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On the seventieth anniversary of the U.S. use of the atom bomb against Japan, Gar Alperovitz believes the most important lessons have not been learned.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6, 1945, and August 9, 1945, respectively, “opened the way to entrusting frail human beings—indeed, one human being, whoever happens to be President—with the power to literally destroy the world,” he tells me. “Such trust is not warranted.”
Alperovitz is the author of “The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth,” the definitive work questioning the bombings. He says the accepted notion that there was no alternative is wrong.
“There were two obvious alternatives, fully understood by the President and his advisers long before the bombs were used,” Alperovitz says. “The first was simply to tell the already largely defeated Japanese—who were signaling a willingness to surrender through many channels—that they would be allowed to keep their Emperor, who they believed to be a god. The second option was simply to await the expected Soviet declaration of war set for August 8.”
Given these two options, he notes, “virtually every top World War II military leader—including General, later President, Eisenhower—went public after the war denouncing the decision as totally unnecessary.”
So why did Truman drop nuclear weapons on Japan? A big part of the reason was to send the Soviets a message, as revealed by a top scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project that devised the bomb.
“More important was to demonstrate to the world—and particularly to the Soviet Union—the newly acquired might of the United States,” Nobel Peace Prize-winner Joseph Rotblat wrote for the Progressive Media Project in 2002. “I personally happened to find this out, directly from the mouth of General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, who said in a casual conversation in 1944, ‘You realize, of course, that the main purpose of the project is to subdue the Russians.’ ”
The American people’s understanding of the issue has been changing. Popular opinion on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been modifying, slowly but surely, over time.
“In 1945, a Gallup poll immediately after the bombing found that 85 percent of Americans approved of using the new atomic weapon on Japanese cities,” states a Pew report from earlier this year. “In 1991, 63 percent of Americans voiced the view that the atomic bomb attacks on Japan were a justified means of ending the war. In the current Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of Americans still believe the use of nuclear weapons was justified; 34 percent say it was not.”
Alperovitz says that we need to make concerted efforts to make sure that nothing like Hiroshima and Nagasaki ever happens again.
“There is great irrationality in the world, especially in the Middle East—and between Pakistan and India—and there thousands of warheads, many on high alert,” he says. “It is time for a radical renewal of anti-nuclear organizing.”