Today marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most horrific acts in history, and that is the dropping of a nuclear weapon on the city of Nagasaki. It follows by three days a similar act committed against the city of Hiroshima. The bomb on Hiroshima killed 80,000 people instantly and another 60,000 in the months that followed and the one on Nagasaki resulted in another 70,000 deaths in the short term. Of course, to these grim totals we must add to that the uncounted number of long-term deaths and illnesses and genetic defects that ensued and the creation of a wasteland where once had been two cities.
This deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was an act of moral degeneration, a vile decision and a war crime by any measure. I find it incredible that anyone could have consciously made the decision to incinerate such vast numbers of people in a single moment. As barbaric as that act was, what is even more appalling is that many others not only exulted in it then, but continue to justify it now. It is indeed a sad reflection of our flawed humanity how the tribal mentality prevents ‘us’ from seeing ‘our’ side as incapable of evil and tries to whitewash this unspeakable act and somehow justify it.
For example, when it is pointed out to those who describe the leaders of Iran as irrational and evil people who cannot be trusted to not use a nuclear weapon and that the only country that has used it is the US and is thus hardly in a position to take the moral high ground on this issue, one can expect the extraordinary rationalization that dropping these bombs actually saved lives in that it ended the war quickly by bringing about Japan’s immediate surrender. They actually argue that this was some kind of humane act.
What kind of moral monster makes a macabre calculation that deliberately and certainly incinerating hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, young, and old, most living ordinary lives, is worth it because it might hypothetically save more lives in the future? This was not what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’, the supposedly accidental killing of civilians while aiming at military targets. This was the deliberate targeting of civilians to achieve a military goal. What kind of person weighs the certain deaths of hundreds of thousands of people on some hypothetical balance and concludes that it is a good thing?
But it turns out that a wealth of scholarship from recently declassified documents from the archives of the US, UK, Soviet Union, and Japan reveal that the rationale that dropping the bombs actually saved lives was a carefully cultivated lie designed to justify the unjustifiable. John LaForge writes that people like General Douglas MacArthur and leader of the allied forces and later president Dwight Eisenhower were among those who felt that dropping the bombs was not only unnecessary but known in advance to be unnecessary.
Kept hidden for decades was the 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey’s conclusion that Japan almost certainly would have surrendered in 1945 without the atomic bombs, without a Soviet invasion and without a US invasion. Not long after V-J Day in 1945, Brig. Gen. Bonnie Feller wrote, “Neither the atomic bombing nor the entry of the Soviet Union into the war forced Japan’s unconditional surrender. She was defeated before either of these events took place.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said in his memoirs he believed “that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”
Adm. William Leahy, the wartime Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in 1950, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material success in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender….” Feller’s, Ike’s and Leahy’s opinions were conspicuously left out of or censored by the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 display of the atomic B-29 bomber “Enola Gay.”
The myth that dropping the bombs ‘saved lives’ by ending the war quickly was a carefully cultivated one, made possible by strict censorship and a US public relations campaign that wanted to show the power of the weapons but not the effects on lives and thus showed the physical devastation and mushroom clouds but prevented the showing of the charred corpses of people.
Greg Mitchel’s “Atomic Cover-Up” (Sinclair Books, 2011) also helps explain the durability of the “saved lives” ruse. Wartime and occupation censors seized all films and still photos of the two atomic cities, and the US government kept them hidden for decades. Even in 1968, newsreel footage from Hiroshima held in the National Archives was stamped, “SECRET, Not To Be Released Without the Approval of the DOD.” Photos of the atomized cities that did reach the public merely showed burned buildings or mushroom clouds — rarely human victims.
But all this will not prevent the tribalists from continuing to believe in and propagate the myth that the bombings were not only not a war crime but that they were justified and even some kind of humane act. One of the hardest things for people to learn is that we are just like other people and capable of barbaric acts. But until we learn that lesson, we will continue to commit them.