and those who continue to protest the dangerous policies of austerity, war, and environmental destruction.

Keith McHenry is the co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement.  To learn more about starting a local Food Not Bombs group, or to donate to the effort, visit: http://www.foodnotbombs.net/

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Remembrance, Reflection, and Resistance

by David Krieger

We remember the horrors of the past so that we may learn from them and they will not be repeated in the future.  If we ignore or distort the past and fail to learn from it, we are opening the door to repetition of history’s horrors.

In August, we remember the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. Both were illegal attacks on civilian populations, violating long-standing rules of customary international humanitarian law prohibiting the use of indiscriminate weapons (as between combatants and non-combatants) and weapons that cause unnecessary suffering.

In a just world, those who were responsible for these attacks, in violation of the laws of war, would have been held to account and punished accordingly.  They were not.  Rather, they were celebrated, as the atomic bombs themselves were celebrated, in the false belief that they brought World War II to an end.

The historical record is clear about these facts: First, at the time Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled, each with a single atomic bomb, Japan had been trying to surrender. Second, the US had broken the Japanese codes and knew that Japan had been trying to surrender. Third, prior to the use of the atomic bombs, the only term of surrender offered to Japan by the US was “unconditional surrender,” a term that left the Emperor’s fate in US hands.  Fourth, the precipitating factor to Japan’s actual surrender, as indicated by Japanese wartime cabinet records, was not the US atomic bombs, but the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against them.  Fifth, when Japan did surrender, after the atomic bombings, it did so contingent upon retaining the Emperor, and the US accepted this condition.

The US drew a self-serving causal link from the bombings, which was: we dropped the bombs and won the war.  In doing so, we reinforced the US belief that it can violate international law at times and places of its choosing and that US leaders can attack civilians with impunity.

Following the victory in Europe, the Allied powers held the Nazi leaders to account at the Nuremberg Tribunals for crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The Charter creating the Nuremberg Tribunals was signed by the US on August 8, 1945, two days after it had dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.  One day after signing the Charter, the US would drop a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki.  Both atomic bombings were war crimes that, if they had been committed by Nazi leaders, most certainly would have been universally denounced and punished at Nuremberg.

Upon reflection, we must come to understand Hiroshima and Nagasaki as war crimes, if such crimes are not to be repeated.  We must resist the double standard that makes crimes committed by our enemies punishable under international law, while the same crimes committed by our leaders are deemed to be acceptable.  We must resist nuclear weapons themselves. They are city-destroying weapons whose possession should be considered prima facie evidence of criminal intent.

It has been two-thirds of a century since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs.  There remain over 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world.  We must resist the tendency to normalize these weapons and consign them to the background of our lives. They reflect our technological skills turned to massively destructive ends and our failed responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.

Looking back at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Eisenhower said that the bombings were not necessary because Japan was already defeated; and Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, compared us to barbarians of the Dark Ages and said that he was not taught to make war by destroying women and children.  Einstein said that, looking forward, we must change our modes of thinking or face unparalleled catastrophe.  Changing our modes of thinking begins with remembrance, reflection and resistance.

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an organization that has worked to abolish nuclear weapons since 1982. His book, The Challenge of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, was released in paperback in 2010. This article originally appeared on the NAPF site.

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