Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sin or Salvation? The Atomic Bomb at 70


As the world has observed the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, journalists, pundits, and historians have inevitably debated the necessity and moral dilemmas of the cataclysmic finale to World War II. As I browsed various opinion pieces I, too, found myself increasingly torn over the issue--and I'm no hawk. Written words cannot fully measure the horror unleashed by the bombs "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" that simultaneously triggered a forty-five year Cold War. On the other hand, the question of Japanese resistance to a non-nuclear strategy remains more uncertain.

Let us take a few things into consideration: The vast majority of the Japanese naval and air forces had already been pulverized by the Allies in the various Pacific campaigns. Sixty-seven major cities in Japan had been ruthlessly firebombed under the direction of General Curtis LeMay. Were atomic weapons of this scale a true necessity to Allied triumph? Professor Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland notes in an article:

"Despite the terrible concentrated power of atomic weapons, the firebombing of Tokyo earlier in 1945 and the destruction of numerous Japanese cities by conventional bombing had killed far more people. The Navy Museum acknowledges what many historians have long known: It was only with the entry of the Soviet Union’s Red Army into the war two days after the bombing of Hiroshima that the Japanese moved to finally surrender. Japan was used to losing cities to American bombing; what their military leaders feared more was the destruction of the country’s military by an all-out Red Army assault. 

"The top American military leaders who fought World War II, much to the surprise of many who are not aware of the record, were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender, and—for many—that the destruction of large numbers of civilians was immoral."

Alperovitz makes a compelling argument that reveals the moral gray area to which Americans descended. Even Dwight Eisenhower had grave reservations about implementing atomic weapons, later correctly acknowledging that it set the world down a dangerous path. On paper, so it seemed, the Japanese were done for.

However, I would argue that the destruction of war infrastructure does not always equate to destruction of an enemy's will to fight. In fact, it can achieve quite the opposite. As with many articles, Alperovitz completely overlooks or simplifies the strict military mindset that dominated Japanese culture before and during WWII--as well as the vast atrocities committed in the emperor's name, including incomprehensible genocide in China. The Bushido, or "the way of the warrior," inhibited any other potentials for peace unless the hopelessness of Japan's cause could be conveyed through something even more terrible than firebombings.

Prior casualties on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Saipan in 1945 are not indicative of an enemy losing their resolve. Each of those battles carries a similar narrative: The Japanese were out-manned, outgunned, under-supplied, cut off, and devoutly defending their home turf. Yet, they fought on with extremism that astounded their adversaries. Thousands of Japanese schoolchildren were being trained with bamboo pikes to await the onslaught. Buildups of Japanese troops around Kyushu and other potential invasion landing sites reveal the same. 5,000 American naval personnel were killed in Kamikaze attacks in the months prior. On Iwo Jima that February and March, commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi order his troops not to commit suicide banzai attacks--yet they did. Some 20,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide on Saipan rather than submit to American invaders. In what alternative universe could we think the situation would be different on the Japanese homeland if it were invaded?

Even if the Japanese government desired to surrender, Americans felt there was no guarantee the military or the populace would follow suit. These fears nearly materialized on August 14, 1945--the day before Japan announced surrender. Known as the Kyūjō Incident, sects of the military attempted a coup at the Emperor's Palace in the hope of preventing unconditional surrender. The Allies had little way of knowing whether or not such potential uprisings could be widespread.

MIT Scientist Karl Compton visited Japan to survey the destruction shortly after the war. He wrote in an article in The Atlantic:

"About a week after V-J Day I was one of a small group of scientists and engineers interrogating an intelligent, well-informed Japanese Army officer in Yokohama. We asked him what, in his opinion, would have been the next major move if the war had continued. He replied: "You would probably have tried to invade our homeland with a landing operation on Kyushu about November 1. I think the attack would have been made on such and such beaches."

"'Could you have repelled this landing?' we asked, and he answered: 'It would have been a very desperate fight, but I do not think we could have stopped you.'

"'What would have happened then?' we asked.

"He replied: 'We would have kept on fighting until all Japanese were killed, but we would not have been defeated,' by which he meant that they would not have been disgraced by surrender."


Compton's encounter reveals that a lack of planes, carriers, and tanks would not equate to complete or peaceful surrender. That would require something far more terrible that came in the form of Oppenheimer's devastating creation. The tens of thousands lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was truly horrendous. Yet Compton also wrote, "No American soldier who survived the bloody struggles on these [Pacific] islands has much sympathy with the view that battle with the Japanese was over as soon as it was clear that their ultimate situation was hopeless." This observation rests at the heart of the argument.

However, many generals were opposed to the bombings. According to another account: "On September 20, 1945 the famous 'hawk' who commanded the Twenty-First Bomber Command, Major General Curtis E. LeMay publicly said flatly at one press conference that the atomic bomb 'had nothing to do with the end of the war.' He said the war would have been over in two weeks without the use of the atomic bomb or the Russian entry into the war." This claim is dubious at best. To say that Russia's entry into the war had no bearing in Japan's surrender it outlandish. The statement also infers that LeMay was on the defensive, boasting of the efficiency of his firebombings in the lead up to atomic weapons. While many generals spoke out afterward, most were silent on the issue as matters were unfolding. Some were not in the information loop until after the fact. Not even Truman knew the full details of the Manhattan Project until he was sworn in after FDR's death. Admiral William Leahy (who was opposed to the dropping of the bomb) did not think the weapon would work, and was surprised when it did. It is not out of the question that many generals were trying to save face in the bombs' aftermath. The notion that a single bomb could outmatch months or years of their meticulous strategic planning was surely surprising if not shocking.

That leads us to the question of morality. Future Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalled in the brilliant documentary The Fog of War that "LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" The same question could be asked regarding the bombing of Germany. As far as Allied leaders were concerned, the Axis had to be defeated by their own cruel strategies in order to achieve the greater good. Fire with fire. It is an unfortunate but effective trait one can see played out in many wars of history.

For the four years that the United States was the sole nuclear power, Mutually Assured Destruction among global enemies was not yet a risk, supposedly limiting the threats of nuclear warfare on the international community. But the bombs later became bigger, more dangerous, and more numerous.  While many Americans saw the bombs over Japan as a moral and strategic necessity, so too were the weapons a demonstration of power to keep the encroaching Soviets at bay. This is indisputable. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were political and scientific laboratories as much as they were scenes of a global conflict. George Marshall himself was among the first to note this.

But much of the current historical debate rests in timing--the slowness of Japanese willingness to discuss surrender and the speed at which Americans were willing to utilize weapons of mass destruction. Prior Japanese attacks revealed that mass casualties could be inflicted even with few planes or resources. Unfortunately for Japanese civilians, Truman's greater commitment was to the well-being of his own troops and not the enemy populace. Americans wanted an end to the war and any prolonging of hostilities, in their eyes, would have been the greater of moral offenses. In any scenario, most in the United States felt any roll of the dice regarding the exposure of military personnel to combat was unwarranted if technology could prevent it.

Furthermore, the induction of prime minister Kantarō Suzuki in April 1945 is telling. While Suzuki and the emperor earnestly desired an end to hostilities, it took them many months to do so in face of the staunchly traditional military spine of the Japanese government. The aforementioned coup d'état and assassination attempts against Suzuki certainly indicate an unwillingness to give up. One can see how it was easy for Americans to accept that the capitulation of the emperor might not equate to the fall of his empire if the military took over. Once more, this was a gamble Americans were unwilling to take--and understandably so. Had the Japanese not played a dangerous game of kick the can when it came to peace diplomacy, perhaps some of its terrible losses could have been averted.

Regardless of what generals and politicians reminisced in hindsight, the average GI and sailor felt the bombs spared them of otherwise inevitable confrontation--and it did not take them years to make that conclusion. While an invasion of the Japanese mainland may not have yielded the one million plus casualties figures touted by Truman, the endeavor nevertheless would have been costly. Admiral William Leahy nonetheless calculated that initial invasion tallies could be around 60,000. In this context, the decision between the bomb and invasion was an easy call for a commander-in-chief to make. So, too, was it easy for Americans to accept the carnage of the bombs as they considered the "Japs" subhuman--a belief only strengthened after Americans encountered them in combat.

Given all the conflicting testimony of then and now, neither I or any historian can fully justify the obliteration of two metropolitan cities. There is plenty of evidence on both sides of the argument for people to make a case. All we can do is attempt to understand why people thought it justified at the time. Nobody ever has all the facts, especially those who were front and center in all these issues of 1945. It is easy for us to judge these actions because we know the outcome. Harry Truman did not have that benefit. No matter where you fall on the matter, Hiroshima and Nagasaki nonetheless offer prime platforms to reflect upon the horrific effects of atomic weaponry and to ponder deterrents to war. Over time, I hope we can at least learn that much.

There is more to the story than this.

 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

To Educators: Keep it Real

Last summer I attended a cocktail reception at an academic conference. A point of discussion that came up was student engagement--or the lack thereof. I brought up the strategy of field trips as a means of connecting students with stories of the past. A fellow attendee quizzically looked at me and uttered, "What can you do outside that you can't do in a classroom?" This comment caught me off guard, just for a moment. I then realized this question fit within a much broader pattern of academia that fails to ask: "What do students want from a history course?" As it turns out, many do in fact have a desire to get their money's worth from a class but also occasionally enjoy having some fun (gasp) in a creative and educational manner.

As fellow blogger Kevin Levin alluded to earlier this year, professional historians rarely write historical bestsellers that are consumed by the masses. Why so? Academia has become embroiled by the notion that it cannot write for general audiences or trade publishers--that it is a lesser form of scholarship. As a result, journalists both good and bad have a greater control on historical literature than most real scholars.

My conversation with our wine-sipping professor mentioned earlier reveals a similar dilemma at a smaller level. Just as publishing outside a university press is considered a transgression, some professors seem equally skittish about taking the learning experience beyond the classroom. Luckily, there are a few ways to move beyond this mentality. Let's discuss a few of them.

One of my great joys of being a college educator is not only sharing my fascination of history in a scholarly setting but also actively reaching out to the local community--including the young and the old. A solid way to determine creative ways to teach history is to ask yourself, "How would I have liked to have learned about history when I was younger?" A prime way of me answering that question is through assisting with Penn State Altoona's Kids College--annual summer workshops that allow elementary and middle school-aged students to have a taste of the college experience. Not surprisingly, many learning strategies that work for them also work for my full time students who are ten years older. Field trips, immersive activities, and rare opportunities should be required for all students of any academic level. So, where do we start?

I worked with seven students in grades between sixth and ninth over the course of five days. Our first day was WWII themed. We learned why the war came and who the major players were, but also how the conflict affected everyday people. Students were (literally) placed in the shoes of American GIs. We drew our own cartoons of the scruffy Willie and Joe, allowing us to empathize with 1940s soldiers. We viewed some archival footage as well. Afterward, we conducted a Monuments Men scavenger hunt around campus using real historical clues and documents.

Field trips were also heavily incorporated into the week-long series of events. At the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, the students learned to physically cut stone, hew logs, twine rope, and work a railroad. These activities compliment, not override, the primary material learned in the classroom.

Ranger Doug Bosley shows the students around the historic Lemon House Tavern. At its face value, one could only learn about liquor in such a setting. But, through the power of contextualizing, an 1840s tavern becomes a platform for interpreting 19th century politics, the perils of the frontier, gender roles, hygiene, as well as the personal flaws and ambitions of patrons who frequented the establishment. The best thing about historic sites is they educate us without us even realizing it in many instances.

The same was true of our adventures at Fort Roberdeau Historic Site. The 1770s lead mine fort also includes a 19th century farmhouse and barn that are helpful tangibles in illustrating frontier life. The farmhouse becomes "Philadelphia" upon entry, where students distinguish the differences in lifestyle between the urbane Pennsylvania capital and the rough and tumble Allegheny Mountains. One can learn about class divides in places other than the writings of Gordon Wood or Eric Foner. Above, our pupils learn how to curtsy back and forth to one another in period garb.

What better way to discuss the daily life on the Pennsylvania wilderness than to experience a piece of it yourself? While it may seem juvenile at first, hands-on learning for a person of any age is frequently the best way of retaining the information one acquires.

A final day of activities included a special presentation by Don Freeburn, a former NASA engineer who was one of many scientists working on the Apollo Program in the 1960s and 1970s. With him he brought not only his years of expertise but also artifacts and mementos from his services (including his vintage slide rule, which was completely foreign to our youngsters seen above). Incorporating firsthand witnesses to historical events equally enlivens classroom discussion. I mean, come on. This guy knew Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

By now, we can easily see field excursions to places of historical, cultural, or scientific significance should not be a burden but rather an asset that makes people and ideals from books more relatable and interesting. Our students certainly thought this was the case.

Here's the real kicker: I take my college students to the very same places and conduct similar activities with them. Our desire to experience the past on a more personal level cannot and should not change with age or setting. Far too typical is it for some college professors (and even high school teachers) to perceive field trips beneath their pedigree as something infantile or lacking maturity. This could not be farther from the truth. Visiting places is as fundamental to an historian's work as digging out a rare manuscript from an archive. Others simply do not want to be bothered with the logistics of planning such expeditions. Regardless, do not belittle field trips, embrace them. In such settings, one can learn from younger people in order to become a better educator. In other words, do yourself and your students a favor and keep it real. The power of place is not easily replicated in the classroom.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tuning in to History


Last month, I had the opportunity of presenting at The Journey Through Hallowed Ground's annual conference in Waterford, Virginia.  The Journey oversees a national heritage corridor that stretches from Gettysburg to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.  Each year, speakers, public historians, and engaged citizens congregate to discuss history that occurred within that region but also to strategize innovative ways to enhance education, outreach, and collaboration among sites and organizations.

My presentation was entitled "Heroines of History: Gettysburg's Women at War."  Delving into the lives and struggles of the families who were dramatically shaped by the pivotal 1863 battle, I sought to convey an intimate portrait of a community forever changed by the Civil War. We discussed how young ladies, not even old enough to drive today, were pulled into the hellish vortex of battle and field hospitals. Like all communities, divisions existed within 1860s Gettysburg.  In most cases, the residents--primarily women and children--were forced to push differences aside in the name of survival.  And what a story it is.

Filmed by C-SPAN at the historic John Wesley Methodist Church, home of a continuously active African American congregation from 1891 through 1968, my presentation is now available online for you to view.

Special thanks is due to The Journey Through Hallowed Ground for facilitating this conference and my filmed segment.  You may tune into the presentation here.

Sites such as the Shriver House in Gettysburg offer context to the plight of 1860s civilians.