• Obama and the Myth of Hiroshima

    May 31, 2016

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    Posted in: Military


    On May 27, Barack Obama  became the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the site of the world’s first atomic bombing. Though highly photogenic, the visit was otherwise one that avoided acknowledging the true history of the place.

    Like his official predecessors (Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial in early April, as did two American ambassadors before him), Obama did not address the key issues surrounding the attack. “He [Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, stated.

    With rare exception, the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end World War Two is debated only deep within the safety of academic circles: could a land invasion have been otherwise avoided? Would more diplomacy have achieved the same ends without the destruction of two cities? Could an atomic test on a deserted island have convinced the Japanese? Was the surrender instead driven primarily by the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific War, which, by historical accident, took place two days after Hiroshima—and the day before Nagasaki was immolated?

    But it is not only the history of the decision itself that is side stepped. Beyond the acts of destruction lies the myth of the atomic bombings, the post-war creation of a mass memory of things that did not happen.

    The short version of the atomic myth, the one kneaded into public consciousness, is that the bombs were not dropped out of revenge or malice, immoral acts, but of grudging military necessity. As a result of this, the attacks have not provoked or generated deep introspection and national reflection.

    The use of the term “myth” is appropriate. Harry Truman, in his 1945 announcement of the bomb, focused on vengeance, and on the new, extraordinary power the United States alone possessed. The military necessity argument was largely created later, in a 1947 article defending the use of the atomic bomb, written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson, though actually drafted by McGeorge Bundy (later an architect of the Vietnam War) and James Conant (a scientist who helped build the original bomb). Conant described the article’s purpose at the beginning of the Cold War as “You have to get the past straight before you do much to prepare people for the future.”

    The Stimson article was a response to journalist John Hersey’s account of the human suffering in Hiroshima, first published in 1946 in the New Yorker and later as a book. Due to wartime censorship, Americans knew little of the ground truth of atomic war, and Hersey’s piece was shocking enough to the public that it required that formal White House response. Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name. The Stimson article was quite literally the moment of creation of the Hiroshima myth.

    The national belief that no moral wrong was committed with the atomic bombs, and thus there was no need for reflection and introspection, echoes forward through today (the blithe way Nagasaki is treated as a historical after thought – “and Nagasaki, too” – only drives home the point.) It was 9/11, the new Pearl Harbor, that started a series of immoral acts allegedly servicing, albeit destructively and imperfectly, the moral imperative of saving lives by killing. America’s decisions on war, torture, rendition and indefinite detention are seen by most as the distasteful but necessary actions of fundamentally good people against fundamentally evil ones. Hiroshima set in motion a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right.

    And with that, the steps away from the violence of Hiroshima and the shock-and-awe horrors inside the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib are merely a matter of degree. The myth allows the world’s most powerful nation to go to war as a victim after the tragic beheadings of only a small number of civilians. Meanwhile, the drone deaths of children at a wedding party are seen as unfortunate but only collateral damage in service to the goal of defeating global terrorism itself. It is a grim calculus that parses acts of violence to conclude some are morally justified simply based on who held the knife.

    We may, in fact, think we are practically doing the people of Afghanistan a favor by killing some of them, as we believe we did for tens of thousands of Japanese that might have been lost in a land invasion of their home islands to otherwise end World War Two. There is little debate in the “war on terror” because debate is largely unnecessary; the myth of Hiroshima says an illusion of expediency wipes away any concerns over morality. And with that neatly tucked away in our conscience, all that is left is pondering where to strike next.

    Japan, too, is guilty of failing to look deep into itself over its own wartime atrocities. Yet compared to the stunning array of atrocities during and since World War Two, the world’s only use of nuclear weapons still holds a significant place in infamy. To try and force the Japanese government to surrender (and no one in 1945 knew if the plan would work) by making it watch mass casualties of innocents, and then to hold the nation hostage to future attacks with the promise of more bombs to come, speaks to a cruelty previously unseen.

    For President Obama to visit Hiroshima without reflecting on the why of that unfortunate loss of lives, acting as if they occurred via some natural disaster, is tragically consistent with the fact that for 71 years no American president felt it particularly important to visit the victimized city. America’s lack of introspection over one of the 20th century’s most significant events continues, with 21st century consequences.

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  • Recent Comments

    • rich bauer said...


      “Americans’ general sense of themselves as a decent people needed to be reconciled with what was done in their name.”

      “Vietnamese military and civilian deaths ranged from 1.5 million to 3.8 million, with the U.S.-led campaign in Cambodia resulting in 600,000 to 800,000 deaths, and Laotian war mortality estimated at about 1 million.”


      Hiroshima, hell, we were just getting started.

      05/31/16 9:17 AM | Comment Link

    • rich bauer said...


      FYI: Just got back from a tour of Spain, France and Italy. The feeling over there is Donald Trump is a lunatic and the United States has lost its fucking mind. I asked them what really has changed.

      05/31/16 9:25 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      I wonder how many American pilots “flying” a drone over distant lands have their mother’s name beautifully drawn on their trailer’s heavy door?
      Americans are quite impervious to unflattering self appraisals.

      05/31/16 9:31 AM | Comment Link

    • rich bauer said...



      Soon those drones will not be flying over distant lands.

      Get wiser: This drones for you.

      05/31/16 9:56 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      A recent novel challenege to empire? Taxi driver’s family sues USA over his death by drone while unwittingly driving a targeted militant leader. Why hasn’t this happened way before this time.

      05/31/16 10:11 AM | Comment Link

    • traven said...


      I was a 20 year old in the army air corps when the bombs were dropped. Unsophisticated and ignorant of the effects, short and long term , of the nuclear devices. And of course we were told nothing of the appalling civilian deaths. But let us also remember we did know of the 1000 plane raids over Dresden and the firebombing of Tokyo.

      Needless to say our lack of knowledge at the time made us feel good that the war might end and we could go home. Peter’s article is right on target in tying this and other acts to our acceptance as a nation of the immorality we see now in our foreign policy of war over diplomacy.

      05/31/16 10:52 AM | Comment Link

    • #Obama and the Myth of #Hiroshima https://wemeantwell.com/blog/2016/… | Dr. Roy Schestowitz (罗伊) said...


      […] and the Myth of #Hiroshima https://wemeantwell.com/blog/2016/05/31/obama-and-the-myth-of-hiroshima/ "whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end World War Two" […]

      05/31/16 5:35 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...


      rich bauer said…

      “FYI: Just got back from a tour of Spain, France and Italy. The feeling over there is Donald Trump is a lunatic and the United States has lost its fucking mind. I asked them what really has changed.”

      Thanks Rich. So. .. you took a poll? C’maan.. it’s one thing to make a general statement..but give me the facts. Who and what did you ask? I mean..if you are going to make blanket statements..back it up with data. Otherwise, you are no different than an American political talking head claiming things they can’t back up with facts. COMPRENDE?

      btw..I AM on your side here..but sometimes..we gotta get real.

      05/31/16 7:14 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...


      btw Rich.. damn.. must be nice to afford to travel around the planet gathering political opinions of the locals who you happen to query. Reminds me of this dude..


      05/31/16 7:19 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...


      ps.. Once I saw this.. all other “opinions”, polls, etc taken via personal observation just pales to the real questions at hand..


      05/31/16 7:25 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...


      damn.. I need to get shit faced drunk.

      05/31/16 7:25 PM | Comment Link

    • bloodypitchfork said...



      05/31/16 7:26 PM | Comment Link

    • Doug Giebel said...


      John Hersey’s seminal “Hiroshima” opened the eyes of many, but the official efforts at the time (and continuing today) to justify the bombings have convinced many that the United States can do no wrong and only acts from the most noble of intentions.
      Much of Obama’s visit was surrounded by the question, “Will he apologize?” The question was ridiculous. The answer was obvious. President Obama, who finds remote-control bombing and its collateral damage necessary, who will not absolutely rule out torture as a natural, national process, would never apologize for Hiroshima and the neglected Nagasaki. When, if ever, will any American president condemn the nation’s wartime actions? We will condemn the Japanese for sugar-coating Japan’s World War Two atrocities, but it is beyond possibility that human beings who relish power and subscribe to cruelty in the name of national safety and honor are ever likely to acknowledge wrongdoing. In that regard, many are enthralled by Donald Trump. The anger of ignorance permits millions to ignore lies, misstatements, abuse and rampant hypocrisy — hubris raised to a religious height. In addition to Hersey and other truth-tellers, one should read the insights of John Kenneth Galbraith. As for the contiued practice of officially-sanctioned abuse and cruelty called the Torture Game (usually referred to by some sweeter name), true believers in America’s starry-eyed innocence must study Eric Fair’s new book “Consequence.” However, those who accept cruelty as required activities are unlikely to be pursuaded that atomic bombing and vicious torture are unacceptable. In “Zero Degrees of Empathy, ” Simon Baron-Cohen describes cruelty as the absence of empathy. Almost daily in news reports we learn how prevalent that absence of empathy is both at home and across the globe. At one time, the paperback of “Hiroshima” was required reading in many schools and colleges. There might be a vicious reaction from many were the book to take center stage in the 21st century. Hersey’s masterwork deserves once again to be widely read and discussed. But as a famous stage and movie line would have it, we “can’t handle the truth.” Trump uber alles.
      Doug Giebel
      Big Sandy, Montana

      05/31/16 9:49 PM | Comment Link

    • gregj said...


      Richard Rhodes, in his book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” wrote that Japan was prepared to surrender and was negotiating with the U.S. about it well before the bombs were dropped.

      It’s just that they were not going to “unconditionally surrender,” which is what the U.S. wanted.

      The bombs were, if I read his book correctly, to force Japan to unconditional surrender — which they ultimately did do.

      06/4/16 10:59 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      The negotiations were ongoing all summer, starting when Okinawa fell. The US planned all along to retain the Emperor, and, if it would have “agreed” with the Japanese in July about something it was going to do anyway, the war would have ended right then. The so-called unconditional surrender was done under the same terms that a “conditional” surrender would have been. In addition, the Japanese were terrified of a Russian entry into the war, and would have begged for peace with the US as soon as that happened in early August. So either way there was no need for the atomic bombings, and no real likelihood of a US land invasion.

      06/5/16 8:37 AM | Comment Link

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