Notes on WWII and Russia
I have heard many people mention WWII in conversations about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and what the the United States should do in response.
Let’s talk about WWII. Let’s talk about Russia. Let’s talk about hegemony and middle fingers and “standing up to bad guys” and chains of command and new world orders that are pretty fucking old. Let’s talk about “modern” war and “nonviolent” responses like sanctions that are oops, violent (especially to women, children, and the poor) and—oops again!—weaken domestic social movements and impinge humanitarian efforts.
Back to WWII. Here in American high schools we are told that the reason we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to prevent a costly, deadly invasion of Japan. This is a lie.
Japan was in the process of surrendering before we dropped the bombs and we knew this. Allied intelligence had broken Japanese codes to discover that Japan was negotiating surrender through Moscow. We did not like this. We wanted to be the global power broker.
There are two men to highlight in this story. First, James F. Byrnes, a progressive Democrat from South Carolina and Truman’s chief advisor on diplomacy and the atomic bomb.
“I admit I am a New Dealer, and if the New Deal takes money from the few who have controlled the country and gives it back to the average man, I am going to Washington to help the President work for the people of South Carolina and the country.”
If you think being a New Deal Guy speaks to Byrnes’s moral compass as a progressive politician, well, think again. The thing about “progressive” people is they do funny things like opposing the Ku Klux Klan but also uh, um, Brown v. Board of Education. They will champion the New Deal while simultaneously fighting a minimum wage law on the basis that it hurts their home state's competitive advantage of low factory wages (Byrnes again). I am not sure what to make of moral compasses that call for separate-but-equal and consider poverty a “competitive advantage.”
Byrnes was a complex, secretive, even devious politician. In his diary, Truman refers to him at this time as “conniving. There is unmistakable evidence that Byrnes tried to rewrite the historical record, in part by destroying documents, in part by literally rewriting the private diaries of his assistant, Warren Brown—and passing them off to official government archivists as authentic.
In any case, Forrestal's diaries show Byrnes “most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.” It was also Byrnes who proposed that the bomb be targeted on a factory surrounded as closely as possible by workers' housing to achieve maximum psychological effect. (source)
Byrnes thought nuking Japan would intimidate Russia. A new world order was emerging with two global superpowers vying for hegemony. Byrnes was worried that if Russia entered the Japanese war, it would gain control of Manchuria and northern China. And of course, there were concerns over Eastern Europe.
The second man to know in this story is Leo Szilard. He was a Hungarian-American physicist and inventor who developed the idea of nuclear chain reactions in 1933. He was also a pacifist and a contrarian.
Ten weeks before Hiroshima was nuked, Szilard met with Byrnes. Here is what he recorded from that meeting on May 28, 1945:
Mr. Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war. He was concerned about Russia's postwar behavior. Russian troops had moved into Hungary and Romania; Byrnes thought it would be very difficult to persuade Russia to withdraw, and that Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might. I shared Byrnes's concern, but I was completely flabbergasted by the assumption that rattling the bomb might make Russia more manageable. (source)
Szilard presented a memo with his arguments to Byrnes, who refused to share it with President Truman.
Undeterred, Leo drafted a petition with signatures of scientists from the Manhattan Project. This time, however, General Groves—director of the Manhattan Project, and an egotistical man known for disregarding “all normal organizational channels”—insisted that this petition make its way up the “chain of command” through “official channels only.” The petition argued that atomic attacks on Japan “could not be justified, at least not until the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.” This was far more moderate than Szilard’s original proposition, which pleaded for the use of the bomb to be avoided at all costs. (source)
We vaporized 120,000 people in 90 seconds for what was essentially a geopolitical dick-measuring contest. These deaths were caused by the blunt force and excruciating heat of nuclear fission, and the number is a conservative estimate due to the fact that in many cases, entire families were killed, leaving no one to report the deaths.
The Radiation Effects Research Foundation estimates that in the weeks and months that followed, another 100,000 Japanese people died of acute radiation sickness, which obliterates bone marrow and intestinal tracts.
I am not interested in invocations of WWII that ignore who paid the cost of lessons we refuse to learn. And I take heart with unmentioned heroes of history, like Leo Szilard, who fought for different visions even when they lost.