This is, I expect and hope, my final post on the death last Thursday of Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. One of my principal themes since I started this site has been the identity - not merely the equivalence - of arguments on the nativist Right and the anti-American Left. I was certain this would arise in commentary on Gen Tibbet's death, and so it proves.
The utterly barking far-right cranks who make up the John Birch Society are still in operation, half a century after the group came to prominence by claiming that Eisenhower and Dulles were conscious agents of a Communist conspiracy to take over the US government. They use Tibbets's death as an opportunity to promote a conspiracy theory of equal thoughtfulness and justification, concerning a supposed Japanese offer of surrender that was spurned by Roosevelt in the interests of keeping populations in fear and promoting world government. Seriously. The Society's President, John F. McManus, concludes:
The real winners of the [Pacific] war were the enemies of national sovereignty who were also promoters of the United Nations. Once the bombs were dropped, it became fashionable for internationalists everywhere to claim that nations can no longer be truly independent and peoples can no longer expect to exercise God-given freedoms.... The combination of assuring that the bloody war in the Pacific would continue for seven more months, and the decision, made at the top levels of our government, to use frightfully horrific nuclear weapons on non-combatant Japanese, has to be considered one of the most horrible crimes in all history.
Meanwhile, The Progressive magazine ("since 1909") has published a piece by its managing editor, one Amitabh Pal, entitled "Hiroshima Bomber Unrepentant till Death". One of the magazine's regular columnists is the radical historian Howard Zinn, whose haplessness and incompetence on this very subject I exposed some months ago. (To my complacence, neither Professor Zinn nor his friend who got him into that mess, the founder of Media Lens David Cromwell, has attempted to defend any of the propositions that I modestly submit I destroyed beyond hope of reconstruction in that post.)
Whereas Zinn is a gullible ignoramus, I fear I cannot be so generous to Pal, who begins his piece sententiously, "I’m making a partial exception to my self-imposed rule of not speaking ill of the dead." Pal quotes Tibbets saying that using the Bomb saved more lives than it took. I stress again that that consideration doesn't resolve (though it should inform) the ethical debates over use of the Bomb, but Tibbets's remark is true. When you take account of the American servicemen and POWs, the Japanese civilians and the captive peoples of the Japanese Empire whose lives would have been lost in a conventional invasion and blockade of Japan, even a delay of a few weeks in the Japanese surrender would have cost many more lives than the death toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The historical evidence from Japanese sources is overwhelming that it was the shock of the Bomb and no other consideration that forced Japanese surrender in August 1945. That evidence is entirely unknown to Pal, who remarks:
There was only one problem with [Tibbets's] analysis: He was just plain wrong. In the last few decades, there has been a whole slew of studies showing that the dropping of the bomb was—militarily and strategically—completely unnecessary. (Here, I am setting aside the moral arguments, convincing as they are.)
Perhaps the dean among this group of scholars is Professor Gar Alperovitz, who has written a number of books on the subject, including the magisterial “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” which in 1995 demolished once and for all the arguments for obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And you know what's coming. Alperovitz is the principal populariser of the notion that Truman's decision to use the A-bomb was an exercise of "atomic diplomacy", to intimidate the Soviet Union. On this view, the Pacific War had already been won because Japan was trying to surrender. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less the concluding acts of the Pacific War than the first acts of the Cold War, as presaged by supposed US anti-Soviet hostility at Potsdam.
Every stage in this argument is false. As Michael Kort of Boston University observes in his recent Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb, 2007, p. 111: "Despite the difficulties that arose with the Soviets at Potsdam, most historians agree that the United States did not practice atomic diplomacy at the conference." You'll often find in the writings of anti-nuclear campaigners some reference to Alperovitz prefaced (as in Pal's article) by an obsequious honorific. Likewise, in her book CND: Now More than Ever, 2005, the CND chairman and supporter of North Korea, Kate Hudson, introduces (p. 19) Alperovitz as an "eminent US historian" (and spells his name wrong several times, which makes me wonder how familiar she is with his writings). You can take this as evidence of the campaigners' intellectual insecurity. Alperovitz is not a historian at all: he is a professor of political economy. His Cambridge thesis, which when published in 1965 became the principal text of the Atomic Diplomacy case, was supervised by P.M.S. Blackett and Joan Robinson. Both of these scholars were outstanding in their fields - which were not history either, but, respectively, physics and economics. (Blackett, a Nobel laureate and a shameless pro-Soviet apologist, was the first writer to put forward the idea that the A-bomb was intended as a signal to Stalin, in his book Fear, War and the Bomb: Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy, 1949.)
The besetting difficulties with Alperovitz's work are, first, that there's no evidence for his thesis, and secondly - unsurprisingly, given the first point - that his handling of source material is consistently dishonest. He often uses ellipses to remove material from quotations that, when read in full, clearly give a different message from the one Alperovitz infers. These misrepresentations have been catalogued by the historian Robert Maddox, in his essay "Gar Alperovitz: Godfather of Hiroshima Revisionism", in a volume he edited recently, Hiroshima in History, 2007, pp. 7-23. In that essay, and also in his earlier book Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision, 1995, Professor Maddox also deals with the frequent and - so far as we can tell from all available primary sources - false claims that Truman's close military advisors counselled him against use of the Bomb. I referred briefly to his conclusions, and those of other scholars, in this post. As you - or at least I - would expect, Pal has no idea that this literature exists; he just retails Alperovitz's mantra on the subject.
I am not sentimental about the death of public figures, and recently argued against the mild hypocrisy of not speaking ill of the recently deceased. It's because of my scepticism about that convention that I am particularly anxious to remark on the heroism, in the European theatre and the Pacific War in WWII, of Paul Tibbets, and to extend my respects to his family. I shall be more than happy to debate the matter publicly with any "progressives" who wish to dispute the point, whereupon I shall be less polite about them than I have been in this post.