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December 8, 2005

Was A-bomb key in ending WWII? Goldstein says yes

Yesterday, Dec. 7, was the 64th anniversary of the “day which will live in infamy” as the starting point of the United States involvement in World War II.

Last August, the country marked the 60th anniversary of the war’s end on Aug. 14, 1945. The unconditional surrender of the Japanese government followed within 10 days after the atom bombs were unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which most historians have accepted as the war’s last straw.

New evidence, however, gleaned from de-classified Soviet documents, has led some historians to re-evaluate the U.S. decision to drop the bombs.

For example, in his recent book, “Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan,” Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a history professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, suggests that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the impending threat of occupation of the Japanese mainland were more significant than the atomic bombs in ending the war.

But Pitt’s resident expert on World War II, Donald M. Goldstein, a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, disagrees strongly.

While Goldstein concedes that evidence that Stalin was planning an invasion of the Japanese mainland confirms what was long suspected, he believes that the dropping of atomic bombs was the primary reason for ending the war. He added that without the bombs, more people would have died — both Japanese and Americans — and that the outcome of the war, from which Japan has emerged as a world economic power, would have been altered severely due to the extension of Russia’s sphere of influence.

According to Goldstein, the Japanese were negotiating with the Russians in the spring of 1945 for an end to the war, but Japan had three terms of surrender on the table that were rejected by Russia: To keep the emperor in power; to keep all of their colonies, and to try their military leaders themselves.

“The word came back, there was no deal,” said Goldstein, author of 25 books, who holds joint appointments with Asian studies and Eastern European studies programs in the University Center for International Studies, as well as membership at the Matthew B. Ridgway Center.

Meanwhile, Goldstein said, President Harry Truman belatedly had come to the realization that despite their common enemies of Germany and Japan, Russia was not a U.S. ally.

“We really miscalculated about the Russians. We didn’t understand, although Churchill did, that the Russians were fighting the war with Hitler for territory in Europe,” he said. “When Truman, who was kept out of the loop as vice president by [Franklin] Roosevelt, becomes president he’s getting all these reports: There’s a puppet in Germany, there’s a puppet in Hungary, in Rumania, in Bulgaria. To use an old quote: ‘The Russians were behaving badly.’ Truman realized therefore we had to win the Pacific war without Russia” at least in part to preserve America’s longer-term interests.

Based on more than 100 interviews with Japanese experts familiar with Japan’s position in 1945, Goldstein maintains that:

• Japan had more than 10,000 kamikazes, who were responsible for the deaths of 34,000 Americans by war’s end and who, as pledged suicide bombers, were willing to fight to the death. “To die for the emperor is the greatest thing one can do. These people were ready to die and we knew this,” Goldstein said.

• There was a faction of the Japanese military that didn’t want to surrender under any circumstances and even was plotting to arrest the emperor to keep Japan from surrendering.

• If the shoe were on the other foot, Japan would have used an atomic bomb against the United States. “They were working on it. We’re not sure how close they were to developing it but if they had it, they would definitely have used it,” Goldstein said.

That last factor is not a justification for Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, Goldstein quickly emphasized.

“Let me make something clear: The bomb was bad,” he said. “By any moralistic concept the bomb is a bad thing. We used this bomb, a lot of people died, and you can never escape that.

“However,” he continued, “if you’re sitting on a beach in Okinawa — and I’ve talked to literally hundreds of veterans — not one, not one has ever regretted us dropping either bomb. That’s important because in their eyes they were fighting an enemy and there was no quarter given and they remembered Guadalcanal and Pearl Harbor. Based on history up to that point, based on what we knew from Okinawa and other battles, we believed that the Japanese would fight to the very last man.”

The U.S. also believed that an invasion and occupation of a Japan that refused surrender would have required up to a million soldiers, Goldstein said, although estimates varied widely and there is no certain knowledge on the subject.

By mid-1945, U.S. air strikes had crippled the Japanese mainland, already having killed many more people — in the hundreds of thousands — than the two atomic bombs combined eventually killed, Goldstein pointed out.

“If you want to talk about morality, talk about the firebombs that were not targeting military targets but killing innocent people and leveling villages and the countryside, like a forest fire in California,” he said. “This was not the Japan of 2005 with big cities; this was an agrarian society that the bombing raids just devastated, way more than the [atomic] bomb. General [Curtis] LeMay himself said it’s a good thing we won the war or he would have been tried for war crimes.”

In hindsight, the United States could and would have won the war, probably in a matter of weeks or months, even without dropping the bombs, Goldstein conceded.

“We were going to win this war no matter what, because the Lord’s on the side of those with the most battalions,” Goldstein said. “But if the war goes another two or three months, the Russians would have had a say in how Japan turned out. Based on what they did in Europe, the Russians would have occupied Hokkaido Island in northern Japan, probably would have been in on the peace treaty, and there probably would have been a North Tokyo and a South Tokyo, and maybe even a North Japan and South Japan, like Korea.”

Goldstein insists that dropping the atomic bombs actually saved lives in the long run. “I cannot argue that the bomb was good, and I can agree with those who argue against the bomb that we could and would have won without dropping the bomb. However, I can argue that the bomb ended this war, and that was a good thing,” he said.

Was the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days after dropping the bomb Aug. 6 on Hiroshima necessary?

Goldstein says it was. “After the first bomb, the Japanese people were waving white flags at the planes, but that was the people, not the government,” he said. “The Japanese were shocked with the first bomb, but they thought it was a one-shot deal. The second bomb convinced them that this was all over.”

Goldstein said that due to suppression of the truth in their history texts, the Japanese people are ignorant of the role their government played. “The Japanese don’t talk about World War II,” he said. “There’s nothing about Pearl Harbor in the textbooks. For the average Japanese citizen, the war begins with Hiroshima. How people interpret the war is their own business, but at least they ought to learn about it. It’s up to me and others to tell the story. People might not agree with me, but it’s up to people to at least look at the other side.”

Goldstein has told many Japanese acquaintances that they are lucky that America ended the war when it did. “I tell them, ‘You might not be here now if we hadn’t dropped the bomb and if you were here you might be living under someone like Kim Jong Il.’ Definitely the Russians would have been there — once the Russians occupy a country, they never leave,” he said.

From an American perspective the outcome of the war was positive in that it resulted in a Japan that’s the second greatest economic power in the world, as opposed to a divided country. “The bomb made the war shorter — by how much, is speculation. Five days, 10 days, two hundred days, who knows? I do know that fewer people died as a result of the bomb,” Goldstein said.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 8

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