Hiroshima and Nagasaki expose the myth of the Good War

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This article was written 10 years ago, for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is no less relevant today, even if the number of wars has increased since then, above all with the gigantic US and British military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The article was published in International Review 85. The ICC is a political descendant of the small number of left communist organisations who, between 1939 and 1945, denounced the Second World War for what it really was: an imperialist war, just like the first, a war in the interests of the capitalist classes of Britain, the USA, Germany, Japan, Russia… They therefore took the same position as revolutionaries had taken during the First World War: no support for either side, no let up in the class struggle, no concession to patriotism and ‘defending my country’. No concession either to the idea of anti-fascism, which argued that the workers of the world should forget their own interests and ally with exploiters and imperialists like Churchill and Stalin against the ‘greater evil’ of Nazism. Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention the slaughter and starvation of the German population at the end of the war – proved that there was indeed no lesser evil in these six years of horrible massacre. To this day, the idea that the Second World War was a ‘good war’ has been used to justify virtually every war since, to keep alive the lie that capitalist democracy is worth fighting and dying for. To oppose war today, it is essential to break with the whole mythology of the Second World War as a war against evil. There are no good or holy wars in this dying society except the class war of the exploited in all countries, the war against exploitation, the war against war.

With the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bourgeoisie has plumbed new depths of cynicism and mendacity. For this high point of barbarity was executed, not by some dictator or blood crazed madman, but by the very ‘virtuous’ American democracy. To justify the monstrous crime, the whole world bourgeoisie has shamelessly repeated the lie peddled at the time that the atomic bomb was only used to shorten and limit the suffering caused by the continuation of the war with Japan. The American bourgeoisie even proposed to issue an anniversary stamp, inscribed: “Atomic bombs accelerated the end of the war. August 1945”. Even if this anniversary was a further opportunity to mark the growing opposition in Japan towards the US ex-godfather, the Japanese Prime Minister nonetheless made his own precious contribution to the lie about the necessity of the bomb, by presenting for the first time Japan’s apologies for its crimes committed during World War II. Victors and vanquished thus came together to develop this disgusting campaign aimed at justifying one of history’s greatest crimes.

The justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki: a gross falsehood

In total, the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 claimed 522,000 victims. Many cancers of the lung and thyroid only became apparent during the 50s and 60s, and even today the effects of radiation still claim victims: cases of leukaemia are ten times more frequent in Hiroshima than in the rest of Japan.

To justify such a crime, and to answer the legitimate shock provoked by the bomb’s awful effects, Truman - the US president who ordered the nuclear holocaust - and his accomplice Winston Churchill put about a cynical lie: that the use of the atomic bomb had saved about a million lives, which would have been lost had American troops been forced to invade Japan. In short, and despite appearances, the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which are still killing fifty years later, were pacifist bombs! But this peculiarly revolting tale is given the lie by numerous historical studies published by the bourgeoisie itself.

If we examine Japan’s military situation when Germany capitulated, it is clear that the country was already completely defeated. Its air force, that vital weapon of World War II, had been reduced to a handful of aircraft, generally piloted by adolescents whose fanaticism was only matched by their inexperience. Both the navy and the merchant marine had been virtually wiped out. The anti-aircraft defences were so full of holes that the US B29s were able to carry out thousands of raids throughout the spring of 1945, almost without losses. Churchill himself points this out in Volume 12 of his war memoirs.

A 1945 study by the US secret service, published by the New York Times in 1989, revealed that: “Realising that the country was defeated, the Japanese emperor had decided by 20th June 1945, to end all hostilities and to start negotiations from 11th July onwards, with a view to bringing hostilities to an end” (Le Monde Diplomatique, August 1990).

Truman was perfectly well aware of the situation. Nonetheless, once he was told of the success of the first experimental atomic test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945 [1], he decided, in the middle of the Potsdam Conference between himself, Churchill, and Stalin[2], to use the atomic weapon against Japanese towns. This decision had nothing to do with a desire to hasten the end of the war with Japan, as is testified by a conversation between Leo Szilard, one of the fathers of the bomb, and the US Secretary of State for War, J. Byrnes. When Szilard expressed concern at the dangers of using the atomic weapon, Byrnes replied that “he did not claim that it was necessary to use the bomb to win the war. His idea was that the possession and use of the bomb would make Russia more controllable” (ibid).

And if any further argument were necessary, let us leave some of the most important US military leaders to speak for themselves. For Chief of General Staff Admiral Leahy, “The Japanese were already beaten and ready to capitulate. The use of this barbaric weapon made no material contribution to our fight against Japan” (ibid). This opinion was also shared by Eisenhower.

The idea that the atomic bomb was used to force Japan to capitulate, and to stop the slaughter, has nothing to do with reality. It is a lie which has been constructed to meet the needs of the bourgeoisie’s war propaganda, one of the greatest achievements of the massive brain-washing campaign needed to justify the greatest massacre in world history: the 1939/45 war.

We should emphasize that, whatever the hesitations or short-term view of certain members of the ruling class, faced with this terrifying weapon, Truman’s decision was anything but that of a madman, or an isolated individual. On the contrary, it expressed the implacable logic of all imperialisms: death and destruction for humanity, so that one class, the bourgeoisie, should survive confronted with the historic crisis of its system of exploitation, and its own irreversible decadence.

The real objective of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs

Contrary to all the lies that have been peddled since 1945, about the supposed victory of a democracy synonymous with peace, World War II was barely over than the new front line of imperialist confrontation was being drawn. Just as the Treaty of Versailles contained inevitably within it the seeds of another war, so Yalta already contained the split between the main victor of 1945, the USA, and its Russian challenger. Thanks to World War II, Russia had risen from being a minor economic power to world ranking imperialism, which could not but threaten the American superpower. In spring 1945, the USSR was already using its military strength to carve out a bloc in Eastern Europe. Yalta did nothing but caution the existing balance of forces between the main imperialist sharks. What one balance of forces could set up, another could undo. In the summer of 1945, the real problem facing the American state was thus not, as the schoolbooks tell us, how to make Japan capitulate as soon as possible, but how to confront and contain the imperialist drive of its ‘great Russian ally.

Winston Churchill, the real leader on the Allied side of World War II, was quick to understand that a new front was opening, and constantly to exhort the Americans to face up to it. He wrote in his memoirs: “The closer a war conducted by a coalition comes to its end, the more importance is taken by the political aspects. Above all, in Washington they should have seen further and wider (...) The destruction of Germany’s military power had provoked a radical transformation of the relationship between Communist Russia and the Western democracies. They had lost that common enemy which was practically the only thing uniting them”. He concluded that “Soviet Russia had become a mortal danger for the free world, that it was necessary without delay to create a new front to stop its forward march, and that this front should be as far East as possible” (Memoirs, Vol. 12, May 1945). Nothing could be clearer. Churchill analysed, very lucidly, the fact that a new war was already beginning while World War II had not yet come to an end.

In the spring of 1945, Churchill was already doing everything he could to oppose the advance of Russian armies into Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, etc). Doggedly, he sought to bring the new American president Truman around to his own opinion. The latter, after some hesitations[3], completely accepted Churchill’s thesis that “the Soviet threat had already replaced the Nazi enemy” (ibid).

It is not difficult to understand the complete and unanimous support that the Churchill government gave to Truman’s decision to begin the atomic bombardment of Japanese cities. On 22nd July, 1945, Churchill wrote: “[with the bomb] we now have something in hand which will re-establish the equilibrium with the Russians. The secret of this explosive and the ability to use it will completely transform the diplomatic equilibrium, which had been adrift since the defeat of Germany”. That this should cause the deaths, in atrocious suffering, of hundreds of thousands of human beings, left this ‘defender of the free world’ and ‘saviour of democracy’ cold. When he heard the news of the Hiroshima explosion, he jumped for joy, and Lord Allenbrooke, one of Churchill’s advisers, even wrote: “Churchill was enthusiastic, and already saw himself with the ability to eliminate all Russia’s major industrial population centres” (Le Monde Diplomatique, August 1990). This is what was in the mind of this great defender of civilisation and irreplaceable humanitarian values, at the end of five years of carnage that had left 50 million dead!

The nuclear holocaust which broke over Japan in August 1945, this terrifying expression of war’s absolute barbarity in capitalist decadence, was thus not designed by the ‘clean’ American democracy to limit the suffering caused by a continuation of the war with Japan, any more than it met a direct military need. Its real aim was to send a message of terror to the USSR, to force the latter to restrain its imperialist ambitions, and accept the conditions of the pax americana. To give the message greater strength, the American state dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, a town of minor importance at the military level, which wiped out the main working class district. This was also why Truman refused the suggestion of some of his advisers that the explosion of a nuclear weapon over a sparsely populated region would be largely sufficient to force Japan to capitulate. No, in the murderous logic of imperialism, two cities had to be vaporised to intimidate Stalin, and to restrain the one-time Soviet ally’s imperialist ambitions.

The lessons of these terrible events

What lessons should the working class draw from this terrible tragedy and its revolting use by the bourgeoisie?

In the first place, there is nothing inevitable about the unleashing of capitalist barbarism. The scientific organisation of such carnage was only possible because the proletariat had been beaten worldwide by the most terrible and implacable counter-revolution of its entire history. Broken by the Stalinist and fascist terror, completely confused by the enormous lie identifying Stalinism with communism, the working class allowed itself to be caught in the deadly trap of the defence of democracy, with the Stalinists’ active and indispensable complicity. This reduced it to a great mass of cannon-fodder completely at the mercy of the bourgeoisie. Today, whatever the proletariat’s difficulty in deepening its struggle, the situation is quite different. In the great proletarian concentrations, this is not a time of union with the exploiters, but of the expansion and deepening of the class struggle.

Contrary to the bourgeoisie’s endlessly repeated lie, which presents the 1939-45 imperialist war as one between the fascist and democratic ‘systems’, the war’s 50 million dead were victims of the capitalist system as a whole. Barbarity and crimes against humanity were not the acts of fascism alone. Our famous ‘Allies’, those self-proclaimed ‘defenders of civilisation’ gathered under the banner of democracy, have hands as red with blood as do the Axis powers. The nuclear storm unleashed in August 1945 was particularly atrocious, but it was only one of many crimes perpetrated throughout the war by these ‘white knights’ of democracy[4].

The horror of Hiroshima also opened a new period in capitalism’s plunge into decadence. Henceforth, permanent war became capitalism’s daily way of life. The Treaty of Versailles heralded the next World War; the bomb dropped on Hiroshima marked the real beginning of the ‘Cold War’ between the USA and USSR, which was to spread bloodshed over the four corners of the earth for more than forty years. This is why, unlike the years after 1918, those that followed 1945 saw no disarmament but, on the contrary, a huge growth in arms spending amongst all the victors of the conflict (the USSR already had the atomic bomb by 1949). Within this framework, the entire economy, under the direction of state capitalism in its various forms, was run in the service of war. Also unlike the period at the end of World War I, state capitalism everywhere strengthened its totalitarian grip on the whole of society. Only the state could mobilise the gigantic resources necessary, in particular for the development of a nuclear arsenal. The Manhattan Project was thus only the first in a long and sinister series, leading to the most gigantic and insane arms race in history.

Far from heralding an era of peace, 1945 opened a period of barbarity, made still worse by the constant threat of nuclear destruction of the entire planet. If Hiroshima and Nagasaki still haunt humanity’s memory today, it is because they are such tragic symbols of how directly decadent capitalism threatens the very survival of the human species.

This terrible Damoclean sword, hanging over humanity’s head, thus confers an enormous responsibility on the proletariat, the only force capable of real opposition to capitalism’s military barbarity. Although the threat has temporarily retreated with the collapse of the Russian and American blocs, the responsibility is still there, and the proletariat cannot let its guard drop for an instant. Indeed, war has never been so evident as it is today, from Africa, to the territories of the ex-USSR, to the bloody conflict in ex-Yugoslavia, which has brought war to Europe for the first time since 1945[5]. And we need only look at the bourgeoisie’s determination to justify the bombs of August 45, to understand that when Clinton declares “if we had to do it again, we would” (Liberation, 11th April 1995), he is only expressing the opinion of all his class. Behind the hypocritical speeches about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, each state is doing everything it can either to obtain just such an arsenal, or to perfect its existing one. The research aimed at miniaturising nuclear weapons, and so making their use easier and more commonplace, is accelerating. As Liberation put it: “The studies by Western general staffs based on the response ‘of the strong man to the madman’ are reviving the idea of a limited, tactical use of nuclear weapons. After Hiroshima, their use became taboo. After the Cold War, the taboo has become uncertain” (5th August, 1995).

The horror of nuclear warfare is not something that belongs to a distant past. Quite the contrary: it is the future that decomposing capitalism has in store for humanity if the proletariat lets it happen. Decomposition does not stop or diminish the omnipresence of war. The chaos and the law of “every man for himself” only make its danger still more uncontrollable. The great imperialist powers are already stirring chaos to defend their own sordid interests, and we can be certain that if the working class fails to halt their criminal activity, they will not hesitate to use all the weapons at their disposal, from the fragmentation bombs used so extensively in the Gulf War, to nuclear and chemical weapons. Capitalist decomposition has only one perspective to offer: the destruction, bit by bit, of the planet and its inhabitants. The proletariat must not give an inch, either to the siren calls of pacifism, or to the defence of the democracy, in whose name the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated. On the contrary, it must remain firmly on its class terrain: the struggle against this system of death and destruction, capitalism.

Julien, 24/8/95

[1] To develop the atomic bomb, the US state mobilised all the resources of science and put them at the military’s disposal. Two billion dollars were devoted to the Manhattan Project, set up by that great humanitarian Roosevelt. Every university in the country joined in. Directly or indirectly, all the greatest physicists from Einstein to Oppenheimer took part. Six Nobel prize-winners took part in the bomb’s creation. This gigantic mobilisation of every scientific resource for war expresses a general characteristic of decadent capitalism. State capitalism, whether openly totalitarian or draped in the democratic flag, colonizes and militarises the whole of science. Under the reign of capitalism, science lives and develops through and for war. This reality has not ceased to get worse since 1945.

[2] The essential aim of this conference, especially for Churchill who was its main instigator, was to make it clear to Stalin’s USSR that it should restrain its imperialist ambitions, and that there were limits which should not be passed.

[3] Throughout the spring of 1945, Churchill raged at the Americans’ softness in letting the Russian army absorb the whole of Eastern Europe. This hesitation on the part of the US government in confronting the Russian state’s imperialist appetite head-on expressed the American bourgeoisie’s relative inexperience in the role of world superpower - an experience which the British bourgeoisie possessed in abundance. But it was also the expression of not particularly friendly feelings towards its British ally. The fact that Britain emerged seriously weakened from the war, and that its positions in Europe should be threatened by the Russian bear, could only make her more docile in the face of the diktats which Uncle Sam was going to impose, without delay, even on its closest ‘friends’. It is another example of the ‘frank and harmonious’ relationships that reign among the imperialist sharks.

[4] See International Review no.66, “Crimes of the great democracies”.

[5] Immediately after 1945, the bourgeoisie presented the Cold War as a war between two different systems: democracy against communist totalitarianism. With this lie, it continued to confuse the working class, at the same time hiding the classical and sordid imperialist nature of the one-time ‘Allies’. In a sense, they managed to pull off the same coup in 1989, proclaiming that peace would reign at last with the fall of “communism”. From the Gulf to Yugoslavia, we have seen since then just what the promises of Bush, Gorbachev and Co were worth.

Historic events: