WASHINGTON – History matters, and historical truth matters most. What Americans think about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has consequences for the relationships between the U.S. and Japanese governments as well as the American and Japanese people. For this reason, President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was a historic event that will reverberate in both Tokyo and Washington long after he leaves office. It was a transformative legacy visit.
Two decades and a year have passed since the Enola Gay exhibit fiasco. In 1995 the United States Air and Space Museum planned to display the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, along with documents that led to that attack, some of which challenged its necessity.
But the plans to engage the public in a serious historical dialogue on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II precipitated a hysterical right-wing reaction. A bruising political battle ensued that eventually saw The American Legion and the Air Force Association, supported by congressional allies, lead a Soviet-style censorship of the exhibit. The result was a national embarrassment, and a distorted explanation of the atomic bombings for the nearly 4 million American and foreign visitors who passed through the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum.
The final exhibit was replete with documented inaccuracies. For one thing, the Smithsonian downplayed the casualties, saying only that the bombs “caused many tens of thousands of deaths” and that Hiroshima was “a definite military target,” which it definitely was not. Visitors were also told that use of the bombs “led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.” But that is false. As difficult as it is for Americans to accept — and during the Cold War it was literally unacceptable — it was the Soviet Union’s entry into the Pacific war on Aug. 8 that so dramatically altered Japan’s circumstances that it could no longer continue to fight.
The Japanese military had been rejecting all surrender initiatives — favored by the civilians around the Emperor — with the argument that the Soviet Union (which was not at war with Japan) could be enlisted to mediate on Japan’s behalf to obtain surrender terms more acceptable than what the U.S. was demanding: unconditional surrender.
But on Aug. 8 the Soviet Union created Japan’s worst nightmare: a declaration of war. Anti-communist to its core, the Japanese government was terrified of a Soviet occupation, and panicked at the prospect of losing Hokkaido. Suddenly, national survival depended on an immediate surrender.
The hard truth is that the atomic bombings were redundant, and they saved no American lives. The bomb was dropped, as J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, said in November 1945, on “an essentially defeated enemy.”
These historical facts were censored from the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit, an action that should trouble everyone who values American democracy. I suspect that it troubled Obama, and his visit to Hiroshima is a powerful antidote to the international scandal the Enola Gay exhibit created. That may be the most important part of Obama’s Hiroshima legacy.
Martin J. Sherwin is a professor of history at George Mason University and the author of “A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.