Education About Asia: Online Archives

Thank God for the Atom Bomb?

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I once received a call from the concerned editor of an education journal: “Could you find a source other than Thank God for the Atom Bomb? We feel it inappropriate for teachers to see it in a journal dedicated to international understanding.” Since the essay on travel versus tourism that I wanted to cite appeared only in this provocatively titled collection of Paul Fussell essays, they finally did allow it to appear in a footnote. The phrase—without the question mark I add above to my own title—comes from a passage in William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War.

This minor incident is indicative of a much wider reluctance among many in the academic and teaching community to consider all historical aspects of a morally difficult topic. The horror of the bomb, both real and in our conscience, has led to a debate that continues today. As teachers who want to foster critical thinking skills in our students, we must expose them to facts and interpretations that may not be politically correct. It is easy to condemn a weapon of mass destruction, but more difficult to understand why Truman and his inner circle made the decision to use it. Understanding both sides of the debate is critical to developing a more nuanced understanding of the bomb decision.

Within the limits of this brief essay I will cite arguments against the bomb more fully articulated elsewhere in this issue, and place Truman’s decision in the historical context of a bitter war. Because those who argue the bomb should not have been used suggest counter-factual scenarios, I too will ponder the “what ifs” by noting continued Japanese warfare immediately before and after the bombs were dropped on August 6 and 9, 1945. This leads to further speculation on the human costs of the invasion of the home islands planned for that November.

The major arguments against the bomb are as follows: 1) using the bomb was immoral; 2) Truman’s demand for an unconditional surrender hindered the Japanese peace faction; 3) offshore demonstration of the bomb would have sufficed; 4) Japan wartime leaders were soon to surrender; 5) invasion was a more humane alternative; and 6) there were ulterior motives such as warning off the Soviets or justifying the development expense of the Manhattan Project by demonstration on a human target. (note 1)

RESOURCES

Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. New York: Penguin Books, 1965, revised 1985.

Baldwin, Hanson W. Great Mistakes of the War. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949.

Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Frank, Richard B. Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

––—–.“Why Truman Dropped the Bomb,” The Weekly Standard, August 8, 2005, 20–24.

Fussell, Paul. Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays. New York: Summit Books, 1988.

Hersey, John. Hiroshima. New York: Vintage Press, 1989. Reprint.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005.

William Manchester. Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.

Menand, Louis. “Fat Man: Herman Kahn and the Nuclear Age,” The New Yorker, June 27, 2005, 97–98.

Orr, James J. The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.

Schulz, William. Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2003.

Selden, Mark and Kyoko. The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Skates, John Ray. The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Yoneyama, Lisa. Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

NOTES

1. Frank 1999, 332. The author wishes to thank two anonymous readers for their constructive critiques of an early draft. Two recent books are essential reading on the decision to use the bomb: Richard B. Frank’s Downfall (1999) and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (2005). Both Frank and Hasegawa see a much more complex military and diplomatic context than those who focus only on victims of the bomb. Fortunately for the busy reader, both have incisive conclusions that could expose students to the debate

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