Hiroshima, rewritten


Stanford, Calif. -- NEITHER THE atomic bombing nor the entry of the Soviet Union into the war forced Japan's unconditional surrender. She was defeated before either of these events took place."

That kind of "revisionist" statement -- implying that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary -- has so angered veterans' organizations that they have forced the Smithsonian Institution to announce that it is gutting its controversial exhibit of the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Yet the words were written not by some revisionist historian, nor by someone who knew little about the brutality of World War II in the Pacific.

They were written shortly after V-J Day by Brig. Gen. Bonnie Fellers for use by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army's triumphant commander in the Pacific.

Other high-ranking military men expressed similar sentiments.

"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material success in our war against Japan," wrote Adm. William Leahy, the wartime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1950.

"The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. . . . My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."

After his White House years, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, looking back on his earlier service as a five-star general, also said he considered the bombing both unnecessary and morally dubious.

In 1963, he said: "The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. . . . I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon."

Ike's objections, like Leahy's, were purged from the Smithsonian script even before the exhibition was cut back.

In May 1945, 10 weeks before Hiroshima, Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army's chief of staff, said an atomic bomb should be dropped only on a "straight military objective such as a large military installation," and then, if necessary, on a manufacturing center -- but only after civilians were adequately warned so they could flee.

He did not want to break the old moral code against killing noncombatants. This counsel was, of course, rejected.

The point is not whether Fellers and MacArthur and Leahy and Eisenhower were correct or incorrect about whether the bombing was necessary, and under what circumstances. Nor is it, as some have too easily contended, that these men had such thoughts before Hiroshima.

The point is that after the war, a number of America's top military leaders chose to express their doubts, and sometimes even their objections.

If they could do so then without having their patriotism challenged, it is dismaying that their judgments have now been deemed too harsh for American eyes and ears.

Barton J. Bernstein, professor of history at Stanford University, is editor of the book "The Atomic Bomb: The Critical Issues."

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