Seventy years after the bombing, will Americans face the brutal truth?
August 6, 2015 | Visitors to the National Air and Space Museum—America’s shrine to the technological leading edge of the military industrial complex—hear a familiar narrative from the tour guides in front of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic weapon on the civilians of Hiroshima 70 years ago today.
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The bomb was dropped, they say, to save the lives of thousands of Americans who would otherwise have been killed in an invasion of the Home Islands. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were largely destroyed and the lives of between 135,000 and 300,000 mostly Japanese women, children, and old people were sacrificed—most young men were away at war—as the result of a terrible but morally just calculus aimed at bringing an intractable war to a close.
This story may assuage the conscience of the air museum visitor, but it is largely myth, fashioned to buttress our memories of the “good” war. By and large, the top generals and admirals who managed World War II knew better. Consider the small and little-noticed plaque hanging in the National Museum of the US Navy that accompanies the replica of “Little Boy,” the weapon used against the people of Hiroshima: In its one paragraph, it makes clear that Truman’s “political advisors” overruled the military in determining the way in which the end of the war in Japan would be approached. Furthermore, contrary to the popular myths around the atomic bomb’s nearly magical power to end the war, the Navy Museum’s explication of the history clearly indicates that “the vast destruction wreaked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of 135,000 people made little impact on the Japanese military.”
Gar Alperovitz, formerly Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, is the author of two major studies of the Hiroshima decision: Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.