THE conventional wisdom has triumphed regarding the necessity and the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The issue at stake in the Smithsonian's decision last week to cut back its exhibition on the end of the Pacific War was whether the conservative generation of the 1940s or the skeptics of the 1960s would put their stamp on one of the biggest controversies in American history.
It was a one-sided battle. The American Legion, the Air Force Association, and their allies have more clout than the few dozen historians digging through the National Archives and the Truman Library. ``My Country, Right or Wrong'' is a far deadlier weapon than a memo from General Marshall offering casualty estimates for invading Japan. So it is hardly surprising that the Smithsonian surrendered to patriotic symbolism.
It was, in fact, naive of the historians to fight this one. They were insensitive to the veterans' feeling about the war. Consider Paul Fussell's famous essay, ``Thank God for the Atom Bomb,'' in which this combat veteran recounts how ``we broke down and cried with relief and joy'' in August 1945, as the invasion was canceled.
The veterans have reason to distrust a later generation that too often treats the Pacific and the Vietnam wars as similar, essentially racist phenomena, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki noteworthy primarily as stepping stones from Wounded Knee to My Lai. Certainly racism pervaded both wars. But this hardly substantiates the accusation that similar destruction never would have been inflicted on white enemies; tell that to the survivors of Hamburg and Dresden.
The racist undertone links this debate to the conflict between traditionalism and multiculturalism. Is the American past to be celebrated or investigated, admired for its democratic values or condemned for its racism and inequality? The veterans' position is clear. They expect uncritical celebration; the nuances hardly matter. Yet it is precisely those nuances that historians address: the option discarded, the road not taken.
Was it really necessary to drop the bomb - which cost 250,000 lives and introduced a nuclear threat that has burdened us ever since? Japan indeed was on the ropes, its people hungry, its railways and industry crushed. Would a few more months of bombing and blockade have brought it down, especially if Washington had ensured the monarchy's continuation? At the very least, a demonstration of the bomb's immense power might have tipped the scales.
Japan's political elite was responsive. Some in court circles, eager to save the monarch and fearful of communism, employed intermediaries to approach the Americans.
But the Imperial Army, that ruthless state within the state, barred all efforts. With several million men in Japan proper, and a warrior ethos that disregarded casualties, the Army's junior officers itched to throw in everything they had against the Americans. Victory on the beaches was perfectly possible, the officers insisted, and only then would they even consider negotiating.
Hiroshima was atom-bombed on Aug. 6. There was consternation and confusion in Tokyo, but the officers took it in stride: Were not casualties a normal part of war? The second bomb forced them into silence. With Japan's very survival as a people at stake, the Emperor at last intervened to topple military rule and publicly propose an armistice.
Could he have acted without the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We can only speculate. But Americans need not feel ashamed for providing the impetus that enabled the Japanese themselves to act. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.