Collateral Murder Circa 1945: Why America Should Commemorate the Atomic Bombings

Sixty-eight years ago this month the US military carried out the atomic bombing of Japan and killed an estimated 200,000 people in Hiroshima and over 70,000 in Nagasaki. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians. These bombings should be commemorated, not only by the victims, but more importantly, by the so-called victors. Hiroshima and Nagasaki serve as a grim reminder of the profound suffering that afflicts civilian populations at the hands of unaccountable imperial power. Conventional narratives portray the bombing as a necessity that “saved American lives” but the reality of the decision paints a radically different portrait. President Truman bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not out of necessity, but in order to assert American military dominance at the close of World War II. Gar Alperovitz’s landmark study on the use of the atomic bomb illustrates the calculated nature of Truman’s decision. Discussing the use of the bomb, Alperovitz writes “it is quite clear that alternatives to using the bomb existed—and that the president and his advisers were aware of them.”

Among the available alternatives was to withhold the use of the bomb until Japan could negotiate a response to US demands for surrender. The US decided to use the bomb before Japan could respond or as Alperovitz states “a conscious choice not to allow a meaningful interval [for negotiations] was made early on –and explicitly reaffirmed at Potsdam.” Other alternatives show that a Russian invasion, which was imminent, would, according to the US Strategic Bombing Survey and the War Department, elicit Japan’s surrender, an exit foreshadowed in Truman’s racist diary entry that “the Jap emperor wants peace”. Truman also sidelined this possibility in favor of bombing, exterminating not only more than a quarter million Japanese citizens but a group of American prisoners. Filmmaker Gary DeWalt explores these killings in the documentary “Genbaku Shi: Killed by the Atomic Bomb,” and Gar Alperovitz, referring to the killings, notes “it is now also known that US officials understood that American and other servicemen were almost certainly being held in target cities.” Additionally, the War Department stated in a telegram dated July 31, 1945 “information here indicates that there are prison camps in practically every major Japanese city.” Together these facts serve as a striking symbol of the indiscriminate nature of US bombings. In fact, the Obama administration has now normalized the killing of American citizens via drone strikes—Anwar Awlaki for example—under the dubious pretext that the judicial branch has no say in matters of “national security” or as Attorney General Eric Holder stated in his defense of this policy: “Due process and judicial process are not one and the same . . .”

Add to Truman’s determination to use the bomb, the many voices of criticism within his inner circle which included prominent figures like future president Dwight Eisenhower who, according to his biographer, met Truman in Berlin prior to the decision where he recommended “against using the bomb, and again was ignored.” Eisenhower’s words of criticism was joined by those of the Commanding General of the US Air Force Henry Arnold who said “it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” This reflexive resort to violence in order to assert what is euphemistically called US “credibility” is a defining characteristic of imperial power that guides national decision makers to this day. For example, the Obama administration has repeatedly threatened Iran with military force despite the absence of any empirical evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Added to these violations of the UN charter is a sanctions regime that is currently decimating the Iranian economy and its civilian population. One of the more obscene consequences of the sanctions regime can be seen in Iran’s aviation industry where at least 1,224 people have been killed in plane crashes over an eleven-year period (2000-2011) because “Iran is prohibited from updating its thirty year-old American aircrafts, and the purchase of spare parts from European companies has become extremely difficult.” Perhaps policy makers would dismiss this horrible statistic as an economic externality, a technical phrase for disasters which only affect unpeople.

Latest attempts to pulverize the Iranian economy include a new sanctions bill passed by the US Congress that would, according to Reuters, “cut Iran’s oil exports by another 1 million barrels per day over a year to near zero.” These acts of war come while the US helps to uphold an international order that invites another, perhaps globally catastrophic, nuclear strike in their refusal to ratify–along with Iran, China, Egypt, North Korea, India, and Israel–the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996 to ban “all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes.” However, US commitment to violence expands well beyond nuclear weapons paranoia, a tribute to doctrines of State terror that inspired Truman to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The impact of Truman’s legacy of crime is particularly felt in President Obama’s worldwide program of extrajudicial assassination via predator drones. Much like the atomic bomb, the advent of predator drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, has added a new dimension to the brutality of modern warfare, a brutality that is justified under the flimsiest of moral and legal pretexts.

In 2011, during and online Q&A session, Obama presented what the Los Angeles Times called “a vigorous defense of the use of unmanned aircraft to kill Al Qaeda operatives and other militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.” “I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones,” Obama assured a questioner, adding that the US does not carry out drone strikes “willy nilly” and “it is important for everybody to understand that this [drone program] is kept on a very tight leash.” Recent reports from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism attest to the how tightly the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate’s “leash” is pulled. Since 2004 approximately 3,584 people–conservative estimates place the figure at 2,505–have been extralegally killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Of this number between 164 and 195 of the victims have been children. This reality clashes sharply with President Obama’s assertion that “drone strikes had not inflicted huge civilian casualties” (New York Times) and his administration has been “very careful” in terms of how the weapon is used.

Glaring contradictions of this kind abound in Truman’s justification for atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a preview of the kinds of justifications that would dominate the Obama administration, Truman maintained that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets, writing in his journal “even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic . . . the target will be a purely military one . . .” This assertion flatly contradicts what Alperovitz calls the “primary interest of both the Interim Committee and the Target Committee,” that the objective of the bombing was not military in nature but to make “as large a ‘psychological’ impact as possible,” which “meant targeting large numbers of civilians.” Alperovitz adds that Stanford University historian Barton Bernstein classifies this use of bombing for psychological purposes as a form of “terror bombing”. Is there a more fitting contemporary analogue to Truman’s mischaracterization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a “purely military” target than the Obama administrations unambiguously illegal categorization of “every military aged male in a strike zone,” as a “militant”? In retrospect one could make a convincing argument that the atomic bombing of Japan was Truman’s version of a “signature strike”, though the arguer would find it considerably more difficult to portray such wanton savagery as “surgical”. Observing Truman’s compulsive dishonesty former US Secretary of War Henry Stimson recorded in his private journal “Truman is a nuisance and a pretty untrustworthy man. He talks smoothly and he acts meanly.” It is for these reasons that whistleblowers are vital to the survival of any society that wishes to call itself a democracy with a shred of honesty.
To take a textbook example, many Americans were understandably appalled after viewing the infamous Collateral Murder video. An Apache helicopter pilot can be heard anxiously waiting to gun down first responders after shooting down other civilians, two of them Reuters journalists (Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen). Unlike the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which Truman hailed as an outcome of the “greatest achievement of organized science in history,” this state-sponsored murder of unarmed civilians in Baghdad could not be explained away with stirring rhetoric. Therefore, the US government had to do what any competent criminal would do: deflect attention away from your own crimes by vilifying and punishing the person who exposes your record of criminality to the public. Though acquitted of the most ludicrous charge of “aiding the enemy”, US whistleblower and political prisoner Bradley Manning now faces up to 136 years in prison for espionage over the leaking of classified diplomatic cables. The verdict of the Manning trial shows that the perceived legitimacy of imperial power relies crucially on the reality that there are no witnesses to their terrorism. No one was supposed to hear the sociopathic pleas of the helicopter pilot focusing his crosshairs on unarmed civilians. No one was supposed to see the small children in the back seat of the first responder’s van after it had been riddled with bullets, the children whose trauma the helicopter pilot rationalized by saying, “it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” Interestingly, the Apache helicopter pilot’s satisfaction with murdering unarmed civilians mirrors the reaction of Truman after the atomic bombing.

Alperovitz describes Truman’s reaction to the news that the first bomb had hit Hiroshima as “one of extreme excitement and pleasure”. According to reports from the period Truman announced the bombing to a group of sailors around him as “the greatest thing in history.” In another interview with journalist William Hillman in 1951 Truman described the atomic bomb as “just another weapon of war, that’s all”. Presumably, this is why the Apache helicopter pilot and his radio contact topped off their performance of mass slaughter with the following banal observations: “’I’ve got . . . eleven Iraqi KIAs [Killed In Action]. One small child wounded. Over.’ – ‘Roger. Ah damn. Oh well.’” In accord with the doctrines of Truman, the helicopter that brought death from above wasn’t an instrument of terror it was “just another weapon of war, that’s all.”

It is against this historical backdrop that voices of conscience like Bradley Manning are punished. Yet Bradley Manning’s crime was not espionage. His crime was that he witnessed US crimes and communicated this fact to the public. An instructive historical analogy would be if the Truman’s “greatest achievement of organized science in history” were remembered as a criminal conspiracy that led to an unnecessary and illegal bombing that spread “blood cancers . . . thyroid cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, salivary gland cancer, and malignant lymphoma.” Incidentally, similar symptoms are widespread in Fallujah, a city in Iraq subjected to murderous assault by the US military in 2003 and 2004. These crimes are also unremembered, most egregiously in President Obama’s 2011 speech at Ft. Bragg heralding the Iraq war as a “success”.

While President Obama can “talk smoothly” in his public praise of the military occupation and destruction of Iraq as a “success”, his seemingly unbounded capacity to “act meanly” in the extremely punitive behavior of his administration in silencing whistleblowers suggests a rising level of dissent among the American public. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center reveals “for the first time since 9/11, Americans are now more worried about civil liberties abuses than terrorism.” Few, if any, conflicts bring into focus the draconian character of the Obama administration’s holy war against whistleblowers than the ongoing persecution of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Not only has Snowden been slandered as a “felon” and a “traitor” but Washington has taken the unprecedented step of grounding the plane of Bolivian president Evo Morales in an attempt to deny Snowden the right to asylum, a right enshrined in international law. Shortly after the extrajudicial skyjacking, UNASUR issued a public statement condemning what they called “unfriendly and unjustifiable acts,” which “put in serious risk the security of the Bolivian head of state and his party.”

In the Summer of 2012 National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander attempted to block the deluge of information detailing the dystopian dimensions of the surveillance state and the nature of his crimes by making an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum. In this appearance, which was mostly made up of public relations paraphernalia for the surveillance state, he dismissed reports that suggested the NSA had been collecting the email and phone records of American citizens in bulk. Interviewing Alexander, NBC commissar Pete Williams mused if there were “any truth” to these findings and went on to ask “why do these stories persist that you’re spying on us”. Alexander brushed off the question by saying he’s “never seen one of [Pete William’s] emails,” that “all branches of the government can see that what we do is correct” and such claims were “grossly out of the truth”. The real question, that went unasked, was if the reports–the kind of reports that Edward Snowden and Greenwald have now helped to confirm as true–present the outlines of a program that is consistent with the framework of constitutional law and if not how does one justify such an abuse of power. Denial about the existence of the program is expected but to legally indict the program as illustrated in Greenwald’s articles would set a precedent for meaningful change. Latest revelations show that the NSA is operating a program called XKeyscore. Under this program NSA analysts are granted the ability to “search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.” The NSA itself describes the program as “its ‘widest-reaching’ system for developing intelligence from the internet.”

Insights of this kind put to shame William’s question if there was “any truth” to reports on NSA abuse and highlights the necessity of a informed citizenry willing to challenge power systems even when much of the press forfeits its formal role to be an adversary to power in order to serve as its protectors. It is therefore unsurprising that Edward Snowden, like Bradley Manning, is also a threat to established order. “I hope we’ll chase him to the ends of the earth,” South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham angrily remarked in an appearance on Fox News. Conspicuously ignored were those who committed incomparably more serious crimes that would not need to be “chased to the ends of the earth,” primarily because they reside in the United States. So there were no bloodthirsty calls to chase Luis Posada Carriles, an international terrorist responsible for blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976 and killing of 73 people, “to the ends” of Miami. Likewise, there were no calls from circles of power to chase Robert Lady “to the ends of” Texas after he was charged in abstentia by an Italian court for the kidnapping and torture of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar. The same can be said of Bolivia’s former president Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada who will not be chased “to the ends” of Chevy Chase, Maryland because he only committed the non-crime of “ordering the [Bolivian] military to attack protesters, resulting in the shooting deaths of over 67 and injury to over 400,” unpeople.

The double standard is screamingly obvious and further indicates what lies behind the vindictive nature of this national campaign against whistleblowers, what Julian Assange calls “religious national security extremism” and “a new religion in the United States”. Where Manning exposed US terror in action–gunning down civilians, journalists, and endorsing torture–Snowden exposed the architecture of domestic surveillance that ensures the American public is unmoved by such atrocities. In all, the war on whistleblowers is a campaign designed to criminalize empathy. War crimes are to be accepted as a negotiable cost of ensuring “national security” and any opposition to this trade-off makes one criminally suspect if not, as in the case of Snowden and Manning, an enemy of the state. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the subtitle of Alperovitz’s study suggests, has been shrouded in myths that obscures the humanity of the victims and deifies the identity of the victimizers. It is precisely this dynamic that Manning, Snowden, and other whistleblowers are seeking to reverse. A public commemoration of the atomic bombings would stand as a significant contribution in creating such a reversal.

[This article will be republished in its entirety in the Southern Praxis and can be found @]


Alperovitz, Gar, and Sanho Tree. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. New York: Knopf, 1995. Print.
Dower, John W. Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.


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