Notes From the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
Joe Miller called me in May, to ask that I put together a column for what he said would be an August publication date. Realizing that Joe worked for the federal government for several years, I had no reason to believe that The Veteran would be out anytime before October, and planned accordingly to work on something with a Halloween theme. It then occurred to me that Lisa and Jeff, the paper's co-editors, had not been similarly traumatized by a military upbringing, so that the projected August date seemed more realistic.
This actually worked out well, assuming that my plan was to work on something appropriate for the season. As our readers know, there are few months of the year which feature more meaningful and joyous holidays than August.
Can't think of any? Try August 6 and 9.
As a very amateur history student, I have figured out over the years that there are some themes, or assumptions, in American history which are considered incontrovertible. One is that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a work of genius, which produced a document of near-Biblical proportions. This may be true. A second is that it was a very good thing that the North won the Civil War, because this assured the preservation of the Union, the growth of democracy, and, if not the freedom of African-Americans, at least their official emancipation. At least two of these assumptions are probably true. A third is that the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, in August of 1945, saved a million American lives, and kept the war in the Pacific from dragging on for at least several more months. (I ask you: how many people have you met in your lives who don't believe that?)
One reason that almost everyone believes it, I should caution, is that it may be true. Newsweek ran a cover story a couple of years ago on the subject, and went so far as to reproduce the War Department's elaborate plans for the invasion of Japan, sans the bomb, giving every indication that its editorial staff was in complete agreement with this proposition. One historian, however, doesn't see it that way, and I should like to share with you his thoughts on the subject.
Professor Howard Zinn, whom George W. Bush once described as "a man I admire as much as Jesus Christ" (okay, that's a joke), touched on this subject in his "People's History of the United States." Zinn quotes a couple of liberal historians and journalists (always suspect), and then goes on to utilize another source: the United States Government.
Zinn writes that the Strategic Bombing Survey, an arm of the War Department (ours, not theirs), concluded after a very lengthy study that "in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped." This conclusion was based upon "a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of surviving Japanese leaders." Zinn then asks, "Could American leaders have known this in August 1945? The answer is clearly yes. The Japanese code had been broken, and ... it was known the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies. ... On July 13, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: 'Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.' ... If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender - that is, if they were willing to accept one condition of the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place - the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war."
Assuming that this were true, why did we go ahead with the bombing? (And why, a mere three days after Hiroshima, did we drop the second one?) Zinn floats a couple of ideas. His first suggestion is that "too much money and effort had been invested in the atomic bomb not to drop it." His second is that "the Russians had secretly agreed that they would come into the war (with Japan) ninety days after the end of the European war. That turned out to be May 8, and so, on August 8, the Russians were due to declare war on Japan. But by then the big bomb had been dropped, ... the Japanese would surrender to the United States, not the Russians, and the United States would be the occupier of postwar Japan." Welcome to the Cold War. You guys take Eastern Europe, and we'll take the Far East.
Unlike Professor Zinn, or Dr. Miller, I have no professional credentials as either a historian or a political scientist. (Hell, I majored in medieval history in college.) But I would offer my own amateur suggestion in regard to our motivation.
Truman didn't drop those bombs on Japan; he dropped them on Moscow. Even if most Americans had never heard of the term "cold war," you can bet "Give 'Em Hell" Harry and John Foster Dulles knew what was coming. If several hundred thousand Japanese civilians had to die for us to get our point across, then it is possible that Washington thought that a small price to pay for the privilege of getting to make the first move on the chessboard. As we know, Truman didn't mind throwing a few million Vietnamese to the wolves that same year, and for the same reason.
So what is my point in bringing this up, fifty-six years later? My first priority is that, as with any columnist, I have a deadline to meet. VVAW pays me five hundred bucks for each of these columns [Paul is kidding again. -Ed.] , and I'll be damned if I'm giving up that kind of dough just because I don't have anything worthwhile to say. My second motivation may be less self-serving.
I have been speaking to high school history classes in Douglas County, about the Vietnam War, for the past four years. I've spoken to about three hundred students in that period of time, and there is always some malcontent who winds up asking me something like, "If you don't like it here, why don't you move to Russia?" I am accused - I would like to think falsely - of bashing my country, or of biting that hand that feeds me.
My answer has been substantially this. We have all known people who are never wrong. If by some slim chance they have ever done or said anything which was not correct, then they have since more than atoned for it. (It was also someone else's fault for giving them misleading information in the first place.) We also know how much we enjoy the company of these people.
Nations are not that much different from people. All too often neither entity - individuals or mass societies - ever understands something which most people would find pretty basic. That is that when we make mistakes, however we came to make them, people do not respect us more once they have figured out that we're trying to cover them up. They respect us more when we admit them, and try to atone for them. Such admission, although initially painful, has one more benefit: it may make us less likely to do it again.
I do not look for an imminent admission from Washington that Howard Zinn may have been right. I don't even look for an admission that somebody other than a couple of drunken PFCs was responsible for No Gun Ri. To tell you the truth, I'm afraid I've settled in to an acceptance of something even more dour: too many Americans still think that being an American means never having to say you're wrong.
And you know something even sadder? A lot of them honestly believe we never are.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW's C-U Chapter. He lives in Tuscola, IL where he works for the Probation Department. He was in Vietnam with the U.S. Army 9th Division in 1968.