On 6 August 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb codenamed "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing between 70,000 and 110,000 men, women, and children. Three days later, they dropped another bomb - codenamed "Fat Man" - on the city of Nagasaki, killing an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 people. The atomic bomb was originally developed to deter Nazi Germany, which was known to be pursuing its own nuclear device. But the focus ultimately turned to Japan.
Peter Kuznick is a professor of history at American University, where he founded the Nuclear Studies Institute. He has authored and co-authored numerous books, including The Untold History of the United States, Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japanese and American Perspectives, and Nuclear Power and Hiroshima: The Truth Behind the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Power. He explains that the "notion of American exceptionalism" is keeping an "immoral" myth alive, namely that the use of atomic weapons was necessary and justified.
Sputnik: According to Professor of Military History Saul David, the Battle of Okinawa – the bloodiest the US fought in the Pacific during the Second World War – is what ultimately informed the decision of US President Harry Truman to use the atomic bomb, to save up to one million American lives which could have been lost in a full ground invasion, and to save Japanese lives as well. How do you respond to that?
Professor Peter Kuznick: I respond that that's a crock of sh*t. That is disgraceful that people in 2020, with all the evidence that we have, can still be mouthing those inane platitudes and that justification. That is not only ignorant, it's fundamentally immoral. But we hear it all the time. I'm shocked that an intelligent and informed professor would repeat that today. I could give you example, after example, of people who mouthed that ignorant mythology. The reality, if anybody takes their time to look at the documents, is very, very different.
Sputnik: What was the reality?
Professor Peter Kuznick: We knew that there were two ways to get the Japanese to surrender without using the bomb. The first was to change the surrender terms to let them know that they could keep the emperor. The emperor to them was a deity.
As [General Douglas] MacArthur's Southwest Pacific command said in the summer of 1945, the execution of the emperor to them:
"would be comparable to the crucifixion of Christ to us. All would fight to die like ants”.
Almost all of Truman's advisers urged him to change his surrender terms. Let the Japanese know that they could keep the emperor. The one person who resisted that was the one person that Truman relied on. And that was Secretary of State James Byrnes. And Byrnes said, "you'll be politically crucified if you let them keep the emperor". Nonsense. There were no repercussions after the war when we did let them keep the emperor.
Early in the war we'd broken the Japanese codes. We were intercepting their cables in mid-May. The [Japanese] Supreme War Council decided to approach the Soviet Union to help Japan get better surrender terms. It was a foolhardy move on the Japanese part, but they didn't know that the Soviets were committed to coming into the Pacific war. And so, we have the cables from Foreign Minister [Shigenori] Tōgō in Tokyo to Ambassador [Naotake] Satō in Moscow. They go back and forth and they say over and over again, "The only obstacle to peace is the demand for unconditional surrender". They said that if the US will recognise the emperor and Japan’s honour, the war could be over tomorrow. This was the main demand that the Japanese were making. Some members of the war cabinet made three other demands. But most of the Japanese leaders, the one common denominator they had was keeping the emperor.
Truman himself refers to the intercepted July 12th cable on July 18th, as “the telegram from the Jap emperor, asking for peace”, those were Truman's words. Aboard the USS Augusta back from Potsdam to the US Walter Brown, who was the assistant to James Byrnes, writes:
“the President, [Admiral] Leahy and Byrnes agree Japs looking for peace”.
All of Truman's advisers knew this and they all pressed them to change the surrender terms, but he refused to do so. Secretary of War Stimson was leading that effort. And at [the conference in] Potsdam, [Germany] he spoke to Truman, and Byrnes repeatedly rejected it. Truman got so frustrated with him and said unto his frail 78-year-old secretary of war "if you don't like it, why don't you pack your bags and go home?" They brought a version of the Potsdam proclamation that put in the change to the surrender terms, but Truman and Byrnes rejected it.
So that's number one, the second way to get the Japanese to surrender without atomic bombs was to wait for the Soviet invasion to begin. From the day after [the bombing of] Pearl Harbour, the US had been urging the Soviets to enter the Pacific war. But the Soviets had a war to fight on their own against the Germans.
And so, they resisted the demands to enter the Pacific war. But at the Yalta meeting in February ‘45, Stalin agrees to come into the Pacific war three months after the end of the war in Europe, which would place it around August 8th or August 9th. American intelligence and British intelligence have been saying for months that once the Soviets come in, the war is over. The Joint Intelligence Committee report on April 11th to the Joint Chiefs of Staff says, “If at any time the USSR should enter the war, all Japanese will realise that absolute defeat is inevitable”.
The Japanese Supreme War Council issued a statement on May 16th that said:
"At the present moment, when Japan is waging a life-or-death struggle against the US and Britain, Soviet entry into the war will deal a death blow to the Empire".
Sputnik: So why did the US use the atomic bomb against Japan?
Professor Peter Kuznick: It was not only dropped on the Japanese, it was dropped on the Soviets. The Cold War had already begun. Truman met with [Vyacheslav] Molotov 10 days after taking office on April 23rd. Immediately, in 10 days, overturned [former US President Franklin] Roosevelt's friendly policy toward the Soviets. Roosevelt's final telegram he sent before he died to Churchill said that these issues between us and the Soviets pop up every day and they work out, they get resolved. We shouldn't blow them up and make a bigger deal of them than they are. Roosevelt knew that we would have friendly relations after the war if he was president, but he died on April 12th. Truman did not have that understanding or that belief or that commitment. And so on the April 23rd meeting, he accuses the Russians of having broken all of the Yalta agreements
Sputnik: And did they?
Professor Peter Kuznick: No, of course not. Truman didn’t know what he was talking about. He had been getting false information from Byrnes. Byrnes was hostile [to the Soviets]… Stalin cables the next day and lays out what the agreements were and Truman was wrong. And as Joseph Davies, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, points out to Truman - in two crucial meetings - that the US position was wrong, which others tried to also convince Truman. And Truman vacillates for a period of time. But in Truman's mind, the enemy was the Soviets. It's not just Truman's mind. That's also the same attitude that General [Leslie] Groves had. General Groves was the head of the Manhattan Project.
Sputnik: What was the position of the senior leadership in the US military on the dropping of the bomb?
Professor Peter Kuznick: The American military leaders knew the bomb was unnecessary. The US had eight five-star admirals and generals in 1945. Seven of the eight are on record saying that the atomic bombings where either militarily unnecessary, morally reprehensible, or both.
Admiral William D. Leahy, who was Truman’s personal chief of staff who chaired the meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later commented:
“The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. … In being the first to use it we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages”.
[Admiral Leahy] later told Truman's biographer:
“Truman told me it was agreed they would use it only to hit military objectives. Of course, then they went ahead and killed as many women and children as they could, which was just what they wanted all the time”.
Leahy said, "I could see no excuse from a national security point of view for an invasion of an already thoroughly defeated Japan". That was Admiral Leahy.
The reality was that the bombs did not end the war. So, when [US President Barack] Obama says at Hiroshima, “World War II reached its brutal end at Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, he's repeating the same fundamental lie that stood at the heart of the American defence of the atomic bombings.
Sputnik: The US had already been bombing Japan extensively before they dropped the atomic weapons.
Professor Peter Kuznick: The US had firebombed more than 100 Japanese cities. Destruction reached as high as 99.5 percent of the city of Toyama. Japanese leaders accepted that the US could wipe out their cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two more cities that had to be sacrificed. What changed the equation for them was the Soviet invasion that started at midnight on August 8th.
The Soviets blew through the mighty Kwantung Army in Manchuria. Immediately the Japanese held meetings the morning of August 9th and what they focused on entirely was the Soviet invasion. There was very little discussion of the atomic bombs.
The national museum of the US Navy had a display of the atomic bombs that for years - now they've changed the wording - but for years, this is what it said:
“The vast destruction reached by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made little impact on the Japanese military. However, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria changed their minds”.
We have this from all kinds of sources.
Sputnik: So it sounds like the decision to drop the bomb coincided with the Soviet invasion.
Professor Peter Kuznick: August 6th we drop the first bomb, August 8th at midnight the Soviets invade, August 9th, before the Japanese had a chance to respond, we dropped the second bomb. While that is going on, there is a meeting of the [Japanese] Supreme War Council in which Army Minister [Korechika] Anami comes in and says, "I have intelligence that says that the United States has 100 more atomic bombs and that Tokyo is the next target". And even that doesn't change anybody's opinion or anybody's mind. What changed their mind was the Soviet invasion.
But we don't want to give credit to the Soviets anymore.
Sputnik: Any more than we want to give them credit for defeating the Nazis in Europe?
Professor Peter Kuznick: Right. [Very few Europeans and Americans] think the Soviets deserve the lion's share of credit for defeating Germany in World War II. Even though for most of the war, the Soviets confronted 200 German divisions while the US and the British were confronting 10 between us. Even though the Soviets lost 27 million people. And even though Churchill says the Red Army “tore the guts out of the German war machine”. And we know that the Soviets did most of the fighting, most of the dying. The mythology, the lies, are still pervasive around so much of World War II.
So this is why when that professor [Saul David] says that – I mean yes, [the Battle of] Okinawa was devastating and the losses were terrible at Okinawa – but that's not why the United States dropped the atomic bomb. We dropped the atomic bombs because we wanted to drop the atomic bombs. Because we wanted to send a message to the Soviet leaders. And they got that message. That is exactly how the Soviet leaders interpreted the atomic bomb, as if they were the real target, not the Japanese, because they knew better than anybody that this was totally unnecessary from a military standard point of view in order to defeat Japan.
Sputnik: Why do you suppose the myth persists? Given the fact that it was so long ago, and there is so much historical record that you've described, including the top military brass coming out against it.
Professor Peter Kuznick: The myth persists because it's at the heart of the notion of American exceptionalism, the heart of the idea that the United States is a just, benevolent nation that has the best interest of humanity at heart. And if it ever does bad things, it's out of noble motives. I mean this whole idea is at the core of who Americans believe we are and believe that World War II is the good war. And that anything that chips away at that edifice somehow undermines the entire belief structure about World War II. If there is such a thing as a good war, World War II qualifies more than any other war I can think of. For the United States, maybe the war against slavery is up there also, and the war against the Brits for freedom, for colonial liberation.
Sputnik: To what extent is this relevant today?
Professor Peter Kuznick: The problem now is that we still depend on nuclear weapons. And they're just as insane now as they were back in 1945. Especially in the hands of Donald Trump, who tears up the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, in 2018; tears up the INF Treaty (the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty) in 2019; tears up the Open Skies Treaty; says he wants to do away with the New START Treaty. He says he doesn't like it. That's the last piece of arms control architecture that's left, the New START Treaty that expires in February 2021. And if that doesn't get renewed, we're going to be backing into a Cold War-style nuclear arms race. That’s insanity. Especially at a time when we know what nuclear winter means.
We've got 14,000 nuclear weapons, almost all of which are between seven and 80 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. So the estimate is that could lead to up to two billion deaths [due to the resulting nuclear winter]. I mean that, so I'm just saying that as a species, if even a fraction of those weapons were used, we'd be toast.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity