Nuclear Friday: Pseudohistory

You’ve heard of pseudoscience, now get ready for pseudohistory. I think pseudohistory is just as harmful as pseudoscience. Many of my fellow Americans seem pretty well informed about the decision to use atom bombs on Japanese cities. Their analysis of the matter may lack depth, as I have pointed out, but the facts they know are basically correct. Most folks understand and accept what I called the “Argument from Necessity” concerning the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Most people who oppose that argument are usually even better informed. That doesn’t mean I think they’re right. The Big Board does not take an official position on the use of atomic weapons in Japan. I am much more interested in how people think about the decision. And I am pleased that most who care about the decision are fairly well informed and able to reason well on the subject. Passions may run high at times, but there’s not much pseudohistory.

At least until recently: I heard an associate claim that cities in Japan on the nuclear target list were directly warned of impending atomic attack. That’s the first I heard of this! How was this left out of our history books? Oh yeah, it’s those America-hating academics and educational elites they go on about. Since I live in Texas, I smelled local pseudohistorian David Barton as a likely source. And I was right.

Here’s a text excerpt from Right Wing Watch. Full audio at the link:

We dropped 70 million pamphlets in Japan telling the Japanese exactly which cities we were going to bomb and when and what bombs we would use on them,” Barton said. “We said, ‘We do not want to hurt civilians but we are going to destroy the military side of this, we urge all civilians to leave Nagasaki, to leave Hiroshima.’ We gave 29 cities that we were going to bomb because they were loaded up with military stuff. And, by the way, they said, ‘We have a bomb that has never been seen by the world before, it is the equivalent of 5,000 B-29s dropping their bombs at the same time. It’s one bomb; you need leave those cities, get out of those cities, we don’t want to hurt you’ … Because we told them what cities we were going to be bombing, we’d also told the Japanese where they could set up their guns to shoot our planes down as we come over. So we put ourselves in jeopardy in that.

This is somewhat based in fact, but mostly complete nonsense. And I am appalled that Barton would think that one fission bomb could equal a 5,000 plane B-29 conventional raid if such a thing were even possible. Five thousand planes loaded with napalm would be equal in energy yield to a thermonuclear device typical of the seventies and would spread damage much more widely.

And what is this bullshit that we let the Japanese have a sporting shot at our planes? Japan knew where US planes were coming from and had good ideas about where they might attack. Japan’s air defense failed because they relied on long ranges over the sea to protect them. And they did not anticipate that the US would introduce the B-29 with its long range and high altitude performance.

Even so, there is a little bit of truth to Barton’s claim. But the true story is much weirder and more interesting.

Psychological Operations Against Japan: 

Psychological Operations, Psyops for short, were a big part of the war against Japan. The US was very effective at it. As I learned from John Dower’s War Without Mercy, japanese soldiers were badly trained against resisting interrogation because of the official “no surrender” policy. While there are many examples of mistreatment of Japanese soldiers by American and Australian troops, American intelligence units soon discovered that many Japanese POW’s would become compliant if shown kindness. Much of the Psyops propaganda I will show here was produced with the aid of Japanese POW’s.

I am not sure where David Barton got the “29 cities” figure, but here’s the “Twelve Cities” leaflet dropped over Japan:


That’s a list of twelve cities on the front and it includes none of the four cites targeted with nuclear weapons months later. These cities were targeted with napalm raids and the bombs in the picture are a cluster bomb that splits in to napalm dispersing sticks after falling a while. The text on the back reads:


Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or a friend. In the next few days, four or more of the cities named on the reverse side of this leaflet will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories, which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique that they are using to prolong this useless war. Unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s well-known humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.

America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique, which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace, which America will bring, will free the people from the oppression of the Japanese military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan.

You can restore peace by demanding new and better leaders who will end the War.

We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked, but at least four will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.

Translation comes from Psywarrior. I do not think for a minute these leaflets were dropped out of concern for human life. The goal was to make Japanese civilians leave their jobs and evacuate to the countryside, thus disrupting war production.

This is where David Barton might have gotten the idea that Japanese cities were warned and might have gotten the idea that there were numbers of cities warned. But maybe he’s partly right. Hiroshima wasn’t warned, was Nagasaki warned? Yes, it was, a day after it was bombed, and that’s where things seem weird.

The Nagasaki Leaflet: 

What was left of Nagasaki got this leaflet dropped on it the day after it was bombed:


That’s Hiroshima’s cloud in the picture. The text was written by Japanese POW’s in Guam and styled to look like a Japanese newspaper report to seem official. The text boasts of the power of the bomb and encourages evacuation of cities, though it does not name Nagasaki specifically.

How this happened is a confusing story. Some say it was a way of magnifying the effect of the Nagasaki bombing as psyops. Others say it was due to a shortage of leaflet bombs. I think the main reason was that Nagasaki was not the primary target of the second atomic bomb, Kokura was. Furthermore, the second attack had been rescheduled two days early due to expected bad weather. I think this is a case of the leaflet droppers not even being allowed to know about the atom bombs and operating on schedule. Kokura was the planned target and was expected to be bombed shortly after the leaflet drop on Nagasaki. Bockscar was diverted to Nagasaki only after Enola Gay acting as a scout plane reported weather conditions were poor at Kokura.

So yes, David Barton is marginally right. Nagasaki was intended to be warned, but only after Kokura was destroyed. Some cites were warned about conventional bombing, but mostly to disrupt production rather than concern for human life.

Let’s Fight Pseudohistory:

I would hate to think that the sound but un-nuanced views of most Americans who care about this issue would not prevail against Barton’s pure pseudohistory. We may differ as we do, and I appreciate that, but we have a broad agreement about what the facts are. Let’s keep it that way.


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