The Common Good
July-August 1995

The Fire Still Burns

by Sojourners | July-August 1995

An interview with historian Gar Alperovitz.

When Gar Alperovitz's first book, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, was originally published in 1965, it challenged conventional thinking about the United States' decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Since then Alperovitz has become a leading expert on the factors and decision-making process around the use of nuclear weapons. An updated edition of Atomic Diplomacy was published by Pluto Press to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Alfred A. Knopf), his latest book, will be released in August.

Gar Alperovitz is president of the National Center for Economic Alternatives and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. He was interviewed in Washington in May by Sojourners' Jim Rice and Aaron Gallegos.

-The Editors

Sojourners: You've been involved in this issue for a long time. How did you first begin to look into the decision to use the bomb?

Gar Alperovitz: I was not planning to do a book on the atomic bomb. In the late 1950s, I was starting research on my Ph.D. thesis on how U.S. plans for shaping the post-World War II economic order and how U.S. officials thought about this during the war. I entered through this back door of looking at early Cold War issues and the role of the bomb in shaping U.S. diplomatic strategy, not why they dropped the bomb.

Sojourners: What's the consensus among experts about the decision to bomb Hiroshima? Was it necessary to use the bomb to forestall an invasion of Japan?

Alperovitz: The use of the atomic bomb, most experts now believe, was totally unnecessary. Even people who support the decision for various reasons acknowledge that almost certainly the Japanese would have surrendered before the initial invasion planned for November. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stated that officially in 1946.

We found a top-secret War Department study that said when the Russians came in, which was August 8, the war would have ended anyway. The invasion of Honshu, the main island, was not scheduled to take place until the spring of 1946. Almost all the U.S. military leaders are on record saying there were options for ending the war without an invasion. So minimally, as Hanson Baldwin, The New York Times writer, put it, if the goal of the bombing was to end the war without an invasion, that was unnecessary, so it was "a mistake." That's Baldwin's phrase.

Now, did American policy-makers know this at the time? That's a slightly different question. Many scholars now believe that the president understood the war could be ended long before the November landing. J. Samuel Walker, a conservative, official government historian, states in his expert study, perhaps with slight exaggeration but not much, that the consensus of the scholarly studies is that the bomb was known at the time to be unnecessary.

Sojourners: How do you explain the large gap between that consensus and the prevailing popular opinion, which is that the bombing was necessary to prevent the invasion?

Alperovitz: The popular myth didn't just happen, it was created by several official acts, and by many things President Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson did. During the early postwar period, there was a slow growth of criticism of the bomb, including from the religious community and from

some of the important radio spokespersons of the time. Many conservatives at that point, actually more than liberals, were raising serious questions about the bombing. The Calhoun Commission of liberal Protestant theologians for the Federal Council of Churches-Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett were members-criticized the bombing, both as unnecessary and as immoral, a sin demanding some sort of contrition.

As the criticism grew, there was an organized, semi-official response to put it down. The argument was that the bomb was the least abhorrent choice we had available. The documents available show that isn't true-but it was an extraordinarily successful propaganda effort.

They wanted to close down the debate for several reasons. One was to protect the president. Two, it was the beginning of the Cold War period, and they wanted no one tampering with the moral importance of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons build-up was going on, and they saw it as necessary to fight against communism. Any undercutting of the moral legitimacy of nuclear weapons might undercut the fight against communism. Besides, they had reputations to protect-they were all involved.

Sojourners: Wouldn't Japan have been more inclined to surrender if we had guaranteed they could retain their emperor? What was preventing the United States from doing this?

Alperovitz: The real decision to use the atomic bomb was the decision not to give the Japanese another way to surrender. The documents make it very clear that it was known they would never surrender if we threatened their emperor-who was more like Jesus or Buddha in their theology. The demand for unconditional surrender was a threat to their entire culture, their religion, and their politics, and we knew it.

Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, a key figure in all this, was the one who convinced Truman not to assure Japan they could retain the emperor. The reason, some historians argue, was that he feared the president would be criticized for being soft on the Japanese. It was a political argument. Now if that's true, it means that 200,000 to 300,000 innocent people were killed out of political fear, not for "military reasons." But very rarely do those who so argue face the significance of what they are saying.

If you begin to eliminate the political reasons or reduce their significance, then you start looking for other factors. Many historians now recognize-though there's a debate about emphasis-that another factor was that it was thought the bomb would have powerful diplomatic implications vis à vis the Soviet Union.

The bomb would impress the Russians and, as Secretary Byrnes said, make them more "manageable" in Eastern Europe. The bomb would impress the world with U.S. power and give the United States the top leadership role. They thought it would have all sorts of benefits on the diplomatic side. I think they were wrong about that; there were obviously a lot of costs, because it built fear, paranoia, and rigidity on both sides.

The question of why the bomb was used is much more controversial than whether the bomb was necessary. Clearly, there are some people who cannot abide criticism of the U.S. government, or in this case, of Harry Truman, a revered figure. Also, some veterans dispute the evidence. I am very sympathetic to the actual on-the-ground veterans who were willing to risk their lives. They were told they were going in. They are heroes. But I have virtually no sympathy for some organizations that are distorting the record and making political hay out of this.

Sojourners: Why is there a responsibility in a democracy for historians to speak honestly about the past, even if they're critical of leaders or institutions?

Alperovitz: It's not just important for historians. One of the lessons from Hiroshima is how terribly small the group of people was who made decisions that had incredible world-shaking implications. It raises the most fundamental questions about the future. How do we organize decision making in a democracy when the possibility of destroying the planet is in the hands of one person? If we study the only time nuclear weapons were actually used, we might possibly learn something about how we can prevent future use.

Sojourners: Is the decision-making structure any more accountable today than it was in 1945?

Alperovitz: It's a little more complex than it once was, but I don't think it's greatly changed. I think the Gulf war decision was made very much the way the Hiroshima decision was made-by a small group in the White House, against the basic views of the military. I don't think the military wanted the bomb to be used, on the whole. They were not asked much about it.

The other thing we learn from this is the way information can be manipulated so that for 50 years a whole society is taught to believe a myth. That is a critical issue for democracy. Can we find ways to challenge the myth making of a small group of elite policy-makers protecting themselves to support their policies?

Sojourners: The idea that good is in us and evil in our enemies seems to be a constitutional part of our cultural makeup, if not the human psyche. Why is it important for us as a society to address this issue now?

Alperovitz: It's very important because out of that myth flows much arrogance and many mistakes. All societies have terrible things in their past. To sin is to be human, but to acknowledge it is a way to move forward.

This question is about the future. Whether we can come to terms with Hiroshima has to do with the question of practical decision making, but also with the moral, psychological, and spiritual development of the country. It will not go away. Hiroshima is with us.

Sojourners: Some people have posited a moral equivalence between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, especially in the response of the two countries toward reconciliation.

Alperovitz: There's no excuse for Pearl Harbor, but it is among the least of the brutalities the Japanese committed. There is the rape of Nanking, the bombing of Shanghai, the brutality against prisoners, the Korean "comfort women," the notorious Unit-731 that did vivisection on prisoners to teach medical students-outrageous things the Japanese have to come to terms with. They have a long way to go. They have come close to expressing sorrow, but not regret.

Pearl Harbor was an unjustified surprise attack, but it was a military target. I think the latest figure is 2,500 people killed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both civilian targets predominantly-that's why they were targeted. Hiroshima was selected because it was a significant, unblemished, mainly civilian target, available for the psychological effect of terror bombing. That's very explicit in the documents; it's not controversial. That's what they were doing. And ultimately some 300,000 civilians were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Both Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings were wrong. They are, however, very different questions. The most important thing about Hiroshima was that it was unnecessary, it was at a time when the Japanese were trying to find a way out of the war, and we knew that.

Sojourners: Not to point fingers, but it is important to address questions of moral culpability. What moral responsibility do the atomic scientists, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, have for the production and use of the bomb?

Alperovitz: There is no doubt that most of the scientists joined in the Manhattan Project effort-for better or worse-out of fear that Hitler would build the bomb. However, once it became clear that there wasn't going to be a Nazi bomb, a very different question opened up because then they were building a weapon of mass murder that would have implications for the rest of the planet.

The most difficult problem about moral culpability is that this has been lingering more than 50 years and most people have not felt comfortable talking about it. They have been complicit in silence. It also leads to the support for nuclear weapons in general by allowing the moral legitimacy of these weapons to go unchallenged. Nuclear weapons have questionable use now, and they are becoming a threat to our own security.

Sojourners: You spoke of the motivating force for the use of the Hiroshima bomb as being primarily diplomatic reasons...

Alperovitz: Let me qualify that carefully: So it appears. The evidence is not conclusive on any of this, because there are gaps in the record. The decisions were made by Truman and Byrnes privately over drinks, during breakfast, at lunch or dinner, or in the back seat of a car on the way to a conference.

What you can say accurately as a historian is that the preponderance of evidence points in this direction. But we do not have, yet, all the evidence we need, although every year we seem to find something new. You can begin to eliminate options, and as the picture gets clearer this looks to be the central motive.

Sojourners: In that context, what's the motive for continued possession of nuclear weapons today? Nuclear weapons haven't been exploded on an enemy target since 1945-but have they been used in other ways?

Alperovitz: We are a society that has been threatening mass murder-that's what deterrence has meant. Some people claim that it has worked, which I believe is a very questionable claim. What it has certainly done, in the first place, is stimulate a worldwide arms race. Second, we explicitly used them recently as a threat in the case of Korea.

In general, there is a tendency among some politicians and military leaders, though not all, to think of nuclear weapons as essential to American security. Some keep pushing for more nuclear weapons, even though it means other people are going to get them. The notion of us having a threat is bound to create counter-threats.

Sojourners: Has the U.S. possession of nuclear weapons had a direct role in the proliferation talks?

Alperovitz: It obviously has, but it goes beyond the proliferation treaty, which essentially says, Let's keep what we've got, but other people shouldn't get them.

What's interesting is that some of the most hardheaded Cold War politicians, Paul Nitze and Robert McNamara for instance, have been saying that these weapons may have once had a role, but they don't anymore. Now they are so easy to make and so small that they can be smuggled into this country and blow up the next World Trade Center or Oklahoma City. They are much more a threat to us than they are an advantage.

The question is how we begin to move to a different stage. It's not about proliferation talks, it's about whether citizens speak up about any of these questions.

The non-proliferation treaty is not primarily a policy-makers question. In my view, it's a question of the culture that supports the policy-makers. It's about whether people in the pulpits or the pews will speak or be silent. If we're silent, the policy-makers will do what the bureaucracy is used to doing, which is build more weapons or keep the weapons it has. I do not see this as a proliferation treaty problem, but as a personal question for everyone.

Sojourners: It sounds like you are saying that the central moral question around nuclear weapons has not changed with the end of the Cold War.

Alperovitz: Exactly. Nuclear weapons now need to be put beyond the moral pale, to be made illegitimate throughout the world, and that will not happen until people speak up and cause a shift in the cultural base. That's not impossible. Now is the time to begin-particularly when many Cold Warriors see them as no longer useful. The silence is thundering among people who seem to care about these things but don't talk about them.

Sojourners: Do you see any signs that this might change? Is there any reason to be hopeful?

Alperovitz: I'm from Wisconsin, the state McCarthy dominated in the 1950s. If you looked around in the 1950s, people were very frightened to speak, and the idea that you could begin moving in a different direction was ridiculous. It seems somewhat similar to the current situation. But what's obvious, if you have any historical perspective, is that these stages don't necessarily last forever.

The way you change things is by slowly beginning to push forward. Over time something begins to happen. It happened in the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement. All of those movements were totally dominated by a conservative culture that didn't seem to allow any progress until people of goodwill began to build and slowly, patiently, changed the culture. I believe it's possible to do that with regard to nuclear weapons.

People are already speaking out in different ways and stating principled positions. There are grassroots efforts all over the country, as well as a variety of activities in the peace movement. I think we are going to see a lot more in the churches around the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, which happens to fall on a Sunday. I believe there will be a great number of Jewish synagogues talking about these questions, too. I see seedlings-possible things that can be done and will be done. I'm prudently optimistic.

Sojourners: What are the moral implications for a people who repress the knowledge that they used a horribly destructive device? Has that affected the American people in our efforts to build a true democracy?

Alperovitz: I don't think we really know the costs of moral repression on our own dignity or capacity for more openness. I don't think we know the power of repentance and forgiveness. It's not important to blame somebody, but it's terribly important to acknowledge the past and transcend it. Otherwise, we've got to defend it, and we become self-righteous and keep justifying the threat of violence. The capacity to move to a different level of human relationship is bound up in whether or not we get beyond self-righteousness.

Poll data suggests that 50 percent of Americans favor a joint apology for Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor and that they understand moral complexities beyond headlines. If so, then the issue for religious leadership is to help manifest what is latent. It's a leadership problem, as well as a personal problem. It takes moral courage to speak up.

One of the lessons is how easy it is in our current democracy for very important things to be distorted and for people to believe-on the basis of limited information-that the only thing to do is go to war or drop a major bomb. Democratic societies are not well-structured for getting information out. I don't think any of us have faced how to deal with that.

The churches have a much bigger role in this than they have been willing to understand. They are one place of possible hope. They ought to be a source of real challenge to the academics and scholars. There are places people can make a dent if they decide to.

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