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Kenneth B. Pyle lectures on “Hiroshima and the Historians”

December 5, 2013

Kenneth B. Pyle, Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Washington, brought the audience to its feet in standing ovation at his lecture on Nov. 18. During “The Griffith and Patricia Way Lecture: Hiroshima and the Historians,” Pyle discussed the controversy among historians over the decision to deploy the atomic bomb in Japan. The tragic decision to drop radioactive bombs over Japan was one whose devastating consequences U.S. leaders did not deliberate extensively. The lecture was sponsored by the UW Japan Studies Program and the Griffith and Patricia Way Lecture Endowment.

The first atomic bomb of its caliber to be dropped from a plane in U.S. history was deployed on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. This major event in history was a result of an unconditional surrender war goal created by the Roosevelt administration and followed through by the Truman administration. During a time of mass hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans had a united distrust, fear, and dislike of the Japanese.

Through many failed attempts to negotiate surrender with the Japanese emperor, the FDR administration settled upon the unconditional surrender war doctrine with 12 principles, including the embargo on Japanese trade. The administration sought to inflict a pain on the citizens of Japan that would force their government to succumb to U.S. forces. This is to say they purposefully targeted civilians for attack. The first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima directly killed more than 70,000 Japanese people, including women and children. This number excludes those killed from the bomb radiation. Atomic bombs had not yet been tested to determine their true effect. Pyle said this was, “… due to limited deliberation,” and rushed judgment.

Pyle went on to explain the lack of thorough research and communication that led to the second bombing of Nagasaki. He then gave insight on the effects of the Japanese surrender and the benefits added to the country by the U.S. There were no benefits that were not already underway before the U.S. invasion. For example, some may say the U.S. invasion was a catalyst for women’s suffrage but this was a movement gaining prominence before U.S. intervention. As a matter of fact, Pyle said, the U.S. viewed Japan as a country unable to handle its own affairs, although the Japanese people would have been better off making changes for their country.

The Q-and-A section of the lecture was brief, but perhaps most important. Pyle was asked if the U.S. would have used the atomic bomb on Germany, which was democracy’s biggest threat at the time. Pyle replied yes, “… had the atomic bomb been available.” He was also asked why research on the effect of radiation had not been presented to U.S. leaders. He said that a breakdown in communication was the reason U.S. leaders had no clue about the devastating effects of radiation.

Pyle concluded, tying the historical information he shared with a statement regarding historians. He said, “History gives expression to the time and place in which the historian is writing. It gets rewritten each generation, with the past determined by the present.” He also advised the audience that, “Historians are committed to controversy as a way of life.” The legacy of his insight on historians continues as he was quoted in a recent article by The Herald.

Since 2007, the Griffith and Patricia Way Lecture has brought prominent leaders in the fields of Japanese art, history and society to speak at the University of Washington. This series is supported through an endowment established by the generosity of friends and family of the Ways to honor this Seattle couple’s dedication toward the promotion and preservation of the art and culture of Japan.

Professor Pyle is the founding president of the National Bureau of Asian Research. Pyle received a B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard College and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He is the author and editor of numerous books on modern Japan and its history, including The New Generation in Meji Japan (1969), The Trade Crisis: How Will Japan Respond? (1987), The Japanese Question: Power and Purpose in a New Era (1992), The Making of Modern Japan (1996), and From APEC to Xanadu: Creating a Viable Community in the Post-Cold War Pacific (1997). He also served as the director of the Jackson School from 1978 to 1988. In 1997, he was decorated by the government of Japan with the Order of the Rising Sun for his contribution to scholarship and cultural exchange.

By Le’Jayah Washington