Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright Socialist Review

World War 2: 50th Anniversary

'The destroyers of the worlds'

The war ended with the dropping of the atom bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chris Nineham shows how this ushered in the new horror of a nuclear age, while underlining US supremacy in the postwar world
The atom bomb:America's knock out blow

Between them the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs killed 200,000 people. Within one mile of the detonation point the heat was sufficient to boil away the soft internal organs of the body and turn bones into brittle sticks of charcoal. Many of those who survived the initial blasts died a lingering three week death. The most common symptoms were loss of hair, bleeding through the eyes and gangrene of the lips, tongue and sometimes the throat. Nearly all the pregnant women within 3,000 feet of the explosions had miscarriages or premature babies who died shortly after birth. Babies that survived were often born with abnormally small heads. Others suffered mental retardation or cancers. There are fears of continuing hereditary cancers and genetic mutation.

As the anniversary of VJ Day approaches, the Western ruling classes are keen to justify this barbarity. It is essential for them that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not seen as war crimes. President Clinton has been quite explicit, 'If I had the same information as President Truman, I would have done what he did.'

Clinton's comment suggests that Truman didn't know of the destructive capacity of the atom bomb. He knew. There had been a trial atomic explosion in New Mexico in July 1945, a few weeks before Hiroshima. A sphere of plutonium about the size of an orange had exploded with the force of 18,600 tons of conventional dynamite, turning the desert floor into glass and completely vaporising a 100 foot steel tower. After witnessing the blast (at a distance of six miles) Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the research team recorded his first thoughts, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.'

But Clinton is also referring to the standard justification for the bombings which is, remarkably, that they 'saved lives' by bringing the war in the Pacific to a swift end. The alternative, according to the official version, would have been a full scale invasion of Japan involving millions of troops.

The Western alliance has been carefully cultivating this version of events ever since 1945. It is a complete fabrication. Saving lives had never figured highly in the Allies' strategic thinking. Since early 1945 the US had been conducting firebombing raids on Japanese cities, specifically designed to kill as many civilians as possible. US secretary of war Stimson confided to Truman that he was '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'.

The final decision to drop the bomb was made by Truman and his close advisers at the Potsdam Conference with Churchill and Stalin. It was clear months earlier, in the spring of 1945, that Japan was militarily exhausted. Its air force and navy had been virtually destroyed, and in April the war government fell and was replaced by a cabinet under Admiral Suzuki who was keen to look for ways to make peace. There were splits in the ruling class, and the army leadership fiercely opposed peace overtures, but by June 1945 even Emperor Togo was convinced that simply continuing the war was not an option. Throughout the first half of 1945 the Japanese made peace overtures.

The British and Americans were well aware of these developments. They had cracked Japanese codes and intercepted messages which were, in the words of US secretary of the navy James Forrester, 'real evidence of a Japanese desire to get out of the war'. In the week before the Potsdam Conference, cables revealed the formal decision of a Japanese Imperial Conference to try to stop the fighting.

Truman had already made it clear that he was prepared to allow the Japanese to maintain their imperial institutions. This was the basis of the final surrender anyway. But while continuing to demand formally that the Japanese surrender, in practice the Allies ignored Japanese peace moves. On 2 August the Americans intercepted a cable from the Japanese government to the Japanese ambassador in Russia: 'The battle situation has become acute, there are only a few days left in which to make arrangements to end the war... it is requested that you immediately have a talk with Molotov.' On 6 August the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

US policy was being driven by wider considerations. The development of the new bomb had featured strongly in the Americans' strategic thinking, from the moment Truman took over in April 1945. Soon after he came to office, Truman's secretary of state and his most trusted adviser, James Byrne, told him, 'The atomic bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.'

There were suggestions that Japan should be given a warning of what was in store. These were overruled. Truman wanted to ensure that America delivered the knockout blow and that Japan surrendered to the US before the Russians had the chance to occupy Chinese territory. More generally, the Americans believed the bomb would be a crucial lever in their negotiations with Russia over the global postwar settlement.

Considering the appalling and unnecessary suffering they inflicted on Japan, Western rulers' approach to VJ Day has been a disgrace. While there was some attempt to create a mood of reconciliation on VE Day, it seems the Japanese will not even be invited to the VJ Day commemorations. There is a stench of racism about this, reflected in the media stereotyping of the Japanese and the image of Japan as a country that had 'no denazification process'.

The Japanese army committed appalling atrocities as it tried to establish Japan as the dominant power in China and South East Asia. The Japanese imperial system survived into the postwar period largely unreformed. But that was a direct result of US policy. American big business opposed the breaking up of the Japanese corporations, and the US government rejected major reforms because it needed the Japanese ruling class as a bulwark against the spread of 'communism'.

The Japanese dictatorship which pursued imperialist war had come to power by repressing the unions and crushing the last vestiges of democratic and socialist movements that had been growing in the 1920s. The attempt to build a mass movement in support of the regime failed, and the dictatorship was based in the bureaucracy and imposed by the military. There was opposition to the war. The middle class 'Jushin' was lobbying for peace from the start of the American campaign in the Pacific. It was partly the threat of popular radicalisation and opposition to the war that convinced the Japanese ruling class to sue for peace. Prince Konoye confided to the emperor in February 1945, 'What we have to fear is not so much a defeat as a Communist revolution that might take place in the event of defeat.' A wave of strikes and factory occupations immediately after the war confirmed the prince's fears. It was the American occupation authorities who smashed the growing workers' movement.

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