To the Editor:
Some things don’t seem to change. Or perhaps they just come full circle. Or deja vu.
Seventy years ago last week, the United States took a first-strike stance on nuclear weapons, dropping them on two previously untouched Japanese cities. Flashing forward to today, we find the Pentagon’s published war-fighting plans based on that same first-strike approach.
The similarity doesn’t stop there. In 1945, the main purpose of dropping atomic bombs was to send a signal to the Russians to back off in Europe and Asia. Today, we’re encircling Russia militarily, including the placement of “tactical” nuclear weapons, ostensibly to warn Russia to back off of alleged (yet undocumented) aggression.
But wait a minute, you might say. What’s this about Hiroshima/Nagasaki being about the Russians? Everyone knows they were intended to force the fight-to-the-last-man Japanese to surrender and prevent an invasion that would kill a half a million to a million Americans.
This is certainly a convenient rationale to cover the absolute grotesque horror of what happened in those two cities. But even though the falsity of this story was revealed with the declassification of original documents two decades ago, it still hangs around as “common knowledge.”
In actual fact, the maximum number of casualties estimated in War Department documents at the time for a full-scale invasion, scheduled for spring of 1946, was 46,000, 25,000 for the proposed initial landing in November. Yet we’ve lived with Truman’s one-half-to-one-million exaggeration ever since, even though it has no basis in fact.
In addition, the top military brass (Eisenhower, MacArthur and Admiral Leahy) and high-level civilian bureaucracy were all on record against using “the bomb,” either altogether or on cities.
There was, however, one exception: Secretary of State James Byrnes, Truman’s former mentor in the Senate, to whom Truman primarily looked for guidance. Byrnes was concerned about Soviet postwar behavior in Poland, and he made clear that he viewed the bomb as a counter to that.
By early July, 1945, two things had lined up to virtually guarantee a Japanese surrender. The first was Stalin’s agreement to an Allied request that Russia enter the war (slated for Aug. 9). The second was the inclusion – in the draft Allied demand for Japanese surrender – of a clause allowing the emperor to remain, though as a figurehead. It was recognized from Japanese peace feelers and Japan experts that without that guarantee, Japan would indeed fight to the last man.
But then the successful atomic bomb test in mid-July intervened. Immediately, the U.S. reversed its desire to have the Russians involved and began hedging. At the same time, apparently under Byrnes’s influence, the emperor-retention clause of the document demanding surrender was eliminated. This left only the bomb, an option that almost nobody but Byrnes wanted.
The bombs were dropped on Aug. 6 and 9, just before the Russians were scheduled to enter the war. The rest – except for the now mostly forgotten or ignored details of the actual human horror – is history.
Whether that horror was the reason we’ve got through 70 years without a civilization-incinerating nuclear war, we’ll never know. But as of now, it doesn’t seem to be holding back a U.S. government and military intent on pushing at Russia in a situation where both sides have hundreds of strategic nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, each 50 or more times more powerful than those first two. Mistakes – of which there have been many in seven decades – are no longer an option.
Time dims even ghastly memories. The Cold War supposedly ended over two decades ago. The unthinkable is not the first thing on most people’s minds in 2015. But perhaps it should be. Global warming could be messy. But nuclear war could be unthinkably messier. Yet Washington refuses to act in recognition of this.