Who's the Revisionist?
By Uday Mohan
Uday Mohan is a graduate student in the history department at The American University.
A number of journalists covering the Enola Gay exhibit debate suggested the "politically correct," "revisionist" critique of President Truman's decision resulted from a generational and ideological gap. And at least two of them, Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle and columnist Edwin Yoder, specifically cited divisions over the Vietnam War as a major reason for questioning the decision to drop the bomb.
Such observations, however, ignore history. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s a number of prominent military officers and civilians questioned the necessity of the bomb. Military critics included Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Adm. William Leahy, Truman'ý chief of staff, and Gen. "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Force. Among the civilian critics were Time magazine founder Henry Luce; David Lawrence, the staunchly conservative editor of United States News, now U.S. News & World Report; and Hanson Baldwin, the New York Times' leading military affairs analyst.
For example, in a 1948 speech Luce stated, "If, instead of our doctrine of 'unconditional surrender,' we had all along made our conditions clear, I have little doubt that the war with Japan would have ended no later than it did – without the bomb explosion which so jarred the Christian conscience."
In his 1950 book, "Great Mistakes of the War," Baldwin also suggested the bomb had been unnecessary. In 1958, William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review twice questioned Truman's decision.
In 1965, Life magazine ran a highly positive review of historian Gar Alperovitz's "Atomic Diplomacy." The book, which has been called the first serious challenge to the idea that the only reason for dropping the atomic bomb was to quickly end the war, suggested that concern about postwar relations with the Soviet Union was the key factor.
Ten years later U.S. News & World Report ran one of the last examples of a critique by the news media. The magazine reprinted portions of interviews from 1960 with five World War II insiders, including Truman's secretary of state, James F. Byrnes; Edward Teller, a physicist who built the bomb; and Lewis Strauss, assistant to the secretary of the Navy during the war and later the head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Only Byrnes unequivocally supported Truman's decision.
The occasional questioning by the media began to fade just as scholars, picking through the archival material that slowly became available, began to seriously question why Truman had used the bomb. Journalists did not keep up with advances in scholarship. By 1985, the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima, news organizations raised fewer critical questions even while offering the most extensive coverage to date.
The Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times published more than 100 items in the summer of 1985. Newsweek and Time ran special sections that together totalled more than 40 pages. Life devoted an entire issue to World War II, including a section titled "Top Secret: A Great Invasion the A-Bomb Cancelled." ABC's "Nightline" "re-created" the invasion of Japan that never took place, leaving the historical issues to a brief and unilluminating exposition.
Apart from some of the opinion pieces in the four newspapers reviewed, an essay in Time, and a news story in the New York Times, the media barely mentioned the serious nature of the historical controversy. The majority of the opinion pieces supported the use of the bomb.
The last time the issue came up before the Smithsonian controversy was in December 1991, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, when President Bush asserted that Truman's decision was "right because it spared the lives of millions of American citizens." A database search found that in the ensuing coverage, the approximately 130 print and television news and opinion stories that mentioned Hiroshima failed to seriously challenge Bush's statement.