Hiroshima Remembered

April is not the cruellest month – August is. Every year I have to steel myself to endure the ritual rehash of the party line justifying the greatest single-act war crime in history, the “fons et origo” of our present nuclear nightmare – the obliteration of Hiroshima.  Like a child with his comfort blanket, we cling irrationally and passionately to our myth. The universally accepted justification of this atrocity (that it shortened the war and saved allied lives), apart from being morally worthless, has no historical basis. The tragedy is that he truth is so counter-cultural as to be unbelievable. 

For a start, the dates don’t mesh. The bomb was dropped on August 6th, but Japan did not surrender till the 15th. Why this 10 days delay?

We cannot understand Hiroshima without placing it in its historical context. The USSR and Japan had a non-aggression pact during the war against Hitler, for obvious reasons. Neither wanted war on two fronts. As agreed with the Allies at Yalta, three months after the surrender of Germany, the Soviet Union broke this pact, and declared war on Japan. Vast amounts of military equipment were trundled half way round the world from Europe (where they were no longer needed) to Manchuria. There, Marshal Aleksandr Vasilievsky inflicted a crushing defeat on the Japanese army. South Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands were seized (they’re still Russian controlled). The USSR now occupied Japanese territory, and was poised to invade mainland Japan itself by August 10 (note the date). 


Aleksandr Vasilievsky’s role in Japan’s surrender is absolutely crucial. But I have never yet met anybody who has even heard of him. 

This put the gun to Hirohito’s head. He had to do a deal with the Americans – and quickly – or face a Soviet occupation, which would have meant the elimination of the Japanese ruling class, and his own execution as a war criminal (which he undoubtedly was). The Americans did not want to see Japan occupied by Russia, so they accepted the continuation of the Emperor as Head of State, (the one condition the Japanese had been asking for since May), and accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese armed forces on August 15th.


General Omar Bradley famously remarked: “Let them keep the son of a bitch! “


Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki explained on August 10th, “The Soviet Union will take not only Manchuria, Korea, Karafuto, but also Hokkaido. This would destroy the foundation of Japan. We must end the war when we can deal with the United States.”


The Russian dimension is crucial. In a memorandum of July 19th, Secretary of War Henry Stimson frankly admitted that the bombs were used; “to gain political advantage over the Soviet Union in the post-war situation”. Not long before the bomb was tested, Truman said: “if it explodes, as I think it will, I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys”, meaning the Russians.


Admiral William D. Leahy Chief of Staff to President Truman in 1945 said “The use of the atom bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender”


Pro. J K Galbraith, who was Official US Investigator in Japan in 1945 wrote “Nor were the atomic bombs decisive. It has long been held that they made unnecessary an invasion of the Japanese mainland and thus avoid the resulting fighting and thousands of casualtiesOn few matters is the adverse evidence so strong” (my emphasis) The bombs fell after the decision had been taken by the Japanese government to surrender. That the war had to be ended was agreed at a meeting of key members of the Supreme War Direction Council with the Emperor on June 20th, a full six weeks before the devastation of Hiroshima.

Events leading up to Hiroshima throw considerable light on the event. In July 1945 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff noted “with atomic weapons a nation must be In ready to strike the first blow” The resultant war plan – JIC 329/1 – singled out for obliteration 20 Soviet cities from Moscow and Leningrad, to Tbilisi and Tashkent. However, the US only had the two bombs earmarked for Japan. After these experiments proved spectacularly successful, US production of nuclear weapons raced full-steam ahead. This war plan was followed by others; Pincher, Broiler, Charioteer etc. (See  “Operation World War III”, by Anthony Cane Brown) 


But Russia didn’t have a nuclear bomb till September 1949.


Fear of the possibility of Russian retaliation with conventional weapons caused these plans to be shelved until such time as a totally overwhelming (ie. first strike) system without the possibility of a Soviet retaliation, could be devised. This remains the Holy Grail of the nuclear strategist.


This leads to the various formulations of SIOP (pronounced “sigh op”) – the Single Integrated Operational Plan – the regularly updated American plans for waging global nuclear war. The SIOP was updated annually until February 2003, when it was replaced by Operations Plan (OPLAN) 8044.


I had the privilege of meeting Prof. Joseph Rotblat, the last living survivor of the Manhattan Project and a pupil of Albert Einstein’s. He quoted General Leslie Groves, head of the Project, who said “From two weeks after taking up the post, there was never any illusion on my part that the main purpose of the project was to subdue the Russians


This throws a very different light on the whole demonology of deterrence, wherein we are always the innocent victims confronting the unspeakable malice of the Evil Other. The Soviet breaking of the American nuclear monopoly prevented the implementation of war plan JIC 329/1, and later war plans. Thus deterrence has worked  – but in the exact opposite way we imagine. 


Perversely, we continue to rationalise and justify Hiroshima, our nuclear Original Sin. And because we justify it, we are prepared to do it again. 


That’s why we have Trident.




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  1. SleepingDog says:

    As far as I am aware, there was never going to be a need to invade the main Japanese islands because their economy was not self-sufficient, a major reason for their imperial expansions in the first place. A blockade should have been enough to cripple the already-collapsing Japanese economy.

    I believe the initial shock delivered to Japan’s armed forces by the USSR was by Zhukov’s Siberian forces in Manchuria in 1939, which psychologically may have reversed the previous reversal when Japan defeated the Russian fleet in 1905. So the Japanese may have rated the Soviet troops more highly than most other Allied troops they came across, and would be appropriately concerned once the ceasefire ended.

    For all the USAmerican demonization of the Japanese (which surely encouraged some of the many war crimes committed in the Pacific), their occupying authorities prosecuted very few of the worst or highest-ranked Japanese war criminals. The Soviets apparently did more to exact justice:

    The USAmerican atomic bombing of Japanese cities followed from other Allied war crimes, particularly the British city bombings in Europe and USAmerican city fire-bombings in Japan. Which shows how war crimes breed, and how painful was the lack of appropriate international legislation against air-bombing of civilians (apparently vetoed at the Hague by the UK with French help between the world wars so they could “colonial air police” their geographically-extensive conquest and extort taxes from villagers on threat of bombing).

    But I think there is more to owning nuclear weapons (for the UK state) than the points in the article, sound though they might be. Partly they are a threat to non-nuclear states, partly a membership card to the permanent seat on the UN Security Council, partly to support an ongoing war economy, but significantly also to maintain a monarchical structure of government that hides much abuse of power under the cloak of monarchy, official secrecy and the royal prerogative wielded (we might suppose) by our appointed not elected (Her Majesty’s) Prime Minister. And if the weak UK constitutional conventions could allow Tony Blair to rule by “sofa government”, bypassing not just Parliament, Commons, government but also Cabinet, then we are in trouble.

  2. Wul says:

    Thank you for this article Brian. I never really understood the Hiroshima narrative.

    What a nasty, brutal history we have.

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