What If the Nazis Get It First?

From the appearance of present-day Amerikkka, it seems the Nazis did get it first.

The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative
by Peter J. Kuznick
July 28, 2007, Japan Focus

I

In his personal narrative Atomic Quest, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton, who directed atomic research at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory during the Second World War, tells of receiving an urgent visit from J. Robert Oppenheimer while vacationing in Michigan during the summer of 1942. Oppenheimer and the brain trust he assembled had just calculated the possibility that an atomic explosion could ignite all the hydrogen in the oceans or the nitrogen in the atmosphere. If such a possibility existed, Compton concluded, “these bombs must never be made.” As Compton said, “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind.”[1] Certainly, any reasonable human being could be expected to respond similarly.

Three years later, with Hitler dead and the Nazis defeated, President Harry Truman faced a comparably weighty decision. He writes in his 1955 memoirs that, on the first full day of his presidency, James F. Byrnes told him the U.S. was building an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world.”[2] On April 25, 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Brigadier General Leslie Groves gave Truman a lengthy briefing in which Stimson reiterated the warning that “modern civilization might be completely destroyed” by atomic bombs and stressed that the future of mankind would be shaped by how such bombs were used and subsequently controlled or shared.[3] Truman recalled Stimson “gravely” expressing his uncertainty about whether the U.S. should ever use the bomb, “because he was afraid it was so powerful that it could end up destroying the whole world.” Truman admitted that, listening to Stimson and Groves and reading Groves’s accompanying memo, he “felt the same fear.”[4]

Others would also draw, for Truman, the grave implications of using such hellish weapons. Truman noted presciently in his diary on July 25, 1945, after being fully briefed on the results of the Trinity test, that the bomb “may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.”[5] Leading atomic scientists cautioned that surprise use of the bomb against Japan could precipitate an uncontrollable arms race with the Soviet Union that boded future disaster for mankind. The warnings reached Truman’s closest advisors if not the President himself. Truman nevertheless authorized use of atomic bombs against Japan, always insisting he felt no “remorse” and even bragging that he “never lost any sleep over that decision.”[6] For over sixty years, historians and other analysts have struggled to make sense of Truman’s and his advisors’ actions and the relevance of his legacy for his successors in the Oval Office.

In an incisive and influential essay, historian John Dower divides American interpretations of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into two basic narratives–the “heroic” or “triumphal” and the “tragic.”[7] The “heroic” narrative, shaped by wartime science administrator James Conant and Stimson, and reaffirmed by all postwar American presidents up to and including Bill Clinton, with only Eisenhower demurring, justifies the bombing as an ultimately humane, even merciful, way of bringing the “good war” to a rapid conclusion and avoiding an American invasion against a barbaric and fanatically resistant foe. Although Truman initially emphasized revenge for Japan’s treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, subsequent justifications by Truman, Conant, Stimson, and others stressed instead the tremendous number of Americans who would have been killed and wounded in an invasion.[8] As time passed, defenders of the bombing increasingly added generous estimates of the number of Japanese who the atomic bombings saved. While highlighting the decisive role of atomic bombs in the final victory had the unfortunate consequence of downplaying the heroic efforts and enormous sacrifices of millions of American soldiers, it served American propaganda needs by diminishing the significance of Soviet entry into the Pacific War, discounting the Soviet contribution to defeating Japan, and showcasing the super weapon that the United States alone possessed.[9]

This victor’s narrative privileges possible American deaths over actual Japanese ones.[10] As critics of the bombing have become more vocal in recent years, projected American casualty estimates have grown apace–from the War Department’s 1945 prediction of 46,000 dead to Truman’s 1955 insistence that General George Marshall feared losing a half million American lives to Stimson’s 1947 claim of over 1,000,000 casualties to George H.W. Bush’s 1991 defense of Truman’s “tough calculating decision, [which] spared millions of American lives,”[11] to the 1995 estimate of a crew member on Bock’s Car, the plane that bombed Nagasaki, who asserted that the bombing saved six million lives–one million Americans and five million Japanese. The recent inclusion of Japanese and other Asian casualties adds an intriguing dimension to the triumphal narrative, though one that played little, if any, role in the wartime calculations of Truman and his top advisors.

To this triumphal narrative, Dower counterposes a tragic one. Seen from the perspective of the bombs’ victims, the tragic narrative condemns the wanton killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the inordinate suffering of the survivors. Although Hiroshima had some military significance as a naval base and home of the Second General Army Headquarters, as Truman insisted, American strategic planners targeted the civilian part of the city, maximizing the bomb’s destructive power and civilian deaths. It produced limited military casualties. Admiral William Leahy angrily told an interviewer in 1949 that although Truman told him they would “only…hit military objectives….they went ahead and killed as many women and children as they could which was just what they wanted all the time.”[12] The tragic narrative, in contrast to the heroic narrative, rests on the conviction that the war could have been ended without use of the bombs given U.S. awareness of Japan’s attempts to secure acceptable surrender terms and of the crushing impact that the imminent Soviet declaration of war against Japan would have.

Each of these narratives has its own images. The mushroom cloud, principal symbol for the triumphal narrative, has been almost ubiquitous in American culture from the moment that the bomb was dropped. Showing the impact of the bomb from a distance, it effectively masks the death and suffering below.[13]

Survivors on the ground, however, unlike crew members flying above, vividly recall the flash from the bomb (pika), which signifies the beginning of the tragic narrative, and, when combined with the blast (don), left scores of thousands dead and dying and two cities in ruins. No wonder many Japanese refer to the bomb as pikadon and the mushroom cloud that so pervades the American consciousness has been superseded in Japan by images of the destruction of the two cities and the dead and dying.

The Smithsonian’s ill-fated 1995 Enola Gay exhibit was doomed when Air Force Association and American Legion critics demanded the elimination of photos of Japanese bombing victims, particularly women and children, and insisted on removal of the charred lunch box containing carbonized rice and peas that belonged to a seventh-grade schoolgirl who disappeared in the bombing. Resisting efforts to humanize or personalize the Japanese, they objected strenuously to inclusion of photos or artifacts that would place human faces on the bombs’ victims and recall their individual suffering. For them, the viewpoint should have remained that of the bombers above the mushroom cloud, not the victims below it. It is worth noting that, prior to the change in military policy in September 1943, U.S. publications were filled with photos of Japanese war dead, but no U.S. publication carried photos of dead American soldiers.[14]

For one who has confronted the still-smoldering hatred that some American veterans feel toward the Japanese six decades after the U.S. victory, it is stunning how little overt anti-Americanism one finds in Japanese discussions of the bombings. The Japanese, particularly the hibakusha (bomb-affected persons), have focused instead on their unique suffering. Drawing on the moral authority gained, they have translated this suffering into a positive message of world peace and nuclear disarmament. In fact, a vigorous debate about Japan’s responsibility for its brutal treatment of other Asian peoples began in the early 1980s, picked up steam with the revelations by comfort women in the early 1990s, and has raged unabated, especially among Japanese intellectuals and politicians, since 1995, fueled, in part, by regular criticism from China and South Korea.[15]

In recent summers, I have been startled, during my annual study-abroad course in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the frequency with which some Japanese, particularly college students, justify the atomic bombings in light of Japan’s wartime butchery and the emperor’s culpability for Japan’s colonialism and militarism. Perhaps this should be expected given the multi-layered silence imposed on Japan in regard to atomic matters–first by Japan’s own government, humiliated by its defeat and inability to protect its citizens, then by official U.S. censorship, which banned publication of bomb-related information, then by the political exigencies of Japanese dependence on the U.S. under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which blunted criticism of U.S. policy, and finally by the silence of many bomb victims, who faced discrimination in marriage and employment when they divulged their backgrounds.

Many hibakusha remain incensed over their treatment by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), which the U.S. set up in Hiroshima in 1947 and Nagasaki in 1948 to examine but not treat the bomb victims.

Adding insult to injury, the ABCC sent physical specimens, including human remains, back to the U.S. and did not share its research results with Japanese scientists or physicians, results that could have been helpful in treating atomic bomb sufferers.[16] Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, who spent three years studying weapons scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, explains the process of dehumanization whereby American scientists turned “the dead and injured bodies of the Japanese into bodies of data” and then sought additional American subjects for further experimentation. By turning human beings into dismembered body parts and fragments and calculating damage instead of wounds, coldly rational scientific discourse allowed Americans to study Japanese victims without ever reckoning with their pain and suffering. One scientist even got annoyed with Gusterson for saying the victims were “vaporized” when the correct term was “carbonized.”[17]

Although Dower is undoubtedly correct that the heroic and tragic narratives, those of victors above and victims below the mushroom clouds, dominated the discussions surrounding the 50th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these two narratives by no means exhaust the range of interpretive possibilities. Missing from much of the debate has been consideration of what I call the apocalyptic narrative, a framework for understanding U.S. actions that has even greater relevance to today’s citizens who must continue to grapple with the long-term ramifications of nuclear war, particularly the threat of extinction of human life. While this third narrative has important elements in common with the tragic narrative, maintaining, as did much of America’s top military command, that surrender could have been induced without the use of atomic bombs, it does not see the Japanese as the only victims and holds Truman, Byrnes, and Groves, among others, to a much higher level of accountability for knowingly putting at risk all human and animal existence.

Nor does the apocalyptic narrative have the kind of easily identifiable images associated with the other two narratives. Unlike the religious association with Armageddon or the images of alchemical transmutation in which destruction leads to rebirth and regeneration, nuclear annihilation is random, senseless, final, and universal. As with the end-of-the-world images associated with the existential crisis of 1929-1930, the post-apocalyptic nothingness resulting from nuclear annihilation is devoid of redemptive possibilities. The late 1920s and early 1930s cosmological theories coupling the concept of heat death with that of the expanding universe anticipated, in the distant future, a barren, lifeless planet drifting aimlessly through time and space in a universe indifferent to human existence. Such a vision, popularized by British astronomers James Jeans and Arthur Eddington, was reflected in the work of influential American thinkers like Joseph Wood Krutch and Walter Lippmann. Although the proximate causes differ, with nuclear annihilation resulting from human technological rather than natural destruction, the symbolism, once human life and consciousness have been expunged in Truman’s “fire destruction,” is in other respects similar.[18]

By unleashing nuclear weapons on the world as the U.S. did in 1945, in a manner that Soviet leaders, as expected, immediately recognized as ominous and threatening, Truman and his collaborators were gambling with the future of life on the planet. Scientists at Chicago’s Met Lab had issued reports and circulated petitions emphasizing just this point before the bombs were tested and used, warning against instigating a “race for nuclear armaments” that could lead to “total mutual destruction.”[19]

In order to force immediate surrender and save American lives by delivering a knockout blow to an already staggering Japan, or, as Gar Alperovitz alternatively argues, to brandish U.S. might against and constrain the Soviet Union in Europe and Asia, or, as Tsuyoshi Hasegawa contends, to exact revenge against Japan while limiting Soviet gains in Asia, Truman willingly risked the unthinkable. He did so without even attempting other means to procure Japanese surrender, such as clarifying the surrender terms to insure the safety and continued “rule” of Emperor Hirohito as Stimson and almost all of Truman’s other close advisors urged him to do, but which he and Byrnes resisted until after the two atomic bombs had been dropped; allowing Stalin to sign the Potsdam Proclamation, which would have signaled imminent Soviet entry into the war; or announcing and, if necessary, demonstrating the existence of the bomb. What terrified many scientists from an early stage in the process was the realization that the bombs that were used to wipe out Hiroshima and Nagasaki were but the most rudimentary and primitive prototypes of the incalculably more powerful weapons on the horizon–mere first steps in a process of maximizing destructive potential.

Physicist Edward Teller impressed this fact on the group of “luminaries” Oppenheimer assembled in the summer of 1942, looking past the atomic bomb, which he considered as good as done, toward development of a hydrogen bomb, thousands of times more powerful, which became the focus of most of their efforts that summer.[20] Not all scientists shared Teller’s enthusiasm over this prospect. As Rossi Lomanitz recalled: “Many of us thought, ‘My God, what kind of a situation it’s going to be to bring a weapon like that [into the world]; it might end up by blowing up the world.’ Some of us brought this up to Oppenheimer; and basically his answer was, ‘Look, what if the Nazis get it first?'”[21]

In July 1945, physicist Leo Szilard drafted a petition signed by 155 Manhattan Project scientists urging the President not to act precipitously in using atomic bombs against Japan, warning: “The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for the purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.”[22] Arthur Compton observed, “It introduces the question of mass slaughter, really for the first time in history.”[23] Stimson, whose finest moment would come in his desperate postwar attempt to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, told the top decision makers, including Groves and Byrnes, on May 31, 1945, that the members of the Interim Committee did not view the bomb “as a new weapon merely but as a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe…; that the project might even mean the doom of civilization or it might mean the perfection of civilization; that it might be a Frankenstein which would eat us up.”[24] Oppenheimer correctly pointed out to the participants in that same Interim Committee meeting that within 3 years it might be possible to produce bombs with an explosive force between 10 and 100 megatons of TNT — thousands of times more powerful than the bomb that would destroy Hiroshima.[25]

Hence, the apocalyptic narrative, applying an ethical standard to which leaders of the time could realistically be held, and an understanding of short-term and long-term consequences that should be expected of policymakers, indicts Truman, Byrnes, and Groves not only for the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki but for behaving recklessly and thoughtlessly in inflicting a reign of terror on the rest of humankind. In 1942, Compton assessed the odds of blowing up the world and decided it was not worth the risk. In 1945, Truman contemplated the prospect of future annihilation but apparently gave it little serious consideration. To make matters worse, he did next to nothing to make amends for his wartime shortsightedness when the opportunity to control nuclear weapons presented itself again during the first year of the postwar era.

Throughout that first year, Henry Wallace, who Roosevelt had asked to stay on as Secretary of Commerce after Truman replaced him as Vice President, struggled valiantly to avert an arms race and ease the threat of nuclear war . When Wallace persisted in criticizing administration policy toward the Soviet Union and the bomb, Truman ousted him from the Cabinet. In his address to a national radio audience on the night he submitted his letter of resignation, Wallace again voiced the theme that provoked Truman’s ire, charging that the U.S. government’s present course may mean “the extinction of man and of the world.”[26] That Truman bears so much responsibility for creating this perilous state of affairs, regardless of his conscious intentions, justifies the application of such a harsh standard of judgment and demands a closer look at the man and his early presidency. For if Harry Truman, a relatively decent man, could behave so irresponsibly, what assurance is there that future presidents, under comparable circumstances, might not do the same? In fact, several have already come frighteningly close.

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