Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Hiroshima's Shadow: revenge of the revisionists

Click here to order this book from (though I think you should start with Japan's Longest Day)

Hiroshima's Shadow edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz. (Pamphleteer's Press, 1998). 584 pp., $39.95 ($27.97 at Amazon)

Pamphleteer's Press, indeed! Here is a delightfully nutty tome about U.S. culpability at Hiroshima. (Nagasaki was hit by a more powerful bomb--the Fat Man plutonium bomb that became the postwar standard for both the United States and Russia--but scarcely merits a mention in the literature.) The book has no subtitle, but the publishers thoughtfully provide one on the dustjacket: "Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy." The controversy in question is the ill-fated Enola Gay exhibit of 1995, which forced the resignation of the director of the National Air & Space Museum.

A reviewer for Booklist offered a better subtitle for the book: "The Revenge of the Revisionist Historians." It includes essays and documents from a score of sources, almost all of them calculated to put the U.S. and Harry Truman in a bad light for their decision to use the atomic bomb against Japanese cities. You'd be amazed whom the editors are able to enlist in their camp: General Dwight Eisenhower, for example, who did indeed have reservations about the bombing but who somehow managed to serve eight years as commander-in-chief of the U.S. nuclear forces whose bombs were mostly targeted on cities.

A more believable opponent is Admiral William Leahy. But you'd never know, from Leahy's comments or those of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, that there was such a thing as inter-service rivalry in the U.S. military. Of course Leahy didn't want the USAAF to end the war with strategic bombing--he believed in the efficacy of naval blockade. And of course the USSBS concluded that Japan was about to surrender as a result of conventional bombing--the survey's main purpose was to shore up the cause of the Air Force as an independent military branch.

Basically, the revisionist thesis goes like this: Japan in the summer of 1945 was desperately trying to surrender, asking only that the Emperor remain on the throne (a condition that ulimately was granted). However, Harry Truman under the sway of James Byrnes and the U.S. military targeted two Japanese cities for destruction in order to make Joseph Stalin listen to reason in postwar Europe. (Stalin, of course, knew about the bomb in July 1945, and had good reason to believe that he would soon be in possession of the technology that would enable Russia to clone it.) To cover up this cruel and cynical decision, the U.S. government then manufactured the myth that the bombs had been dropped in order to avert 500,000 or 1 million American deaths or casualties in a conventional invasion. Again, you'd be surprised at the folks who took part in this vast conspiracy, among them such famously right-wing publications as the Washington Post and Newsweek.

Amazingly, I find no mention of what I regard as the best source on what the Japanese were thinking in August 1945: Japan's Longest Day, published by the Pacific War Research Society. (Hiroshima's Shadow doesn't have a unified bibliography. Worse, it doesn't have an index. So I may be wrong about this.)

Is there good stuff in here? Sure: an excellent essay by Murray Sayle that first appeared in The New Yorker. Though revisionist in intent (the title is "Did the Bomb End the War?") it is sane and interesting. On the specific issue of the NASM exhibit, there's a devastating critique of the revisionists' perspective by Robert P. Newman, who perhaps not by accident is not profiled in the appendix. Titled "What New Consensus?" it first appeared in the Washington Post as a rebuttal to a similarly placed essay by Gar Alperovitz. It's to the credit of the editors, who obviously do not agree with Mr. Newman, that they permitted his lonely voice to be heard among an otherwise pretty much united chorus of anti-Truman, anti-American opinion.

What comes through more clearly than the intended points are the unintended ones:

  • These essays have a great deal more to do with the Cold War and the Vietnam War than with their ostensible subject. In their zeal to condemn America's nuclear policy after 1945, and its perceived aggression in Vietnam, the revisionist scholars must rewrite the history of World War II.

  • Since 1945, an unbreachable wall has been erected between the men who fight and those who write about fighting. We are assured, in condemnation of Truman's decision to use the atomic bombs rather than invade Japan, that American casualties in an invasion would be "only" 26,000 to 40,000. It needs a college professor who knows he'll never see combat to draw such such a conclusion. (The figures also seems to be used incorrectly; I think they're two estimates, one for the invasion of Kyushu and the other for Honshu, for a combined total of 66,000.) That's the death of every man in two, three, or four divisions.

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