A few weeks ago I commented on an article by the media columnist of The Nation, Eric Alterman. Alterman had purported to expose right-wing bias in media coverage of the death of General Paul Tibbets, pilot of the plane that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. According to Alterman:
"When Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets died November 1, the New York Times repeated Tibbets's contention that 'It would have been morally wrong if we'd have had [the atomic bomb] and not used it and let a million more people die.' That virtually no reputable historian would put the casualty figure for a US invasion of Japan anywhere near that high (leaving aside the question of whether an invasion would have been necessary) was not mentioned in the story."
In my post I explained why Alterman's remarks were unlettered and ignorant. I can name off the top of my head at least a dozen historians who would concur with Tibbets's judgement. These are not only "reputable" figures but leading and even definitive scholars in such relevant fields as the Truman administration, the Pacific War, American diplomatic history, modern Japanese history, American military history, and Soviet history. I cited, among others, my correspondent D.M. Giangreco, whose study in Pacific Historical Review, February 2003, of the administration's casualty estimates for a conventional invasion of Japan was described by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jnr (also a "reputable historian", as it happens) as "a masterful job of historical research and argument... You have demolished the claim that President Truman's high casualty estimates were a postwar invention."
In short, there was no way Alterman could sustain his claim. At the very least and most charitable, you have to conclude that his demonstration of media "bias" rested on having read nothing of the historiographical debates on the Pacific War that have taken place in the last twenty years. I'm grateful to Jamie Kirchick, who writes for The New Republic and blogs at Commentary magazine, for drawing my attention to a an odd and emotional reply by Alterman. Alterman begins by making clear that he's doing me a favour:
"[A]s for the right-wing blogger, I never heard of him either, but he's gotten some pickup among right-wingers, and I now I see that my friends at History News Network have now both run it and linked to it. I wonder if they know who he is or why he should be taken seriously, as I sure don't."
It's true that my post was linked to by a number of conservative writers in the US, such as Jonah Goldberg of National Review. That's life: Alterman had made confident assertions on a subject he didn't understand, I was the messenger of bad news that he had thereby made himself look foolish, and political commentators whose views I don't necessarily share (I of course am a left-winger, not a right-wing blogger) kindly thought this information was worth sharing with their readers. There is no inherent reason that Alterman should have heard of me (though we write for one or two of the same publications, and in his agitation he has evidently forgotten that he's linked to this blog in the past), nor do I expect him necessarily to take me seriously. But I do expect him to take seriously the body of scholarship that I referred to in my post, for it is important material that refutes Alterman's assertions on a subject that he elected to write about.
Alterman's response, according to the post I have linked to, is not to mention that material or give to his readers any hint of its existence. As Jamie observes: "Alterman provides no links to these critiques that would otherwise help the reader understand this intellectual dispute." It is singular and in my judgement dishonest that, while affecting to counter my criticism of his article, Alterman neither quotes nor links to those criticisms. All he indicates of my argument is this:
"But since they [i.e. History News Network] are definitely a place I think people should be able to trust, have, and put the racism charge in the headline, now twice, I feel compelled to respond to the racism point, at least (as I simultaneously express my disappointment in HNN's judgment on this score). Regarding my alleged anti-Japanese racism, this Kamm fellow writes, "The most charitable explanation I can give is that Alterman is (unlike the late General [Paul] Tibbets) sufficiently ethnocentric not to take into account the deaths of Japanese civilians that would have resulted from a conventional invasion and blockade of the home islands..." "
By the words "at least", Alterman of course means "at most", for he makes no attempt to defend himself against the charge that he has misrepresented the state of historical scholarship. (Those ellipses in his quotation are judiciously placed, as they excise my observation in the same sentence that Alterman is "entirely unaware of research by American and Japanese historians published in the last 20 years concerning the conclusion of the Pacific War".) And of course I didn't say in the first place that Alterman was an anti-Japanese racist. I used the term "ethnocentric", whose meaning Alterman appears not to know.
Let me give an example from the same area of study. It is certain that all my readers know that Nazi Germany murdered around six million Jews. (I leave aside, for simplicity's sake, my reader David Irving, who is a faker.) It is not certain that all my readers know with the same precision the number of people killed by Imperial Japan, throughout its empire, in the same period. Indeed, unless you're a specialist in the Pacific War, it's unlikely that you'll know that figure, and if you venture an estimate from your general knowledge, you'll probably understate it. (It is in the region of 20 million. In the 14 years of war between Japan and China till 1945, that number was itself substantially exceeded by the number of Chinese noncombatant deaths alone.) This isn't because my readers are ill informed about world affairs, and it certainly isn't because they're racists. Nor is it because Imperial Japan was a less malevolent actor than Nazi Germany: I consider they were forces of a similar type. It's because educated people in the English-speaking world and in Europe generally regard the war in Europe as the dominant theatre in WWII. Many have family histories (as I do) that are touched by Nazi barbarism. The view from China would be different. The difference is an instance of inevitable ethnocentrism - not racism, but looking at the world from a particular standpoint.
In suggesting his own ethnocentrism, I am certainly more generous than Alterman is in his casual libel of American policymakers of the time. He protests:
"The focus was always exclusively on the likelihood of U.S. casualties in the case of an invasion. Any politician who expressed any sympathy for those poor Japanese civilians would have been run out of town on a proverbial rail. The point for virtually all Americans at the time of this debate was to "kill the bastards," and hence, there was little debate or discussion over the firebombing of Tokyo, also designed to obliterate civilian lives. Hence, this Mr. Kamm fellow is attacking my column for merely addressing the historical issue in question, which, hello, is what historians do."
There was a lot of popular racism against the Japanese, but neither Roosevelt nor Truman - to take two rather important examples of American politicians - held anything like the attitude to Japanese civilians that Alterman claims. Henry Wallace (FDR's Vice-President) wrote in his diary for 10 August 1945 (i.e. the day after the Nagasaki bombing): "Truman said he had given orders to stop atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn't like the idea of killing, as he said, 'all those kids.'"
Alterman concludes not with an evidence-based proposition of the type that historians advance, but with a dogmatic reassertion of his initial fallacy: "I was merely calling attention to what struck me as the Times' myopia in reporting [the A-bomb issue], as well as its mistaken inference that the historical record supported Mr. Tibbets' contention, which is [sic] clearly does not."
I see little purpose in being diplomatic about this performance, if only because Alterman does explicitly present himself as an expert on US foreign relations and US history. From my observation, he's not up to it. If he wishes to persist in his statement of what the historical evidence "clearly" shows on the A-bomb decisions, then I invite him to demonstrate it, at long last. I shall be glad to debate that evidence publicly with him, online or in person, at any time.