Almost six decades after the fact, the 1945 unleashing of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima continues to be the subject of impassioned debate. Every year the bombing anniversary — which falls on August 6 — occasions heated exchanges between those who question the atomic bombing and those who adamantly defend President Harry Truman's use of the weapon on Japanese cities. In this debate Truman's most fervent defenders are World War II veterans and their self-appointed champions in the media.
Most Americans have heard World War II veterans claim that the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved their lives. This historical argument often leads to another: that those who fought against the Japanese, or who expected to be part of an invasion of Japan, are of one mind in believing that the use of the atomic bomb was unquestionably the right decision at the time.
Relayed through family stories, media portraits and political soundbites, this "you weren't there and therefore don't have any right to offer your views" argument discourages thoughtful discussion of one of the most important decisions in American history. And it contradicts the more informed opinion of some of the top officers these veterans served under.
Indeed, contrary to conventional opinion today, many military leaders of the time — including six out of seven five-star officers — criticized the use of the atomic bomb.
Take, for example, Admiral William Leahy, White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war. Leahy wrote in his 1950 memoirs that "the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender." Moreover, Leahy continued, "in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."
President Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe during World War II, recalled in 1963, as he did on several other occasions, that he had opposed using the atomic bomb on Japan during a July 1945 meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson: "I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon."
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, the tough and outspoken commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, which participated in the American offensive against the Japanese home islands in the final months of the war, publicly stated in 1946 that "the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment." The Japanese, he noted, had "put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before" the bomb was used.
Lacking the knowledge of these and other military leaders, rank-and-file veterans tend to support the bomb's use. Contrary to popular belief, however, not all Pacific war veterans applaud the atomic annihilation of two Japanese cities.
Responding to a journalist's question in 1995 about what he would have done had he been in Truman's shoes, Joseph O'Donnell, a retired marine corps sergeant who served in the Pacific, answered that "we should have went after the military in Japan. They were bad. But to drop a bomb on women and children and the elderly, I draw a line there, and I still hold it."
Doug Dowd, a Pacific-theater rescue pilot who was slated to take an early part in the invasion of Japan if it had come to that, recently stated that it was clear in the final months of the war that the Japanese "had lost the ability to defend themselves." American planes "met little, and then virtually no resistance," Dowd recalled. He added, "It is well-known [now] that the Japanese were seeking to make a peace agreement well before Hiroshima."
Or take Ed Everts, a major in the 7th weather squadron of the Army Air Corps. Everts, who received an air medal for surviving a crash at sea during the battle at Iwo Jima, told us that America's use of atomic bombs was "a war crime" for which "our leaders should have been put on trial as were the German and Japanese leaders."
While the great sacrifice and heroism of veterans should never be forgotten, their often impassioned defense of the bombing of Hiroshima does us all a disservice. It substitutes a simplistic history for a complex set of events. It narrows historical evidence about a White House decision to the question of what soldiers in the Pacific believed, when the relevant historical question is what decisionmakers thought at the time.
It allows us to forget, or easily marginalize, those brave and patriotic men — such as Admiral Leahy and Sergeant O'Donnell — who have questioned President Truman's fateful decision.
Last, it creates a fog of patriotic orthodoxy that makes it hard for Americans to have an honest debate and disagreement about this contentious issue. Criticism of the atomic bomb should not be interpreted as disrespect for World War II veterans. Americans once knew better.
This Hiroshima anniversary, veterans who are critical of the atomic bomb should come forward so that we Americans will come to understand that members of the "Greatest Generation" do not march lockstep on this issue.
Uday Hohan, a writer for the History News Service, is a graduate student at American University who is researching and writing about Hiroshima and American culture.
Leo Maley III, a writer for the History News Service, is a graduate students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he is researching and writing about Hiroshima and American culture.