Paul W. Tibbets Jr., retired brigadier general and former businessman, died on Nov. 1, 2007. He’ll forever be remembered for what he unleashed the morning of Aug. 6, 1945.
That day Tibbets’ B-29 — christened the “Enola Gay” after his mother — dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The blast, fire and radiation killed 140,000 people. Many others were scarred and injured for life. Most of the bomb’s victims were women, children, the elderly and other civilians not directly involved in the war. Those victims also included American and Allied POWs and thousands of Koreans forcibly conscripted by the Japanese as wartime labor. Thus began the nuclear age — an age that grows ever more dangerous with the continuing spread of nuclear weapons.
Tibbets stridently defended the atomic bombing of Hiroshima for the rest of his life. Like Harry S. Truman — the president who made the decision to drop the atomic bomb — Tibbets, whose job it was to implement the presidential directive, claimed never to have lost any sleep over the bombing. He went so far as to re-enact the Hiroshima bombing in 1976 at a Texas air show.
Tibbets insisted that the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, destroyed by a second atomic bomb just three days later) was absolutely necessary to bring about Japanese surrender before a bloody American invasion of the Japanese home islands. Many Americans agree.
For Tibbets, history was unambiguous: Unleashing nuclear weapons was justified; all criticism of the atomic bombing was suspect. For the last 20 years or so of his life, Tibbets repeatedly denounced “revisionists” for questioning the necessity or morality of the atomic bombing of Japanese cities.
Through his many public statements Tibbets reinforced the widely held notion that only untrustworthy revisionists or members of the irresponsible 1960s generation have criticized the atomic bombings. Tibbets was dead wrong.
Contrary to conventional opinion today, many military leaders of the time — including six out of seven wartime five-star officers — criticized the use of the atomic bomb.
Take, for example, Adm. William Leahy, White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war. Leahy wrote in his 1950 memoirs that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Moreover, Leahy continued, “[I]n being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
President Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe during World War II, recalled in 1963, as he did on several other occasions, that he had opposed using the atomic bomb on Japan during a July 1945 meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson: “I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”
Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, the tough and outspoken commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, which participated in the American offensive against the Japanese home islands in the final months of the war, publicly stated in 1946 that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment.” The Japanese, he noted, had “put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before” the bomb was used.
Nor do all Pacific war veterans agree with Tibbets’ defense of the atomic bomb. To give but one example: Responding to a journalist’s question in 1995 about what he would have done had he been in Truman’s shoes, Joseph O’Donnell, a retired Marine Corps sergeant who served in the Pacific, answered that “we should have went after the military in Japan. They were bad. But to drop a bomb on women and children and the elderly, I draw a line there, and I still hold it.”
These are but a few of the military voices that have been critical of American use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recalling these voices — those of both influential and ordinary military figures — should make us reject Tibbets’ insistence that the atomic bombings were militarily and morally justified. Only by challenging and resisting Tibbets’ comfortable view of history will Americans be able to confront, honestly and critically, one of the most disturbing episodes in the nation’s past.
Leo Maley III has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Maryland, College Park. Uday Mohan is director of research for the Nuclear Studies Institute, American University. This article was distributed by the History News Service .
This article was originally published on Nov. 16, 2007 and republished here to mark the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.