Hiroshima: The Strange Myth of Half a Million American Lives Saved
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Hiroshima The Strange Myth of Half a Million American Lives Saved o f all the political and military decisions in history, few have been subject to more analysis and comment than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is mystifying , therefore, that historians have not long ago exploded the demonstrable myth that those attacks probably saved half a million lives of American soldiers, sailors, and marines, and prevented numerous British fatalities.and vast numbers of Japanese deaths, as President Truman alleged in his autobiography a decade after the war’s end.’ Such a justification was neither needed nor used by President Truman in the weeks immediately following the obliteration of Hiroshima, followed within days by the surrender of Japan, since the public overwhelmingly approved of the action. As time went by, however, and questions were increasingly asked about the necessity and wisdom of launching the age of nuclear weapons in this manner, estimates of deaths averted were adduced as an important element-perhaps the most important element-of the moral justification for Truman’s decision. By the time historians were given access to the secret files necessary to examine this subject with care, the myth of huge numbers of American, British, and Japanese lives saved had already achieved the status of accepted history. Even when secret wartime documents were declassified, historians did not focus on the striking inconsistencies between these documents and those parts of the principal decision-makers’ memoirs that dealt with estimates of lives saved. Had they done so, and followed the subject where it led, they would have been forced to conclude that the number of American deaths prevented by the two bombs would almost certainly not have exceeded 20,000 and would probably have been much lower, perhaps even zero. Rufus E. Miles, ]r., is a former senior fellow of the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, and a former thirty-year career official of the U.S. government. 1. Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, Vol. 1, Year 0fDecisiotzs (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955),p. 417. This figure and others of similar magnitude appear in history texts used by American secondary schools, for example, Madgic, Seaberg, Stopsky, and Winks, The American Experience (Menlo Park, Calif.: Addison-Wesley, 1979),p. 515; and Bragdon and McCutcheon, A Free People (Riverside, N.J.: McMillan, 1970), p. 377. [nternationai Security, Fall 1985 (Vol. 10, No. 2) 01985by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 121 International Security I 122 Four days after 70,000-80,000 citizens of Hiroshima died from the atomic bomb blast on August 6, 1945and many thousands more were injured, and one day after half as many residents of Nagasaki met a similar fate, the Japanese communicated to the United States their urgent desire to surrender, subject only to the condition that they might keep their Emperor. On the next day, the United States accepted that condition with the stipulation that, until total demilitarization had been achieved and other Allied demands had been met, "the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers."2 Three days later, on August 14, Japan accepted the stipulation, and the war was over. Understandably, the American people were euphoric that the most devastating war in history had ended. Not surprisingly, they gave principal credit to the new weapon. A Fortune magazine poll taken two months after Japan's capitulation showed that less than 5 percent of Americans, as a matter of principle, disapproved of the military use of a bomb a thousand times as powerful as any of its predecessor^.^ Some 22 percent, still seething over the infamous "sneak" attack on Pearl Harbor, wished that more such bombs had been quickly dropped before the Japanese had a chance to surrender. Nevertheless , an articulate minority, deeply concerned over the possibility of a world armed with atomic weapons, began to raise questions about the decision to drop the bombs. At the same time, some of Truman's advisers, most notably Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, the overseer of the Manhattan Project that developed the fission bombs, felt the need...