The myth that the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war quickly still persists. And Trump is arming.
“It’s frustrating,” says Kai Bird of Cuny University in New York, “we have big national debates about slavery, racism, and women’s rights. But we stop at the atomic bomb. We still love them.”
75 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US is in the midst of the costliest modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Your president wants to expand nuclear deterrence. Flirted with the possibility of new nuclear tests. And has already canceled three nuclear disarmament agreements. A fourth – the last one left so far – he wants to expire next year.
Donald Trump also repeats what generations of presidents have said before him that the atomic bombs ended the war and brought global stability.
“Myths,” counter Bird and three other historians from various US universities who specialize in nuclear issues. They researched the bombs all their lives. For the anniversary, they are now hosting webinars to introduce their compatriots with the historical facts.
Her research contradicts the view that the atomic bombs were necessary and justified. You know that Japan was militarily on the ground in the early summer of 1945. That it had already indicated its willingness to surrender several times – always provided it could keep Emperor Hirohito. And that Stalin had also announced that he would declare war on Tokyo in early August 1945, which would have further accelerated the Japanese defeat. “President Harry Truman knew all of this,” says historian Peter Kuznick: “He wrote it in his diary and to his wife. But he wanted the bombs”.
Generations of school children in the United States have learned that the bombs on August 6 and 9, 1945 ended the war. And that they would have averted an invasion that would have turned bloody. Politicians from all parties also continue to see the benefits of the atomic bombs, which irradiated and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Democrat Susan Rice wrote in her recent autobiography that President Truman saved her father from having to fight in Japan.
“It’s the old story of American exceptionalism,” says Kuznick, “in it we can only wage wars that are ‘good'”. The head of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC, travels to Hiroshima and Nagasaki with students each year (this year he had to cancel the trip because of the pandemic for the first time). In his opinion, the chances of the long-overdue nuclear-critical debate in the USA increase with the time factor. Because younger Americans are more critical and because World War II veterans are gradually giving up.
In 1995 the veterans still determined the confrontation with the atomic bombs. When the Smithonian Institute in Washington organized an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the heroism of the US war pilots, but also the suffering of the victims in Japan, American veterans’ associations were in a storm. The exhibition has been canceled.
This time Trump is responsible for the complicated situation. He has massively topped up the nuclear modernization initiated by his predecessor. Barack Obama was torn on nuclear issues. At the beginning of his term in office, he spoke of a “world free of nuclear weapons”. He later visited Hiroshima as the first US President in office. But then he agreed to modernize the US nuclear arsenal, but refused to build new nuclear weapons.
Today, Trump’s Secretary of Defense Marc Esper calls modernization and the development of new weapons a “top priority to protect the American people.” Among other things, the United States plans to develop new nuclear warheads for submarines and ground-based missiles in the coming years. At present, the 30-year modernization project will consume more than $1.6 trillion.
That this nuclear armament will put other countries under pressure is factored in. “We know how to win arms races,” said Trump’s new international expert on nuclear weapons, Marshall Billingslea in Vienna in the spring.
After all U.S. presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have said since the end of World War II that nuclear bombs must be prevented from being used again, and after everyone has tried to create new international mechanisms for this purpose, Trump is going in the opposite direction. He has withdrawn from numerous international agreements – including those relevant to nuclear weapons control.
Trump has left the nuclear deal with Iran, suspended the INF medium-range missile treaty signed by Ronald Reagan, and left the Open Skies treaty, under which the signatory states monitor each other’s armaments supplies.
Next, he is preparing to expire the new START contract for the reduction of the nuclear arsenals in Russia and the USA in February. Obama signed the bilateral disarmament agreement with Moscow in 2010. Trump says he would only be ready for an extension if China were to enter as well. It’s a pose. Because he also knows that China has no interest in it.
“Without the international treaties that provide for inspections and other controls, we are falling back into the 1960s,” warns Martin Sherwin, history professor at George Mason University in Washington. Sherwin believes the initiative to end the nuclear arms race must come from the US.
“We are sticking to our first strike doctrine and we continue to see ourselves as a world policeman,” he says, “making us both the problem and the only nation that can potentially marginalize or abolish nuclear weapons.”
The myth of justified atomic bombs goes back to the 1940s. Shortly before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seven of the eight five-star generals from the US Navy and Army spoke out against it. They called the atomic bombs militarily unnecessary and morally reprehensible. “The Japanese are ready to surrender,” General Dwight Eisenhower, the future president at the Potsdam conference in July 1945, said: “It is not necessary to beat them with this terrible thing.”
Admiral William Leahy, who served Truman as chief of staff, wrote in his memoir: “The use of this barbaric weapon in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no material use in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. ”
But Truman’s Secretary of State James Byrnes pushed for the operation. He wanted to improve the US position in the negotiations on the post-war order in Europe and show strength against the Soviet Union. And he did not want to allow Stalin, who, after declaring war against Japan, to conquer the Japanese-occupied territories in China and Korea at breakneck speed, look like the victor of the war in the Pacific.
The large US public initially cheered the atomic bombs on Japan. But the mood turned into its opposite when the New Yorker published a harrowing report by John Hersey about the victims in Hiroshima in 1946.
The journalistic counter-offensive began a little later. Secretary of War Henry Stimson published a text in Harper’s Magazine. In it he laid the foundation for the myth that has persisted to this day. Against his better judgment, Stimson wrote that Japan had only surrendered because of the atomic bombs and that without the bombs there would have been a ground invasion with hundreds of thousands of dead US soldiers. The Cold War had started. Schoolchildren in the USA should soon learn that they should flee under their desks in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack – “duck and cover”.
It was the temporary end of the discussion about nuclear weapons in the US. It only flared up again in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s. On June 12, 1982, a million people demonstrated in New York against the nuclear arms race in the Cold War.
The political economist Gar Alperovitz, the fourth in the historians’ association, is convinced that the world has simply been lucky in the past 75 years, that there has been no nuclear confrontation.
“It won’t go well again”, predicts the author of “Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam” and “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb”.
Alperovitz does not expect a U-turn from the leaders of politics and the military. Atomic bomb production and storage in the US is so “fairly” distributed across almost all of the country’s states that the majority of elected politicians – Democrats and Republicans – have jobs and taxpayers’ money in their constituencies. The change, says Alperovitz, can only come from the bottom.