Freeman Dyson is a man I admire as one of the physics greats from the early days of quantum electrodynamics and as an original thinker and writer on diverse subjects. I recently heard him speak at Tufts University, or rather read, as he announced he would do at the beginning, in order, as he put it, to avoid going on for two hours. Such is the effect of his physical presence and his economical, straightforward writing and reading style that I have a feeling I wasn’t the only member of the rapt audience thinking: “This may be the smartest person I’ve ever encountered.”
Dyson’s talk was divided into two basically unrelated sections. The first part was devoted to the topic of abolishing nuclear weapons and some of the obstacles, particularly psychological obstacles based on misconceptions, to achieving that desirable end. The second part provided a glimpse into a dangerous but exciting future in which home biotechnology is as wide-spread as home computing today. There would be no point in my trying to summarize the many thought-provoking ideas Dyson presented. I saw a video camera, presumably for the benefit of the overflow crowd mentioned to be in another room, so I’m hoping Tufts will make the talk available to the public. I will only mention one of the ideas from the second part: bio-engineered plants with silicon-based, black leaves to serve as living solar cells, ten times more efficient at solar energy conversion than natural, chlorophyll-utilizing plants.
Much of the first part of Dyson’s talk was devoted to the task of exploding a number of widely believed “myths” that, according to Dyson, stand in the way of progress in eliminating nuclear weapons. One such important myth being that unilateral actions of disarmament are to be avoided and that only multilateral agreements with cheat-proof safeguards should be pursued, Dyson cited a number of significant unilateral steps to limit or eliminate weapons taken in the past by American Presidents (all Republicans, as it turns out, perhaps not surprisingly), which were later reciprocated. I confess that I didn’t remember them all, and the list was quite impressive.
While I share Dyson’s belief that the continued existence of large nuclear arsenals by major world powers is a great danger, probably the greatest danger, to the world’s future, I have to question the importance of some of the “myths” he enumerated. If all Dyson’s myths must first be overcome, I am not optimistic, for not all his myth-busting arguments were to my mind convincing. The one that struck me as least plausible when he made it was his claim that Hitler’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would not have enabled Germany to win the war. As a counter to this Dyson just asserted that had London and Moscow been leveled in nuclear attacks, then the allies would have been motivated to reach Berlin all the faster, possibly triumphing sooner than they actually did. I would hate to have the case for getting rid of nuclear weapons depend on that argument.
The shakiness of that argument made me start to wonder about Dyson’s ability to objectively analyze historical questions of this type. I’m not sure why he feels that dispelling what he sees as a false belief about a hypothetical outcome to past history is essential, though I suppose he thinks it necessary to correct the idea that the development of nuclear weapons was ever in any sense a good thing and to expunge whatever prestige they may retain from having possibly served a useful purpose in the past.
One of Dyson’s myth-busting arguments did in fact make me question what I thought I knew about what had prompted the Japanese surrender in World War II. I of course had read and wondered about the question of whether the nuclear bombings had been necessary to bring about the surrender, leaving aside the moral issue involved in deliberately destroying whole cities. Dyson’s assertion went well beyond arguing that Japan would have surrendered without the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He maintained that, contrary to the accepted view, the bombings had not been seen at the time as significant enough to initiate a crisis, or even special concern. He presented some historical evidence for the view that it was the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, and especially its invasion of Manchuria, that had prompted the Japanese surrender, with the nuclear bombings essentially being viewed by Japanese leaders as tolerable and not particularly noteworthy, only coincidentally having taken place at about the same time as the Soviet invasion, which had actually prompted a rapid surrender.
I don’t agree that destroying the belief that American nuclear weapons were taken to be a serious new threat by the Japanese war leadership is a prerequisite for convincing people of the undesirability of nuclear weapons today. The truth or falsity of that belief is certainly of historical interest, though, and Dyson’s surprising assertion that Japanese leaders had basically shrugged off the Hiroshima bomb led me to do some research on the topic. Yes, my “library” was Google.
I found that Dyson credits his current view on the Japanese surrender to the argument presented by Ward Wilson in an article called The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima published in International Security (Spring 2007) and available online as a pdf file. Dyson read his “myth-busting” argument about the Japanese surrender to the Tufts audience, and I believe what he read was very similar to the text of an earlier piece by him posted on the internet, though in his presentation at Tufts he elaborated much more on the psychological significance of the similarities of historical situations fifty years apart alluded to in point 5 below. I am going to discuss the way in which I think Wilson and Dyson have stretched and “cherry-picked” the evidence they present to fit their conclusion. I will bring in some outside evidence gleaned from my online research now and then.
Here follow Dyson’s basic (numbered) points from his online article along with my responses.
1. Members of the Supreme Council, which customarily met with the Emperor to take important decisions, learned of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Although Foreign Minister Togo asked for a meeting, no meeting was held for three days.
I can’t see how any firm conclusion can to be drawn from this. It may be that Togo was just more perceptive than others. The singular nature of this attack, which had come as a complete surprise, not to mention President Truman’s promise to continue dropping atomic bombs until Japan capitulated, may have taken time to sink in. And of course the second attack of August 9 on Nagasaki, which demolished the wishful thinking which held the Americans couldn’t have made more than one atomic bomb, had not yet occurred. I read elsewhere that the meeting requested by Togo did not take place because the military members of the Council were unavailable. Given the split on the Council between advocates of peace and hardliners, there was perhaps some deliberate stalling involved.
Togo made an urgent personal report to the Emperor on the Hiroshima bombing on August 7, and came away feeling he had convinced Hirohito that surrender with only one condition (maintenance of the Imperial throne) was now a necessity. This in itself would seem to be sufficient proof that the Hiroshima bomb was being viewed as qualitatively different from conventional bombing raids.
2. A surviving diary records a conversation of Navy Minister Yonai, who was a member of the Supreme Council, with his deputy on August 8. The Hiroshima bombing is mentioned only incidentally. More attention is given to the fact that the rice ration in Tokyo is to be reduced by ten percent.
The diary that records the conversation is that of Takagi, the deputy, not Yonai’s. In it occurs the following (Takagi speaking), quoted by Wilson:
“I used to think that by September or October the domestic situation would rapidly deteriorate while you said it would start deteriorating in mid-August. Actually, the situation is getting steadily worse in many respects during these couple of days, especially after Hiroshima.”
“Especially after Hiroshima” seems more than an “incidental” mention. Rather it seems to be an acknowledgment by Takagi that the Hiroshima bombing may have been a tipping point in the populace’s willingness to continue the war. Yonai replies, “Bad news continues and the ration of rice in Tokyo will be reduced by ten percent after the 11th of this month.” Yonai, already convinced that surrender was necessary, and living in fear of a popular uprising if the war went on much longer, may have been less attuned than Takagi to the significance of Hiroshima, but I wouldn’t call this exchange one that gives “more attention” to the rice rationing, which came up in the context of discussing the ever worsening popular mood, Yonai’s ongoing concern.
Perhaps post-war recollections are not to be trusted as much as wartime diaries, but I did note in my online reading that Kido, Emperor Hirohito’s most trusted adviser, related that on August 7, after it had been confirmed that the Hiroshima bomb was indeed an atomic bomb, the significance of which was not lost on the Japanese, Hirohito had told him, “No matter what happens to my safety, we should lose no time in ending the war so as not to have another tragedy like this.”
3. On the morning of August 9, Soviet troops invaded Manchuria. Six hours after hearing this news, the Supreme Council was in session. News of the Nagasaki bombing, which happened the same morning, only reached the Council after the session started.
Let me quote the opening remarks of Prime Minister Suzuki at this meeting:
“We have been hit hard by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Now we have the Soviet entry into the war. It has become almost impossible to continue the war any longer.”
So the first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth in this first meeting after Hiroshima refer to Hiroshima, putting the atomic bombing on a par with the Soviet attack. In other words, it is the combination of these two heavy blows that has brought them to the point where surrender is necessary. This was indeed before news of the Nagasaki bombing came.
The meeting time may have been changed as a result of the news of the Soviet attack, but we read in Wilson’s article that Yonai spoke of this meeting with his deputy the day before it occurred, thus it had been scheduled before the Manchurian news, I think it is clear that Hiroshima would have been a topic of serious discussion in any case.
4. The August 9 session of the Supreme Council resulted in the decision to surrender.
Here is a concise statement, which could make it appear that the Council came to quick agreement due to the startling development of the Soviet invasion. In fact, as I learned in my online history reading, despite news of both the Nagasaki bomb and the Manchurian invasion, the vote split 3-3 with three military members of the Council voting to go on fighting unless several unrealistic conditions were agreed to by the Americans. Unanimity was not reached by the Council until they were invited along with the rest of the Cabinet to an extraordinary midnight session by the Emperor, who did not, as point 1 implied, regularly meet with them.
It should be noted that HIrohito stepped far beyond his normal role and used his prestige to gain reluctant agreement to sue for peace with only the condition of maintaining the Emperor on his throne, which makes Hirohito’s reason for choosing surrender most important.
5. The Emperor, in his rescript to the military forces ordering their surrender, does not mention the nuclear bombs but emphasizes the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. In 1895 Japan had defeated China, but accepted a humiliating peace when European powers led by Russia moved into Manchuria and the Russians occupied Port Arthur. By making peace, the emperor Meiji had kept the Russians out of Japan. Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.
There are a number of things that need to be said about this point. First of all, it deals with what Hirohito said in the rescript to the military issued on August 17, 1945. True enough, this rescript makes no mention of the atomic bomb attacks, and it does refer to the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, though not to the invasion of Manchuria, which according to the analysis related by Dyson is supposed to have had a special resonance with an earlier historical event in the minds of those in the Japanese military. One can of course speculate on the significance of Hirohito’s approach, and I will join in the speculation below.
Now I want to mention a very important event which Dyson’s point 5 and Wilson’s article fail to take into account, which might be called an inconvenient fact for their theory. On August 15, two days before his rescript to the armed forces, Hirohito had caused to be broadcast to the nation a recorded radio address announcing his decision to surrender. In that message there is no mention of the Soviet Union, except in passing as one of the allied countries to which Japan was surrendering. But within that address occurs the following justification for surrender:
“…the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.
Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
Is there any doubt what this passage in the Emperor’s message is referring to? Is there any mincing of words about the results of continuing to fight? No, no nation without nuclear weapons could stand against one that had them. The Emperor saw the reality and spelled it out plainly, in his own voice, thus undercutting any future attempt to rally a defense to the last person of the homeland, before he’d even addressed the military.
At the very least Wilson and Dyson need to discuss this message to the Japanese people. Wilson acknowledges (though only in a footnote) that the nuclear bombs were “mentioned” in the Emperor’s message, failing to note that the Soviet entry into the war was not mentioned there or that the rescript to the nation preceded the one to the military by two days. Nor does the word “mentioned” do justice to the decisive way in which the new weapons were described in their “incalculable power” as making resistance futile. Dyson ignores the Emperor’s message to the people entirely. I suppose Wilson and Dyson might say that the common people wouldn’t have understood the argument about the Soviet Union, so that something closer to their experience, as the ones subject to bombing, had to be used as justification for surrender; but the fact remains that Wilson and Dyson chose to avoid the issue, as it clearly doesn’t fit their thesis that the atomic bomb attacks were barely noteworthy within the context of many devastating conventional bombing attacks and the paramount importance of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
The question Hirohito and others must have asked themselves was would the message of surrender broadcast to the nation be enough to induce the laying down of arms by the military, which for many months had been gearing up for a last-ditch defense of the Japanese Islands, with death before national dishonor the mind-set and with kamikazes already a major part of the defense effort? Here is where the Soviet entry may become very significant from the psychological standpoint. The Japanese military could still take pride in its initial successes against the Americans and the British and French empires, and it had made the Americans pay dearly for every small island they captured. But add to the forces already arrayed against them those of the Soviet Union, how could they be expected to win? They had started the war against the others, and so couldn’t surrender to them without admitting the war to have been a mistake from the start. Surrendering to the Americans after such a long and bitter struggle must have seemed particularly odious. Here is the Emperor’s reference to the Soviet Union.
“Now that the Soviet Union has entered the war against us, to continue the war under the present internal and external conditions would be only to increase needlessly the ravages of war finally to the point of endangering the very foundation of the Empire’s existence.”
That’s it. Contrary to what point 5 all but declares there was no allusion of “the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895.” Whether or not this historical analogy was really something the Japanese military would have seen and found soothing or is only a fantasy of this particular analysis, I can’t say. Barring some testimony from the Emperor that I haven’t seen, I think it is going beyond what is known to say “Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.” In any case, this only speaks to the words chosen to get the military to comply with the surrender order.
There is certainly material in this history for a Rashomon sort of story about how the war really ended. I can imagine Truman’s telling, Hirohito’s telling, Stalin’s telling, just for starters. Obviously there are open questions. With the Soviet Union about to enter the war, why couldn’t Truman wait and see what impact that event had before dropping the bombs? Was there a rush to make sure the bombs ended the war and at the same time send a message to Stalin?
Would the two atomic bombs (or just one) alone have been sufficient to have ended the war without Soviet entry into the war? That is impossible to know since the bombing and Soviet declaration of war occurred so closely together. But had the Soviets decided to let the Americans continue the war alone, is there anyone (except perhaps Wilson and Dyson) that believes Japan would have held up long against still more nuclear bombs? Let us all be thankful that the end came when it did.
6. The Japanese leaders had two good reasons for lying when they spoke to Robert Butow. The first reason was explained afterwards by Lord Privy Seal Kido, another member of the Supreme Council: “If military leaders could convince themselves that they were defeated by the power of science but not by lack of spiritual power or strategic errors, they could save face to some extent”. The second reason was that they were telling the Americans what the Americans wanted to hear, and the Americans did not want to hear that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria brought the war to an end.
Well, I suppose some leaders may have lied to Butow (who interviewed many after the war and wrote a gripping history of the events leading to the surrender in Japan’s Decision to Surrender), though Kido only speaks here of military leaders convincing themselves that they were not at fault, which can be taken as an interpretation of events as much as a falsification of history. Where is the quote from the Japanese leader that the atomic bombs entered not at all into the decision for Japan’s capitulation? Is there not a single such truth teller? Speaking of Kido, quoted by Dyson above, he is also the source of my earlier quote about Hirohito having decided on August 7 that the war must now end as a result of the Hiroshima bombing.
The continued intransigence of the military members of the Supreme Council all through the events of August 9, would seem to make it clear that Hirohito’s intervention was essential to the decision for surrender, and from what I have now read I believe that what finally pushed this man to act in a decisive way was the threat of continued atomic bombing of his country. While this is speculation, it is a fact that the Emperor gave the atomic bombs as the reason in his message of surrender delivered directly to his people.
Back when I was a physics student there were certain kinds of arguments in physics that were called “swindles” because they skipped over difficulties to arrive at a desired result without really having proved what they claimed to. I doubt Freeman Dyson has ever had recourse to a swindle in a matter of physics, even by accident, but I feel he has let his worthy goal of eliminating nuclear weapons lead him into accepting and now promulgating a significant swindle on the question of the importance of the atomic bombings in the minds of the Japanese decision makers at the end of World War II.