AS something of a historian/activist on the subject of the atomic bombing of Japan, I was relieved to watch the HBO "The Pacific" series conclude two days ago (re-runs airing this week)with an unusually non-triumphal treatment of the subject, especially coming after two months of viewers watching sympathetic U.S. military men getting butchered by the "Japs," as they were usually called.
Now, one might expect that a series produced by Hanks, Spielberg and their colleagues to tread lightly here, but I feared a more justifying tone. Instead, they delivered only a brief mention of the dropping of a bomb on cities that killed thousands "in a blink." Soldiers, naturally, were shown celebrating the Japanese surrender but there were no further mention of The Bomb. Viewers could draw their own conclusions, which given most treatments on this subject, was a relief.
Iwatched the entire series and found it a bit disappointing after "Band of Brothers," some of them unavoidable (grim, lookalike Pacific islands no match for Europe), others perhaps not (less vivid characters who disappeared for entire episodes). Given my longtime views that the use of the atomic bombs on highly-populated cities, it was valuable to, once again, experience some of the carnage that preceded that. In my own writing, and with Robert Jay Lifton (including articles for The Nation and our book Hiroshima in America), I have expressed immense sympathy with the common response of soldiers who served in the war, and their families: The Bomb seemed to save American lives, even as it cost 250,000 civilians in Japan.
That view is understandable, but also avoids the historical evidence that has piled up over the decades. Although not clear cut, my reading of it has been: the bombings could have, and should have, been avoided.
I don’t want to rehash that here, but just note that "The Pacific," in leading up to the one Hiroshima mention, had presented a couple of episodes in which the killing of Japanese civilians on Iwo Jima and Okinawa hit home to the lead character in the series, Eugene Sledge, who went on to write one of the best combat books from the war. When he hears the news of the atomic bomb, he does not smile, just looks grim, and when he returns home from the war he remains haunted, and refuses to wear his uniform, even to attract young women.
In any case, more than sixty-four years after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb is still very much with us, as evidenced by last month’s great nuclear summit and new proposals to curtail stockpiles presented by President Obama.
Yet despite some positive signs from Obama, I fear that moving very far in the direction of a no-first-use policy for the U.S. is still a long way off in America. Perhaps the strongest reason is this: most Americans, our media and our leaders (including every president), have endorsed our "first-use" of the bomb against Japan. This remains true today, with little shift in the polls or change in heart among our policymakers and elected officials.
There has also been little change abroad—where the use of the bomb in 1945 has been roundly condemned from the beginning. Indeed, US support, even pride, in our use of the weapon has given us little moral standing in arguing that other countries should not develop nuclear weapons and consider using them, possibly as a first, not a last, resort (that’s our policy, remember).
So it all goes back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While I respect the views of a range of historians on this matter, and the opinions of the men who fought in the Pacific, I happen to believe the war would likely have ended very shortly without it (or a bloody American invasion), largely because of the Soviets finally declaring war on Japan—an event long-dreaded by Japanese leaders. Yes, there was a day when conservatives like John Foster Dulles, columnist David Lawrence, Admiral William Leahy and General Dwight D. Eisenhower clearly condemned the use of the bombs.
But the key point for today is this: how the "Hiroshima narrative" has been handed down to generations of Americans—and overwhelmingly endorsed by officials and the media, even if many historians disagree—matters greatly.
Over and over top policymakers and commentators say, "We must never use nuclear weapons," yet they endorse the two times the weapons have been used against cities in a first strike. To make any exceptions, even in the past, means exceptions can be made in the future. Indeed, we have already made two exceptions, with over 200,000 civilians killed. The line against using nuclear weapons has been drawn… in the sand.
And, as I noted, the fact that the United States first developed, and then used—twice—the WMD to end all WMDs has severely compromised our arguments against others building the weapon ever since. Hiroshima was our original sin, and we are still paying for it, even if most Americans do not recognize this.
That is why I always urge everyone to study the history surrounding the decision to use the bomb and how the full story was covered up for decades. There is certainly, in the minds of the media and the American public, no taboo on using nuclear weapons, and it all started, but did not end, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is what nuclear abolitionists—or even those who (like Obama) simply want a partial easing of our first-use policy—are up against.