The Evolution of Historical Interpretation Regarding the United States’ Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
Hannah J. Oberlander
April 28, 2013
“Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima…atomic power can become a powerful and forceful influence towards the maintenance of world peace.” President Truman’s voice echoed over the radio into thousands of homes across the United States on August 6, 1945.1 From the world’s perspective on that day, most saw this new ability to harness the sun’s energy as a tool for bringing an atrocious war to an end as the New York Times quotes Secretary Stimson as saying “this new weapon ‘should prove a tremendous aid in the shortening of the war against Japan.”2 And yet, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian J. Samuel Walker, in the January 1990 edition of the journal Diplomatic History reveals a contrary position saying that “Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding…[and that] The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time.”3 Other historians went so far as to say that “the atomic bomb profoundly influenced the way American policy makers viewed political problems” with the Soviet Union.4 Despite its victorious first entrance to the world stage, the perceptions have evolved over the last sixty-seven years as historians and scholars merge primary source analyses with first-hand account memories, and retrospect reflections that have brought about immense scrutiny over whether the bomb should have been dropped and the reasoning behind the United States’ decision to detonate the most deadly weapon on the face of our planet.
The Early Years: 1945-1950s
During the years directly succeeding 1945, the American and Japanese public along with journalists and historians were kept somewhat in the dark about the reality of the two atomic bombs and the clear devastation that had wrecked such havoc on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The “history” in written or photographic form was censored in many ways, because the United States military was conducting the Tokyo war-crimes trials until 1948 and was occupying Japan until 1952. Laura Hein and Mark Selden bring this to light in their book Living With the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts In the Nuclear Age: “U.S. censorship and disinformation in the early postsurrender years included a concerted effort to minimize information about the human effects of the bomb in Japan.”5 Books like Hiroshima by John Hersey and memoirs like Nagasaki no Kane took several years to clear publishing houses and were only approved for print after “accept[ance of] the censor’s condition that it [Nagasaki no Kane] be published together with material provided by US military intelligence on Japanese atrocities in the Philippines, thereby blatantly equating the US atomic bombing of Japan with Japanese atrocities in Asia.”6 William Laurence, the science editor of the New York Times, along with a team of thirty-two Japanese cameramen had filmed several movie clips between August and December of 1945, all of which were “confiscated by US authorities in February 1946 and not returned to Japan until two decades later.”7 Little visual and descriptive written records prevented the American and Japanese public from recognizing the truth and thus impaired immediate historical accounts and feedback of this horrific event.
Throughout the years that WWII raged in the Pacific, the American public had been so indoctrinated with intense media propaganda of the Japanese people as barbaric, primitive savages with brutal methods of annihilating our US soldiers that the atomic bombs had seemed reasonable and had been widely accepted in the early years after 1945, since the American people had been conditioned to foster racist hatred toward the Japanese. Dower in his book War Without Mercy strikes a chord that resonates with this racist mentality of the American people when he suggests that “[t]he three concepts—primitivism, immaturity, and mental and emotional instability—were woven into almost all extended discussions of the Japanese character, as integrated rather than separate characteristics of the enemy.”8 Hence, it is no wonder that Fortune Magazine came out with a telling poll “late in 1945” that exposed “only 5 percent of the respondents opposed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a significant minority wished that the United States had dropped more A-bombs on the Japanese.”9 As America applauded the victorious success of the atomic bomb “initially [seeing] only images of the awesome mushroom cloud, which, as historian James Farrell has observed, presented the bomb as ‘a new but natural event, free of human agency,’”10 it took the responsibility off of the United States and praised the achievement of the human race; thus, echoing Truman’s initial response of, “this is the greatest thing in history”11 after learning of the bomb’s success in the evening of August 6.
The first skeptics asserted themselves in June of 1946 with an article from the Saturday Review Of Literature, which flew in the face of the American understanding of the bomb’s intended drop. Norman Cousins and Thomas Finletter disclosed a new perspective to the American people claiming that “[t]here can be little question that the first error may have been the biggest error. The first error was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Not the making of the atomic bomb; that we were forced to do out of sheer national preservation, for the enemy was working on atomic weapons as well. It was what we did with the atomic bomb after we made it that was a mountainous blunder.”12 Building on these criticisms, statistics were revealed that same month by the US Strategic Bombing Survey, which “placed the number of deaths at approximately seventy to eighty thousand individuals in Hiroshima and thirty-five to forty thousand individuals in Nagasaki.”13 Now, the image of the mushroom cloud had a weighty death toll, and the same survey concluded that “in [its] opinion…certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”14 Statements like these brought up new questions and cast doubt on the once glorious defeat of the Japanese and demanded more explanation and clarity for the purposes and intentions of those who had made this decision.
Despite the claims made a month prior, the US Strategic Bombing Survey refuted the idea that Japan was on the verge of surrender claiming that the Army Air Force—with its continuous air strikes and the drop of both atomic bombs—was given “credit for winning the war against Japan.”15 Based on testimonies from top Japanese military officials during the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the report revealed that “from the fall of Hideki Togo to Japan’s capitulation, it [Japan’s Struggle To End The War] acknowledged the roles of the rival military services but concluded that air power had largely ‘determined the timing of Japan’s surrender and obviated any need for invasion.’”16 Surveys and reports left little room for questions or grounds to continue to feed the festering critics who questioned the Administration, the scientific community, and the US military for making what they called an obviously glaring “mistake.” Truman and other government authorities “consciously and artfully constructed the history of the decision to discourage questions about it.”17 Justification—on their terms alone—was the only way the decision-makers combatted their opponents. James B. Conant, one of the Manhattan Project’s main scientific leaders, convinced Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to “write an article explaining and justifying the use of the bomb as a way of heading off criticism of Truman’s action.”18 Consequently, Harper’s Magazine came out with Stimson’s detailed account in February of 1947 that catalogued the train of events that launched the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Stimson made it absolutely clear that “this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of a clash of great land armies…The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war.”19
During the early 1950s, accounts of the horrific realities of the atomic bombs’ devastation became more and more graphic, apparent, and abhorred as the Japanese and American public was made aware of the radiation “aftermath” of the hibakusha, the “monstrously mutilated”20 survivors, whose haunting photos and horrifying stories tugged at the hearts of those who learned the truth. As accounts like John Hersey’s in his best-seller, Hiroshima, became more widely read, the populace was left to wrestle with “not just the destruction of ‘a city,’ but the death and suffering of scores of thousands of individual men, women, and children, each with his or her own story.”21 The faces of human suffering brought on by a new menacing weapon not only created by Americans but actively deployed by a country that marched to the beat of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”22 Marc Gallicchio explains that the “Manhattan Project scientists tragically miscalculated the radioactivity produced by the explosion.”23
With this new evidence of the “evils” of the atomic bomb exposed in graphic detail and its seriously dangerous lasting effects, some scientists and officials who had originally made the decision were now grappling in retrospect and re-tracking their steps in an effort to sort out the realities that may have evoked regret from some and a deep sense of detachment from a “go ahead” in regards to the A-bomb drop. Admiral William Leahy “denounce[d] using atomic bombs in the final paragraphs of his memoirs, published in 1950, calling it ‘barbarous’ and of ‘no material assistance in our war against Japan.’”24 Scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and had favored it in the nuclear race with Nazi Germany during the war were now split over continuing research and development to keep going in constructing the H-bomb, a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities in 1945. “By the early 1950s, fear of a nuclear World War III had become almost palpable in Japan. President Truman’s threat to use nuclear weapons in the Korean conflict in November 1950 inflamed these fears” remarks John W. Dower in his essay “The Bombed: Hiroshimas and Nagasakis in Japanese Memory.”25 Boyer remarks that “activism revived in the mid-1950s…now centered on a campaign to halt nuclear testing…The test-ban campaigners…invoked Hiroshima, now as an example of the lethal effects of radiation and as a benchmark to demonstrate the escalating nuclear threat.”26 Controversy remained at an all-time high during the 1950s as the United States entered another Asian conflict of the Korean War with the world well-aware of its nuclear strength.
The Wave of Revisionism: Historical Perspectives of the 1960s
With the United States gridlocked into the Cold War during the 1960s, looking at World War II’s end to interpret the present and the future inspired historians to assert that the atomic bombs had been dropped in 1945—not for the sole purpose of prompting Japan’s surrender—but to show off the United States’ power to the Soviet Union in an effort to diplomatically induce advantageous results for American foreign policy.
Gar Alperovitz entered the historical analysis stage in 1965 with convincing conclusions reevaluating the evidence from this standpoint. Laid out in Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam: The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation With Soviet Power, Alperovitz captured the attention of many scholars with a perspective that justified the need to drop the atomic bomb at a global level. In a masterful display of the “evidence” and reflection of events and conversations that had led up to August 6, 1945, Alperovitz answered the question “Why was the atomic bomb used?” in a different way that targeted the looming menace at the time of the 1960s, the U.S.S.R. Instead of blaming the Japanese’ rejection to surrender as the instigator of the need for the atomic bomb, Alperovitz cataloged a play-by-play account that suggested the Secretary of State, James Byrnes had not used “the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war. [But that] our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe.”27
Even though the atomic bomb kept the Soviet Union in check during their occupation of Germany, it did not prevent them from creating it themselves and using it as bargaining power for communism’s spread. Thus, the events of the 1960s including the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other “nuclear scares” provided an embracing backdrop for Alperovitz’s arguments. Considered a “revisionist” by some, Alperovitz revealed through an investigation of previous primary sources that “President Truman and his advisers saw the bomb as a diplomatic lever that could be employed to thwart Soviet ambitions in Eastern Europe and Asia.”28 Alperovitz used his pen to suggest to the curious ears—at this imperative time of nuclear interest—that not only was the atomic bomb morally wrong but that the governmental officials in the summer of ’45 were aware of other options that they could have used to solidify Japan’s surrender. Looking back, Walker remarked that Alperovitz’s “book received far more attention and stirred far greater discord than earlier works…in part because he drew from recently opened sources to reconstruct events in unprecedented detail, in part because of growing uneasiness about the conduct of US foreign policy in Vietnam, and in part because of the merging scholarly debate over the origins of the Cold War.”29
Like Alperovitz, Gabriel Kolko, a New Left historian of the day, argued too that the United States knew full well what they were doing by dropping the bomb to gain the attention of not only the Soviets but the rest of the world in their endeavors to be the world superpower. Kolko bluntly stated in his book The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 published in 1968 that “The United States entered the Second World War not as a ‘reluctant belligerent’ as has been suggested. Rather, it entered with real and specific interests in having some control over the world after the war ended.”30
Less bold of claims also continued to bolster the historical interpretation that Japan would have surrendered given time with or without an atomic bomb’s drop, but that it did keep the United States from having to invade. Herbert Feis argued against Alperovitz’s direct claims about the intention of the bomb but consented that the atomic bombs had not been “essential to end the war.” Feis reasoned with refueled vigor to the “orthodox” position that the atomic bomb’s “use was justified,”31 because the decision had saved perhaps thousands of American lives in preventing invasion of Japan’s mainland.
Not only was the historical community’s chatter buzzing with hot new topics of the now twenty-year-old debate, scientists during the 1960s continued to come forward to voice their opinion and feelings about bringing the nuclear weapon to the world. Oppenheimer’s confession in 1965 remembering his first reactions to the atomic test in Los Alamos twenty years prior showed the solemn and grave reality that scientists had been familiar with for two decades:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.32
As the public became more aware of the scientific world’s struggle and as the constant war within the United States protested for peace or limited victory, “th[e] cycle of antinuclear activism and heightened cultural attention to Hiroshima faded as the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 barred atmospheric tests and thus allayed fallout fears.”33 The Office of the Historian remarks that:
By the time the United States was attempting to disengage from the war in Vietnam, however, the idea of atomic diplomacy had lost credibility. By the mid-1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved approximate parity, and their security was based on the principle of mutually assured destruction. Because neither could make the first strike without the threat of a counterstrike, the benefits of using nuclear weapons in a conflict--even in a proxy war--were greatly diminished.34
The 1960s—by far—brought forth reflection of the atomic bomb’s mass destruction and the repercussions of the United States’ reputation for being the first nation to detonate such an inhumane weapon. Robert Maddox suggested that “although some individuals earlier had condemned using the bombs, criticism mounted during the tumultuous 1960s when growing opposition to the Vietnam war spawned slashing attacks on all aspects of recent American foreign policy.”35 By 1961, the United States and the Soviet Union had obtained enough atomic bombs in their arsenals to destroy the world and public concern “worldwide about the potential effects of radioactive fallout on the people exposed to it. This led to the formation of activist groups and public discussion of the issue.”36 The public began questioning the morality of the atomic bombs’ use and the United States’ continuous acquisition in the nuclear arms race until the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968. This multi-national agreement quieted many of the public’s fears about nuclear testing and obtainment, when the world powers of the time “pledged their cooperation in stemming the spread of nuclear technology.”37
Merging of Extremes: Historical Perspectives of the 1970s and 1980s
The 1970s incorporated a surge of fiery attacks against Atomic Diplomacy, a combination theory bent on marrying the ideas of atomic diplomacy with the old ideas of ending the war, renewed interest in declassified sources, defense of Atomic Diplomacy, and a psychological bent on the race culture of the 1940s that had made dropping the bomb on Japan acceptable to the American people.
Lisle A. Rose in his book Dubious Victory, published in 1973, shot down Alperovitz’s ideas that the United States had intentionally used “atomic diplomacy” at Potsdam or had initially exerted leveraging power by dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. Rose acknowledged that Truman had used the atomic advantage only after Hiroshima to diplomatically coerce the Soviet Union from advancing communism further. Another blow at Atomic Diplomacy struck when Martin J. Sherwin criticized Alperovitz for not investigating the Roosevelt administration in addition to Truman’s, since the latter was inherited directly from the former. Sherwin analyzed both Presidents’ actions and claimed that “no evidence [can be found] of an elaborately planned showdown or ‘strategy of delay’ in dealing with [the Soviets].”38
In 1975, another voice entered the historical discussion as Barton J. Bernstein offered a merger of historical interpretations into the mix in an article published in the Political Science Quarterly entitled “Roosevelt, Truman, and the Atomic Bomb, 1941-1945: A Reinterpretation.” Bernstein compromised by saying “in view of the great strains in the fragile wartime Soviet-American alliance, historians should not regard America's wartime policy on the bomb as the cause, but only as one of the causes, of the Cold War.”39 And yet, even though he sympathized with policymakers seeing the bomb as a need to end the war, he harmonized with Alperovitz that “the Truman administration wielded the bomb as a part of its diplomatic arsenal after the war.”40
Robert L. Messer explored a different primary source, Truman’s diaries, which had been recently published in 1980. After careful examination of this new useful collection of “clues,” Messer revealed that some within the inner circle were of the opinion to use the detonation of the atomic bomb as leveraging power over the Soviets but that Truman himself bounced back and forth in a direct opinion through the private pages of his diary. Messer concluded his 1987 article saying that “it is clear from his diary entries at the time that Stimson saw the bomb as the United States’ “master card’ in dealing, not just with Japan, but with the Soviet Union as well. But there did not seem to be comparable direct evidence about Truman’s private thinking on the bomb at the time he made the decision.”41 For some historians, Truman’s diary entries fueled a new wave of attention to the issues; but for others, “Truman’s notes and letters muddied the historiographical waters.”42
Gar Alperovitz left little time off the historical debate scene and cascaded into full swing with an updated edition of his Atomic Diplomacy in 1985. In an effort to quiet his critics, Alperovitz addressed Rose, Sherwin, and Bernstein head on by addressing that when Truman inherited Roosevelt’s administration, he had the freedom to choose whether or not to drop the atomic bomb and that it was not a military “set in stone” operation. The new edition did not offer any change in Alperovitz’s original position, but it did make clear that “in his estimation, only the desire to impress the Soviets and to achieve diplomatic objectives could explain why Truman disdained alternatives to end the war and hastened to use the bomb.”43
Psychology and morality played into the historical framework during the years of the 1980s, suggesting that decisions like these were far deeper than political or militaristic dogma. Richard Rhodes, a Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford, paved the way towards another evolving aspect of the atomic bomb’s original intent as he offered a narrative cataloging the ups and downs the scientific community had faced in creating the atomic bomb and psychological struggles that were ultimately defeated with the end result of the weapon’s success when it left their hands and fell into that of others with “reasons to use it.”44 In his 1986 book, War Without Mercy: Race and Power In the Pacific War, John Dower exposed the racist attitudes of the culture in 1945 toward the Japanese and psychological intentions that left little room to question if dropping the bomb was the morally “right” thing to do at the time. Dower’s book shed light on the shameful reality that Americans viewed the Japanese as an inferior race with little concern about the inhumanity of the atomic bomb being dropped on the mere “monkey men” of Japan.
As various sources were declassified in the 1970s and 80s and up-and-coming historians dropped their hats into the debate ring, knowledge and historical interpretations of the records evolved taking the shape of either remorse for the past action of the atomic bombs being dropped or the defense of this decision that had been timely made to prevent further destruction. The psychological perspectives were analyzed, the cultural racism was scrutinized, the private reflections were poured over, and a theory of compromise was introduced that took the roots of the necessary evil and fused it with the repercussions of its political prowess impact.
Historical Perspectives of the 1990s and the Past Decade
Despite Alperovitz’ continued effort to evoke strong scholarship for his atomic diplomacy theory, “no scholar of the subject accepts in unadulterated form [his] argument that political considerations dictated the decision.”45 However, most historians of the early 1990s accepted the merging of stark revisionist positions with the glaringly simple conclusions of the traditionalists. And for a time, the debate settled down to catch its breath until a controversial primary source is purposed for public exhibition.
The first to bring a wave of evolving historical analysis of the next decade was Marc Gallicchio in his article “After Nagasaki: General Marshall’s Plan for Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Japan,” who brought to light an argument that had been mostly untouched since the 50s. In 1991, Gallicchio exerts that Truman and the military had planned to use nuclear weapons when they invaded Kyushu in November 1945. Hoping to clear the record, Gallicchio explained that “the project met its demise, however, not as historians have previously believed, because American officials thought the atomic bomb’s enormous power made it inappropriate to the task...[but] in all likelihood, Marshall intended to put the matter of the tactical use of the bomb before the Join Chief of Staff” if Japan had not surrendered on August 14.46 What is interesting to note is that the governmental officials army had not planned how they would “cope with the effects of radioactivity on its own forces.”47 Scholars revisited questions that had been left idle for several years about the administration’s ethical approaches to the atomic bomb during the war. Gallicchio’s article got the ball rolling again to consider the events surrounding the end of the war as recently discovered evidence—like this telephone conversation transcript—show up.
When David McCullough published his biography Truman in 1992, he chose to capture the version of the story held by the traditionalists that the bomb was dropped to save lives from an inevitable invasion. McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize, now making his book with its strong overtones of traditional “orthodox” widely read and accepted by a majority of his readers. His argument was “not only a strong reassertion of the rationale advanced by former policymakers but also, in terms of reinforcing popular views of the decision, almost certainly the most influential of recent studies.”48
The year 1993 pushed more public headway with the issue when the Air and Space Museum announced their intention for an exhibit to display the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped “Little Boy.” The Smithsonian was quoted as saying:
The primary goal of this exhibition will be to encourage visitors to undertake a thoughtful and balanced re-examination of these events in the light of political and military factors leading to the decision to drop the bomb, the human suffering experienced by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the long term implications... This exhibit can provide a crucial public service by re-examining these issues in the light of the most recent scholarship.49
Smithsonian curators, World War II veterans, professional historians, concerned politicians, and even the American public heated the controversy of how “the exhibit was framed,”50 what voices would be censored, and what history and memories would be altered or interpreted to prompt a certain perspective about the event that caused not only technological triumph and the “end” to a bloody war, but also an intense grief, shame, and regret for the vast death tolls of innocent civilians on those two fateful days in August 1945. With these controversies in mind, Chief Curator, Michael Neufeld, desired to use the exhibit to showcase the differing views and the emotions—including also Japanese perceptions—of the atomic bomb’s drop with both the negative and positive spotlighting the aircraft.
Yet, “it was this aspect of the Smithsonian’s plan that got it into so much trouble with American veterans.” Those who had actually served during World War II viewed their own history as a successful military campaign that had brought on the surrender of the Japanese, and so they wanted the exhibit to “commemorate the sacrifices they had made in a just cause.”51 Veterans saw the intended Ground Zero aspects of the exhibit which would highlight the death and destructive factors of the bomb, as paying homage to the Japanese, and thus deeply offensive. Brigadier Paul Tibbets, the pilot who had flown the Enola Gay on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, spoke out against the Smithsonian’s plans in 1994 saying, “They’re trying to evaluate everything in the context of today’s beliefs. It’s a damn big insult.”52
With this controversy stirring the pot, historians again used it as an opportunity to tackle the issues with renewed vigor. In his 1995 article “Hiroshima: Historians Reassess,” Gar Alperovitz got in on the recent discussions to again assert his atomic diplomacy position. He writes, “earlier this year, the nation witnessed massive media explosion surrounding the Smithsonian Institution’s planned Enola Gay exhibit…any serious attempt to understand the depth of feeling the story of the atomic bomb still arouses must confront...realities.”53 His article presented—yet again—to academia and the public—that if one examined the original records and manuscripts with care, “it is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.” Alperovitz creatively crafted the 1995 article, sprinkling it with selected quotes from past historians including Herbert Feis and Martin Sherwin to prove with assumed authority that the atomic diplomacy argument still stood strong. Quoting Gaddis Smith in his article, “It has been demonstrated that the decision to bomb Japan was centrally connected to Truman’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union.”54
This is why Robert James Maddox launched his own defense of the traditionalist position in 1995 with the book Weapons For Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later, writing in his Introduction that “revisionist fictions were included in the original Enola Gay text”55 and that visitors to the Smithsonian would have learned a falsely inaccurate account of what had really happened from evidence taken out of context and corroborated inappropriately from Leahy and Eisenhower’s quotations. Referring to revisionist theories as “myths,” Maddox laid out his position by cataloging the span of the three months leading up to the atomic bomb’s drop, detailing day by day reports of what governmental and military officials said to one another in conferences, letters, diary entries, etc. including where, when, and the context from which these communications were set within. With exhaustive detail directed to respond, contradict, and lay out a strong opposing position against Gar Alperovitz and other historians who had “revised history,” Maddox again returned to the argument that Truman and his advisors had dropped the bomb for the purpose of preventing an invasion, thus sparing American lives, and had not intentionally dropped it to awe the Soviets.
The Enola Gay controversy curators eventually lost the debate, and “in the end, the commemorative voice prevailed over the historical voice, in part because veterans groups could muster more political power than the historians.”56 With all mention of the detailed destruction, the Japanese death toll, and the historiographical elements questioning Truman’s decision removed from the exhibit’s display, the Smithsonian followed its orders from outside pressure to keep the veteran’s memory and viewpoint alive for the American public to taste. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of World War II’s end, the 1995-1998 Air and Space Museum exhibit “told the story of the role of the Enola Gay in securing Japanese surrender. It contained several major components of the Enola Gay, …a video presentation about the … mission included interviews with the crew before and after the mission, …an exhibition text summarizing the history and development of the Boeing B-29 fleet, and …the painstaking efforts of restoring the aircraft.”57
Today the Enola Gay resides in the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Center, hanging among other aircraft built during its time. With little glory nor ostentatious display, the controversial B-29 bomber is marked by a small plaque that reads: “On August 6, 1945, this Martin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, Bockscar …dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Enola Gay flew as the advance weather reconnaissance aircraft that day. A third B-29, The Great Artiste, flew as an observation aircraft on both missions.”58
The Enola Gay Smithsonian exhibit controversy “highlights the tension that often exists between history and memory.”59 Most scholars and historians in recent years have accepted a union of the opposing positions of the past sixty years. Today, the historical community agrees that the atomic bomb had some impact on Japan’s surrender but that the United States also had a vested interest in dropping the atomic bomb whether to assert a super power position over the Soviet Union or simply to justify the expensive Manhattan Project. The reasons for why are still up for discussion and have not been flushed out to the degree that controversy no longer rears its head.
Yet even in this current “Age of Tolerance” as the merging of conflicting interpretations quells the squalls of the past decades, a new front runner has emerged, voicing his own interpretation of the past records from both the United States’ primary sources along with those—far less consulted—from Japan. Japanese historian, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, challenged the historians with startling conclusions from not only the familiar names of Byrnes, Stimson, and Truman, but also the not-so-familiar names of Toyoda, Kawabe, and Tanemura. In his 2005 book Racing the Enemy, Hasegawa asserted that the Japanese never formally rejected the Potsdam ultimatum, that the Japanese actively worked to keep the Soviet Union neutral, and that the US policy makers were convinced Japan would not accept “unconditional surrender” and thus ordered for atomic bombs to be dropped on their cities as soon as the new weapon could be made available. In 2009, Hasegawa, the current Cold War Studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was quoted as saying, “"[Truman] wanted to end the war before Russia declared war on Japan because he didn't want Russia's presence in the Pacific to expand. Truman claimed he gave Japan advance notice, but he didn't specify the utter destruction that would result. I believe Truman had alternatives to the atomic bombs, but he chose not to take them."60
Highly praised because of its international appeal and extensive source base, Hasegawa’s work has not gone without criticism. Professor Michael Kort of Boston University points out that “Despite Hasegawa’s sources in three languages, his evidence does not back up his claims. Furthermore, at times his methodology is faulty. In particular, Hasegawa at key points in his narrative takes excessive liberty in interpreting his sources.”61 The currently contested position of Hasegawa vividly displays the evolving nature of historical interpretation over this revered debate. Historical analysis over time reveals and concludes varying results that are oftentimes glazed with hues of the decade’s cultural fads and ethical perceptions. Even though the evidence itself has not changed since the early years of the 1940s and 50s, controversial interpretations of that evidence continues to evolve with significant waves of doubt, speculation, and defense within the historical community as well as the public.