LosingTheWar.doc

The ultimatum to the japanese surrender or face

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The ultimatum to the Japanese — surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction” by a wholly unprecedented form of weaponry — was issued by the Americans on July 26. The Japanese rejected the ultimatum on July 28. The two bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. They were dropped in close succession because the Americans were trying to bluff the Japanese into thinking there was an unlimited supply of atomic bombs (there wasn’t; the next bomb wouldn’t be ready for several months). The Japanese surrendered on August 10. In other words, the war was ended by a weapon few had known existed less than a month before, and nobody at all had known would work. The Americans hadn’t talked through the implications of what they were doing because there wasn’t time. They had used it as soon as they knew they had it, and they had no thought other than to force the Japanese to surrender and avoid millions more deaths. It was, in a sense, an act of mercy. But of all the words expended over Hiroshima in the last 50 years, that word “mercy” sounds the most obscene. Nobody who was in Hiroshima on August 6 ever thought of what happened then as merciful. One of the commonplaces of current discussion about the atomic bomb is that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wholly gratuitous. It’s taken for granted that the Americans knew the Japanese were about to surrender but rushed to use the bomb anyway. Why? The explanation offered by Gar Alperovitz’s recent, exhaustively prosecutorial study The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb is that the bombing had nothing to do with Japan; rather the Americans were already looking past the war to the new structure of power in the world and intended the bombing as the opening shot in the cold war with the Soviet Union. The writer of the catalog for the Smithsonian’s commemorative exhibit suggested that the reason was more ancient and primordial — it was a straight-line example of the basic white male lust for genocide; Hiroshima was bombed for the same reason the Indians were exterminated. Robert J. Lifton’s Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial is even more absolute in its assessment: the real reason was simply that Truman and his advisers were insane, evil men in love with death. The reasons don’t actually matter much when the point is the outrage. But while it might be thought that these books are simply part of the standard line in popular history these days, in which the motives of any American government are invariably put in the worst possible light, the truth is that from the beginning people thought there was something strange and singular about the bombing of Hiroshima. Partly this was a kind of optical illusion induced by the visibility of what happened there; the images of the radiation victims circulated throughout the world, while the grisly sights from more conventional battlefields remained unseen. But there was also the overriding sense that this atrocity was beyond the limits of what victory should have cost. It was a kind of metaphysical event — it
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