Were Russians real target of 'Enola Gay'?

With the benefit of hindsight, some US scholars argue the bomb need not have been dropped, writes Rupert Cornwell

Amid the dazzling hardware on display at the National Air and Space Museum it hardly stands out - just a repolished 60ft section of a B-29, the workhorse US bomber of the later stages of the Second World War. But no exhibit in the Smithsonian's history has aroused such passions.

The aircraft is the Enola Gay. At 8.15am on 6 August 1945, it dropped from the skies above Japan a device code-named Little Boy. It was, of course, the atom bomb, and half a century on, the argument over whether President Harry Truman should have used it rages more fiercely than ever.

Once it all seemed so straightforward. Twelve thousand Americans had died wresting the tiny island of Okinawa from the Japanese in March 1945. Faced with the prospect of a land invasion of Japan proper that might last months and cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, Truman opted to bring the Pacific war to an end by using the new weapon successfully tested three weeks earlier in New Mexico. "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon," he wrote in his memoirs, "and never had any doubt it should be used." Today, however, in a clutch of new books to mark the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, revisionist scholars are raising doubts by the dozen.

Truman's military advisers, they claim, had grossly exaggerated the likely casualties of a land invasion. Even without the bomb, Tokyo was on the verge of surrender. So why was it dropped? According to Gar Alperovitz the answer is, basically, to impress the Russians, who were poised to enter the war against Japan.

Alperovitz has just produced The Decision to Use the Atom Bomb, subtitled The Architecture of an American Myth. Truman, it claims, delayed the Potsdam meeting with Stalin until July 1945, when the bomb would be ready. According to his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, when Truman learned the New Mexico explosion had worked, the President began to "tell the Russians where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting".

Truman felt he had a trump card for the inevitable post-war confrontation with Moscow and was determined to show it off. Hence his refusal to soften the Allies' demand for anything less than unconditional surrender by allowing Emperor Hirohito to retain his throne (as happened after the bomb). Thus, argue the revisionists, was squandered a chance of a relatively bloodless end to the conflict and the possibility of involving the Russians in an invasion of Japan. This, they add, could have laid the basis for an Asian peace that might have averted the Cold War.

Then there were bureaucratic pressures. The $2bn (pounds 1.3bn) cost of the Manhattan project ($20bn today) had to be justified. And his military advisers are accused of exaggerating the human cost of an invasion: documents suggest their private estimates of American casualties were nearer 50,000 than the "worst case scenario" of 200,000-plus. The figures are hypothetical: "Who will ever be able to say?" asks Paul Nitze, the former arms control negotiator who was a Truman aide. "It could have been 40,000, it could have been 10 times that."

But such were the revisionist theories that accompanied the original version of the Enola Gay exhibit. The outcry from veterans and others was deafening and the display was scaled back to just the front fuselage of the aircraft, technical details of the B-29 and Little Boy, and a brief film of crew members expressing no regret at their mission. But the very fury of the public response bespeaks a lingering guilt, a continuing need to justify.

Here collective national psychology comes into play, and the United States' view of itself as a unique force for good and right. A blind eye has been turned to the human consequences of the bomb and the fact that it killed 140,000 at Hiroshima. But if US did behave badly, then Japan behaved even worse. Thus the rage that the original exhibit had made no mention of the Pacific war beforehand, which the Japanese had started with their sneak attack on Pearl Harbour, and of the atrocities thereafter.

But this reasoning requires the hideous realities of Hiroshima to be filtered out. "We've distanced ourselves from the human effects of the tragedy," says Robert Jay Lifton, co-author of Hiroshima in America, Fifty Years of Denial, pointing to the "systematic efforts" of American leaders to prevent them being known.

But older Americans have had their fill of hindsight. By the summer of 1945 the US public wanted only for the war to be over, as soon as possible. Truman appears to have made up his mind with astounding ease. "Suggestion approved," he wrote on the memo from Stimson asking for a decision, moments after it had been handed to him at Potsdam.

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