NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Americans are bitterly divided over the meaning of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 50 years ago. The sequence of events is beyond dispute: the United States dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945); the Soviet Union declared war on Japan (Aug. 8); the United States dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki (Aug. 9); Japan offered to surrender on condition that the imperial throne be preserved (Aug. 10), and the surrender was accepted (Aug. 14).
More than 200,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, died in the atomic attack. But we do not agree on the military necessity, morality, motivation, timing and lasting consequences of President Harry S. Truman's decision to use the bombs. The ghastly images of August, 1945, are an historical Rorschach test. What each of us sees reveals much about our attitudes toward the fundamental character of the American nation and its leaders and the course of history since 1945.
The classical Rorschach test, invented by a Swiss psychiatrist a century ago, involves interpreting an individual's personality on the basis of what he or she sees in a series of randomly shaped ink blots. The Hiroshima Rorschach test, however, is more complicated. In the psychiatrist's office, the ink-blot images are confined to the dimensions of sheets of paper and do not change over time. But the perceived meanings of Hiroshima have no fixed boundaries in time or place.
For some observers, Hiroshima was the victorious finale of the war against Japan--that and nothing more. For others, it was part of the 20th-Century brutalization of war through technology and corrupted morality; or a deliberate--and militarily unnecessary--taking of life in order to demonstrate American power to the Soviet Union--with innocent Japanese civilians as the victims but the mind of Joseph Stalin as the target.
Americans fighting in or on their way to the Pacific in August, 1945, were close to unanimous in the meaning they gave to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs ended the war and saved them from the high probability of being killed or wounded. They could now return to civilian life and watch their children grow up.
These men are now mostly in their 70s. Their Hiroshima Rorschach has not changed. They do not take kindly to the notion that the bombs were not the cause of Japan's surrender or that the United States was morally guilty in the slightest degree for the Japanese atomic deaths.
Their perception was supported by the public statements of Truman and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Conventional wisdom through the 1950s held that the Japanese would have fought to the last grandmother against an invasion of the home islands. There would have been 1 million U.S. casualties.
Four interconnected things happened in the 1960s to produce a competing Rorschach meaning, a radical revisionist challenge to the original consensus. First, archival records began to open up and revealed there was more to the story than bombs dropped, war ended, lives saved. Second, the Vietnam War led some of a younger generation to distrust all official explanations of U.S. behavior--past as well as present. Third, many who opposed the Vietnam War placed primary responsibility for the Cold War, and the nuclear-arms race, on the United States; they believed the world might have been safer if the bombs had not been dropped. And fourth, racial turmoil in the United States led some Americans to ask difficult questions about racism in U.S. foreign policy.
The revisionists argued that Truman and his advisers knew full well that Japan was already defeated, that Soviet entry into the war (about to occur, as promised by Stalin in February, 1945) would be decisive, and therefore no invasion would be necessary. Furthermore, some scientists and high-military officers were opposed to using the bombs--certainly not without adequate warning.
The revisionists contended that the bombs saved no American lives, did not end the war and were really used to send an intimidating signal to the Soviet Union. At the same time, racial hatred of the Japanese, the wartime denial of their inherent humanity, inhibited potential qualms about such a murderous action.
The battle between the two perceived meanings escalated with the approach of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. The plans for an exhibit by the Smithsonian to be organized around the B-29 Enola Gay, the plane the Hiroshima bomb was dropped from, became the principal battlefield. Veterans' organizations, members of Congress and other staunch adherents to the first and simple meaning of the events of August, 1945, protested that the plans dishonored the American war by overlooking Japanese aggression ("Remember Pearl Harbor") and by suggesting there were morally problematic aspects to using the bomb.