by Evan Thomas.
World War II, for the United States of America, began on 7 December, 82 years ago. Below, Evan Thomas describes how it ended.
As we are learning once again, wars often do not work out quite as expected.
On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing America into World War II. Even though America’s industrial base was about twenty times the size of
Japan’s, Japanese military leaders believed that America would give up because its people were spiritually weak.
Pearl Harbor was unprepared because American leaders did not believe the Japanese people were capable—as an “Oriental” race—of pulling off such a spectacular attack. (“How could they possibly be Japanese planes?” asked Admiral Husband Kimmel, the commander of the Pacific Fleet.) There was wild speculation in the press that Nazi Germany must have somehow been behind the attack, supplying pilots and planes.
On December 8, Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, not against Germany. Roosevelt was unsure that he could win enough votes in Congress to declare war on Germany, too. Four days later, Hitler declared war on the United States, the Fuhrer’s greatest blunder—at least since he had invaded Russia six months earlier.
Though he did not know it, Hitler had already lost the war—as early as April 7, 1933. That was the day Germany passed a law excluding Jewish scholars from the civil service, including its universities. The brilliant Jewish physicists working in Germany fled to Britain and the United States, where they developed the atomic bomb. (“Jewish science,” scoffed Hitler.)
The Americans planned to drop the atomic bomb on Germany but did not need to; Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. But Japan fought on, placing a million men and 7,000 kamikaze planes at the beaches where the American invasion was scheduled for November 1. U.S. military planners first considered dropping the bomb on Japan on a purely military target, a naval base. But strategic bombing was too unreliable—it was hard to be sure of precision bombing from 30,000 feet—so the Army Air Force targeters decided to drop the bomb in the middle of a heavily populated city.
Japanese military leaders at first refused to believe that America had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (Japan had tried to build its own atomic bomb and failed.) Or that America had enough fissile material to build more than one bomb.
Notified that a second “Hiroshima-type bomb” had just wiped out Nagasaki, the Japanese Minister of War, General Korechika Anami, told his fellow members of the Supreme War Council, “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the entire nation were to perish like a cherry blossom?”
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima went like clockwork. The bomb was delivered on time exactly on target—detonating over a bridge in the center of the city. The second bombing mission did not go so well. Boxcar, the B-29 carrying the bomb missed a rendezvous with a photography plane, eating up 45 minutes. The primary target, Kokura, was clouded over (by smoke from an earlier fire-bombing raid on a neighboring city). The secondary target, Nagasaki, was also overcast. The pilot, Major Tom Sweeney, was not sure what to do. He couldn’t land or ditch the plane with the atomic bomb still aboard and he didn’t want to waste it on the ocean. Finally, a gap opened in the sky and the bomb was dropped—but about a mile off target. Boxcar was dangerously low on fuel. “I wonder if the Pacific will be cold?” a co-pilot wrote in his diary. Reaching Okinawa, Major Sweeney ordered his crew to fire off every flare in the plane to make an emergency landing. With one engine sputtering out, Boxcar landed with only 35 gallons left in its 7,000-gallon tanks.
Major Sweeney explained to the Eighth Air Force commander, General Jimmy Doolittle, that Boxcar had missed its target in the center of the city and instead dropped the bomb up a valley. Doolittle said that, actually, his boss, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, would be relieved because that meant that fewer civilians would die in Nagasaki than at Hiroshima (about half as many, as it turned out). In his diary, General Spaatz had written that he was initially opposed to dropping the atomic bomb because he was against bombing cities to kill civilians. He mordantly joked to his assistant that after the war, “we should shoot or kill in some humane way the twenty-five leading scientists in each country.”
The second atom bomb landed on top of the Mitsubishi factory that built the torpedoes used in the Pearl Harbor attack.
The post above was written by Evan Thomas. Mr. Thomas is the author of eleven books: The Wise Men (with Walter Isaacson), The Man to See, The Very Best Men, Robert Kennedy, John Paul Jones, Sea of Thunder, The War Lovers, Ike’s Bluff, Being Nixon, First, and Road to Surrender. John Paul Jones, Sea of Thunder, Being Nixon, and First were New York Times bestsellers. Thomas was a writer, correspondent, and editor for thirty-three years at Time and Newsweek, including ten years (1986–96) as Washington bureau chief at Newsweek, where, at the time of his retirement in 2010, he was editor at large.
The Penguin Random House blurb says that Evan Thomas’s latest book, ‘Road to Surrender’, is “a riveting, immersive account of the agonizing decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan—a crucial turning point in World War II and geopolitical history.” It is that and more. We highly recommend it.
This is the second in what will become a more regular feature of News Items (the first was a post by Danny Hillis). The idea is this: Subscribers write “columns” that bring their expertise and insights to the other subscribers. This is (1) a way to guarantee fresh ideas and perspectives, sometimes on subjects News Items knows little or nothing about, and (2) an opportunity for a subscriber to reach our audience, which is influential, international and highly intelligent.
If you’d like to write a “guest column” for News Items, please let me know. My email address is email@example.com. Thanks very much to Evan Thomas for his piece today. Buy his book! It really is riveting.