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Fifty Years with the Bomb

Jordan Bishop wrote his 1995 article “Fifty Years With the Bomb” for Commonweal in New York, for which he had been a regular contributor for years and which had agreed to let him do an article on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. Commonweal rejected his article, however, out of fear it would offend their readers. Jordan’s essay is published here for the first time.

We must stop thinking of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) as the end of the Pacific War, the end of World War II. How the habit got started is understandable enough: it MARKED the end of the fighting even if it did not CAUSE it (Richard H. Minear, “Atomic Holocaust, Nazi Holocaust” in Diplomatic History, vol. 1, no. 2 (Spring 1995), p. 363).

On August 6, 1945, the United States revealed to the world one of the hitherto best-kept military secrets of our times. The explosion of a nuclear device to destroy a Japanese city proclaimed to the world that the United States had been developing a nuclear weapon, and that this development, on lines known to the scientific community at large, was successful. Compared to this intelligence, all the rest were but details. The secret was out. It was published.

To those of us who knew neither of the development nor the principles of physics involved, the event was almost meaningless. What was it? Asked by a friend what it was all about, this writer, at the time, was forced to confess complete ignorance. A bomb like any other bomb? By all appearances this was a much more devastating bomb than other bombs, the ultimate terror weapon. And while many of us, in youthful ignorance, did not really realize what had happened, there were others who were only too aware that this was something radically new, and that a new kind of terror had been unleashed.

Those who spoke out against it were few in number. The Christian Century published an editorial entitled “America's Moral Atrocity.” Written partly in response to a number of anguished letters to their journal, the editors said: “Our leaders seem not to have weighed the moral considerations involved. No sooner was the bomb ready than it was rushed to the front and dropped on two helpless cities, destroying more lives than the United States lost in the entire war.” (The Christian Century, August 29, 1945, p. 974).

In the August 24, 1945 issue of The Commonweal the editors commented as follows: “ everyone else, we will have to write a great deal about the future of humanity and the atomic bomb. But we will not have to worry any more about keeping our victory clean. It is defiled. The name Hiroshima, the name Nagasaki are names for American guilt and shame.” (The Commonweal, August 14, 1945).

By 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we were told yet again that the use of the bomb on these two cities saved countless American—and Japanese—lives, since by forcing a Japanese surrender, it made a costly and bloody invasion of Japan unnecessary.

This was not true. That it was not true is not a revelation of revisionist historians in the 1960s or later. It was known at the time. It was widely known at the time that the Japanese were ready to surrender, even at the cost of accepting the unconditional surrender determined by the allies, and this was the only obstacle that had remained. Even then American authorities were willing to give the Japanese terms that the Emperor would be allowed to remain—the reluctance to accept an unconditional surrender had been based on the fear that the Japanese monarchy would be abolished. The hopelessness of the Japanese military situation was well known and was by no means a military secret. As the Commonweal editorial already cited had noted, American ships were in a position to shell the Japanese coasts, American aircraft were overflying Japanese cities with impunity. American submarine warfare had almost entirely cut off Japanese oil supplies. In the March 9-10, 1945 bombing of Tokyo some eighty-three thousand people, including many of the women and children mentioned in the Commonweal editorial, had been killed. In February, thirty-five thousand people were killed in the bombing of Dresden. American air forces took part.

“Conventional” weapons were quite capable of mass destruction. But the horror with which the use of the nuclear bomb was greeted is clear when it is recalled that at Dresden 1400 Bomber Command aircraft had dropped some 650.000 incendiaries and hundreds of 4000 and 8000 pound high explosive bombs to create the kind of fire storm that was created at Hiroshima by one bomb. During the whole bombing offensive over Germany four cities had suffered fire storms: Hamburg, Kassel, Darmstadt and Dresden. This horrendous effect of conventional bombing depended on a variety of factors. With the nuclear bomb such a fire storm was guaranteed with a single bomb, dropped from a single aircraft, or, as future generations would learn to their horror and terror, with a single warhead carried by a single ICBM. Dresden, once the horror became known, produced a reaction of horror and shame. But the Americans had produced a weapon that guaranteed a Dresden every time that it was employed. And in addition to the blast, the heat, the fire storm, this bomb also killed thousands with radiation.

There was some opposition to the use of the bomb at the time. Japanese codes had been broken by the Americans early in the war, so that in addition to feelers made through third parties, the allies could monitor internal Japanese communications: the Japanese efforts to surrender were well known to the Americans. In addition, at the Yalta meeting Stalin had promised to enter the war three months after the end of the war in Europe, and it had been hoped that the impact of a Russian declaration would precipitate a Japanese surrender. By July of 1945, when the success of the bomb test in the New Mexico desert was known, the Japanese situation was serious enough that the shock value of a Russian entry into the war against Japan was no longer deemed useful, although Stalin was committed to act. But the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima before the agreed date for the Soviet declaration was reached. Both General Eisenhower and Admiral Leahy were on record as deploring the use of the nuclear bomb. Eisenhower at least would have had no share in the decision.

Why then was it used? Some have suggested that it was a matter of inertia. That it was used because it was there. It has been suggested that it was used before the anticipated Soviet declaration to precipitate a surrender before the Russian declaration, or at the least to deprive the Russian declaration of a significant impact on the surrender. The British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, opined that the bomb was employed because of the need to justify the money spent on it without congressional authority. B.J. Bernstein has written recently that “Had Roosevelt lived, such lurking political pressures might have powerfully confirmed his intention to use the weapon on the enemy—an assumption he had already made. How else would he have justified spending roughly $ 2 billion, diverting scarce materials from other war enterprises that might have been more useful, and bypassing Congress?” (Barton J. Bernstein, “The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered,” in Foreign Affairs, January/February 1995, p. 139).

Of all the reasons adduced, as banal and as awful as it sounds, the inertia explanation is probably the easiest to swallow. It had always been assumed that the bomb would be used once it was ready. The bomb was used because it was there, and during its development it had always been assumed that it would in fact be used. However, it had been developed because of fear that the Germans would develop it first. They had not, and the bomb had not been developed with Japan in mind. There is, however, much convincing evidence that a very important factor was to cow the Soviets, so as to guarantee U.S. Hegemony in the postwar world. In 1996 Joseph Rotblat said, in an article in the Vancouver Sun (Oct. 21, 1996, p. 23A), that General Leslie Groves had told him, before the bomb was used, that “the real purpose in making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets.” This obviously has nothing to do with winning the war in Japan. And perhaps the most telling fact is that U.S. Military leaders were opposed. They, of all people, knew that there was no military need for the bomb.

The strategic bombing survey conducted by the United States soon after the war recognised that there was no MILITARY necessity for the use of the bomb. To be sure, there were plans for an invasion— planned but not authorized, for a landing on Kyushu on or near November 1, and on the Tokyo plain in the spring of 1946. But no one, among those privileged with serious intelligence on the state of the Japanese economy, society, and military capabilities, believed at the time that it would be necessary to undertake such an invasion.

Nevertheless, it seems that any attempt to revise popular mythologies or official truths meets with serious resistance. In Canada in 1995 a storm blew up over the screening of a docu­drama on Bomber Command during the Second World War. Here again, this was not revisionist history at work. The strategy represented by the Royal Air Force was well-known and well documented long before Hamburg and Dresden. Area bombing of German cities was a deliberate choice, made in the belief that it would have ended the war in Europe without the need for an invasion, and this belief had hardened into doctrine before the war was actually engaged. As early as September, 1940, Bomber Command's aim was described by Sir Norman Bottomly as “primarily to destroy the enemy's will to win the war, leaving the destruction of his means to win the war as an incidental or indirect task.” And in a directive issue on February 15, 1942, Sir Charles Portal wrote: “I suppose it is clear that the aiming points are to be the built-up areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories...This point must be made quite clear if it is not already understood.” (Quotes from Max Hastings, Bomber Command, London, 1979, pp. 132, 134). The doctrine thus espoused by the R.A.F. Had its roots in the panic caused by bombings of England in 1917, although as Max Hastings notes, the panic was noted more in the press and among politicians than in the public at large. Popular fiction added to this, and the belief, expressed by such a key figure as Stanley Baldwin, that “the bomber will always get through,” reinforced a belief, within the R.A.F., that wars could be won by bombers alone, without the need of fighter escorts. That was eventually put to test over Europe in the 1939-45 war, and found wanting, but the belief in the bomber as a weapon able to end the war by itself persisted.

In Canada, Veterans' groups appear to believe that Sir Arthur Harris is unduly blamed for the horrors of area bombing. Harris, who was Commander in Chief of Bomber Command from 1941 until the end of the war was a true believer, and pushed the idea of area bombing even after it had become unpopular in higher councils. At the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, Harris begrudged the use of planes and men even for such important tasks as anti-submarine warfare. In addition, Sir Arthur Harris had no time for the subtle euphemisms that were used to describe the work of Bomber Command. He clearly understood the aim of the bombing offensive to be “the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany.” But he did not originate it. The power of bombing to destroy the morale of the enemy had been a dogma before the battle was joined, and was maintained even after the Battle of Britain demonstrated that bombing had not destroyed the morale of the people of Great Britain. It is true that the destruction wrought on Germany was much greater than anything in the Battle of Britain. In the bombing of Coventry, for example, some six hundred people were killed. This compares to twelve thousand in Darmstadt, forty-five thousand in Hamburg, thirty-five thousand in Dresden. Yet there is no evidence that the morale of the German people was destroyed. The evidence is rather that the doctrine was wrong. Bombing aimed at destroying the will to wage war did not work, either against Britain nor against Germany.

Yet to spell this out, even though it is quite clear in historical documents, subjects historians, film-makers, and as we have recently seen, directors of museums, to a barrage of criticism, mostly from Veterans' organisations and conservative patriots. Most serious historians would contend in fact that those who would suppress historical documents to conform to a

“patriotic” view of the events are the revisionists.

First of all, the idea that the primary objective of bombing campaigns was to destroy the morale of the enemy is rejected as “terror bombing,” although that term is employed by some serious historians. The United States Army Air Corps during the same period insisted that the objective of strategic bombing was in fact to deprive the enemy of the material means of waging war through the destruction of factories, shipyards, communi- cations networks, synthetic oil plants and the like. The purity of this doctrine was difficult to maintain under European weather conditions, so that precision bombing was often more a matter of theory than of practice. But in theory at least, the Americans never accepted the idea of forcing the enemy to surrender by mass area bombing of cities. But when precision bombing failed because of weather, they didn't bring the bombs back, and it would be difficult to characterize American participation in Dresden as precision bombing. The basic American position was well expressed by Admiral William Leahy when the use of the atom bomb was discussed. He opposed it, he later said, because he “was not taught to wage war on women and children.”

There appears to be a large gap in the perceptions of those at the centre of power on the one hand—for whom the use of the bomb raised no ethical questions at all—and the general public, whose reactions are probably fairly well-sampled by the letters to The Christian Century, the editorial published there, and the editorial published in The Commonweal. The Bomb was developed in absolute secrecy. Even General Eisenhower was not informed of it until July of 1945. Those who knew of it had had several years to get used to the idea. For the man in the street—as for example this writer—it came out of the blue as a complete surprise, and the reaction was, for the thoughtful layman, one of horror. B.J. Bernstein speaks, in a recent article, of “the unwillingness or inability of anyone near the top in Washington to plead forcefully for maintaining this older morality.” (“The Atomic Bomb Reconsidered” in Foreign Affairs, cited, p. 143).

The “older morality” was very much alive among the readers of The Christian Century, the editors of The Commonweal, among military men of Eisenhower and Leahy's generation. Neither, it should be noted, had come out of the experience of air power. General Marshall, we are told, “struggled to retain the older code of not intentionally killing civilians.” (Bernstein, ibid.)

Yet, as we know, there was one exception to all this. The American doctrine of precision bombing was abandoned over Japan. For example, in a review of Stewart L. Udall's The Myths of August (New York, Pantheon, 1995), Jay M. Gould writes:

...Udall first confronts the painful truth that, with victory in Europe in sight, President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson made the essentially racist decision to subject Japanese cities to a ruthless series of firebombings that American air commanders (unlike the British) had largely avoided in Europe. By May, 1945, one month after Roosevelt's death, intercepted communications made it clear that loss of access to oil had brought the Japanese war machine to a grinding halt and the Japanese would surrender if the Emperor could retain his symbolic role. (The Nation, February 20, 1995, p. 252).

American precision bombing doctrine was in effect abandoned with the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and it was abandoned, necessarily, when the use of the A bomb was discussed. The committee formed to select a target—it was assumed without question that the bomb would be used—was looking, as the R.A.F. Planners were at Dresden, for a city that had not yet been bombed. B.J. Bernstein describes the mandate of the group:

Of central importance, the group stressed that the bomb should be used as a terror weapon—to produce “the greatest psychological effect against Japan” and to make the world, and the U.S.S.R. In particular, aware that America possessed this new power. The death and destruction would not only intimidate the surviving Japanese into pushing for surrender, but as a bonus, cow other nations, notably the Soviet Union (cited, p. 142).

An A bomb is not by any stretch of the imagination a weapon capable of precision. It is true that there was a precedent. There was nothing resembling precision bombing of military or industrial targets in the March 1945 bombing of Tokyo; this was area bombing on the order of Hamburg and Dresden, and the napalm used by the Americans was much more effective than R.A.F. Incendiaries to create a fire storm. The casualties were greater by half than those of Hamburg. One wonders if the imminence of the A bomb had not already forced the abandonment of the idea of precision bombing once the strategic air force was unleashed over Japan.

With this abandonment of the idea of precision bombing we appear to have accepted the R.A.F. Doctrine as to the purpose of strategic bombing: nuclear bombing does not destroy the enemy's material capability to conduct war. It demoralises the people so that the people will force their government to end the war. This was the eternal hope of those who defended area bombing in Europe. And it is in fact the justification adduced, both in 1945 and today, for the use of the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We are told that it forced the war to end and thus saved countless American and Japanese lives. Even if this were conceded—and historically it is an impossible thesis to maintain—the conclusion is inescapable. The nuclear Bomb involves the use of terror to bring the war to an end. One should add that the “thousands of lives saved” by using the bomb were and are entirely hypothetical. The lives lost at Hiroshima were real.

Here in Canada, a number of people were upset when the provocative term “terror bombing” was used to describe the area bombing campaign unleashed on Germany. One may search for a euphemism, but the doctrine is clear: the objective is to destroy the morale of the enemy. And it was this doctrine that the leadership of the United States adopted, in fact if not in theory, when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were authorised.

After it happened, we were left with the bomb. Tales of cold-war espionage aside, we now know that Stalin had ordered work to commence on the development of nuclear weapons in 1945. With Hiroshima, the Soviet scientists knew that the project was feasible. And with the A bomb, we were willy-nilly ushered into the Cold War. Whether or not the bomb was a factor in the diplomatic confrontations that produced the Cold War, it certainly became a large factor in the cold terror that we know as the Cold War. The mere fact of having the bomb, and the larger fact of being the only power actually to have used the bomb, gave a special character to the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the years after the war.

It was all very well for the United States to don the mantle of good guys in the face of the sinister communist threat, but the Soviets— and the rest of the world—were not to forget that it was the United States that had actually resorted to nuclear terror. If, as the editors of The Commonweal had written in 1945, the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were names of American guilt and shame, for much of the world they also symbolised the ruthless determination of an imperial power to have its way with the world. And as we proceeded, naively innocent of side effects, to atmospheric testing for yet more bombs, the unspoken terror remained. It was left only to develop such embarrassing military absurdities as nuclear land mines and nuclear depth charges, and bigger and bigger bombs.

By the 1960s there was some awareness of the absurdity and of the overall impact of nuclear weapons, even those tested on inanimate targets in desert places. A partial test ban was agreed in 1963 and atmospheric testing ended, at least by the principal members of the nuclear club. There was also a commitment to work towards a comprehensive test ban. We are still waiting for it.

Along with Hiroshima, and perhaps in an attempt to atone for the horrors of Hiroshima, we were given the peaceful atom. Here again, the ultimate criteria appears to have been feasibility. We were promised electric power “too cheap to metre,” even though Schurr and Marschak's serious and thorough study, Economic Aspects of Atomic Power (Princeton, 1950), which clearly demonstrated the falsity of that slogan, had already been published. In the light of this, the “too cheap to metre” claim appears simply as yet another ideological justification for the bomb itself.

We lived with the bomb. We lived with black humour about “learning to love the bomb.” And with the arms race in full tilt, we built thousands of bombs. And most of our theologians and philosophers set about making fine distinctions to get us all off the hook about nuclear weapons, although while some felt that actually to use them would be a crime against humanity, others held that a threat to use nuclear weapons, as long as one had no intention of actually using them, was compatible with Christian ethics. There were exceptions. In Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament began, faltered, and was born again in the Europe of the 1980s.

Finally, in the 1990s, the question of the LEGALITY of nuclear weapons came before the International Court of Justice, commonly known as The World Court. The question before the judges in the Hague was, quite simply, whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal under current international law which prohibits weapons which cause unnecessary or aggravated devastation or suffering, which do not discriminate between military and civilian targets, or which cause severe damage to the natural environment. The World Court's advisory opinion is quite clear: “A threat or use of nuclear weapons should also be compatible with the requirements of the international law applicable in armed conflict, particularly those of the principles and rules of international humanitarian law, as well as with specific obligations under treaties and other undertakings which expressly deal with nuclear weapons.” (ICJ advisory opinion, July 8, 1996, no. 105, D).

The Project was supported worldwide by governments, international and national organizations, city and town councils, prominent individuals and citizens. In June of 1994, over one hundred million signatures were presented to the Court as evidence of public support for this campaign.

Although a ruling by the Court that nuclear weapons are illegal is not “binding” and would not lead to immediate and widespread nuclear disarmament, the influence of such a decision should not be underestimated. The ruling of illegality has established a legal, moral and political norm for all countries. It should put added pressure on countries to honour existing treaties of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It explicitly supports the case for more urgent measures towards disarmament: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” (ICJ decision, 105, F) It should be noted that this clear and unambiguous language is stronger than that of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This serves to focus world attention on an issue which the general public believes has lost some relevance since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Cold War, we are told, is over. But the bombs are still there.

Countries who claim to honour international law would do well to honour a decision of the World Court. And no one will ever be asked again to love the bomb. It will have been officially placed beyond the pale, as indeed it already is for great numbers of people.

One wonders, in retrospect, if in fact “nuclear weapons” are not an oxymoron. We know only too well that they can in fact be employed, and we know that the United States and NATO have steadfastly clung to a “first use” policy, and that for years they have been a constant feature of life on the planet earth.

Because of them, we have major waste disposal problems that are as yet unsolved. We must live with damage to human immune systems that Andre Sakharov warned about—at the cost of sacrificing his career—in the late 1950s. And yet hardly anyone dares to contemplate the political consequences of the use of such weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps some vestige of Admiral Leahy's reluctance to make war on women and children remains, even in the nuclear age. And it is quite clear that nuclear weapons, now much more powerful than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cannot discriminate. There is nowhere on earth that they could be used without inflicting many more civilian than military casualties. Any government that would inflict killing on this order of magnitude with conventional weapons would rightly be condemned as monstrous and bloodthirsty.

Those who complain of the “re-writing of history” are in fact the first to re-write history. And those who took part in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at any level, may understandably feel that they stand condemned. This, in a sense, is another question, and not an easy one. Dropping bombs on enemy cities had become a habit by 1945. When the large-scale bombing offensive began in Europe, in 1942, it was believed to be all that stood between the allies and defeat. Air crew were not in a position to question, and in the hard days and nights of 1943 and 1944 over Germany, brute survival took precedence over ethics for air crew. And the radical newness of Hiroshima made ethical questions even more difficult, at least for those at the air crew level. Because of this it is very difficult to indulge in moral condemnation of those who carried out the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though it is and was clear that there was no real military necessity, few among us, at the time, realised the scope of the destruction. The actual impact of Hiroshima was beyond the power to imagine of anyone who had not witnessed the Alamogordo test. No doubt it remains a matter of shame. It should not have been done. But the full extent of the terror unleashed was not known, to us then, as it is to us now. It is not for us to cast a stone. But equally, nothing is achieved by denial. This is something with which we must all live. And we can only hope that even as we do not forget, we shall have learned, and that this may serve to put an end to the madness of the nuclear era.

Jordan Bishop is a retired professor of Modern European History, University College of Cape Breton, Sydney, Nova Scotia, and [at the time of writing was] Chairman of the Ottawa Branch of Veterans Against Nuclear Arms (VANA), a Canadian Peace group.