Pearl Harbor, Internment, and Hiroshima: Historical
by Paul D'Amato
International Socialist Review, November-December
The mobilization for war in Afghanistan was accompanied by
references to the Japanese "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor
on December 7, 1941. The purpose of the analogy is self-evident.
But to understand the full significance of the comparison, we
must look more closely at what happened before, during, and after
the Pearl Harbor attack.
The attack on Pearl Harbor, though it began the shooting war,
was by no means the start of the war in the Pacific. "The
American people," commented a 1943 Fortune article, "were
eased into the war by a process of discreet gradualism and manufactured
inevitability.... Pearl Harbor merely legalized the accomplished
fact."' Evidence that has become available since the war
shows that the U.S. not only deliberately maneuvered Japan to
be the first to attack, but had foreknowledge of Japan's plans.
After war was declared, a wave of anti-Japanese racism swept the
U.S., and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered 120,000
Japanese, the majority of them American citizens, to be interned
in concentration camps for the duration of the war. The war ended
with one of its worst atrocities: the obliteration of two cities,
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the use of the world's first atomic
Today, the U.S. is bombing Afghanistan, "fighting terrorism"
with cruise missiles, cluster bombs, and special forces. In the
process, it whips up anti-Arab racism and prepares new laws allowing
it to round up and detain "suspects" indefinitely. This
is reason enough to remember what really happened in the Pacific
Battle for control of the Pacific region
After Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying many
ships and killing more than 2,300 people, Time magazine sounded
the tocsin for war, and the message was revenge: "Over the
U.S. and its history, there was a great unanswered question: What
would the people...say in the face of the mightiest event of their
time? What they said-tens of thousands of them-was: 'Why, the
Though racism and a thirst for revenge fueled popular support
for war, the road to war between Japan and the U.S. had little
to do with revenge for Pearl Harbor and everything to do with
a clash between two powers bent on controlling the Pacific.
The United States had its origins in a rapacious expansionism,
beginning with westward conquest at the expense of the Indian
population and the forcible seizure of Western states from Mexico
in the 1840s under the rubric of"manifest destiny."
After the Civil War, American capitalism exploded in a fury
of growth. Domestic manufacturing, worth $2 billion in 1860, was
worth $9.5 billion by 1890. In the same period, the population
tripled, agricultural production tripled, and the total value
of manufacturing products went from $ 1 billion to $11.5 billion,
pushing the U.S. into first place over Britain. Like other relative
newcomers to the game of world power politics, Japan and Germany,
the U.S. began to seek its place as a "great power"-on
the level of Britain and France-commensurate with its new economic
The new impetus of the U.S. to project its power internationally
was expressed clearly by Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge in 1898:
"American factories are making more than American people
can use; American soil is producing more than it can consume.
Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must
and shall be ours.... We will cover the ocean with our merchant
marine. We will build a navy to the measure of our greatness."
What such "greatness" would mean was soon demonstrated
in practice in the war with Spain that started in the same year.
The U.S. fought this "splendid little war" under the
guise of freeing oppressed peoples from Spanish tyranny. But the
people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines quickly discovered
that they had only shed one colonial ruler for another-the United
States. Together with Hawaii, which the U.S. had seized in 1898,
the Philippines became the steppingstone for U.S. power projection
in the Pacific.
It is worth noting, in light of the September 11 attacks,
how the U.S. came to declare war on Spain. In February 1898, a
mysterious explosion ripped through and sank the USS Maine sitting
in Havana's harbor, killing 268 men. Immediately, the U.S. press
conducted a hysterical campaign blaming Spain. Though subsequent
inquiries never determined the cause of the explosion, the incident
was used to prepare the American public to back a war to drive
Spain from its colonies.
Not all were convinced. The monthly journal of the International
Association of Machinists smelled a rat, commenting that
the carnival of carnage that takes place every day, month
and year in the realm of industry, the thousands of useful lives
that are annually sacrificed to the Moloch of greed, the blood
tribute paid by labor to capitalism, brings forth no shout for
vengeance and reparation.... Death comes in thousands of instances
in mill and mine, claims his victims, and no popular uproar is
In a widely circulated appeal to workers, Bolton Hall, the
treasurer of the American Longshoremen's Union, wrote:
If there is war, you will furnish the corpses and the taxes,
and others will get the glory. Speculators will make money out
of it-that is, out of you. Men will get high prices for inferior
supplies, leaky boats, for shoddy clothes and pasteboard shoes,
and you will have to pay the bill, and the only satisfaction you
will get is the privilege of hating your Spanish fellow-workmen,
who are really your brothers and who have had as little to do
with the wrongs of Cuba as you have.
That the U.S. wanted to create an empire-not free oppressed
peoples-was clear in what it did in the Philippines. After defeating
Spain in a decisive naval battle in Manila Bay, Admiral George
Dewey concluded an agreement with Spanish forces. The Filipino
nationalist rebels who had risen up and laid siege to Manila would
be kept out of the city while a mock battle was held between Spanish
and U.S. forces, after which the Spanish would surrender to the
U.S. military. The Filipinos struggling for independence were
held at bay outside Manila while their homeland was transferred
from Spanish to U.S. control.
From the beginning, it was clear that the U.S. was measuring
its colonial aims in the same racist manner as its European counterparts.
President William McKinley, in an 1899 meeting with a Methodist
delegation, explained that-after much nightly pacing and prayer-he
had come to a conclusion: Since the U.S. could not hand the Philippines
back to Spain or turn them over to France or Germany, and since
the Filipino people were "unfit for self-government,"
"there was nothing left for us to do but take them all, and
to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them."
General William Shafter made clear the same year just what "uplifting"
Filipinos would mean:
It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order
that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a
higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.
In its subsequent three-year war to subdue the archipelago
and destroy the independence movement, U.S. forces conducted a
scorched-earth policy that devastated the country and its people,
the majority of whom supported the independence fighters. The
populations of entire islands were herded into concentration camps,
and hundreds of thousands were killed. One general reported that
as many as 600,000 people were killed or died of disease on the
island of Luzon alone-and an estimated 1 million Filipinos were
killed, according to one historian.
"Kill and burn, kill and burn, the more you kill and
the more you burn the more you please me," General "Howlin'
Jake" Smith told his troops. An American congressman who
visited the Philippines in 1901 reported on what these bloodcurdling
pronouncements meant in practice:
You never heard of any disturbances in northern Luzon because
there isn't anybody there to rebel.... The good Lord in heaven
only knows the number of Filipinos that were put under ground.
Our soldiers took no prisoners, they kept no records; they simply
swept the country and wherever and whenever they could get hold
of a Filipino they killed him. "
But the U.S. was a colonial latecomer. Much of Africa and
Asia had already been carved up between Britain, France, and Germany.
Britain alone controlled 11.5 million square miles of territory
and 305 million subjects at the turn of the century. So while
the U.S. was able to secure a handful of strategic colonies and
bases in the Pacific, its main policy was one of building an "informal"
empire. In its "backyard"-the Caribbean and Central
America-this involved outright military occupation in some cases.
More often it involved "gunboat diplomacy," where the
threat of superior force was used to guarantee the interests of
U.S. merchants and investors, and where puppet regimes were regularly
installed as the cheaper option.
In the Pacific, where the other great powers had already begun
the scramble for Asia, the U.S. pursued what it called the "open
door"-the use of its economic superiority, along with diplomatic
and military means, to ensure that Asia's markets and resources
were not closed off to U.S. interests. Woodrow Wilson explained
in 1907 how the U.S. intended to open doors:
Since trade ignores national boundaries, and the manufacturer
insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation
must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are dosed
against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers
must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty
of unwilling nations be outraged in the process."
In China, where the U.S. competed with other great powers,
it demanded the open door, but in Latin America, where it had
already battered down the door for its own interests, it demanded
the closed door-to keep Europe out. As the Second
World War approached, the U.S. began to see Japan as a potential
rival in the Pacific, a power that threatened to close the door
on U.S. influence. U.S. military planners were aware of the fact
that U.S. economic clout would be insufficient at some point to
maintain and extend its influence in the Pacific region. Japan
was an aspiring but economically far weaker power than the United
States. Unlike the U.S., Japan was a country entirely dependent
on raw materials from outside its borders. It therefore sought
to consolidate a territorial empire in Asia, first by annexing
Korea in 1910, then parts of China, then later the Dutch East
Indies (an important source of oil), and elsewhere. Japan conquered
Manchuria in northern China in 1931, then proceeded to annex key
ports in China. Much like the U.S. in Vietnam, the Japanese army
became bogged down in a war of attrition, unable to win and unable
to extricate itself.
Whereas the U.S. justified its imperial policies with references
to "democracy" and "freedom," Japanese officials
spoke of "building a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere"
and liberating Asians from "American and British imperialism."
Like the U.S. in the Philippines, such rhetoric covered a policy
of brutal colonialism.
Maneuvering Japan to attack first
U.S. officials were in no doubt that the clash of interests
between the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific would lead to war. It
was only the timing that was in question. Wary of Japanese advances
in China, the U.S. backed the Guomindang army of Chiang Kai-shek,
a man described by state department officials as a "gangster"-a
warlord among warlords who feared the aspirations of Chinese peasants
and workers more than he did the Japanese invaders.
In the buildup to war, the U.S. engaged in a series of actions
designed to draw Japan into attacking it. This was necessary,
U.S. officials felt, because opinion polls in 1940 still showed
that a majority of Americans were opposed to direct U.S. involvement
in the European war. Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum,
head of the Far East desk of the Office of Naval Intelligence,
the man in charge of routing communications intelligence to Roosevelt
between early 1940 and the Pearl Harbor attack, wrote a memorandum
in October 1940, advocating eight actions designed to provoke
a Japanese attack:
A. Make an arrangement with Britain for the use of British
bases in the Pacific, particularly Singapore. B. Make an arrangement
with Holland for the use of base facilities and acquisition of
supplies in the Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia]. C. Give all
possible aid to the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek. D.
Send a division of long-range heavy cruisers to the Orient Philippines,
or Singapore. E. Send two divisions of submarines to the Orient.
F. Keep the main strength of the U.S. Fleet, now in the Pacific,
in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. G. Insist that the Durch
refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions,
particularly oil. H. Completely embargo all trade with Japan,
in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British
In the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, the United States implemented
each of McCollum's points-always careful to ease the embargo on
Japan enough to allow them to obtain fuel for their fleet operations.
Referring to the deployment of U.S.
warships in or near Japanese territorial waters, Roosevelt
remarked, "I just want them to keep popping up here and there
and keep the Japs guessing." The day after McCollum's memo,
Roosevelt was quoted as saying, "Sooner or later the Japanese
would commit an overt act against the United States and the nation
would be willing to enter the war."
Events unfolded as scripted, the U.S. tightening the screws
by degrees on Japan. In July 1940, Roosevelt cut off the supply
of oil, scrap iron, and aviation gasoline to Japan; however, it
allowed Japan to purchase enough oil from U.S. suppliers to keep
its military operations running. At the same time, the U.S. intervened
to prevent Japan from purchasing oil from the Dutch East Indies.
Roosevelt knew from intercepted diplomatic communications that
Japan was now planning to seize the Dutch East Indies by force,
using as a secret staging area land leased from the Dutch. Informed
of the plans, the Dutch government refused to grant the lease.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson's diary records a November
25, 1941, meeting with Roosevelt, Admiral Harold Stark, and others
to discuss "how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into
a position of firing the first shot without allowing too much
danger to ourselves."'' After the war, he testified to a
In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese
fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full
support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that
the Japanese be the ones to do this so that there should remain
no doubt in anyone's minds as to who were the aggressors.
British Minister of Production Oliver Littleton was more abrupt
in his assessment: "Japan was provoked into attacking Pearl
Harbor. It is a travesty on history even to say that America was
forced into the war."
According to historian Robert B. Stinnett in his new book
Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, U.S. officials
not only maneuvered Japan to attack, but knew that the attack
was coming at Pearl Harbor. McCollum, the intelligence officer
who had devised the plan to provoke Japan into attacking the U.S.,
dismissed as "rumor" a January 1941 report from the
third secretary of the U.S. embassy in Tokyo that he had received
information from a reliable Peruvian minister that "Japanese
military forces were planning, in the event of trouble with the
United States, to attempt a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor
using all their military resources."
More importantly, U.S. naval intelligence had not only broken
Japan's "purple code" used to transmit diplomatic messages,
but also had cracked the code used by the Japanese navy to transmit
radio messages, according to Stinnett's research. Assistant Chief
of Naval Operations Rear Admiral Robert Ingersoll wrote a letter
on October 4, 1940, to the U.S. Navy's two Pacific commanders
explaining, "Every major movement of the Orange (America's
code name for Japan) Fleet has been predicted."
To this day, the original intercepts obtained by U.S. naval
intelligence have not been turned over to the National Archives.
Records of U.S. Naval Intelligence Station H indicate that the
commander of the Japanese attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, dispatched
13 radio messages, none of which has been released to the National
Archive, November 24-26, when Japan's fleet was heading toward
Hawaii. Neither the Pacific Fleet's radio intercept traffic chief,
Homer Kisner-the man who daily delivered decoded Japanese radio
transmissions to Pearl Harbor from Station H-nor any of his operators
was ever called before any of the nine Pearl Harbor investigations
that happened after the war.
Despite claims by the U.S. government that the Japanese forces
steaming toward Hawaii maintained radio silence, Kisner confirmed
in interviews with Stinnett that his operators intercepted several
Japanese naval transmissions prior to the December 7, 1941, attack.
Admiral Husband Kimmel, in charge of the U.S. Pacific Fleet when
Pearl Harbor was attacked, was never apprised of any of the intercepts.
"I can't understand, may never understand, why I was deprived
of information available in Washington," Kimmel wrote after
Wartime hysteria and internment
After December 7, a wave of racist hysteria swept the United
States. The FBI immediately began to arrest and detain people
of Japanese ancestry who were suspected of "aiding the enemy,"
even though "not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage
or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen
of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West
Coast." In Norfolk, Virginia, every Japanese person found
was immediately jailed. In Nashville, the Tennessee Department
of Conservation requested 6 million licenses to hunt Japanese
people. The purchasing department rejected the request, noting,
"Open season on 'Japs'-no license required." Some restaurants
on the West Coast posted signs after Pearl Harbor that read, "This
Restaurant Poisons Both Rats and Japs." Newspapers and organizations,
especially on the West Coast, clamored for Japanese removal. The
Los Angeles Times, in its call for removal, declared, "A
viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched-so a
Japanese American, born of Japanese parentage grows up to be a
Japanese, not an American." The Western Growers Protective
We've been charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for
selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It's a question
of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the Brown
On February 19, 1941, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066
authorizing the removal and internment of persons of Japanese
ancestry living on the U.S. West Coast. General John De Witt of
the Western Defense Command, the man in charge of implementing
this order, referred to Japanese as an "enemy race."
He told a congressional committee that "we must worry about
the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map "
Fully 120,000 men, women, and children-63 percent of them
U.S.-born citizens-were given six days to dispose of their property
before shipping out. Families were forced to sell most of their
possessions-cars, furniture, pianos, farms, and houses-for next
to nothing. De Witt's instructions for Japanese families to report
to their nearest "Civil Control Station" indicated that
no pets, personal items, or household goods would be allowed.
The historian John Dower describes what happened next:
For many Japanese-Americans, the verbal stripping of their
humanity was accompanied by humiliating treatment that reinforced
the impression of being less than human. They were not merely
driven from their homes and communities on the West Coast and
rounded up like cattle, but actually forced to live in facilities
meant for animals for weeks and even months before being moved
to their final quarters in the relocation camps. In the state
of Washington, two thousand Japanese-Americans were crowded into
a single filthy building in the Portland Stockyard, where they
slept on gunnysacks filled with straw. In California, evacuees
were squeezed into stalls in the stables at racetracks such as
Santa Anita and Tanforan. At the Santa Anita assembly center,
which eventually housed eighty-five hundred Japanese-Americans,
only four days elapsed between the removal of the horses and the
arrival of the first Japanese-Americans; the only facilities for
bathing the horse showers, and there as elsewhere the stench of
manure lingered indefinitely. Other evacuees were initially housed
in horse or cattle stalls at various fairgrounds. At the Puyallup
assembly center in Washington (which was called Camp Harmony),
some were even lodged in converted pigpens. The only redeeming
touch of grace in these circumstances lay in the dignity of the
Internees were sent to 10 different camps in remote desert
locations in seven states, surrounded by barbed wire and towers
with guards armed with machine guns and high-powered searchlights.
The guards were under orders to call on anyone attempting to leave
the camps to halt, and, if they didn't, to shoot them on sight.
At the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, which had a peak prison
population of 10,757 people, prisoners lived in 468 buildings.
Each building was divided into six rooms, and each room averaged
1S x 22 feet with military cots for beds. There were only two
laundry and bathroom facilities per approximately 20 buildings.
One hundred twenty-four soldiers and three officers guarded the
At the camp schools, children were forced to salute the American
flag and sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee." To add insult
to injury, the U.S. government then decided in September 1942
to force 21,000 Japanese males eligible for military service to
sign up for duty. Twenty-two percent refused. At Heart Mountain,
63 prisoners who resisted the draft each were sentenced to three
years in prison. In November 1942, Japanese American hospital
workers at the Heart Mountain camp went on strike to demand the
same pay as Caucasian-American workers.
Joseph Kurihara, a U.S. citizen who served in the First World
War, was interned at the Manzanar camp at Tule Lake, California-a
camp designated for "troublemakers." "America,
the standard bearer of democracy," he wrote after his release
at the end of the war, "had committed the most heinous crime
in its history, imprinting in my mind...the dread that even democracy
is a demon in time of war."
The racism against Japanese abroad reached genocidal proportions.
In order to dehumanize the enemy and make killing in large quantities
easier, Japanese were represented in the media and by politicians
as "animals, reptiles, or insects (monkeys, baboons, gorillas,
dogs, mice and rats, vipers and rattlesnakes, cockroaches, vermin-or,
more indirectly, 'the Japanese herd' and the like)," according
to one historian. The commander of the Pacific forces, Admiral
William F. Halsey, paraphrasing Sherman, said to a press conference
in 1944, "The only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead six
months." He added, "When we get to Tokyo...we'll have
a little celebration where Tokyo was." Halsey's motto was,
"Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs!" The Marine magazine
Leatherneck concurred. Under a caricature of an insect with slanted
eyes and protruding teeth and the caption "louseous Japanicas,"
the magazine explained:
Extensive experiments on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan
have shown that this louse inhabits coral atolls in the South
Pacific, particularly pill boxes, palm trees, caves, swamps and
jungles. Flame-throwers, mortars, grenades, and bayonets have
proven to be an effective remedy. But before a complete cure may
be effected, the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around
the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated.
The war had a brutalizing effect on the soldiers involved.
Life magazine even published a full-page photograph of a blonde
woman posing with a Japanese skull sent by her fiancee. This was
not an isolated case. Edgar L. Jones, a former war correspondent
in the Pacific, listed some of the atrocities committed by American
forces in the Pacific:
We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed
lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off
the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead,
and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table
ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones for letter openers.
The bombing of Japan
On September 28, 1937, the State Department issued a statement
condemning Japanese bombing of civilian targets in China, arguing
that "any general bombing of an extensive area wherein there
resides a large population engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted
and contrary to principles of law and of humanity." On June
3, 1938, the State Department issued a similar statement condemning
as "barbarous" the "ruthless bombing of unfortified
localities with the resultant slaughter of civilian populations,
and in particular of women and children." The principles
espoused in these self-serving pronouncements were completely
disregarded by the U.S. once it entered the war. Altogether, Allied
bombing during the war killed at least 1.6 million civilians,
more than 900,000 of them Japanese. In the firebombing of Tokyo
that took place March 9-10, 1945, hundreds of 2,000-ton incendiary
bombs were dropped by 334 U.S. B-29s, causing a firestorm that
completely incinerated everything within a 1 6-mile radius. About
100,000 people were killed, a million injured, and a million made
homeless in a matter of hours. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey,
created in 1944, compiled a detailed report to study the effects
of aerial attacks during the war. It estimated that more people
probably lost their lives in a six-hour period after the bombing
than at any time in human history. Nearly 100,000 more people
were killed over the next few nights in similar raids on Nagoya,
Osaka, and Kobe. The air raids ended only because U.S. forces
ran out of incendiary bombs.
In Hiroshima, a city with a civilian population of about 300,000
and 43,000 additional military personnel, citizens spun various
stories as to why their city had been spared from the incendiary
bombing that had ravaged so many other Japanese cities. One "theory"
was that so many people from Hiroshima had emigrated to the United
States. One elderly widow recalled:
Hiroshima was so related to America.... So many people had
relatives in America, and therefore America would show sympathy
toward Hiroshima-there were many in our neighborhood who had relatives
in America, and believed this.
The real reason that Hiroshima had not been firebombed was
far more chilling. Hiroshima was "spared" for mass killing
at a later date. Japan was so devastated that the men in charge
of developing and deploying the atomic bomb worried that there
would be no targets left to demonstrate the awesome power of the
new weapon. Some months after the firebombing of Japanese cities,
on June 6, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote this diary entry:
I told him [President Harry Truman] how I was trying to hold
the airforce down to precision bombing but that with the Japanese
method of scattering its manufacturing it was difficult to prevent
area bombing. I did not want to have the United States get the
reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities; and second, I was
a little fearful that before we could get ready, the Air Force
might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon
would not have a fair background to show its strength. He laughed
and said he understood.
On August 6, 1945, a B-29 dropped a single atomic bomb, nicknamed
"Little Boy" on Hiroshima. On August 9, another bomber
dropped a plutonium bomb, called "Fat Man," on Nagasaki.
A history professor who survived the Hiroshima blast described
what he saw:
I climbed Hijiyama Hill and looked down. I saw that Hiroshima
had disappeared.... I was shocked by the sight.... What I felt
then and still feel now I just can't explain with words. Of course
I saw many dreadful scenes after that-but that experience, looking
down and finding nothing left of Hiroshima- was so shocking that
I simply can't express what I felt.... Hiroshima didn't exist-that
was mainly what I saw-Hiroshima didn't exist.
People within a few thousands meters of the blast were simply
evaporated by it. Ninety percent of the people within half a mile
from the blast radius in both cities were instantly killed. A
boy in the fifth grade at the time of the Hiroshima blast described
the dreadful effects on the dead and dying:
The river became not a stream of flowing water but rather
a stream of drifting dead bodies. No matter how much I might exaggerate
the stories of the burned people who died shrieking and of how
the city of Hiroshima was burned to the ground, the facts would
still be dearly more terrible.
A sixteen-year-old boy saw "human bodies in such a state
that you couldn't tell whether they were humans or what.... There
is a pile of bodies in the road and people are writhing in their
death agonies." About 150,000 people died instantly in Hiroshima,
and another 70,000 in Nagasaki. Another 120,000 died in the aftermath
of the two explosions from radiation sickness, burns and other
President Truman was elated when he was informed that the
bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, as this historian's account
Then on August 6, upon receiving a message from Stimson that
Hiroshima had been successfully bombed, Truman grabbed the officer
carrying the message and said, "This is the greatest thing
in history!" After a confirmatory second message a few minutes
later, he called out across the enlisted men's mess to [Secretary
of State James] Byrnes and read him the message aloud, adding,
"It's time for us to get on home." He was "exuberant"....
So much so that he tapped on a glass with a utensil to make an
announcement to the enlisted men present- much as one might do
before making a toast-declaring that "we have just dropped
a new bomb on Japan which has more power than twenty thousand
tons of TNT. It has been an overwhelming success!" The crew
cheered and Truman himself, according to a reporter, "was
not actually laughing but there was a broad smile on his face."
Even after the A-bomb attacks, the U.S. Air Force continued
to rain bombs on Japan. In one final raid on Tokyo, 1,000 aircraft
dropped 12 million pounds of high explosives and incendiaries,
leaving tens of thousands dead.
From the moment the atomic bombs were dropped, U.S. officials
began justifying their action on two grounds: as retaliation for
Pearl Harbor, and because the bombings "saved American lives."
Truman's first official statement after Hiroshima read in part,
"The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor.
They have been repaid many fold."' Thus an air raid on a
military target that led to fewer than 3,000 deaths was compared
to a single bomb that killed 150,000 people and flattened a city
instantly. Three days later, Truman explained in a report on the
The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped
on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this
first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians.
In later years, Truman was fond of citing the "fact"
that had the U.S. not dropped the atomic bomb, "half a million"
American troops would have died in the planned land invasion of
Japan. This was the purest fabrication. The truth is that the
Joint War Plans Committee estimated on June l0, 1945, that 40,000
Americans would be killed in the invasion of the Japanese mainland,
not "half a million." Moreover, by the end of June,
American military planners had concluded that Japan had already
lost the war: Its cities were devastated, its people were demoralized,
and its soldiers no longer had the capacity or will to fight.
Japan had even made indirect overtures to the U.S. to discuss
the possibility of surrender-rebuffed by Truman, who demanded
"unconditional surrender." A top-secret report prepared
for the Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting at Potsdam argued:
We believe that a considerable portion of the Japanese population
now consider absolute military defeat to be probable. The increasing
effects of sea blockade and cumulative devastation wrought by
strategic bombing, which has already rendered millions homeless
and has destroyed from 25 percent to 50 percent of the built-up
areas of Japan's most important cities, should make this realization
increasingly general. An entry of the Soviet Union into the war
would finally convince the Japanese for the inevitability of complete
The report suggested that the U.S. should offer Japan "a
conditional surrender." Admiral William Leahy, who believed
that an invasion of Japan was unnecessary, also advised Truman
to accept a Japanese surrender that would allow them to retain
the emperor. Many concur that Japan only needed the facesaving
gesture of keeping the emperor in place to lay down its arms.
By July, the emperor had already indicated that he was interested
in suing for peace. "It is my opinion," wrote Leahy
a few years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "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."' In the end, following
Japan's surrender days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S.
did precisely what Leahy had earlier recommended-it allowed Japan
to retain the emperor.
The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported
by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it
is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945,
and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have
surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even
of Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had
been planned or contemplated.
Dropping the bomb, then, had nothing to do with "saving
lives"-a perverse notion in any case.
Then what was the purpose of unleashing this death and destruction?
It was about demonstrating to U.S. allies and rivals, in particular
Russia, the other key victor of the war, who would be top boss
in the postwar world. With the atomic bomb, the U.S. no longer
needed Russia to open a second front with Japan. In one stroke,
the U.S. was able to keep Russia out and show the world the effects
of its new weapon.
In mid-May, Stimson had a long conversation with Assistant
Secretary of War John McCloy about how to "deal with Russia."
Stimson said it was a time to
let our actions speak for words. The Russians will understand
them better than anything else. It is a case where we have got
to regain the lead and perhaps do it in a pretty rough and realistic
way.... I told [McCloy] this was a place where we really held
all the cards. I called it a royal straight flush and we mustn't
be a fool about the way we play it. They can't get along without
our help and industries and we have coming into action a weapon
which will be unique.... [L]et our actions speak for themselves.
Historian Herbert Feis concluded,
It is quite possible that it was thought the proof of the
power of the weapon, as demonstrated in actual warfare, might
be an effective source of added authority to the American Government
in the settlement of matters at issue with the Soviet Union.
If Roosevelt justified mass internment and Truman the obliteration
of two cities, all on the basis of an attack that killed about
2,400 military personnel at Pearl Harbor, then what will Bush
justify on the basis of the September 11 attacks? As U.S. warplanes
and missiles bombard Afghanistan, a country already reduced to
rubble and starvation by 20 years of warfare-much of it fueled
with funds from Washington- do pilots scream "Remember September
11!" as they do?
In 1941, the U.S. entry into war was not about revenge, but
American empire. Revenge was the public campaign, racist hysteria
a means to prepare young working-class men to die, but the aims
reflected the interests of men with names like Rockefeller and
Morgan. Today, war is again being waged to advance the economic
and strategic goals of the world's only military superpower, and
again it is being waged in the name or justice and revenge. Today,
we must remember our history if we are to resist this war.
Paul D'Amato is associate editor of the International Socialist