Today is the anniversary of one of the blackest days in American, and world history: on August 6, 1945, President Harry Truman’s order to drop the newly-built Atomic Bomb on Japan was carried out. The city of Hiroshima was leveled, along with tens of thousands of human beings vaporized immediately, and more tens of thousands in the weeks, months and years to come. What’s important to note about this—and the story is told in chilling detail in The Untold History of the United States, by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick (2012)—is not simply the overwhelming devastation of a Japanese city, nor the radiation of thousands of human beings, nor the countless deformed births that resulted, but the pre- and post-history of that traumatic event. Because dropping that bomb and the one three days later that similarly destroyed Nagasaki, were completely unnecessary. The Japanese were already an utterly defeated nation. But the United States and its novice president, Harry S. Truman, were determined to force “unconditional surrender” from the Japanese—knowing, in fact, that the Japanese could not agree to such terms because it would mean deposing their god-like Emperor. The U.S. military knew this too, and several of its leaders—Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, and most generals—urged President Truman to change the surrender terms so Japan could agree to them. Also militating against using the A-bomb was the relentless firebombing of major Japanese cities starting on March 9 & 10, 1945 under the direction of General Curtis “Iron Ass” LeMay. On those dates, LeMay sent
“334 planes to attack Tokyo with incendiary bombs consisting of napalm, thermite, white phosphorus, and other inflammables. The bombs destroyed 16 square miles, killing perhaps 100,000 people and injuring close to a million…caused canals to boil, metal to melt, and people to burst into flames spontaneously. The victims, LeMay reported, were “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” (p. 157)
Nor was this all. The firebombing of Japan’s essentially ‘paper cities’ spread rapidly to over 100 sites, to the extent that in August there were no major cities left for the A-Bombs to hit. That’s why the obscure cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (originally Kokura was selected, but poor visibility there led to a switch to Nagasaki) were chosen.
In any event, President Truman, influenced by his hawkish secretary of state, James Byrnes, ignored his military, ignored the letter from 150 scientists at Oak Ridge where the bomb had been developed pleading with him not to drop it, and ordered the now infamous bombs to be delivered. Stone and Kuznick point out another key precursor to Truman’s decision. The once obscure and diffident haberdasher was at the Potsdam Conference in July when he received word of the successful testing of a usable nuclear weapon. Truman immediately saw the super weapon as a way to get the Japanese to unconditionally surrender without the Soviet Union’s help, and without their sharing in the spoils. More important, he said “it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence.” Stone and Kuznick quote Winston Churchill, also at the conference, about this: “When he [Truman] got to the meeting after having read this report he was a changed man. He told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.” Assistant War Secretary John McCloy added that Churchill was as “stiffened” by the awesome new power as the President: “After getting Groves’ report, they went to the next meeting like little boys with a big red apple secreted on their persons” (p. 163. Emphasis added).
“Little boys with a big red apple.” If this seems to be stretching a metaphor, consider how President Truman, aboard the USS Augusta returning from Potsdam, reacted when he learned of the vaporizing of Hiroshima: “he jumped up and exclaimed, ‘This is the greatest thing in history’” (p. 171). Stone and Kuznick add that shortly thereafter Truman asserted that “announcing the news of Hiroshima was the ‘happiest’ announcement he had ever made.” This is really a key to much that would come later, for the possession of first atomic, then hydrogen bombs, weapons of mass destruction used against human beings only twice in history—by the United States of America—became an instrument of coercion in the hands of “little boys.” It became essentially—and the Soviet Union saw this right away, saw that they, even more than the Japanese, were the target of the bomb—a weapon for atomic blackmail. For the United States was signaling that this new devastating weapon could, and would be used against anyone, especially the Soviets, who threatened U.S. interests. As to its usefulness against Japan—forcing their immediate surrender to save American lives—Japanese leaders, according to Stone and Kuznick, attributed greater impact to the invasion by the Soviet Union on August 9, for it dashed their hopes that the Soviets would somehow save them from utter destruction. This is because, according to General Torashiro Kawabe, it took time for the Japanese to realize how horrible the destruction of Hiroshima had been, whereas the shock of the Soviet invasion hit immediately. As to the Japanese Emperor, the United States actually allowed him to remain as a hope for some postwar stability—so Truman’s insistence on unconditional surrender, and the alleged need for the Bomb to compel it, had been rendered moot.
Harry Truman wasted no time using ‘atomic blackmail’ against the Soviet Union. When the Soviets refused to leave Iran in 1946, Truman made it plain that if they didn’t withdraw, he would have no compunction about using atomic weapons. The Soviets withdrew. Then, in response to a plan for an international Atomic Development Authority, meant to prevent any nation from using atomic weapons or power against others (the plan was developed by Dean Acheson, David Lilienthal, and Robert Oppenheimer), Truman, through Bernard Baruch, insisted on loading the original plan with inspections so intrusive that the Soviets would have no choice but to reject them; which they did. Truman immediately ordered more atomic tests, this time at Bikini atoll in the Pacific. Harold Ickes, longtime Secretary of the Interior under Roosevelt, called it “diplomacy by intimidation.” By 1948, with the mad bomber Curtis LeMay now in charge of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the United States was embarked on a course designed to fight the Soviet Union within seconds. Saying “We are at war now!” LeMay planned to deliver the entire U.S. stockpile of atomic weapons at once, overwhelming the Russians with 133 bombs on 70 cities, killing 2.7 million people. Partly because war by atomic weapon was cheaper than war with millions of conventional forces, Truman went along.
It wasn’t long before General Douglas MacArthur, in December of 1950, was requesting the authority to use atomic bombs against the North Koreans and their allies, the Chinese. He figured he could use four bombs on invading forces and four more for “critical concentrations of enemy air power.” He also figured that dropping a mere 30 to 50 A-bombs “across the neck of Manchuria” would create a “belt of radioactive cobalt” that would win the war in 10 days. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas (later a Vice Presidential candidate) advised President Truman to warn North Korea to pull their troops back from the 38th parallel in one week or risk being A-bombed. Though President Truman fired MacArthur, his replacement, General Matthew Ridgeway also asked for 38 atomic bombs in 1951 for use in the Korean War. The truce ended that threat, but the pattern was plain. Atomic blackmail had come of age. When Dwight Eisenhower became president, he talked ‘atoms for peace’ but made it plain that massive nuclear retaliation in the event of any perceived threat had become the foundation of U.S. “defense.” From about 1,000 nukes when Ike became president in 1952, the U.S. arsenal grew to over 22,000 nuclear bombs, including the far more lethal H-bomb, when he left office eight years later. Indeed, in response to a proposal by Russian premier Nikita Krushchev, after launching Sputnik into space, to establish a peaceful space competition as a way of ending the Cold War (“Our satellites are…waiting for the American and other satellites to join them and to form a commonwealth of satellites…[it] would be much better than competition in the race to manufacture lethal weapons..”), President Eisenhower said:
“Our nation has…enough power in its strategic retaliatory forces to bring near annihilation to the war-making capabilities of any other country…In numbers, our stock of nuclear weapons is so large and so rapidly growing that…we are well ahead of the Soviets…both in quantity and quality. We intend to stay ahead.” (p. 277)
This brings us back to the “big toys for little boys” metaphor. Stone and Kuznick point to a conversation between a Rand Corp. analyst named Loftus, and General James Walsh, then head of SAC intelligence. Loftus was questioning the Strategic Air Command’s Emergency War Plan that targeted Russian cities and their human populations, 2500 targets in all. In reply Walsh said this:
“Goddamit, Loftus, there’s only one way to attack the Russians, and that’s to hit them hard with everything we have and”—he shouted, pounding his fist on the enormous Bible on the table—“knock their balls off!” (p. 257, emphasis added.)
This was apparently conventional thinking at SAC. During the Kennedy administration, SAC’s commander was Thomas Power. Another RAND thinker named William Kauffman was briefing Power about the need to avoid targeting civilians. Power’s response:
“Why do you want us to restrain ourselves? Restraint! Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards!” He added: “Look. At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!” (p. 303).
Sadly, it was not just the generals who thought about nuclear weapons in terms of male genitalia. President John Kennedy also felt he had to persuade the Soviets and their Premier, Krushchev, of his manhood. Fortunately, during the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, his head prevailed, at least in public, over his gonads. In spite of the insistence of his generals, including the madman LeMay, that the United States “ought to just go in there today and knock ‘em off!”, JFK managed to forge a deal with Krushchev: Russia would remove its missiles from Cuba, and the U.S. would remove its corresponding missiles targeting Russia from Turkey. Krushchev agreed and did remove the Russian missiles, but the United States never completed its end of the bargain. No matter. The unthinkable—mass nuclear annihilation from ICBMs hitting both Russian and American cities—had been avoided, barely. But what did the peace-making John Fitzgerald Kennedy say in private about the outcome? He said that he had “cut [Krushchev’s] balls off.”
There is more about this in the words and thoughts of future U.S. presidents, and no doubt more still in the unknown counsels of the leaders of other countries. Regardless of the numbers, the point is the same: we are in the hands of so-called leaders who often find themselves in dire crises that could result in the useless deaths of millions of human beings, but whose amygdala-driven thinking often reverts to primal, boyish responses appropriate to their school playgrounds. Only that these overgrown boys now command very big toys indeed. And we, the vulnerable masses of humans hoping that adult wisdom will prevail, are in the position comparable to the one that occurs to the blinded Gloucester in King Lear:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods
They kill us for their sport.