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Shattering the Myth of the Bomb : Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn't have to happen : THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB, By Guy Alperovitz (Alfred A. Knopf: $32.50; 847 pp.) : HIROSHIMA IN AMERICA, by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell (Grosset/Putnam: $27.50; 425 pp.)

August 06, 1995|Jonathan Kwitny | Jonathan Kwitny's latest book is "Acceptable Risks" (Simon & Schuster)

Twice in history, Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, cities were hit with bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The United States dropped both bombs. We did it, we have been told, to save lives by bringing an unyielding Japan to its knees and ending World War II abruptly.

But what if Gen. Eisenhower, Gen. MacArthur, Adm. Leahy, Gen. Bradley, and Adm. Nimitz--the top American brass in World War II--had all believed Japan would surrender in mid-1945 without our dropping atom bombs, and without an American invasion of Japan?

What if Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, a Cold War hawk, agreed, and so did hawkish press tycoons Henry Luce and David Lawrence, and even Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay (of "Bombs Away With Curtis LeMay" fame when he ran for vice president on the George Wallace ticket)?

What if a commission to study the bombings appointed by President Harry S. Truman and directed by cold warrior Paul Nitze also thought the bombing unnecessary to obtain Japanese surrender?

What if even President Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson in the weeks before the bomb was dropped had embraced in writing every significant argument against the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, and ordered that the bomb not be dropped on civilian populations? What if Gen. Marshall, the future secretary of state, and Robert Oppenheimer, who invented the bomb, had said it needn't be dropped on civilian populations?

What if Truman-friendly historian Herbert Feis, who was given exclusive welcome to the diaries, records and people, concluded that "There can hardly be a well-grounded dissent from the conclusion . . . Japan would have surrendered if the atomic bombs had not been dropped . . . and even if no invasion had been planned?"

If all of the above were true--and these books make a persuasive case that it is--you might think it's worth considering whether dropping the bomb may have been a mistake. You might want to ponder whether indiscriminately killing and maiming so many Japanese civilians dishonored rather than honored the brave American servicemen who truly won the war in combat.

But until now, we haven't been allowed such luxury. A few months ago, the mere suggestion that these blue-ribbon experts said what they did--never mind whether it was correct--caused such an uproar that the budget of the Smithsonian Institution was threatened unless it purged an exhibit there and presented the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as indisputably necessary.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima (Nagasaki followed three days later), at least two important books are being published re-examining our record. Very different in their approaches and texture, they are nevertheless complementary and share several conclusions: that the bomb was not dropped for the reasons the U.S. government stated, that history has been whitewashed and that the bombings were so momentous, the ramifications of our misunderstanding are more profound than we imagine.

"Hiroshima in America" by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell should be assigned in history classes and read remedially by everyone in the journalism business--not just for what it says about the bombings, but for what it says about government and the nature of reality. Lifton is a psychiatrist, formerly with the Air Force in Korea and the Yale medical faculty. Mitchell's previous book, "The Campaign of the Century," was highly praised and he is presumably the reason "Hiroshima in America" reads so beautifully and effortlessly. Both wrote for "Nuclear Times," a journal Mitchell edited.

If a great book is one that stirs independent thought and can change minds, "Hiroshima in America" qualifies. I wrote a research paper for my masters degree in history on the decision to drop the bomb; I landed where best-selling Truman biographer David McCullough did, squarely on the President's side--it was where all the source material had been carefully arranged to lead anyone.

Based on reading and reporting since then, and a PBS documentary I did on nuclear threats after Hiroshima, by the time I opened the Lifton/Mitchell book I had decided that Truman's decision had been very bad in retrospect--but that given the psychological mood in 1945, given what the American people and leadership had been through since Pearl Harbor, and given the minuscule understanding of nuclear science back then, the decision was blameless. It was the bad decision any good person would make in the circumstances.

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