Professor takes columnist to task


John Keisling, whose column of Feb. 3, "American values won in Enola Gay debate," writes with remarkable certainty about the controversial atomic bomb exhibit recently cancelled by the Smithsonian Institution. He delights in poking holes in the draft text of the exhibit and chortles at examples of so-called political correctness on display elsewhere in the Smithsonian museums. While Mr. Keisling is entitled to his fun, his description of the circumstances surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan are crude and misleading.

Keisling reduces to caricature a decision that supporters and critics alike recognize as complex, difficult, militarily and morally ambiguous. Historians who study the Pacific War acknowledge that President Harry S. Truman and his advisers wrestled with difficult questions. Should the attack be preceded by an ultimatum or a demonstration shot on an unpopulated location? Would the new weapon induce the Emperor and advocates of surrender in Toyko to break the grip of militarists who spoke of fighting to the end? Might the bomb compel the Soviets to alter their behavior in Europe and preclude the need for Soviet help in subduing Japan? How many Americans were likely to be killed or wounded in an invasion? Ultimately, would fewer Japanese be killed by the atomic bombs than would perish in a war of attrition?

Historians identify other factors leading to the decision to use the bomb. Sheer bureaucratic momentum explains a great deal. Killing vast numbers of noncombatants had become routine between 1941 to 1945. In addition to the Nazis' mass exterminations, Axis and Allied air forces had routinely bombed cities in Europe, China and Japan. After spending several billion dollars on developing the atomic bomb, how would the president and others rationalize NOT using it against the enemy? Whether the number of American casualties totaled one million (a figure President Truman apparently made up when writing his memoirs), 60-100 thousand (as some statisticians estimated), or only a single soldier, it is probably a good guess that any president would have opted for using the bomb rather than have to explain how he weighed the relative value of Japanese and American lives.

Scientists who created the bomb, military commanders and civilian advisers, and Harry Truman himself voiced private doubts about using the bomb against Japanese cities. The Smithsonian exhibit revealed this debate and the ways honest views clashed. Neither decision makers at the time nor historians can prove that other approaches might have worked better, killed fewer civilians or ended the war faster. However, free debate over these questions is a value that sets the United States apart from the Fascist powers we set out to defeat in World War II. This, sadly, is the "American value" that has fallen victim in cancelling the Enola Gay exhibit.

Michael Schaller

History Professor

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