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JEFF JACOBY

The A-Bomb as lifesaver

THE 60TH anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has arrived with little of the fury that accompanied the 50th. A decade ago, a bruising battle broke out over the Smithsonian Institution's plan for an exhibit suggesting that the American use of atomic weapons had been a racist war crime and served no legitimate military aim.

With a restored Enola Gay -- the B-29 that delivered the first bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 -- as a centerpiece, the Smithsonian's curators had intended to tell a story of American brutality and Japanese victimhood. ''For most Americans," their original script declared, ''this war was fundamentally different from the one waged against Germany and Italy -- it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism." Such slanted revisionism pervaded the text, which The Washington Post rightly summed up as ''incredibly propagandistic and intellectually shabby."

To convey the human suffering in the Pacific theater, for instance, museum officials selected 103 photographs -- 96 depicting Japanese victims, seven of Americans. By contrast, of the 70 photos that showed armed combatants, 65 were of Americans, only five of Japanese. While the original script quoted just one (anonymous) Japanese statement of anti-American hostility, it included no fewer than 10 American expressions of enmity toward Japan. Comparing the two ''home fronts," the script sketched an America of high wages, Frank Sinatra, and entrenched racism, while Japan was described in terms of hungry children, noble kamikaze pilots, and imported slave labor made necessary by ''severe manpower shortages."

Not surprisingly, the proposed exhibit evoked furious protests from veterans groups, military historians, and Congress, and after months of controversy the Smithsonian agreed to scrap its tendentious account. When the Enola Gay finally went on display, the accompanying text played the history straight. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ''destroyed much of the two cities and caused many tens of thousands of deaths," it noted. ''However, the use of the bombs led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Such an invasion, especially if undertaken for both main islands, would have led to very heavy casualties among Americans, Allied, and Japanese armed forces and Japanese civilians."

Ten years later, the revisionists are still going strong. An article in the radical journal CounterPunch, for example, labels the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ''the worst terror attacks in history," and trots out the old canard that their real purpose was to intimidate the Soviet Union.

But the vast majority of Americans who lived through World War II would have regarded such glib judgments as preposterous. Paul Fussell, the historian and literary critic, spoke for millions when he titled his famous essay on the end of the Pacific war ''Thank God for the Atom Bomb."

Like countless young men in August 1945, Fussell was waiting to be shipped off to Asia for the planned invasion of Japan. He didn't expect to survive it. The fighting in Okinawa and Iwo Jima had already resulted in a horrific bloodbath and that was but a fraction of the toll that could be expected in the battle for Japan itself.

''On Okinawa, only weeks before Hiroshima, 123,000 Japanese and Americans killed each other," Fussell wrote. A 21-year-old infantry officer, he had already been wounded twice in Europe; ''the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over." So when the atom bombs were dropped, ''we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all."

More than ever before, the historical record confirms what those soldiers knew in their gut: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hideous as they were, shortened the war that Japan had begun and saved an immensity of lives. Far from considering itself essentially defeated, the Japanese military was preparing for an Allied assault with a massive buildup in the south. It was only the shock of the atomic blasts that enabled Japanese leaders who wanted to stop the fighting to successfully press for a surrender.

''We of the peace party were assisted by the atomic bomb in our endeavor to end the war," Kido Koichi, one of Emperor Hirohito's closest aides, later recalled. Hisatsune Sakomizu, the chief Cabinet secretary, called the bomb ''a golden opportunity given by heaven for Japan to end the war." That is still the right way to see it. President Truman's decision to use the new weapons stopped a war that would otherwise have raged savagely on, and made possible the transformation of Japan from vicious aggressor to peaceful democracy. Six decades after August 1945, it is clear: The bomb made the world a better place.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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