Today is the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with Nagasaki following three days later, and the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945.

To date these two bombs remain—astoundingly enough, considering the nature of our oft-troubled and troubling species—the only nuclear warheads ever detonated over populated areas. Oliver Kamm wrote a while back:

Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire – and for Japan itself. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties.

This context always needs to be kept in mind when evaluating any “terrible thing”—and there is no question that the dropping of these bombs was a terrible thing.

But critics who are bound and determined to portray the West as evil, marauding, bloodthirsty— whatever the dreadful adjective du jour might be—are bound and determined to either avoid all context, or to change the true context and replace it with fanciful myth. As Kamm writes, those who want to portray Hiroshima and Nagasaki as American crimes cite evidence of an imminent Japanese surrender that would have happened anyway.

Trouble is, there’s virtually no such evidence; available information points strongly to the contrary. It’s difficult to know whether those who argue that the bombs were unnecessary and the deaths that ensued gratuitous are guilty of poor scholarship, wishful thinking, or willful lying—or perhaps some combination of these elements.

Truth in history is not easy to determine (see this), although it helps greatly if conventions of scholarship (sources, citations) are properly followed. Oh, the main events themselves are often not disputed—except for fringe groups such as those who think we didn’t go to the moon—although the details are often the subject of disagreement. But it’s the motivations behind the acts, the hearts and minds of the movers and shakers, the “what-might-have-been’s” and the “but-fors” that are so open to both partisan interpretation and willful distortion, and so deeply meaningful.

It’s hard enough to determine what happened. How many died in Dresden, for example? Do we believe Goebbels’s propaganda as promulgated by David Irving, or do we believe this work of recent exhaustive scholarship? The former “facts” have reigned now in popular opinion for quite a while, and although the latter mounts a far more convincing case, how many have read it or are familiar with the facts in it, compared to those who have been heavily exposed to the former?

There’s what happened, and then there’s why it happened—the meaning and intent behind the policy. A combination of the two is what propaganda is all about. It takes a lot of time and effort to wade through facts, make judgments about the veracity of sources, and be willing to keep an open mind.

Much easier to stand in a public square (as a bunch of nodding, smiling, waving, middle-aged peace-love Boomers regularly do in the town where I live) holding huge banners declaring “9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB.” Repeat it often enough, and the hope is it will become Truth in people’s eyes.

Especially in the eyes of the young, and of future generations, who don’t have their own memories to go on. It’s much harder to convince a WWII vet that Hiroshima was an unnecessary war crime than it is to convince a young person of same; the former not only has the context, he has own personal memories of the context (see Paul Fussell’s fine essay “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb” on that score). But propagandists are not just interested in changing opinions in the present, they’re interested in history and the future.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]