Since 1982, I have written three books, hundreds of articles and thousands of posts related to the atomic bombing of Japan. This week my first film as writer and director, Atomic Cover-up, has premiered at the Cinequest Film Festival, and can be viewed by all until the end of the month. A blog post here at Antiwar covered that a few days ago and provided links to read more and for ticketing (when you get to the page, click on TKS to buy tickets for $3.99).
Yet I still get asked regularly, Why does any of that matter today? You can’t change history, reverse decisions or bring back the dead. Part of the answer, of course, is that more than seventy-five years after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb is still very much with us, along with the controversy over the decision to obliterate the two Japanese cities.
Beyond that, however, the atomic attack over Japan remains a vital lesson for us all, not only for the first use of a nuclear weapon in war, but because of the official "first-use" nuclear policy the U.S. maintains today. Even the fact that the US still has a first-strike policy (meaning we will use nuclear weapons first in a crisis if need be) will surprise many, especially with the end of the Cold War now a distant memory for some.
It’s a subject rarely explored in the media – even during the marking of the 75th anniversary last summer – or in American policy circles. Resisting a no-first-use pledge, in fact, has been a cornerstone of US nuclear policy for decades. Following a few positive signs from Obama, moving very far in the direction of no-first-use seemed a long way off in Trump’s America and its fate under Biden remains hazy.
Perhaps the strongest reason is this: most Americans, our media and our leaders (including every president), have endorsed our "first-use" of the bomb against Japan. This remains true today, despite new evidence and analysis that has emerged for many years. We saw it again last summer, when Chris Wallace’s Fox special, and then his bestselling book defending the bombings, drew more attention than anything. My Atomic Cover-up film, in fact, shows how the truths of Hiroshima were largely kept out of the media as the US suppressed the most shocking and important footage of the aftermath of the bombings for decades.
There has also been little change abroad – where the use of the bomb in 1945 has been roundly condemned from the beginning. Indeed, US support, even pride, in our use of the weapon has given us little moral standing in arguing that other countries should not develop nuclear weapons and consider using them, possibly as a first, not a last, resort (that’s our policy, remember).
So it all goes back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While I respect the views of a range of historians on this matter, and the opinions of the men who fought in the Pacific, I happen to believe the bombs should not have been used against Japan – directly over the center of massive cities. The war would likely have ended very shortly without it (the bloody American invasion was not set until months later), largely because of the Soviets finally declaring war on Japan – an event long-dreaded by Japanese leaders.
But the key point for today is this: how the "Hiroshima narrative" has been handed down to generations of Americans – and overwhelmingly endorsed by officials and the media, even if many historians disagree – matters greatly.
Over and over, top policymakers and commentators say, "We must never use
nuclear weapons," yet they endorse the two times the weapons have been
used against cities in a first strike. To make any exceptions, even in the means
exceptions can be made in the future. Indeed, we have already made two exceptions,
with more than 200,000 civilians killed. The line against using nuclear weapons
has been drawn… in shifting sand.
Polls show that huge numbers of Americans have taken their cues from officials and the media. As I note in my film, recent ones show disturbing levels of support for pre-emptively using the bomb against North Korea and Iran cities under if the US feels threatened by them.
And, as I’ve noted, the fact that the United States first developed, and then used – twice – the WMD to end all WMDs has severely compromised our arguments against others building the weapon ever since. Hiroshima was our original sin, and we are still paying for it, even if most Americans do not recognize this.
That is why I always urge everyone to study the history surrounding the decision to use the bomb and how the full story was covered up for decades. And now, of course, I urged them to watch my film. There is certainly, in the minds of the media and the American public, no taboo on using nuclear weapons, and it all started, but did not end, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is what nuclear abolitionists – or even those who simply want the end of our first-use policy – are up against.
Greg Mitchell is the author of The Tunnels and a dozen other books and writer-director of the documentary Atomic Cover-up premiering at Cinequest from March 20-30 (when you get to the page, click on TKS to buy tickets for $3.99)..