Re: Bonnett on Alperovitz

Date: 1 Oct. 1996

From: Kai Bird <>

As Bruce Cumings wrote in his delightfully mischievous essay on "Revising Postrevisionism" (Diplomatic History, Fall 1993), "The most elementary act of 'theory' is to name things..." And then, quoting Nietzsche, "What things are called is incomparably more important than what they are."

John Bonnett betrays his agenda right at the top of his review when he labels Gar Alperovitz. He doesn't call him a 'revisionist,' a 'leftist scholar,' a 'fellow-traveler' or 'anti-American,' but the label is nevertheless pejorative and designed to discredit and turn the debate away from the archival evidence revealed in a 847-page book. Listen to the language: mis-characterizing the Enola Gay "fiasco"--which most of us understood as a battle all historians lost when the Smithsonian Institution capitulated to censorship--Bonnett writes, "One constituency, mostly historians who came of age during the Vietnam War, demanded the American public change its paradigm, citing research indicating the bombings were neither necessary, nor policy makers' motives as laudable, as the American public had heretofore believed."

Bonnett then says this "dispute" was "in many ways his [Alperovitz's] creation." Obviously, this fellow Alperovitz is a subversive creature, a product of the 1960s anti-Vietnam war movement, a "radical" impudently "demanding" that Americans think ill of their leaders' "laudable" motives. All of this is pretty reprehensible. But there you have it. Bonnett has chosen his label and it is 'incomparably more important than' the content of Alperovitz's book.

It does not matter that Alperovitz received his Phd. in 1964, and wrote his ground-breaking "Atomic Diplomacy" well before the Vietnam era--as is noted in his latest volume. Indeed, when "Atomic Diplomacy" was published in 1965 Alperovitz was top-ranking special assistant in the U.S. State Department. In other words, his book was not at all the product of those "historians who came of age during the Vietnam war." It was a product of the fact that certain highly relevant archival sources happened to become available in 1959--as Barton Bernstein has so revealingly told the story in his startling essay, "Seizing the Contested Terrain of Nuclear History" (Diplomatic History Winter 1993). But this too is irrelevant to Bonnett's purposes.

Also irrelevant to Bonnett is the elementary fact that views he attributes to Vietnam era historians--and which the Air Force Association's public relations flaks described as distorted, hateful, and anti-American during the Enola Gay controversy--were actually common fifty years ago among conservatives. Bonnett conveniently forgets that in the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima, military figures like Dwight Eisenhower, William D. Leahy, William Halsey, Curtis LeMay and Henry 'Hap' Arnold criticized the decision to annihilate Hiroshima with the bomb. Virtually all of World War II's ranking military figures could today be labeled "revisionists."

The New York Times' leading military affairs correspondent Hanson Baldwin included the Hiroshima decision in his 1950 book, "Great Mistakes of the War." Herbert Hoover, Henry Luce, and the Washington Post's Eugene Meyer questioned the necessity for the bomb. In other words, fifty years ago, leading figures in American life were more willing to voice criticism of the bombings than is allowed today in our national museum.

Worse, to my mind, is Bonnett's complaint that Alperovitz's "primary concern" is to "document what Truman knew and when." Is that not the historian's task? No, not for Bonnett. He wants us to borrow from the insights of "cognitive psychology," and get inside Mr. Stimson's head and analyze what Stimson thought, presumably as opposed to what he said or what was told to him. Of course, historians should attempt to convey the policy maker's "perceptions"--but this is exactly what Alperovitz does so painstakingly and at such great length. But he does so with close attention to the facts, facts which Bonnett simply ignores.

Must I be trained in "cognitive psychology" to interpret this item from John J. McCloy's July 1945 diary, written after he learned of the successful test of the bomb in New Mexico? "I hope it does not augur the commencement of the destruction of modern civilization. In this atmosphere of destruction and the callousness of men and their leaders, the whole thing seems ominous." Are these the thoughts of a man comfortable with the use of such a weapon on a whole city? And what about McCloy's July 23, 1945 diary reference to "the nearness of Japanese collapse..." And what are we to make of Truman's diary statement referring to the "cable from Jap Emperor asking for peace"? Such quotes are numerous and no amount of psycho-babble can explain them all away.

For those who have not plowed through the new Alperovitz book, readers of the Bonnett review will mistakenly think it offers nothing new over the 1965 volume. This is ridiculous. The quotes from the archives are exhaustive; the interpretations are carefully qualified and buttressed by numerous cross-references. Alperovitz methodically examines the literature and engages the reader on every possible angle of the argument. You would not know it from Bonnett's review, but Alperovitz deals at great length with the same "imponderables" of perception in reporting, for instance, what Stimson knew and when. In short, Bonnett's attack is as mean-spirited as was Robert Maddox's 1973 book, "The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War." This is tiresome. The decision to use the bomb on Hiroshima was controversial fifty years ago and will remain so. We would all do better to get beyond the name-calling and focus on the history.


Kai Bird is the author of "The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment," and co-editor with Lawrence Lifschultz of the forthcoming anthology, "Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy," preface by Dr. Joseph Rotblat, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, (Pamphleteer's Press, February 1997).