|Because of the competitive nature of academia, historians tend to specialize in small areas. As a result, experts in particular fields of study emerge, and historians can create a niche for themselves. Still, if one historian carries his research to one side of the political spectrum, as is often the case, another scholar is likely to challenge his work. This type of rebuttal will usually come from the opposite side of the political spectrum, because they will see their colleague’s rationale as flawed. In the field of study for the bombing of Japan, two authors that emerge to battle ideologies are Gar Alperovitz and Robert James Maddox. Because these men have become so focused on this particular segment of history, others who research the events leading up to the surrender of the Japanese military forces have now, in many cases, been relegated to determining which scholar, Alperovitz representing the revisionists view or Maddox defending the traditional opinion, have made a more credible argument for their assertions.
Maddox’s critiques of Alperovitz’ work first appeared in an essay published in Journal of American History. It also was part of his book published in the same year. To this day, they continue to debate the issue in print.i In 1995 they both published books commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings, and they still believe the other is wrong. Unfortunately, these two men hold sway over many of the opinions about the subject. Alperovitz is usually cited by others as the historian that supplied the research stating that Truman acted not to mainly save American lives, but as a way to hold a political trump card against the Russians in post war negotiations. Tony Capaccio and Uday Mohan refer to Alperovitz in the essay they wrote about the Smithsonian exhibit featuring the Enola Gay.
The essay suggests that the media did not hold the Veterans’ groups, which were applying pressure to have the text of the exhibit changed, to the same standards that they held the curators. In order to justify their attack of the media coverage, they claim only two stories had used any of the “latest historical evidence” in their presentation of the Smithsonian debate. Subsequently, they praise the articles that used the information that Alperovitz had “uncovered.” ii Unfortunately, most of the arguments that support this critical viewpoint also base their findings on the same material that was in Alperovitz’s flawed research.
Alperovitz and other scholars used the 1946 War Department study, Use of Atomic Bomb on Japan to determine that the Japanese were ready to surrender. The report hypothesized that Russia’s entry into the Pacific theater would “convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable.”iii Yet, supporters of this stance failed to acknowledge the military buildup of Japanese forces on the island of Kyushu, or the divisiveness of the Japanese government even after the first bomb was dropped. There is also evidence that was disregarded by these historians, which indicated the unwillingness of some of the Japanese military to capitulate. “An intercepted communication of August 11 proclaimed, ‘The Imperial Army and Navy shall by no means return the sword to the scabbard, even though this should mean the total annihilation of the armed forces of the entire nation.’”iv Furthermore, Maddox points out that the evidence of which these critics of Truman’s actions base their argument was not recently declassified, as they stated. It had been in the public records for twenty years before it was realized that the information could bolster their argument if presented in the right way. Additionally, referring to the research of Alperovitz, Maddox stated; “As both documents relied on information that became available only after the war had ended, they are meaningless with regard to what Truman had to go on at the time”.v The second document that Alperovitz used, of which Maddox had referred was another government report issued after the war. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey released a report in 1946, which stated it was likely that Japan would have surrendered even without the bomb, Russia’s entry into the war, or an American invasion.vi When put into historical perspective, this is absolutely ludicrous. Given the United States’ later experiences with negotiations in Southeast Asia, particularly in regard to Korea and Vietnam, combined with the samurai mentality of the Japanese kamikazes, there is little that would indicate that the findings listed in that report were valid.
Additionally, Nicholas Kristof has noted that the scholarship of the revisionists has failed to take into consideration the Japanese perspective. In an article published in The New York Times Kristof suggests that some Japanese scholars, Sadao Asada in particular, believed “Japanese wartime leaders who favored surrender saw their salvation in the atomic bombing.” Looking at multiple perspectives such as this should be an important part of any researcher’s investigation. Alperovitz either fails to see what may be obvious to others, or he merely decided to leave pertinent information out of his rhetoric, because it did not jibe with his political views. “Alperovitz has made it the defining task of his career as a historian to discredit the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”vii As a result, anything that would hinder this task was not mentioned.
Therefore, these revisionist views should be rendered meaningless, because the facts had been manipulated to distort the truth. This underscores the problems inherent in the specialization of scholarship. Here it is seen how one man can dominate a field of study, and have his research taken for granted, even if it can not be supported by accurate data. Alperovitz is a good example of this problem. He has misled people, not only by manipulating government documents, but also because some of his information was taken from the memoirs of key political and military figures of that event. Although the information from these sources may not be entirely accurate, many whom believe the bombs were dropped for reasons other than the traditionally accepted reasons cite his research.
In addition to the revitalized debate among historians, as a result of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Japan, there was also a heated discussion about an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Veterans were upset with the curators at the National Air and Space Museum, because they had planned a script to accompany the Enola Gay exhibit that portrayed the United States as vengeful perpetrators of a heinous act. After applying pressure through Congress, the museum was forced to rethink its plans. When news of this dilemma spread, many people began to give their opinions. The arguments fell in line with the debate that historians have had. This is probably because they too joined the discussions that took place in the media. Supporters of the museum’s original plans purportedly hoped to inspire conversation about the bombing and the lasting repercussions it had on the world. Yet, an editorial that appeared in September 1994 in The New York Times claimed that the director of the museum, Martin Harwitt, advised the curators that the exhibit was too one-sided, even before Congress had gotten involved. Once the plan was scrapped, the team went back to revise its script, but as Charles Krauthammer pointed out in a later editorial, “the original script betrays the ideology and intentions of the curators.” Their objective was to show the bombing as an act of American aggression.
Some of the problems with the planned exhibit were the same as those of the revisionist historians. They relied heavily on material that was not truly indicative of the information from which President Truman based his decision. The curators may have come to the same interpretations of the primary sources as did the historians, but it is also possible that they were using the information of other revisionist researchers. This only exacerbates the problem of one person or group having too much of an influence on scholarship. Either way they put too much credence into a few primary sources, particularly Stimson’s, Eisenhower’s and Leahy’s, all of which were written after the war.
Although personal memoirs are sometimes written several years after a particular event has occurred, historians nevertheless treat them as primary sources, principally because the authors of these memoirs were present when the event took place. Personal memoirs can often be valuable tools for those seeking to understand the past, because they can give insight into the decision making process. However, historians should be cautious when using personal memoirs for a number of reasons. First, personal journals can only shed light into the perspective of its author. Secondly, the creators of these types of sources often attempt to protect their own interests. Finally, time can alter one’s perspective about particular eventsviii. All of these problems are evident in the museum’s and Alperovitz’s analysis of the sources related to the bombing of Japan in August 1945.
Ultimately, the position one takes on the Smithsonian debate, like most things in the United States, depends upon the political views of the person. Many historians supported the exhibit as it originally was planned, because it made people take a more in depth look at the policies of the government of this country. This type of attitude is related to the experiences of these historians during the sixties. According to The Washington Post, University of Pittsburgh professor Robert Newman has documented “the way in which revisionist views of Harry Truman and the atomic bomb sprang from the tragic national division over Vietnam-as did so many other twisted perspectives of the generation that won World War II and designed America’s strategy for the Cold War.”ix Capaccio and Mohan dispute claims of this nature made by Washington Post journalists out of hand, citing General Eisenhower and Admiral Leahy’s positions.x These positions were put out after the war was over, and people began to see some of the horrors of radioactivity. There are a couple of reasons why military men may have appeared disdainful of these atomic bombs. First, people like Eisenhower could be trying to set themselves apart as to curry political favor. After all, this man would become the President. Additionally, men like Leahy could have feared that the use of nuclear weaponry would make their particular branch of the service obsolete. None of the military figures so often cited was on record before August 9, 1945 opposing the use of the bomb. Nor did revisionist historians or the curators of the exhibit explore the possibility that military men may have been trying to preserve their positions by claiming the bomb had little impact in ending the war.
When the debate about the Enola Gay exhibit came to the attention of the general public, many people voiced their own opinions about how the story of the bombing of Japan should be told. In some part the public pressure exerted should be credited for the decision to revise the planned text. This did not please some scholars. John Dower wrote an essay published in the June 16, 1995 The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he discusses his displeasure with the response of the public. He wrote; “we skewer our own public historians for deviating from the Fourth of July historiography.” Perhaps this was a response to sentiments such as those in an editorial from the January 31, 1995 Wall Street Journal. Here some words of wisdom, but disconcerting to the world of academia were cited. “Historians need to come to terms with the fact that the public’s nose is in the tent.” The opinion goes on to note another historian who states: “There’s a growing sense that history does not belong to the academics. People are asserting their own version.” In that same editorial it was noted that many well-educated people were angry about the revisionists’ versions of history, and had voiced their concerns in the editorial pages of that paper. Some of these people who are asserting their own versions are the people that fought in the war. Their thoughts should be given as much weight as the scholars. After all, it is precisely these types of people that future historians will look to when trying to access the mood of that generation regarding the bombing. One hundred years from now, researchers may find letters written by servicemen to their families, or personal notes that explain the savagery of the war fought in the Pacific. These historians may not be so judgmental of Truman’s decision, because there was a consensus at the time that it was important to end the war quickly, by any means available. Additionally, one could speculate that a changing of the political tide has brought about a more conservative response to the revisionists’ left-wing histories. It is entirely possible that the public has reached a breaking point in regard to political correctness.
When all was said and done the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum capitulated to the political pressure exerted by the men who served in the Pacific theater during World War II. Any reference to the American aggression or imperialist tendencies has been removed from the exhibit. In its place the Smithsonian has decided to stick with the aviation aspect of the Enola Gay. In a statement released by the Smithsonian and subsequently printed in The New York Times they said; “The National Air and Space Museum tells the story of the development of flight and chronicles the history of the technologies that have made flight possible.” Therefore, the specific mentioning of the bombing of Japan has been limited to “During the war in the Pacific Theater, the B-29 delivered the first nuclear weapons used in combat. On August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., in command of the Superfortress "Enola Gay," dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, Major Charles W. Sweeney piloted another B-29 named "Bockscar" and dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. On August 14, 1945, the Japanese accepted Allied terms for unconditional surrender.”xi
It is inevitable that there will always be different perspectives about critical historical events such as the bombing of Japan. Historians play a vital role in disseminating the important facts to the public. John Dower wrote; “It is the daunting task to try to convey to the public the idea that critical inquiry and responsible revision remain the lifeblood of every serious intellectual enterprise. Serious historians draw on new perspectives and data to reconsider and rethink received wisdom.”xii Still, pertaining to this event, “the degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with the lack of information about the war.”xiii This becomes even more problematic when revisionists leave out material that does not support their political agendas. Historians and curators should not mold the young minds of their respective readers and visitors with the attitude that the United States government is an aggressive power, because they are the only government to ever use such an atrocious device. This is undoubtedly an attitude that likely would have been taken by the uninformed as a result of the misrepresentation of facts. Instead students of history should be presented with a balanced account and allowed to formulate their own decisions. Although the writers of history will invariably insert their own bias into their work, because it is their political views that lead them to uncover material that will support their theories, they should attempt to maintain some modicum of objectivity. Perhaps, instead of viewing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a horrible turning point in world history, we should, as Martin Harwitt suggested, celebrate the fact that since the bombing of Japan, nobody has been killed by an atomic bomb.xiv
i Villa, Brian L. & John Bonnett. “Understanding Indignation: Gar Alperovitz, Robert Maddox
, and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb”. Reviews in American History
24, 1996. The John Hopkins University Press. P. 536.
ii Capaccio, Tony & Uday Mohan. “How the U.S. Press Missed the Target” p.9.
iii Alperovitz, Gar. “Historians Reassess: Did We Need to Drop the Bomb?” p.6.
iv Maddox, Robert. Weapon for Victory. University of Missouri Press, 1995. p. 150.
v Maddox, Robert. Weapon for Victory. University of Missouri Press, 1995. p.149.
vi Alperovitz, Gar. “Historians Reassess: Did We Need to Drop the Bomb?” p. 6.
vii Villa, Brian L. & John Bonnett. “Understanding Indignation: Gar Alperovitz, Robert Maddox, and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” Reviews in American History 24. 1996. The John Hopkins University Press. p.529.
viii Wheeler, William Bruce & Susan D. Becker. Discovering the American Past: A Look at the Evidence. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York. 2000. p.284.
ix Yoder, Edwin M. Jr. “…Or Hiroshima ‘Cult.’ The Washington Post
. February 1, 1995.
x Capaccio, Tony & Uday Mohan. “How the U.S. Press Missed the Target” p.9.
xii Dower, John W. “How a Genuine Democracy should Celebrate Its Past.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. June 16, 1995.
xiii Fussell, Paul. “Why Did We Drop the Atomic Bomb?” The New Republic. 1981.
xiv Harwitt, Martin. “The Enola Gay: A Nation’s, and a Museum’s Dilemma.” The Washington Post. August 7, 1994.