Ideological Undertones: The Atomic Bomb and U.S. Tone-deafness

by Alexis J. Doreste for Professor Holm's SS 102 course

Ideology, the struggle between contending ones, and their spread throughout nations was at the heart of World War II. In contrast to the Great War, World War II was not a morally ambiguous or aimless war; it instead had clear righteous and wrongful sides—or so would those fighting for the moral right would have us believe. World War II saw the creation of the United Nations, a symbol of the world’s desire to achieve peace and collaboration. In American public memory, World War II is remembered as that of the Allies versus the Axis, as the takedown of fascism, as the rescue of Europe by America, and as the successful proliferation of Capitalism and Democracy. For many in the United States it became a war that defined their country’s national and global identity—that of liberators, freedom fighters, and defenders of human rights and the weak. However, what the American public has turned into symbols of pride and of America’s past benevolence is also what has obfuscated the memory of American belligerence towards Japan and American carelessness of global atomic policy after August 6th 1945. The United States was recognized globally by some nations as an important contributor in turning the tide of WWII and by others as a seemingly moral nation with intentions of global prestige. The reveal of American atomic nuclear power on an extensively firebombed Japan, and the American occupation of Japan certainly made it more difficult for the United States to reconcile the two global perceptions they possessed. However, the United States would attempt to reconcile these two sides of itself by using its ideologies of Capitalism and Democracy to justify its past discrepancies and future plans. American politicians, journalists, and public figures featured on local American newspapers would successfully (and questionably) frame Western ideologies as justifications for atomic belligerence against Japan and for a descent into a cold war with Russia.

The heightened global paranoia after the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 certainly hurt the global image of the U.S. as being purely benevolent. Those who agreed with U.S. policy and ideology saw the atomic bomb as an extension of their own defenses, this was at least true for Canada, France, and Great Britain. Those who disagreed, however, recognized that the atomic bomb afforded a past imperial nation massive amounts of power to now exert their will, their lifestyle, and most importantly their ideology on other nations. While the Soviets were being accused of attempting or having attempted Western occupation (as their occupation of East Poland in collaboration with the Nazi regime was salient in global memory), the United States was burdened by similar criticism—criticism that was hard to refute considering some news stories of the time. The Boston Globe offered two such editorial articles—titled “After Jap Surrender” by Carlyle Holt1 and “First Beat Foe, Then Treat Him” by Charles A. Merrill2—which read as mission statements for what the U.S. planned to do with Japan and Europe. In the U.S. stories like these were regarded lightheartedly by most Americans; however, the global context of these newspaper articles had much greater implications than what was immediately obvious. For one, these articles framed America’s military superiority as a product of their ideologies of Capitalism and Democracy, which lead to the conclusion that modernity at the hand of these ideologies was inherent and worth spreading by threat or use of nuclear power.

To understand the implications of these two articles, it must be acknowledged that, while both articles and those like it were meant for American audiences and were representative of the opinions of American journalists, the United States had been under heavy espionage by the Soviet Union during the 1940s. While espionage was mainly concentrated in development of the atomic bomb, it is conceivably possible that these articles were making it back to the Soviet Union and possibly further convincing the Kremlin of American intentions of “world domination,” or the proliferation of their antithetic ideology. The Soviet Union also had a vested interest in Japan, considering they wanted Communist satellites wherever they could find them and considering they had massively impacted the outcome of the war in the Pacific. Another important piece of context is that after 1941 and 1945 with American inclusion into the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations (respectively), there was a precedent set for what standards the modern world should follow in terms of global policy. The standards pertinent to the argument of this essay asserted the prohibition of territorial gains, that territorial adjustments had to be consented to by those involved, that countries had a right to national self-determination, that aggressor nations must be disarmed, and that nations should work for “global economic cooperation and the advancement of social welfare.”3 As the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference between the United States, Great Britain, the Chinese Republic, and the Soviet Union foreshadowed, countries disagreed or would disagree about the standards set in place by the UN and their interpretations.

The U.S. was one of the first violators, specifically of the right to national self-determination standard, but their successful usage of Western ideologies as justification would make that difficult to realize at the time. To clarify, Western ideals maintained the idea of sovereign nation-states. However, the “West”—which became most of the countries that today make up NATO—argued that a federal link between sovereign nation-states would be beneficial. That is, Western ideals stood for international unity and obedience to an agreed upon code of conduct, instead of submission to a central state, superior power, or foreign nation. Alongside these ideals, the “West” generally agreed on the principles of egalitarianism, unity, free trade, freedom of speech, liberalism, and universal democracy.4 Through this understanding of changing global standards we can see how the future occupation of Japan by American troops would not allow the U.S. proposal at Dumbarton Oaks to age well, for it reads, “the Organization [a proto-UN] should refrain from intervention in the internal affairs of any of its members.”5 This statement became problematic in the following years for two reasons: the U.S. was determined to set up a Capitalist Democracy in Japan (effectively meddling in their internal affairs) and the proposed U.S. atomic bomb control plan would require nations to submit themselves for foreign inspection of their nuclear power plants.

In this light the previously mentioned editorials— “After Jap Surrender” and “First Beat Foe, Then Treat Him”—dealing with American occupation of Japan become more significant. Written August 11th 1945, the former lists America’s postwar peacetime obligations and goals, one being sending an Army of occupation into Japan.6 The latter, which was written in September of 1945, suggests that the post-war treatment of Germany should mirror that of Japan, quoting the Potsdam Declaration (where terms of surrender were issued to Japan) as exemplary. The article echoes the goals of the Potsdam Declaration: not to enslave the Japanese or destroy their nation, but to punish the “vicious, shortsighted leaders” and destroy Japan’s heavy industry and “deprive them forever of this war potential.”7 The segment ends with, “Finally, we are committed to a complete purge of their [Germany’s and Japan’s] Fascist and imperialist ideology, and to a campaign of democratic enlightenment which we hope will eventually bring the enemy people into step with those of other lands.”8 This line directly references the ultimate goal of WWII and the victorious Western powers—to change world ideology overnight and purge their “subpar” ideological competitors. The occupation of Japan and the restructuring of its government into a liberal democracy—something not short of meddling in a foreign nation’s internal affairs and therefore against UN principles—was justified by the victorious nature of Democracy in the world stage, further highlighting its effectiveness and supposed moral righteousness. The article begins by calling Fascism a political disease; however, whether that is correct should be of no concern, considering the United Nations had set the precedent that nations were entitled to their self-determination. The question now becomes, how did the pursuit of the proliferation of ideologies become such a convincing justification for effectively ignoring the agreed upon global standards set by the Atlantic Charter and later by the UN? As was alluded to by the phrase “democratic enlightenment”—found in the previously mentioned newspaper article “First Beat Foe, Then Treat Him”—to what extent could foreign nations dictate what “progress” was for other nations and at whose doorstep would this “ideological purge” halt?

American newspapers would not alleviate the paranoia generated by the previously mentioned articles and questions. In fact, Russia’s critique of U.S. ambitions for world dominance (whether territorially or ideologically) was hard to refute considering American mass media was so adamant about their own country’s self-righteous ways and potential influence over world policy. For example, journalists like Jay Franklin of the Boston Globe saw Democracy as a force that would inevitably overtake all other modes of governance. In his mid-1945 article, “America’s Rendezvous with Destiny,” after a racist account of the Japanese, Franklin asserts that the “last stronghold of feudal theocracy and tribalism in the modern world” could not withstand the power of the democratic world.9 Indeed, WWII had made it seem precisely as if the world were naturally leaning to Western ideals. Franklin did not hesitate to explain what America’s atomic bombing of Japan proved: “that freedom is stronger than its opposite,” “tribalism is weaker than democracy,” and “America’s gift to the world […] is enduring peace.”10 Other articles certainly seemed to encourage overbearing American influence on world events, decisions, and policy. American journalist and radio broadcaster Dorothy Thompson suggests in her June 21st 1946 article “U.S. Alone Can Create World Law” that if the United States “really wanted world government, world law, world control of heavy weapons, and a body of power to enforce perpetual peace, the United States alone [could] create it—and only for a short time.”11 She references America’s “monopoly of decisive power” towards the end, that is, the atomic bomb.12 Through the lens of American mass media it surely seemed as if the United States was preparing to purge the world of non-Western ideals and, conceivably, its citizens encouraged American utilization of force to achieve this.

Throughout America’s post-WWII ideological crusade, public opinion was unwavering in support of American foreign policy with regards to Japan. A 1945 Gallup poll found that 85% of those polled approved of America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The results of the poll were unanimous across age group, gender, and education level.13 The widespread support of the atomic bomb is understandable in the context of American desire to shorten the war—the United States was tired after winning a gruesome war in the European front and the American public was eager to cease all belligerence. However, a byproduct of the desire to shorten the war was that the citizens of the United States failed to consider the deep moral question of atomic destruction, which understandably increased global distrust of the United States. The sudden use of and inexistent transparency around the atomic bomb begged the question: if the American public will not stop the United States from atomically bombing countries, what will? It should also be mentioned that the U.S. citizenry could only comment on the bomb after it had been released, for most did not know of the project and had not seen what the weapon could do. Moreover, American morale and trust in government was so high after curbing Hitler’s intentions for world rule that they became complacent in their government’s actions afterwards—being confident that the U.S. government would continue acting benevolently. Understandably, even if the citizenry had known about the weapon, it is debatable whether its usage would have been protested in any way. The benevolent image of the United States most American citizens had in mind carried over into how the country would rationalize its treatment of Japan and its newfound method of destruction. Whether this image of American benevolence was correct is of little concern, for what matters is the effect this perception had on American public opinion and discourse surrounding their nuclear monopoly.

The bomb was credited for singlehandedly ending America’s war in the Pacific, but it also de-incentivized any further aggression in Europe. Apart from a weapon, the bomb became a symbol of American ingenuity, of technological progress, and of the ideological and political conditions that supposedly made such a weapon possible in the first place. The atomic bomb was a symbol of status—both of power and of societal development. This idolatry of the bomb was not simply in the abstract, it manifested itself in how Americans talked about their newfound power and their entitlement to the future of Japan. The weapon was made out to be tangible proof of the superiority of Capitalism and Democracy—only in a country built on these ideologies could such a scientific marvel be conceived. In fact, some newspaper journalists claimed to have concrete reasons for why the West had been blessed with such ingenuity. In the aptly named article “Hitler’s Cruelties Lost Him A-Bomb Chances,” by the previously introduced Dorothy Thompson, she credits Hitler’s persecution of Jewish people and other cruelties as the reason for why so many talented scientists (like Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Lise Meitner) fled to the “world of western democracies.”14 Dorothy Thompson closes a paragraph by saying that it’s a sort of “poetic justice—perhaps the justice of God—in the fact that Hitler’s aggression against the Jews and his neighbors helped deliver into the hands of western democracies the most terrible weapon that ever existed.”15 This article was four days after Hiroshima was bombed; however, in another article the following year Thompson did not seem against using “the most terrible weapon that ever existed” to achieve American ends.

Specifically, the atomic bomb, for some explicitly and for others implicitly, became proof of the validity of Modernization Theory—the theory that nations recovering from complete social breakdown can become like the West not simply in terms of wealth and technology, but in terms of lifestyle and ideology.16 This connection drawn to Modernization Theory was due to the the bomb being credited to the western way of life and government, which many in the U.S. claimed allowed for greater scientific freedom. Apart from being a justification of western ideology, the atomic bomb also clearly established the differences between the West and everyone else—sometimes even between the United States and other western powers—and in so doing it helped develop America’s particular western identity as well. The idea of the West as a powerful and inclusive side of the world was made more evident by the invention and successful implementation of the bomb to end a conflict in such a short span of time. However, by American newspapers, this perception was handled differently and was used to hypothesize how other countries would have fared in WWII if they would have been more ideologically similar to the U.S. Two such newspaper articles are “France a year from A-Bomb as Nazis came”17 and “Nazis A-Bomb 90 Days Late”18, the latter by Chicago Tribune journalist E.R. Noderer. Since the atomic bomb was not simply a product of scientific ingenuity but also one of the West’s inclusivity to foreigners and the free exposition of ideas, these articles implicitly indict the supposedly retrograde ideologies of other countries—even if France was not dissimilar to the U.S. Through the lens of these newspaper articles, if France had the atomic bomb they would have avoided Nazi occupation and if the Nazis had the atomic bomb they could have succeeded in exerting their will on the international platform; however, as the newspapers would implicitly reassure, the atomic bomb was not a symptom of industrialization, rather it was a symptom of (and only a symptom of) western modernization.

This perception of the bomb and the status and power it afforded the United States contributed to how journalists and politicians would talk about the bomb and foreign policy. Undoubtedly, there was plenty of paranoia in the United States, especially in the months following the first detonation, and this contributed to the initial carelessness of the public discourse surrounding the terrible weapon. For example, days and weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed there was so little known about the science of the atomic bomb that there was a legitimate concern that it could blow up the planet or cause a chain reaction of atomic explosions throughout Earth. An article published by Boston Globe journalist Ernest Barcella the day after the bombing of Hiroshima reads “Bomb Can Render Japan Unlivable for 50 Years, Churns Up Earth.”19 The capabilities of the bomb were unknown to most, so the initial mentions of it are understandable; however, the paranoia around what it could potentially and permanently do to a country made America’s ideological counterparts immediately nervous, reclusive, and skeptical. After all, if American benevolence meant bombing nations with differing ideologies with the most terrible weapon ever devised under the guise of Democracy and Capitalism, where would this crusade halt? Russia was inherently skeptical of American intentions for understandable reasons: if Russia instead had possessed as powerful a weapon would they cease their goal of global ideological conversion and of a worldwide Communist revolution?

The particular way the bomb was used on Japan also spoke to this growing skepticism of American intentions. That is, the bomb was employed without warning and its first sighting was when it had already been used on an enemy. Moreover, the atomic bomb came after the U.S. issued Japan an ultimatum— ‘surrender or else.’ Now that foreign countries knew what this meant, it was not farfetched to assume America would continue using this strategy, which would only have been made more effective by the bomb’s revelation. In addition to the careless initial employment of the bomb, there was also careless discourse surrounding the bomb by politicians and journalists. One example comes from a 1947 Boston Globe snippet quoting former U.S. minister to Bulgaria and Austria and former Pennsylvania governor George H. Earle as saying that “we ought to bomb Russia before she bombs us.”20 A year earlier Earle had been quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying that “America should have enough atomic bombs to destroy every community in Russia if the soviets ever drop one on us,”21 so he clearly envisioned this weapon as one for self-defense—as many in the U.S. argued was how it was initially used. However, the immediate devastation that the weapon caused made any other employment of it other than striking first unadvisable—something ex-Governor Earle eventually realized. This unavoidable fact was also known to Russia and, if American newspapers were any indication, politicians, journalists, ex-politicians, and the citizenry favored using the bomb against the Soviet Union. Russia was being further convinced that their skepticism of the West was not unwarranted.

Through the lens of American newspapers spanning from 1945 to 1950 we can obtain valuable insight into how different the purposes and outcomes of World War II were to that of World War I. The ideologies that underlined the United States’ post-war actions speak to a change in what nations hoped to gain from warfare—not territory or monetary gain, rather the goal now was improving other societies (with what each country believed improvement was) and hopefully in the future acquiring likeminded allies. In contrast to the aimless first World War, World War II’s gruesomeness and the memory of the devastation of World War I made justifying warfare the imperative—what better way to justify warfare than to say you are fighting a war to end all future wars? At the end of World War I, the global morale was low, but there was a desire to never see such a conflict again; however, what made a future conflict almost inevitable was the fact that there was not as strong a sense (or one at all) of international unity and cooperation towards a common goal. The harsh punishment of a war-torn Germany, consented to by the international community, further added to a sense of disjointedness and hostility. Fighting for the ideals set by the UN were a necessary step in the justification of WWI and the ongoing WWII—it was the only way to convince the so-called modern world at the time that they were indeed as modern as they thought they were. In this respect, countries had to unite for a common objective. Nations that believed in progress through the ideals of liberalism, universal Democracy, free trade, freedom of speech, and the rule of law joined the Western bloc, while those that believed in progress through the ideals of Communism as the great equalizer, along with its planned economy and one party system, joined the Eastern bloc.

This division between East and West might seem antithetic to the theme of postwar unity, progress, and development, but previously countries were not all working towards one of two common societal goals. WWII provided the world with two ideologies that could quell injustices and hostilities wherever they emerged, while also providing stable governments and decent quality of life. To convince other nations that western ideologies were the correct path to modernization, the U.S. and its citizenry attributed its many triumphs and advances (both societal and technological) to their own ideologies—Capitalism and Democracy. The atomic bomb and the conversion of other countries into the western way of life became contentious outcomes to this war of ideologies. The Eastern bloc did not consider the atomic bomb a triumph, rather it was a threat. Moreover, the East did not consider it fair that their ideological pursuits were more heavily criticized and antagonized than the West’s (even when both involved territorial occupation at some point). American mass media highlights how western ideology became commonplace and underlined even the most questionable acts by and discourses in the U.S. Of course, this tension between the two major world ideologies would be at its zenith following the first detonation of a Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 in what would begin the Cold War.

Footnotes

1. Carlyle Holt, “After Jap Surrender,” Boston Globe, August 11, 1945, p4.

2. Charles Merrill, “First Beat Foe, Then Treat Him”, Boston Globe, 16 September 16, 1945, p32.

3. Michael Holm, Lecture 15: The United Nations and the Idea of Perpetual Peace (27 March 2017).

4. Holm, Lecture 16-17: The Idea of the West I-II (3 April 2017 – 7 April 2017) and Holm, Lecture 19: Modernization Theory and Dependence Theory (19 April 2017).

5. Holm, Lecture 15: The United Nations and the Idea of Perpetual Peace (27 March 2017).

6. Holt, “After Jap Surrender,” Boston Globe, August 11, 1945, p4.

7. Merrill, “First Beat Foe, Then Treat Him”, Boston Globe, 16 September 16, 1945, p32.

8. Ibid.

9. Jay Franklin, “America’s Rendezvous with Destiny,” Boston Globe, August 18, 1945, p4.

10. Ibid.

11. Dorothy Thompson, “U.S. Alone Can Create World Law,” Boston Globe, June 21, 1946, p18.

12. Ibid.

13. George Gallup, “Using A-Bomb on Japs Approved by U.S. Public,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1945, p3.

14. Thompson, “Hitler’s Cruelties Lost Him A-Bomb Chances,” Boston Globe, August 10, 1945, p10.

15. Ibid.

16. Holm, Lecture 19: Modernization Theory and Dependence Theory (19 April 2017).

17. “France a Year from A-Bomb as Nazis Came,” Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1946, p4.

18. E.R. Noderer, “Nazis’ A-Bomb 90 Days Late,” Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1946, p10.

19. Ernest Barcella, “Bomb Can Render Japan Unlivable for 50 Years, Churns Up Earth,” Boston Globe, August 7, 1945, p1.

20. “Ex-Gov. Earle Urges U. S. ‘Bomb Russia Before She Bombs Us’,” Boston Globe, March 19, 1947, p12.

21. “‘Enough A-Bombs to Ruin Russia’ Urged by Earle,” Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1946, p12.

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