Justifying Hiroshima: Ken Burns, “Saving Lives,” and Atomic Crimes

This (below) was on the ZNet top page last week and got a fairly wide readership; thought I’d put it up here and let folks have at it if they wish. If I have time and there’s any interest, I can post (anonymously) some of the outraged responses I got for daring to question the morality (and necessity) of the decision to incinerate tens of thousands of Japanese children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It’s really quite remarkable to see the lengths to which some "patriots" will go to justify horrific atrocities carried out by their Inherently Good Nation State.  And of course, it’s all about supposedly "supporting the troops."  I really recommend that people who have the time take a look at the remarkable Gar Alperovitz study cited in this essay (it’s a long read but well worth the effort): The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (New York: Vintage, 1995).


It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing… 

 - President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the U.S. atom-bombing of Japan, 1963(1)   

Call me crazy but I think it’s possible to honor the experience of ordinary Americans and soldiers during World War Two (WWII) without crassly justifying the greatest single-moment war crimes of the 20th century.  Apparently the noted Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary filmmaker Ken Burns does not agree.   

Burns’ ambitious and much ballyhooed new PBS series on WWII’s impact on U.S. life is loaded with amazing, terrifying, informative, and heart-wrenching facts and stories on how U.S. soldiers and citizens struggled, fought, died, and grieved at home and abroad.  Titled simply “THE WAR,” it aptly captures the sheer horror of the epic conflict, in which more than 400,000 Americans died.  It is especially good on the experience of black soldiers and the war’s impact on U.S. race relations (as one would expect given Burns’ excellent treatment of race issues during his previous and highly praised documentary on the Civil War).  Burns and his colleagues also deserve credit for giving sophisticated attention to the war’s effect on U.S. gender relations and for honestly portraying the profound injustice inflicted on Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government during WWII. 

But none of this excuses the nauseating ease with which “THE WAR” slips into support for the dominant U.S. rationalization of the vicious and unnecessary atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documentary builds up to these grave transgressions by relating the bloody nature of the final U.S. ground assaults on the Japanese empire. It tells the familiar story of how Japanese soldiers and civilians were supposedly ready to fight to the last drop of blood. 

It quotes an elderly woman from Mobile, Alabama, who says that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a great thing because it saved the lives of U.S. troops.  According to this informant, nobody will ever be able to convince her generation that the radioactive bombing of men, women, and children in two Japanese cities wasn’t a magnificent occurrence because…of the lives preserved.  

“THE WAR” also quotes a WWII veteran from Waterbury, Connecticut, who thinks that the nuclear annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians was a price worth paying to spare perhaps half a million U.S. troops.  

The documentary suggests that the heinous bombing of Nagasaki was necessary since no formal Japanese surrender came after Hiroshima just days before.    

Burns and PBS have played along with the reigning justification of astonishing imperial crimes. Ordinary Americans may have understandably seen – and still see – the atom bombs as having saved American and even Japanese lives.  But Gar Aplerovitz, the leading historian of “the decision to use the atom bomb,” has shown that President Harry Truman and his advisors knew very well that a defeated Japan (including its Emperor) had lost its willingness to keep fighting before the atom bombs fell. As Alperovitz and others have demonstrated, the United States could have secured a formal Japanese surrender earlier in the spring or summer of 1945 by modifying U.S surrender terms requiring the abolition of the position of the Japanese Emperor.  

Even without such modification, the White House and U.S. military command could simply have waited for the Soviet Union to declare war on Japan – an event that would certainly have precipitated surrender (the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki after the Russians made their declaration).  

Alperovitz and others show that U.S. decision-makers saw the atom bomb as a way to end the war before the Soviet Union could enter the war against Japan and as a way to bolster early U.S. Cold War “diplomacy.”  

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population,” according to the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.  The nuclear assaults on civilians in those two cities were not about “saving lives.”  They were about demonstrating and enhancing U.S. power in the post-WWII New World Order, wherein the triumphant U.S. (comparatively undamaged by a global catastrophe that took the lives of 50 to 60 million people, including 25 million Soviets) was determined to dictate the rules of international behavior and to put all potential deterrents to American world dominance(primarily the Soviet Union) in subordinate place.  

U.S. imperial policymakers and their many intellectual servants rewrote this despicable history to falsely legitimize their mass-murderous action, placing special emphasis on their alleged desire to “save lives.” The justification has sunk into the intellectual culture of generations of journalists, history teacher, and politicians.  It has become entrenched in the dominant collective memory despite abundant and growing documentary evidence to the contrary.  

In a critical device of rationalization that resonates strongly with current justifications of the arch-criminal occupation of Iraq, defenders of the atom-bombings confuse criticism of elite transgression with “unpatriotic” denigration of American servicemen – with not “supporting the troops.” As Alperovitz notes, however, “the fact that policy-makers in Washington were advised there were alternatives to the atom bomb is no reflection on the troops, who knew nothing” about the information policy elites possessed or about the inner workings and calculations of the atomic deciders. “This,” Alperovitz observes, “was neither the first nor the last time that people on the ground were misinformed about what the higher ups knew” (Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb [New York: Vintage, 1995],p.628 in the conclusion, titled “The Complicity of Silence”).    

It’s sad but hardly surprising that Burns and PBS played along with the received Orwellian wisdom on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Burns may well personally know that conventional wisdom is false but he also knows something else: telling the truth on the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japanese children is no way to keep large-scale funding dollars coming from concentrated wealth centers that helped pay for his latest grand war documentary – General Motors, Anheuser-Bush, Bank of America, Lilly Endowment, Inc., The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Langaberger Foundation, and Park Foundation, Inc. 

Better to make no waves and produce an informative but ideologically tepid and safely “patriotic” social history, with the U.S. power elite’s imperial ambitions and crimes left out.   

That’s how the game is played – a game that makes U.S. intellectual and political culture as proximately totalitarian (in its own “American” way) as that of the United States’ defeated WWII and Cold War rivals.  


1. Eisenhower, quoted in “Ike on Ike,” Newsweek, November 11, 1963.

Leave a comment