This is a long post. You can go directly to the last sentence without any loss of meaning.
I've referred a few times on this site to a lobbying organisation called Media Lens. Media Lens purports to be a watchdog detecting bias in the press and broadcasting media. It is in reality a shrill group of malcontents who exploit the patience of practising journalists. Journalism is a public medium and its practitioners should certainly be prepared to expound their professional methods. The practice of Media Lens, however, is - in the description by Andrew Marr, the BBC's former political editor - pernicious and anti-journalistic. I explained why and how in this post a few months ago.
I described the methods of Media Lens as including "unprofessional and often comically inept exegesis". More recently I came across a near-perfect example of this type of thing, and wrote a post about it here. One of the editors of Media Lens, David Cromwell, had written to the film critic of The Independent - yes, a film critic - taking the poor man to task for not commenting, in an article about the film Flags of Our Fathers, on "the propagandistic basis for western leaders' claim of 'half-a-million' allied lives being saved by dropping atomic bombs on Japan".
Cromwell is not a historian, but, according to his organisation's web site, a "researcher in ocean circulation". His dogmatic assertions on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki evinced no acquaintance with the historiography of the Pacific War. He even got wrong the name of his own principal cited source (about whom I shall have more to say in a moment). In the circumstances, I thought it constructive to write to the film critic, David Thomson, to assure him that Cromwell's assertions were not to be taken seriously, let alone believed. The text of my letter, including citations to recent scholarly literature debunking Cromwell's assertions may be found in the post I have linked to. I copied it to Cromwell, so he would know not only the extent of his factual errors but also the inaptness of his criticisms of Thomson. Media Lens's customary technique (as I have found when replying to emails I had assumed came from genuine inquirers) is to post on its web site private emails from journalists without first asking permission, and I was curious whether Cromwell would do so with my letter. Prudently, he didn't.
Unfortunately, Cromwell apparently didn't do either what he ought to have done. The proper course would have been for him to write again to David Thomson to apologise for having sent a hectoring letter on a subject wholly outwith Cromwell's competence. Instead, Cromwell appealed to one of his friends to bail him out, judging by this message that has been posted by Cromwell on his organisation's message board here:
We've just received an email from US historian Howard Zinn after asking him for his response to Oliver Kamm's blog entry on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (link below). Kamm had argued that "Truman based his decision [to use the atom bombs on Japan] on estimates that American casualties in a ground invasion might surpass one million". The Eds
Sorry to take so long in getting back to you on this, but I've been traveling and just getting to my pile of correspondence.
Of course you will always find scholars with different points of view on this, because no one can say conclusively 1) how many Americans would have died in an invasion of Japan (all guesses) or 2) how soon the Japanese would have surrendered without the dropping of the bombs.
But I don't think anyone has successfully refuted Alperovitz. To say that Truman "based his decision" on the estimate of a million casulties is naive. The "million casualties" claim was after the fact, as a justification for that horrific act. It was a number pulled out of the air. Truman's mind was made up no matter what number of casualties would be involved. As General Groves himself said, Truman was like "a litle boy on a toboggan, already going downhill" no way to stop the momentum. Certainly, a lower estimate would not have changed Trumans' mind.
At most one can argue that the bombs speeded the end of the war by weeks or months. In Japan, the Emperor was supreme, and he clearly wanted to arrange surrender terms, hence the dispatch of an envoy to Moscow.
It is often said that given the Japanese ferocious defense of Iwa Jima and Okinawa they would have continued the war except for the bomb. But if they were such fanatics why would even the bomb have caused them to surrender. After all, they endured 100,000 dead in Tokyo and still fought on.
Iwo Jima is an interesting episode. Two years ago in the Journal of Military History, an army captain who had done extensive research on that battle concluded it was unnecessary, another example of the momentum of war leading to needless death.
There is no moral argument which to me is all-powerful. Even if the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war sooner did that justify killing several hundred thousand innocent people? Would the defenders of the bombing agree to kill 100,000 American or English children in order to shorten the war? If the answer is no, it means that Japanese children do not deserve to live as our children do. If the answer is no, one must use the word "racism" to describe the conclusion that the bombs should have been dropped.
Howard Zinn is a grand old man of the American far Left. I have only once posted a comment on this blog about him; in it I stated that "trying to reason with Professor Zinn is a near-textbook case of futility". How prophetic that was.
Zinn's best-known work is a polemical history of the United States. His scholarly contributions to the study of the Pacific War amount, so far as I am aware, to zero. (This tract, which you can read in a few minutes, contains the name 'Hiroshima' in the title but is not a work of scholarly inquiry into the conclusion of the Pacific War.) It was unfair of Cromwell to appeal to Zinn for assistance when, as I shall demonstrate, Zinn is not up to providing it. But Zinn replied, and is therefore a legitimate target.
You will note that in his message, Zinn does not even attempt to deal with the sources that I cited. Judging by the internal evidence of his message, and nothing else, I have to conclude that Zinn has never heard of that material, still less read it. I say that principally because of Zinn's assertion that "I don't think anyone has successfully refuted Alperovitz".
Gar Alperovitz is the principal populariser (though not the originator) of the theory that the A-bomb was an instrument of "atomic diplomacy". Truman dropped the bomb not to defeat Japan - which on this reading had already indicated a willingness to surrender - but to intimidate the Soviet Union. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, in Alperovitz's view, not the concluding acts of the Pacific War but the initial acts of the Cold War.
It is technically true in one very restricted sense that no one has refuted this thesis. There is no direct evidence in support of Alperovitz's claim. There is not a single statement in the documentary record made by a US diplomat to a Soviet counterpart in 1945-6 to the effect that "you'd better not cross us, because we have the bomb". Given this paucity of evidence, Alperovitz turned his thesis into something unfalsifiable. In the words of the historian Robert H. Ferrell, who is widely regarded as the pre-eminent authority on President Truman (Harry S. Truman and the Cold War Revisionists, 2006, p. 20): "Alperovitz was reduced to relying on the powers of psychology: possession of the bomb, he declared, influenced American officials more than they knew or said."
Whatever else this is, it's not diplomatic history. Alperovitz presented a thesis, and - being unable to prove it with any documentary evidence – refashioned it to be impervious to the canons of evidence. If that were all, then Alperovitz would be merely a trivial figure. But unfortunately, it is worse than this. Historians have pointed to the fact that Alperovitz's use of source material is unscholarly. Ferrell, in the work cited, gives a sobering example (p. 21, and expounded at length in the accompanying footnote) of Alperovitz's taking a quotation from General George Marshall and then "trimm[ing] the quotation so as to give it a quite different meaning from what Marshall intended".
Alperovitz's book, "despite the appearance of meticulous documentation ... was based on pervasive misrepresentations of the historical record", declares Robert Maddox of Pennsylvania State University, in his Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision, 1995, p. 2 - and Professor Maddox proceeds to give examples. Alperovitz updated his thesis in a 1995 work, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. Robert P. Newman, of the University of Pittsburgh, has noted that none of the 15 Japanese rulers who testified that the A-bomb was instrumental in securing Japan's surrender is quoted accurately by Alperovitz, and the account of one of them is edited to misrepresent its intent. (I am indebted to Professor Newman for sending me material including an unpublished paper.)
In short, Professor Zinn has demonstrated something more serious than error here. He has misrepresented the state of scholarly research into the subject Cromwell sought his advice upon. But even that is less of a disqualification to his being taken seriously than his dismissal of my cited sources with the airy formulation that "of course you will always find scholars with different points of view on this". As the scholar of German history Richard Evans has put it: "The possibilities of legitimate disagreement and variation [among historians] are limited by the evidence in front of their eyes. An objective historian is simply one who works within those limits. They are limits that allow a wide latitude for differing interpretations of the same document or source, but they are limits all the same." (The quotation comes from the author's study of the David Irving libel case, Lying About Hitler, 2001, p. 250. By citing it, I am obviously not drawing a comparison between Professor Zinn and David Irving. I am making a point about the nature of historical objectivity. I am certain Zinn is an honest historian, but equally certainly – on the subject on which Media Lens has sought his advice, at least – he is an incompetent and ill read one.)
Zinn's assertion that "the 'million casualties' claim was after the fact" is refuted by the evidence I cited, and that Zinn has ignored. The leading authority on casualty estimates in the Pacific War, D. M. Giangreco (a reader of this blog and a regular correspondent), has shown from the primary sources that the figure was most certainly not constructed after the fact. In his paper "'A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas': President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan", Pacific Historical Review, Feb 2003, pp. 93-132, he demonstrates that "Truman's much-derided accounts of massive casualties projected for the two-phase invasion of Japan are richly supported by US Army, White House, Selective Service, and War Department documents produced prior to the use of nuclear weapons against Japan and stretching back through the last nine months of the Roosevelt administration". In another essay (co-authored with Kathryn Moore), "Half a Million Purple Hearts", Giangreco notes that the sheer numbers of these medals produced before the conclusion of the Pacific War indicate the extent of the casualties expected in an invasion of Japan. (Correspondence related to this article can be seen here.)
If Zinn wishes to argue that the estimates of mass casualties were manufactured after the war to justify the dropping of the A-bomb, then he is making an empirical assertion that he must substantiate with reference to the primary sources that Giangreco has consulted. Zinn needs to come to terms with the evidence presented by scholars with relevant expertise. He doesn't do this, because he can't. He has no business engaging in the evasive tactics that have so impressed his admirers at Media Lens. Zinn should have said privately he wasn't up to the task, rather than publicly demonstrate that condition.
I deal now in sequence with Zinn’s other false assertions.
1. Zinn invokes General Groves as evidence that Truman's decision to drop the bomb was inevitable regardless of the estimated US casualties in a ground invasion.
Baloney, and disgraceful baloney at that. Never mind the biographical information about Truman himself: Zinn's own cited source refutes the point. Leslie Groves wrote his memoir Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project in 1962. I doubt that Zinn has read this. Groves does state (p. 265): "As time went on, and as we poured more and more money and effort into the project, the government became increasingly committed to the ultimate use of the bomb, and while it has often been said that we undertook development of this terrible weapon so that Hitler would not get it first, the fact remains that the original decision to make the project an all-out effort was based upon using it to end the war."
But Groves adds (p. 266) that there was debate on whether to give a demonstration of the bomb's power and then issue an ultimatum, or to use it without such a warning. And, of this (emphasis added): "President Truman knew of these diverse and conflicting opinions. He must have engaged in some real soul-searching before reaching his final decision. In my opinion, his resolve to continue with the original plan will always stand as an act of unsurpassed courage and wisdom - courage because, for the first time in the history of the United States, the President personally determined the course of a major military strategical and tactical operation for which he could be considered directly responsible; and wisdom because history, if any thought is given to the value of American lives, has conclusively proven that his decision was correct."
The notion that Groves depicted Truman as out of control of a decision that had its own momentum, driven by military and industrial considerations, is thus exactly wrong. Zinn would know this if he had read Groves's memoirs.
2. "At most one can argue that the bombs speeded the end of the war by weeks or months."
Even accepting this premise - which is highly debatable - Zinn shows no awareness of the significance of even a matter of weeks, let alone months, in prolonging the Pacific War. Robert P. Newman, in Truman and the Hiroshima Cult, 1995, Chapter 8, has thoroughly considered counterfactual history in this respect - what would have happened if the bomb had not been used. He notes (p. 185) that a combination of continued Japanese mistreatment of prisoners and slave labourers, disruption of food supplies throughout the Japanese Empire, land and sea battles, and conventional bombing to conclude the war "would have produced monthly death rates well in excess of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki total" (emphasis in original). This is not a guess; the figure is derived from death rates attributed to the Japanese Empire estimated in two studies: John Dower, Japan in War and Peace, 1993, which gives estimates for nine countries; and a UN Report of the Working Group for Asia and the Far East, 1948, which gives data for four countries.
3. "In Japan, the Emperor was supreme, and he clearly wanted to arrange surrender terms, hence the dispatch of an envoy to Moscow."
Wrong again. Zinn is alluding to messages sent from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador in Moscow. These asked that the emperor be allowed to send an envoy to negotiate with the Soviet leadership. The messages were an attempt by Japan's civilian leaders to negotiate a bargain with the Soviets, under which Japan would retain its political character and its Empire. There is no indication in these messages of a desire, still less a proposal, for surrender. As the historian Richard Frank has put it, an examination of the intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables that were known to the US at the time demonstrates:
The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood--as one analytical piece in the "Magic" [a code word for US diplomatic briefings] Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts--that "until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies." This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.
4. "It is often said that given the Japanese ferocious defense of Iwa Jima and Okinawa they would have continued the war except for the bomb. But if they were such fanatics why would even the bomb have caused them to surrender[?]"
Again, Zinn's problem is that he has nothing to say about - and apparently has never heard of - the scholarly material I cited. Sadao Asada, in "The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender - A Reconsideration", Pacific Historical Review, November 1998, has answered his peculiarly naïve question. The Japanese Cabinet was split. A peace faction was prepared to end the war on certain preconditions; a fanatical war faction was determined to fight on regardless of losses. The dropping of both bombs - Nagasaki as well as Hiroshima - was crucial to enabling the peace faction to win this argument in Cabinet. The bombs enabled the Japanese to argue that they had been defeated not by force of arms or superior valour, but by science. There was no serious possibility that this decision would have been taken in the absence of the A-bomb. Asada argues his conclusions from exhaustive scrutiny of the Japanese primary sources. If Zinn wishes to dispute Asada's conclusions, he needs to do so with reference to the same sources, or to secondary work that deals with those sources in a scholarly way.
5. "Iwo Jima is an interesting episode. Two years ago in the Journal of Military History, an army captain who had done extensive research on that battle concluded it was unnecessary, another example of the momentum of war leading to needless death."
A non sequitur rounds off Zinn's purported historical argument. The article he is referring to is Robert Burrell, "Breaking the Cycle of Iwo Jima Mythology: A Strategic Study of Operation Detachment", Journal of Military History, October 2004. A widely-circulated op-ed column by the neoconservative writer Max Boot argues, from Burrell's paper, that "the rationales for taking [Iwo Jima] were shaky at the time and utterly specious in hindsight". Boot overstates what Burrell concluded: what Burrell speculated might be so (that the island was not necessary as a staging post for US aircraft in the event of an invasion of the mainland) was presented by Boot as a refutation of "spurious statistics".
I have seen (care of D.M. Giangreco) a mass of technical argument taking strong issue with Burrell's suggestion. But in fact this historical dispute is quite irrelevant to the case Zinn wishes to make about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The importance of Iwo Jima in this context is not whether the battle was crucial to the outcome of the Pacific War or not. It is that the ferocity of the fighting and the extent of US casualties substantially reinforced the conclusion that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would involve massive American casualties. As the historian Michael Kort, of Boston University, wrote in the newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, December 2003 (emphasis added):
[T]he Japanese situation on Iwo Jima was hardly ideal in June of 1944 when General Tadamichi Kuribayashi arrived to take command. In July, after reviewing his forces, he told an aide that he had “no soldiers, just poor recruits who don’t know anything. The officers are either fools or superannuated scarecrows. We cannot fight the Americans with them.” But six months later, reinforced and worked into shape despite long, tenuous supply lines and daunting obstacles, the Japanese troops on Iwo Jima fought a battle that sent a collective shudder through the American military. Japanese soldiers on Okinawa, outnumbered, outgunned, and cut off from reinforcements, fought no less effectively. As for the situation on Kyushu in July 1945, the Japanese still had three months to prepare for an American invasion and were working intensively to do just that. Meanwhile, American forces assigned to the second stage of the projected invasion of Japan’s home islands were far from ready; in fact, given the tight schedule, many of the troops being redeployed from Europe for Coronet would have landed on the beaches of Honshu without proper amphibious training.
In short, Zinn has cited a paper without relevance to the argument he is making. Either he realises this, and is engaged in diversionary tactics to impress his very non-specialist audience, or he hasn't read the paper. I suspect the latter, given that Zinn mistakenly describes the paper's author as an Army, rather than a Marine, captain.
That disposes of every historical assertion made by Zinn to his friends. His remarks are pitiful stuff. Some of them are outright howlers. In the circumstances, it's unsurprising but still contemptible that he shifts his ground to accusations of racism against those who disagree with him.
In my initial letter to the film critic David Thomson, I stated that of course the historical debate I had tried to summarise did not resolve ethical argument about Hiroshima and Nagasaki (though I consider that the debate should strongly inform those ethical reflections). It is the historical debate in which Media Lens so ineptly intervened. The question whether, for example, the "million casualties" projection for American deaths in a ground invasion was held by Truman or was manufactured after the fact is an empirical one. It has a right and a wrong answer, regardless of your views on the morality of the A-bomb. Zinn gives the wrong answer, because he is not familiar with the scholarly sources.
The scholars I have cited, whose work exposes the feebleness of Zinn's historical grasp, are not making a political argument. They are operating as historians, the divergence of whose conclusions is limited by what the evidence will yield. As it happens, however, I do know - and it is on the public record - that one of those scholars, Professor Newman, is a longstanding activist in the American anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. To decline to read the man's scrupulous academic output and condemn his conclusions as racist is plain ignorant.
This long post is secondarily concerned with one of the most important events in modern world history, and the incomprehension of one hapless professor. The primary target of the post, the Media Lens organisation, is of no intrinsic importance at all, but a good deal of intrinsic nastiness. I have written this post because the relation of politics and the media is too significant a subject to allow this aggressively simple-minded lobby to set its terms. In my view, this episode demonstrates that Media Lens has nothing of value to say on a central issue of historical debate, and that the organisation's approach demeans public life. We can all agree, however - for it is a matter of demonstrated fact and no longer speculative hypothesis – that the Media Lens co-editor David Cromwell is an ignoramus.