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‘Gratuitous’ bombing of a defeated enemy

by Hiroaki Sato

The International Center of Photography recently had an exhibition, “Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945,” and I attended the panel discussion. This month 66 years ago the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Back in 1995, I had attended another ICP panel discussion on Hiroshima, which was part of the exhibition “The Pacific War.” That year was the 50th anniversary of the war’s ending.

As I recall, the three main speakers on the earlier panel were historians, and each offered a different reason why the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Gar Alperovitz argued that the U.S. wanted to assert its military superiority in the upcoming Cold War, that is, to intimidate the Soviet Union.

Barton Bernstein posited that the U.S. dropped the bombs for domestic reasons. President Harry Truman feared that the American taxpayers would revolt if, with the war ended, they discovered he had not used the products of the horribly expensive government R&D venture, the Manhattan Project. It had cost $2 billion, today’s $20 billion.

Ronald Takaki said the U.S. motive was largely racist.

The 1995 exhibition was to show the Pacific War through Life magazine’s coverage. The selection of Life photos included the famous one of a young woman contemplating the skull of a Japanese soldier, pen in hand. Apparently she was writing to thank her boyfriend who had sent it to her.

The ICP exhibition this time was of a special selection of photos of the bombed-out Hiroshima. How special?

As Adam Levy, one of the three panelists of the day told it, the show had a fascinating detective story quality, with a grand operatic denouement.

Levy, after agreeing, in 2003, to be part of a plan to make a BBC documentary on Hiroshima, first read Richard Rhodes’ award-winning book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (1986). When he came to the section citing some of the survivors’ words, he was sickened and sauntered out, finding himself in a bookstore.

There, on a bookshelf, he spotted “a thin black book with a mysteriously blank spine.” Pulling it out, he saw the book was titled “After and Before: Documenting the A Bomb.” Its first half showed photos of nuclear explosions; the second half, those of “extraordinary devastation.”

The skinny book had little explanation except to note “Hiroshima photographs courtesy of Don Levy.” The publisher was the New York gallery Roth Horowitz. This led Adam Levy to seek out Don Levy (no relation). Don Levy, who runs Deluxe Town Diner, in Watertown, Massachusetts, told him how he came upon the photos.

One rainy night, when he took his dog out for a walk, he saw a battered suitcase in a garbage pile in front of a neighbor’s house. A “connoisseur of found objects,” he took it home. When he opened it, he found batches of black-and-white photos of “devastated buildings, twisted girders, and blasted bridges.”

With some research and luck, Adam Levy found that the photos originally belonged to U.S. Navy Lt. Robert L. Corsbie, and learned much about the man.

Corsbie was a civil engineer and architect who had become a member of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey’s Physical Damage Division. The PDD’s sole purpose was to record and measure damage that the atomic blast had wrought on the buildings and other structures.

As John Dower details in “Cultures of War” (2010), among the web of motives for dropping the A-bomb was the physicists’ desire to learn the “effects” of the fruit of their efforts in an actual war. It was for that reason that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were selected: The cities had not been damaged by carpet bombing, and their population density and topographies were just right.

That’s why the photos, with accompanying notations, may appear “clinical” but utterly devoid of humanity.

The work for the PDD over, Corsbie returned to civilian life, but was called back to assess the effects of nuclear tests in Nevada — exclusively on building structures. He became a leading advocate of bomb shelters and reinforced structures. As a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission, he was prized as the “most expert of the experts” in the field of “civilian effects” of nuclear bombs. He thrived in his business.

That advocacy and expertise, however, killed R.L. Corsbie in a conflagration. One January night in 1967, his house — a nine-bedroom Tudor mansion on a high cliff in the tony neighborhood of Ossining, New York — caught fire. “Almost 200 volunteer firefighters, four pumper trucks, and a hook-and-ladder [were] called to fight the blaze, but to no avail.”

Forty-four years later, the assistant fire chief at the time still remembered the incident. “The house was built like a fortress.” Breaking into the house to create ventilation was nearly impossible.

A likely reason for the fire? A candle.

Mr. and Mrs. Corsbie had thrown a party and, after their guests left, probably had a nightcap and dozed off on their sofas. One of the candles fell and set a drapery on fire.

Why did the discovery of photos in Corsbie’s possession become the impetus for “Hiroshima: Ground Zero?”

Because the U.S. government had put tight control on information on what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1947 the government did put together “The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan,” and made hundreds of the PDD photos part of the three-volume report, but classified it.

As Richard Parker tells it in “John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics” (2005), the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) had an ironic history. The advocates of large-scale bombing as the surest means of defeating the enemy set up the survey team exactly to prove their point.

But as Galbraith and George Ball learned soon enough, in Germany, the production of ball bearings, tanks and warplanes actually increased after Britain and the U.S. started and intensified their “area” or “strategic” bombings.

In Japan, the survey team also cast in doubt the efficacy of bombing in forcing Japan to surrender, but for a different reason: It was not so much the wholesale bombing as the naval destruction of Japan’s supply lines from overseas that did the work.

Most likely, before the U.S. planned the invasion of Japan on Nov. 1, the USSBS concluded, “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.” Many U.S. military commanders had expected the same.

Yet Gen. Henry Arnold assembled the largest air armada ever of 1,014 aircraft to bomb Tokyo after Japan accepted the surrender terms. The motive was purely “vindictive” and “gratuitous,” Dower notes.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.