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"The Last Act" Balancing Act
By Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi


Page 5

People have charged the US dropped the bomb on Japan instead of Germany for racial reasons. The August script explained this as an academic question. The US didn't have a bomb ready before Germany surrendered. It explained historians believe president Franklin D. Roosevelt would have bombed Germany if the US had a bomb ready before Germany surrendered. The August script explained there was some discussion about dropping the bomb on Japan instead of Germany. General Groves and some others discussed using the bomb against the Japanese first for technical reasons. They felt if the bomb failed to explode the Japanese would have been less capable of exploiting the intelligence coup. The Smithsonian removed this section from the October script. This is an unfortunate omission. Today few people believe the US dropped atomic bombs on Japan for racial reasons. That can change in the future. Today many people don't realize Germany surrendered two months before the US exploded the first atomic bomb. (1) Ignoring the question makes the racism charge more credible.

The exhibit details the Axis atomic bomb efforts. Dr. Crouch explains:

The Germans made the first small step. It was an area where they made so many mistakes that they believed it was probably possible but it would take longer than it actually did. The Japanese hadn't even made the first step. They had some interest but their economy couldn't afford such an effort. They had a couple of efforts but the largest one consisted of a dozen people working in a laboratory. The Germans put some Plutonium on a U-boat and sent it to Japan. Then the war ended and the U-boat surrendered. (2)

Explaining the state of Japan's World War II atomic bomb development is important. Recently some people have claimed Japan was close to developing an atomic bomb. Since modern Japan is a prosperous and technically advanced nation many may find such claims credible.

The script also does an excellent job of explaining the bomb casualty figures. Initial studies put the Hiroshima death toll as low as 42,000. The US Government put the death toll at 65,000. (3) The script explains these studies based their death estimates on body counts. A survey that correlated body counts, missing persons, and interviews puts the death toll at closer to 130,000 people. (4) A similar survey put the Nagasaki death toll at 60,000 to 70,000. These were the casualties as a direct result of the bombings.

The script underscores the cancer deaths. For example it tells Sadako Sasaki's story. She was a 12-year-old who died of leukemia in October 1955. In the months before her death she tried to fold 1,000 paper cranes. She completed 964 before her death. Her classmates finished the rest. Today Sasaki's statue stands in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It stands as a memorial to other children who may have died of cancer because of the nuclear blasts. It is impossible to say a specific person died from cancer because of the bomb blasts. However, some people in both cities contracted cancer from the bomb blasts. The evidence for this is a higher than average cancer rate in both cities in the years after the atomic explosions.

The Script's attention to the hibakusha (5) is a soar point for the Air Force Association. In an Air Force Magazine editorial John T. Correll writes:

Words, pictures, and video 'testimony' describe in detail the tragedy of hibakusha ('explosion affected persons') from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the curators have no time for another group -- disabled American veterans -- for whom the suffering also continued after the war. (6)

The attention paid to balancing Japanese civilian suffering with American military suffering could defeat the exhibit critics' purpose. Neutral observers could view such a "balance" as an attempt to compare US military casualties with innocent Japanese civilian casualties.

The August script toned down the conflict's racial aspect. The October script further toned down the racial aspect. A curious change is a cartoon substitution. The August script had a 1942 US poster that showed a caricature of a Japanese soldier carrying a limp, nude woman. The October script has a 1943 British poster that shows a caricature of a Japanese soldier. The caricature looks like King Kong with glasses. The October script still talks about US and Japanese propaganda where each side dehumanized the other. The script doesn't point out dehumanized portrayals of an opponent is normal. It is not unique to World War II or the Pacific Theater, or to war. Dave Stephanos of The Harvard Gazette once depicted Saddam Hussein as a spider. (7) After the 1992 election M. Shelton drew a cartoon that depicted "Liberals" as insects. (8) After the 1994 election a Washington Post cartoon depicted Senator Robert Dole as Count Dracula. (9)

The October script added a 1946 quotation from Allan Nevins (10) that begins, "Probably in all our history, no foe has been so detested as were the Japanese." Many visitors could mistake this period quote for a modern analysis.

The latest script may be overstating Hiroshima and Nagasaki as military targets. The script says the super battleship Musashi's home port was Nagasaki for most of 1944. US Naval aircraft sank the Musashi in the Sibuyan Sea near the Philippines on October 25, 1944. The script explains Hiroshima was a major military center. The aiming point, the Aioi Bridge, was not a military or industrial target. It was simply a landmark near the city's center. This is a curiosity since the Interim Committee, which recommended how to use the bomb recommended, "A vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers' houses."

Dr. Crouch points out the museum can still make changes "There is always room to make changes to the label text, word and sentences and that kind of thing down to the wire." Dr. Crouch points out how the criticism has affected the exhibit curators:

It has made us real careful but again underscored the need to listen. It isn't always comfortable, obviously, having this stuff come back. But you have to remember the need to listen to what people are saying and again perceptions involved there too. To try to understand really, fundamentally, what they are saying and to look for ways in which we might express that I the script.

On 18 January the American Legion called for the Smithsonian to cancel the exhibit. The Legion did this drastic action because of a disagreement over the casualty estimates at a June 18, 1945, meeting. The October script said at that meeting Admiral Leahy said the invasion force could have casualties proportional to the Okinawa losses. At Okinawa 35% of the invasion force became casualties. It 35% of Operation Downfall's invasion force became casualties that would have meant 250,000 casualties. Stanford University professor, Barton Bernstein, recently told Museum Director Dr. Martin Harwit the 250,000 estimate was too high. Mr. Bernstein said 63,000 was a more appropriate figure. (11) The figures discussed at the 1945 meeting have no bearing on what the actual casualties would have been. An 11 July 1945, Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum for the President states:

Our casualty experience in the Pacific was has been so diverse as to throw serious doubt on the validity of an quantitative estimate of casualties for future operations. (12)

On 20 January the Reserve Officers Association of the United States called for the exhibit's cancellation. The Association also asked the Board of Regents to fire the exhibit's curators.

The National Air & Space Museum's courageous effort to tell the atomic bomb's story is commendable. It would have been easy for the Smithsonian curators to ignore the occasion and avoid the controversy.

1 Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945, the US exploded the first atomic bomb in New Mexico on 16 July, 1945

2 The submarine was the U-234.

3 The New York Times, 25 Years After Bomb, Hiroshima Bears Few Visible Scars, August 6, 1970.

4 Of these 105,000 were civilians, including 30,000 Korean forced laborers. The New York Times, August 6, 1945, After 40 Years: A Bell Tolls.

5 The Japanese term for people who suffered from the atomic bombings.

6 Air Force Magazine, Airplanes in the Mist, by John T. Correll, December 1994.

7 USA Today, January 19, 1993.

8 1993 The Orange County Register.

9 The Washington Post, The Return of Count GOPula, cartoon by Oliphant, November 13, 1994.

10 The quote is from "While you were gone." Allan Nevins received two Pulitzer Prizes in the 1930s.

11 The Washington Times, Officials disagreed on casualty figure for invading Japan.

12 J.C.S. 1388/4 Details of the Campaign Against Japan. The government declassified this document on 22 January 1971.

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Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi © 1996