A Monstrous Mistake

August 08, 1994|By STEWART L. UDALL

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO — Santa Fe, New Mexico. -- In June, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the world watched with admiration as the United States and its allies honored the valor of the soldiers who established beachheads along the coastline of France. One year from now, Earth's inhabitants will come face to face with another milestone of World War II -- the use of atomic weapons to destroy two Japanese cities and their innocent citizens.

No event of this century has left a deeper imprint in human consciousness than Hiroshima. The moral issues that have hovered over this American ''achievement'' for 49 years can no longer be evaded. Indeed, it is time for this nation to admit that our war leaders made terrible mistakes in the final days of the Pacific war, and thus we must come to terms with the truths about the only instance in history when atomic bombs were used as weapons of war.

For the past 49 years, most Americans have accepted as a gospel the war-ending pronouncements of President Truman and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that the Hiroshima bomb was the decisive blow that forced Japan to surrender. And they were further reassured by Truman's avowals that the atomic bombs shortened the war and saved the lives of ''a half-million boys on our side.'' This is the official version of Hiroshima, the story that lives in our history books.

Yet, historians who have reconstructed what actually happened disagree with the contentions advanced by Truman and Stimson. These scholars assert there is no solid evidence that the Hiroshima explosion induced Japanese Emperor Hirohito -- or any member of his war Cabinet -- to alter their position on the surrender issue. Moreover, key documents support an interpretation that the existence of the bomb probably prolonged the war by influencing Stimson to turn his back on a promising opportunity to negotiate a surrender after Hitler's generals had capitulated.

Moreover, any effort today to justify destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki confronts Americans with the reality that in 1945 the bombing of cities violated -- as did many other World War II bombings -- not only the accepted rules of warfare but also a policy U.S. leaders articulated many times.

When that war broke out in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a demand to all nations that ''under no circumstances [should any country] undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or unfortunate cities.''

FDR's statement was reaffirmed at a press conference in February 1945, a few days after British bombers incinerated the civilian German town of Dresden, when Stimson declared that ''our policy has never been to inflict terror bombing on civilian populations.''

Inescapable moral issues will be in the forefront as the United States decides how to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. Two responses are possible. U.S. leaders can stubbornly reiterate the official line and try once again to convince the world that the bombing of Hiroshima was a humanitarian act that saved the lives of countless American soldiers and Japanese soldiers and civilians.

Or, painful as it would surely be, they can decide to use this somber anniversary -- and a courageous admission that the bombing of Hiroshima was a monstrous mistake -- as an opportunity to rally world opinion behind the idea that nuclear weapons must never again be used as weapons of war and must ultimately be eliminated from the arsenals of all armies.

This would be America at its best. And who knows? Such a magnanimous gesture might persuade the Japanese people to respond by facing up to the terrible mistakes and atrocities that their nation committed during the war in the Pacific.

Stewart L. Udall served as interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. His most recent book is ''The Myths of August: A Personal Exploration of Our Tragic Cold War Affair With the Atom.''

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