A Powerful Myth


A month before the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bombs, CND chair Kate Hudson wrote to the Guardian referring to the oft-claimed assertion that the bomb saved a million lives by making an invasion of Japan unnecessary, as ‘a myth’.  This provoked a spate of angry letters, some from servicemen who thought their own lives had been saved by the Japanese capitulation.

KPN readers who remember historian Brian Downes’ piece published here in February this year will not need convincing that the ‘million lives saved by the bomb’ thesis is indeed a myth – yet it is evidently continues to survive, and even flourish.

To recap the main points from Downs’ historical analysis.  After Einstein’s warning to Roosevelt of the possible power unleashed by nuclear fission, the US started work on the atom bomb (the ‘Manhattan project’) early in the Second World War.  The work continued, and was nearing completion, after the war in Europe ended in victory for the Allies.  At this time Japanese forces had been largely thrown back to the mainland.  Okinawa fell, and was being used as an airbase for huge bombing raids on Japanese cities, to which no resistance could be offered. In one firebomb raid on Tokyo 200,000 were killed – more than were later to be killed in Hiroshima. The Japanese air force had been destroyed, and there was little oil for the war machine.  The merchant fleet dare not leave harbour.  The people were beginning to starve.  Besieged, Japan was obviously beaten.  From May 1945 desperate attempts were made to surrender, at first via contacts in Moscow, as Russia had not yet entered the war against Japan.

But politics intervened to prevent acceptance of Japan’s surrender.  At the Yalta conference in February 1945, Stalin had promised to declare war on Japan, on condition that the USSR would have the Japanese islands of Sakhalin and Kurile. He also wanted a share in the occupation of Japan. Truman, taking over after Roosevelt’s death, was much cooler towards the Soviet Union.  It seems certain that the atom bombs were used to prevent the USSR having any hand in the occupation of Japan.  Russia was due to declare war on Japan on 8th August.  The bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August.  It seems most likely that the demonstration of America’s powerful weapon of mass destruction was also intended as a warning to Russia. (‘The atom bomb was dropped on Russia,’ declares Downes.)  If so, it was a bad miscalculation.  Instead of backing off, Stalin ordered his scientists to produce a Russian nuclear bomb, so initiating the nuclear arms race that has cast a long shadow over the future of mankind.

So it seems clear that waiting for the Manhattan scientists to produce their bomb, far from saving lives, actually cost the lives of all those servicemen and civilians who died in the last three unnecessary months of the war in the Pacific.