Saturday, August 15, 2015

How My Parents Learned About the Atomic Bomb

If it's early August, it must be time for the obligatory reflection on the dropping of the atomic bomb, a doubly topical subject this year, given that we mark the 70th anniversary even as we debate the efficacy of the recently concluded agreement to control the Iranian nuclear program.

And so, columnists return to the eternal questions: Was the use of the "The Bomb" necessary? Could the US not have demonstrated it first? Was it racism that prompted the US to use the bomb against Japan? Or, did the US really drop it in order to overawe the Soviets in the incipient Cold War? (Okay, in the current debased intellectual climate, that latter issue has pretty much dropped out of a picture oversimplified by both the know-nothing right and the identity-fixated left.) And so on and so on and so forth, covering all the topics that we rehearsed and rehashed in grad school.

The classic argument and the counterargument

The classic argument for the use of the bomb, of course, was that, given the tenacity with which the Japanese defended such outposts as Iwo Jima (circa 6,800 US dead) and Okinawa (circa 14,000 US dead), an invasion of Mainland Japan might have cost 250,000 US lives (estimates varied widely: from several tens of thousands to half a million or even 800,000, depending on the logic and the assumed length of the operation). Recall that the costs of the invasion of Europe were far lower: 4,413 total Allied dead on D-Day itself, and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy, 53,714. (For comparison, US dead in Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003-10: 4,424. Vietnam War: 58,220.) On the assumption that the Japanese population as well as the military would fight ferociously to defend the homeland, US sources also predicted high civilian losses: by the top estimate, five to ten million dead. Among the counter-arguments: Japan was already beaten and knew it, but the US was not sufficiently forthcoming in recognizing this in formulating its demands for unconditional surrender--or, was simply determined to use the bomb at all costs for extrinsic reasons.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal recently summarized the classic argument, citing cultural critic Paul Fussell's 1981 essay, "Thank God for the Atom Bomb." Fussell's point was simple: as a combat infantryman, he had survived the war in Europe and seen his friends killed beside him (he dedicated his great book on World War I to one of them), only to learn that he was about to be sent to the Pacific to take part in the invasion of Japan. In his view, that of the ordinary soldier, the atomic bomb saved his life and that of thousands or millions of US and Japanese. By contrast, a distinguished historian of Japan once told me he considered the essay a dangerous piece of writing because the author made the case seem irrefutably compelling to the general reader.

(more on this stamp)

Debating Hiroshima over dessert

One of the most memorable if low-key debates about the atomic bomb that I can recall took place many years ago in a most unusual setting: dinner at the home of Japanese-American friends of my parents'. Both members of the couple had been interned in U.S. camps during the war. The father nonetheless reluctantly accepted the use of the bomb, arguing that the fascist-militarist Japanese regime would not otherwise have surrendered. The children were against it on abstract moral principle. I had always emotionally been on their side, although I understood the arguments on the other. The discussion underscored for me, as a rising history major, the role of generational experiences and perspectives--as well as evidence. In the intervening years, I've come to see more of the nuances.

It's not that I have changed my general attitude toward deliberate bombing of large civilian populations (what was accepted practice then would, thankfully, be considered a clear-cut war crime in today's climate). Rather, it is that, as a historian, I am more aware of the complexities of the historical situation. Many factors, military and other, went into the decision to use the bomb. Mentalities different from our own were at work. Stephens cites Fussell's admonition, "Understanding the past requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination.” He continues in his own words, "Historical judgments must be made in light not only of outcomes but also of options. Would we judge Harry Truman better today if he had eschewed his nuclear option in favor of 7,000 casualties a week; that is, if he had been more considerate of the lives of the enemy than of the lives of his men?" Difficult, unanswerable questions.

So, what did people actually think back then?

How did people think about the bomb at the time? Amidst all the predictable and mostly banal or maudlin commemorative pieces (variously self-accusing or self-exculpatory--some manage to be both at once) this August, at least a few instead address this more interesting question.

Writing in The Atlantic, Paul Ham, in a piece subtitled, "How committee meetings, memos, and largely arbitrary decisions ushered in the nuclear age," reconstructs the logic behind the choice of Hiroshima as the first target. NPR touches on the same subject more briefly. Stephen Harding explains that continuing attacks by Japanese aviators after the surrender offer but before the arrival of the Japanese negotiating team nearly provoked a full-scale resumption of hostilities. The Economist simply republishes "Victory in the East" from August 18, 1945. Most of the article is concerned with the modalities of peacemaking--from a new great-power arrangement to demilitarization and reconstruction of the defeated nations--but it begins with a reflection on the bomb and its meaning:
THE war is won. Within four months of Germany's final surrender, the Japanese have laid down their arms. This is the moment for which the world has long been waiting. Now the carnage and the destruction can cease. The creative energies of mankind can be withdrawn from slaughter and battle and be devoted to the rebuilding of a decent world.

It is because this task is so vast and the implications of failure so terrifying that most  people are facing victory not only with profound relief and thankfulness, but also with a sense of uneasiness and awe. The bombs which wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki stopped the war. But they started something else, a new age in human history, in which the issue of peace and war is literally the issue of extermination or survival. Who can fail under those circumstances to approach the task of making peace with passionate hope and anxiety?
There is no self-flagellation, no moral hand-wringing: just a somber awareness of the task ahead in light of the implications for any future conflict. It is a useful reminder.

I don't remember my parents taking a direct part in the above dinner-table debate (after all, they were guests, and it was a sensitive intra-family discussion), so I tried to recall whether they had addressed the topic on other occasions. I had certainly learned about it at home and in school. They had a copy of John Hersey's 1946 Hiroshima on the bookshelf in the living room (an early edition, as I recall, if not a first printing), which I read in junior high or high school.

I don't recall my father saying much explicitly about the bomb: One might assume that, as a member of the military during the war, he would have been for it--but that might be to assume too much. I clearly recall critical remarks about the firebombing of Dresden, the undisciplined mass expulsions of ethnic Germans from East Central Europe, and similar wartime actions that entailed a high cost in civilian life or suffering arguably beyond the demands of justice or military necessity. (The war in Europe was, naturally, the focus of his reflections.) By contrast, my mother certainly did speak of it occasionally, noting the fears for the future she felt at the time. She also told me about the visit of the Hiroshima Maidens to the United States in the 1950s.

One always wishes that one had asked one's parents more questions while one still had the chance. But I did not. So I went back to the sources, such as they are.

A laconic wartime diary

In my father's case, I had only a little war diary. He was in London, still serving in the Polish Army but employed on the British home front at the time.

The entries are in his usual laconic fashion: just an annotation of events or places and the like, as an aid to memory. Even so, they may prove informative, at the least as a reminder of how news of the final phase of the war reached the public, which by definition lacked our knowledge of the course and duration of the endgame.

Under 7 August--written over 6 August, perhaps distinguishing between the date of the event and the majority of the press coverage(?), we find:
atom bombs [sic: plural] -- attack on Hiroshima
Under 8 August:
Russia declares war on Japan
This may seem an anticlimax today, but the Soviet declaration of war was headline material: one of the outcomes of the Yalta Conference, urgently sought by the US, given the anticipated cost of the invasion of the Japanese home islands. Again, no one could be sure the dropping of the atomic bomb(s) would bring about Japanese surrender. And of course, given the great secrecy that had enshrouded the whole development process, no one outside the highest circles knew that the U.S. had only two of the devastating weapons (though there were plans to rush ten more into production, for a total of twelve).

Curiously, there is no mention of the Nagasaki bomb on 9 August. Perhaps the entry for the 7th was written retroactively, as he caught up with events, and intended to cover both air attacks (thus the odd plural: "bombs"), or perhaps, in the rush of events, Nagasaki was simply eclipsed by the greater news of Soviet entry into this theater of war and then, immediately thereafter, of an impending end to the war itself.

Under 10 August:
Japan to "surrender" conditionally  -- unofficial
The term, "conditionally," is striking but in fact historically accurate because, although the Japanese message to the Allies spoke of accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, mandating unconditional surrender, it also contained the qualifier: provided "said Declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as sovereign ruler.” In point of fact, although President Truman ordered a halt to bombing (even as the Soviet campaign continued), discussions continued for several days until the Emperor made an unprecedented radio broadcast and announced the surrender.

Although that occurred only on August 15, the news of 10 August proved good enough for the general public.  The diary records:
VFE celebrations
"VFE" here stands for "Victory in the Far East." This in itself is interesting, for it reminds us that even the name of the holiday (actual or anticipated) was not yet set: (see the next post). The formal surrender ceremony of course took place only on 2 September aboard the battleship "Missouri" in Tokyo harbor.

A memoir of old age

My mother described her situation in one of the essays that she produced for her writing group, in her final years. It is thus from long after the fact, but is in accord with what she had told me long before.

In April 1945, with defeat of Germany on the horizon, she had just completed a Master's thesis on modern German history at Columbia when she was offered a fellowship to continue graduate work in ancient history. She reluctantly turned town the offer because she had already made a commitment for the coming years: denazification work with the US military government in occupied Germany. It was a moral and political priority for her. (Nowadays a student would turn to "activism" and seek out an NGO. In this case, the work was done through the US government and had the power to make a difference.) She had in effect been training for this work without knowing it, for she helped to put herself through school by working as a censor of German POW letters: the government needed people who not only spoke German but could read the peculiar cursive script and were moreover familiar with the geography and culture.

She arrived in Europe in June 1945, as part of a Civil Censorship Division (CCD) team assigned to set up offices in a given locale and then move on to the next. Her second post was in Bremen, an American enclave within the British occupation zone:
Parts of the center of the city, the bank, the stock exchange etc. had been bombed, but fortunately not the beautiful old Rathaus [Town Hall], the “Dom,” i.e. the Cathedral. The famous statue of Roland had early on been moved to a place of safety.  Part of the Rathaus was turned into a Red Cross Club, where we could find refuge in a comfortable, relaxed setting, drinking coffee or tea, listening to a small German orchestra play light classical music, or even dancing a little.  It was at the Rathaus that we heard, in hushed silence, the news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima!  People were incredulous, also shocked.  Did this mean that Japan had given up, surrendered? We learned of course that the Japanese had not done so, and that a second atomic bomb, this time dropped on Nagasaki, did result in surrender and an end to war in the Pacific.  Everyone was jubilant, but even on August 6, 1945, the events at Hiroshima left me ambivalent: what did this mean for future wars, and to the people of all nations?
Relief, then, but not without a sense of foreboding or concern for the future. That seems about right.

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New York Times coverage of the dropping of the atomic bomb

2015 Pew Research poll: 70 years after Hiroshima, opinions have shifted on use of atomic bomb

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