The Bombs of August

Dispelling the Myth of Lives Saved by the Hiroshima Bomb

by Howard Zinn

The bombing of Hiroshima remains sacred to the American Establishment and to a very large part of the population in this country. I learned that when, in 1995, I spoke at the Chautauqua Institute about Hiroshima, it being the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing. There were 2,000 people in that huge amphitheater and as I explained why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unforgivable atrocities, perpetrated on a Japan ready to surrender, the audience was silent. Well, not quite. A number of people shouted angrily at me from their seats.

Veterans Dick Weiskopf, Sam Field and Bill Griffen marching in Syracuse's Hiroshima procession in August, 2002. This year's procession will be held on Tuesday, August 9, gathering at 11:30 am at City Hall. Photo: Paul Pearce

Understandable. To question Hiroshima is to explode a precious myth - that America is different from the other imperial powers of the world, that other nations may commit unspeakable acts, but not ours.

Further, to see it as a wanton act of gargantuan cruelty rather than as an unavoidable necessity ("to end the war, to save lives") would be to raise disturbing questions about the essential goodness of the "good war."

What could be more horrible than the burning, mutilation, blinding, irradiation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, women, children? And yet it is absolutely essential for our political leaders to defend the bombing because if Americans can be induced to accept that, then they can accept any war, any means, so long as the warmakers can supply a reason. And there are always plausible reasons delivered from on high.

That is why the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is important, because if citizens can question that, if they can declare nuclear weapons an unacceptable means, even if it ends a war a month or two earlier, they may be led to a larger question - the means (involving forty million dead) used to defeat Fascism.

The principal justification for obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it "saved lives" because otherwise a planned US invasion of Japan would have been necessary, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Truman at one point used the figure "a half million lives," and Churchill "a million lives," but these were figures pulled out of the air to calm troubled consciences; even official projections for the number of casualties in an invasion did not go beyond 46,000.

In fact, the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not forestall an invasion of Japan because no invasion was necessary. The Japanese were on the verge of surrender, and American military leaders knew that. General Eisenhower, briefed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson on the imminent use of the bomb, told him that "Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary."

After the bombing, Admiral William D. Leary, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the atomic bomb "a barbarous weapon," also noting that: "The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender."

The Japanese had begun to move to end the war after the US victory on Okinawa, in May of 1945, in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. After the middle of June, six members of the Japanese Supreme War Council authorized Foreign Minister Togo to approach the Soviet Union, which was not at war with Japan, to mediate an end to the war "if possible by September."

Togo sent Ambassador Sato to Moscow to feel out the possibility of a negotiated surrender. On July 13, four days before Truman, Churchill, and Stalin met in Potsdam to prepare for the end of the war (Germany had surrendered two months earlier), Togo sent a telegram to Sato: "Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace. It is his Majesty's heart's desire to see the swift termination of the war."

The United States knew about that telegram because it had broken the Japanese code early in the war. American officials knew also that the Japanese resistance to unconditional surrender was because they had one condition enormously important to them: the retention of the Emperor as symbolic leader. Former Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew and others who knew something about Japanese society had suggested that allowing Japan to keep its Emperor would save countless lives by bringing an early end to the war.

Yet Truman would not relent, and the Potsdam conference agreed to insist on "unconditional surrender." This ensured that the bombs would fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It seems that the United States government was determined to drop those bombs.

But why? Gar Alperovitz, whose research on that question is unmatched (The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Knopf, 1995), concluded, based on the papers of Truman, his chief adviser James Byrnes, and others, that the bomb was seen as a diplomatic weapon against the Soviet Union. Byrnes advised Truman that the bomb "could let us dictate the terms of ending the war." The British scientist P.M.S. Blackett, one of Churchill's advisers, wrote after the war that dropping the atomic bomb was "the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia."

There is also evidence that domestic politics played an important role in the decision. In his book, Freedom From Fear: The United States, 1929-1945 (Oxford, 1999), David Kennedy quotes Secretary of State Cordell Hull advising Byrnes, before the Potsdam conference, that "terrible political repercussions would follow in the US" if the unconditional surrender principle would be abandoned. The President would be "crucified" if he did that, Byrnes said. Kennedy reports that "Byrnes accordingly repudiated the suggestions of Leahy, McCloy, Grew, and Stimson," all of whom were willing to relax the "unconditional surrender" demand just enough to permit the Japanese their face-saving requirement for ending the war.

Of course, political ambition was not the only reason for Hiroshima, Vietnam, and the other horrors of our time. There was tin, rubber, oil, corporate profit, imperial arrogance. There was a cluster of factors, none of them, despite the claims of our leaders, having to do with human rights, human life.

We face a problem of the corruption of human intelligence, enabling our leaders to create plausible reasons for monstrous acts, and to exhort citizens to accept those reasons, and train soldiers to follow orders. So long as that continues, we will need to refute those reasons, resist those exhortations.

Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive magazine (to subscribe, call 1-800-827-0555 or visit This is an ex­cerpt from his August, 2000 column.Veterans Dick Weiskopf, Sam Feld and Bill Griffen marching in Syracuse’s Hiroshima procession in August, 2002. This year’s procession will be held on Tuesday, August 9, gathering at 11:30 am at City Hall. Photo: Paul Pearce