Ohio Observer, August 1995
[While written 18 years ago, it is sadly still largely timely today.]
Just inside the Wright Patterson Air Force Base museum near Dayton is a placard with the famous quote from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Its implication is that we must accurately record and analyze historical events to completely understand current times and widely envision the future.
The 5oth anniversary of the end of World War II this month is a unique opportunity to reflect, analyze, understand and envision – to prevent a repetition of the past. This opportunity is being squandered, however, by those who manipulate history, distort lessons and defend an illegitimate political, economic and military status quo.
Touring Wright Patterson museum
Santayana’s quote was on my mind touring the Air Force Base museum a few years ago. The display of planes, bombs and missiles was technically impressive. The interpretive descriptions of why all this stuff was produced and used during World War II, the Cold War and after were socially and morally unimpressive.
No space was provided for an examination of whether all these weapons had to be used to achieve the desired ends, whether non-military alternatives may have been more effective, what the production and use of weapons did to people, economies or natural environments both at home and abroad, why so many weapons were targeted against civilians, and whose “interests” were being “defended” when these weapons were used all over the globe.
Especially disturbing was the exhibit showing replicas of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the first two atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. The display matter-of-factly stated they were used to save hundreds of thousands of American lives and to bring an end to World War II.
This version of history is popular at the moment. The U.S. military and most mainstream journalists, intellectuals and politicians defend the use of the atomic bomb. President Clinton has said that Truman “did the right thing.” And “I do not believe that on the celebration of the end of the war and the service and sacrifice of our people, that this is the appropriate time to be asking about or launching and major re-examination of that issue.”
This view to sanitize, repress and ignore history is shared by supporters of the current Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima) exhibit at the Smithsonian. The text next to a big picture of the crew (including Ohioan Paul Tibbets the pilot) reads in part, “[The atomic bombings] destroyed much of the two cities and caused many hundreds of thousands of deaths. However, the use of the bombs led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion….It was thought highly unlikely that Japan would have surrendered unconditionally without such an invasion.”
Other museums and histories
A few years before visiting the Air Force museum, I toured Cecilienhof, site of the 1945 Potsdam Agreement, in East Germany and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. Seeing both museums, meeting people in both places and having access to new information as a result of both experiences shed light on a very different version of the history of the end of World War II, the Cold War and lessons we should have learned from these periods.
By the time Truman, Stalin and Churchill met at Potsdam in July 1945, Japan was a militarily defeated country. Japan was incapable of stopping U.S. saturation bombings of scores of Japanese cities. Tokyo alone had been especially hard hit; one raid alone caused 100,000 casualties, made a million people homeless and nearly destroyed 250,000 buildings. Civilian bombing raids became so frequent and effective, according to Stephen Shalom in the current issue of Z magazine, that Secretary of War Henry Stimson expressed two concerns to Truman; “First, because I did not want to have the U.S. to get the reputation for 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 [the atomic bomb] would not have a fair back-ground to show its strength.” What compassion!
The U.S. had broken Japan’s military code long before Potsdam. Truman knew that Japan was looking to end the war, even offering to end it at the German summit. Their only condition was the face-saving gesture of retaining their emperor as symbolic leader.
Truman ignored the peace overtures, insisted that the final Potsdam agreement demand that the Japanese surrender unconditionally, and signed the order to bomb Hiroshima, a marginal military target.
Many high-ranking military leaders opposed unconditional surrender and/or the use of the atom bomb altogether, including generals George Marshall, Douglas McArthur and Hap Arnold and Admiral William Leahy. General Dwight Eisenhower said, “Japan was already defeated and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”
The bombs were dropped anyway. The explosions, fires and radiation resulted in 210,000 deaths (mostly civilians) by the end of 1945 and 340,000 deaths by 1950. Radiation-resulted deaths still occur today.
Every year, the names of new casualties are entombed in the cenotaph at Hiroshima’s Peace Park.
Following the bombs (and following a 1000-plane assault on Tokyo on August 14 – never noted in the mainstream Western press), Japan offered officially to surrender on condition that they could retain their emperor. The U.S. agreed.
Not last but first act
Why did the U.S. agree to the same terms of surrender after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Japan offered earlier? Because the bombings were not the last act of World War II but the first act of the post-war Cold War against the Soviet Union.
The A-bombs were a message to the Soviets – don’t mess with us in a part of the world that we want as part of our expanding empire.
At Potsdam, Stalin reaffirmed the Soviets’ commitment to enter the Pacific war in early August (they officially declared war on Japan on August 8).
The U.S. feared Soviet presence in the Pacific would threaten their post-war influence on Japan, China, Korea and other nations in the region – many of which were already sites of U.S. military bases and “friendly” to U.S. business (corporate) interests.
Certainly the momentum of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bomb, and racism against the Japanese were factors in the bombings.
But the power to control and contain the Soviets was a huge factor, verified by Secretary of War Stimson: “Once its (the atomic bomb’s) power was demonstrated, the Soviets would be more accommodating to the American point of view. Territorial disputes would be resolved amicably.”
In his recent book, With Hiroshima Eyes, Joseph Gerson, regional program director for the American Friends Service Committee in New England, describes how the U.S. has used “the bomb” diplomatically to promotes its goals of foreign military access and to exploit foreign raw materials, labor, markets and technology.
The U.S. has used nuclear weapons many times since 1945 – in the same way that a person with a fun “uses” it by pointing it without firing in a confrontation or “uses” it by just having it on one’s hip. Such nuclear threats and intimidations have been directed mostly at Third World nations – China, Vietnam, Iran, Jordan, Cuba, Guatemala, Yugoslavia, Korea and Iraq.
“Nuclear extortion” has been used by every President, both Republican and Democrat, since Truman as an efficient way to protect and expand U.S. global power and economic privilege – powers and privileges that are ever more concentrated at the top.
George Kennan, the main architect of U.S. foreign policy following World War II, said in 1948: “We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.”
“Discriminate Deterrence’ is the current foreign policy doctrine upholding the U.S. commitment to “nuclear extortion” and “straight power concepts.”
Prepared in the closing years of the Reagan administration, refined and affirmed under Bush and Clinton, Discriminate Deterrence acknowledges that the U.S. can no longer control every development or region in the world. The U.S. must now focus on, as Gerson reports, “control over three regions: the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.” The Pentagon must “continue modernization of its nuclear arsenal,” since as former Clinton Secretary of Defense Les Aspin said, the “post-Cold War world is decidedly not post-nuclear.”
Learning from history
The French philosopher Albert Camus said, “All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and make a choice.”
The intentional mass murdering of civilians by the U.S. during World War II, widespread radiation experiments on civilians both during and after the war, and 4 trillion tax payer dollars spent for nuclear weapons programs are all historical realities we as a nation have yet to seriously reflect upon.
American oppression, injustice and domination have always been easier abroad than at home because they have been for the most part not experienced by the average citizen and not covered by the corporate-controlled press.
Add to this our cultural impediment to reflect on anything and our almost exclusive celebration of the present and it’s easy to understand why the U.S. empire, built on historical evils, remains.
People can be made to believe anything by controlling their sense of history.
It is far easier to reflect on the history of 50 years ago in Japan. For one, they suffered more in terms of casualties and physical destruction. For another, the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) have made sure their political and moral witnessing on behalf of nuclear abolition and peace have been notices by those in power.
Our continuing challenge as a people of conscious and as a nation is to acknowledge not only the wonderful elements of our past but also the evil.
It takes a great deal of moral strength to admit one’s own evils and wrongs, to learn from them, to apologize for them and to work to eliminate them.
Until we do so, Santayana’s warning about the importance of learning from the past remains highly relevant.