Sometimes, something happens that is so awful that we find ourselves rationalizing it, talking as if it had to happen, to make ourselves feel better about the horrible event. For many people, I believe, President Truman’s dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, were two such events. After all, if the leader of arguably the freest country in the world decided to drop those bombs, he had to have a good reason, didn’t he? I grew up in Canada thinking that, horrible as it was, dropping the atomic bombs on those two cities was justified. Although I never believed that the people those bombs killed were mainly guilty people, I could at least tell myself that many more innocent people, including American military conscripts, would have been killed had the bombs not been dropped. But then I started to investigate. On the basis of that investigation, I have concluded that dropping the bomb was not necessary and caused, on net, tens of thousands, and possibly more than a hundred thousand, more deaths than were necessary.
What I write below will not come as a surprise to those who are particularly well-informed about the issue: the Gar Alperovitzes, Barton Bernsteins, Dennis Wainstocks, and Ralph Raicos of the world. But it did come as a surprise to me and will surprise, I believe, many of the people reading this article. There were four surprises: (1) how Truman himself couldn’t seem to keep his story straight about why he dropped the bomb and even whom he dropped the first one on; (2) how strong the opinion was among the informed, including many military and political leaders, against dropping the bomb; (3) how strong a case can be made that the Japanese government was about to surrender and that the U.S. insistence on unconditional surrender had already delayed their surrender for months; and (4) how the proponents of dropping the bomb systematically and successfully convinced Americans that dropping the bomb saved many American lives. On the third issue, in particular, I highlight a May 1945 memo to President Truman from former President Herbert Hoover, the person who founded the Hoover Institution, at which I am proudly, given his views on this, a research fellow.
Start with Truman. In a long, rambling speech to the American people on radio on Aug. 9, three days after the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and hours after Bockscar dropped it on Nagasaki, Truman announced, "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” Actually, of course, it was not a military base, but a city, a fact that Truman must have known before he made the decision. And if he didn’t know it, then how horrible is that? Someone who wants to drop a nuclear bomb on a target should surely do due diligence to find out what the target is. That seems like a minimal requirement.
Nevertheless, whatever he knew or didn’t know, Truman clearly stated above that he wanted to avoid killing civilians. But did he? In response to a clergyman who criticized his decision, Truman wrote:
"Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true."
Here, Truman sounds more like a man bent on vengeance than a man worrying about needless loss of civilian lives.
And how regrettable was it to Truman? He later wrote, "I telephoned Byrnes [his secretary of state] aboard ship to give him the news and then said to the group of sailors around me, ‘This is the greatest thing in history.’" In response to a story in the Aug. 7 Oregon Journal headlined "Truman, Jubilant Over New Bomb, Nears U.S. Port," Lew Wallace, a Democratic politician from Portland, Oregon, telegrammed Truman:
"We on the Pacific Coast and all Americans know that no president of the United States could ever be jubilant over any device that would kill innocent human beings. Please make it clear that it is not destruction but the end of destruction that is the cause of jubilation."
Truman replied on Aug. 9:
"I appreciated your telegram very much but I think if you will read the paper again you will find that the good feeling on my part was over the fact Russia had entered into the war with Japan and not because we had invented a new engine of destruction."
There are two small problems with Truman’s version. First, Truman wasn’t jubilant about Russia’s entry. Second and more important, the timing doesn’t work. When Truman claimed to have been jubilant about Russia’s entry into the war, Russia hadn’t yet entered. Russia entered the war on Aug. 8.
The Opposition to Dropping the Bomb
Start with this shocking quote shocking because of the source:
"Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it."
The author of the above quote: J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But what about the idea that the Japanese would fiercely resist an invasion of their main islands? It is one of those myths that have come about with few apparent facts to support it. The various military men who were close to the action were quite confident that the Japanese had been so thoroughly bombed and their infrastructure so thoroughly destroyed that there was no need for the atom bomb. The literature is rife with quotes to that effect.
Take, for example, Curtis E. LeMay, the Air Force general who led B-29 bombing of Japanese cities late in the war. LeMay once said, "There are no innocent civilians, so it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing innocent bystanders.” And he was as good as his word: in one night of fire-bombing Tokyo, he and his men killed 100,000 civilians. So we can be confident that any doubts he had about dropping the atom bomb would not be based on concern for Japanese civilians. But consider the following dialogue between LeMay and the press.
"LeMay: The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb.
"The Press: You mean that, sir? Without the Russians and the atomic bomb?
"LeMay: Yes, with the B-29
"The Press: General, why use the atomic bomb? Why did we use it then?
"LeMay: Well, the other people were not convinced
"The Press: Had they not surrendered because of the atomic bomb?
"LeMay: The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all."
Nor was LeMay alone. Other Air Force officers, all documented in Alperovitz, had reached similar conclusions. And Navy admirals and Army generals also believed that dropping the bomb was a bad idea. Fleet Admiral Leahy, for instance, the chief of staff to the president and a friend of Truman’s, thought the atom bomb unnecessary. Furthermore, he wrote, "in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.” Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and chief of Naval Operations, thought the war could be ended well before a planned November 1945 naval invasion. And in a public speech on Oct. 5, 1945, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, said, "The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war."
Many Army leaders had similar views. Author Norman Cousins writes of Gen. Douglas MacArthur:
"[H]e saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor."
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, was also against the bomb. Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose writes:
"There was one additional matter on which Eisenhower gave Truman advice that was ignored. It concerned the use of the atomic bomb. Eisenhower first heard of the bomb during the Potsdam Conference; from that moment on, until his death, it occupied, along with the Russians, a central position in his thinking.
"When [Secretary of War] Stimson said the United States proposed to use the bomb against Japan, Eisenhower voiced ‘ grave misgivings .’ Three days later, on July 20, Eisenhower flew to Berlin, where he met with Truman and his principal advisors. Again Eisenhower recommended against using the bomb, and again was ignored."
These are a few of the many quotes in Alperovitz from military leaders who thought the bomb’s use on Japan unnecessary and/or immoral.
Much of what I’ve written in this section is subject to the criticism that, of course, these leaders wanted to distance themselves from a bad decision, but that that doesn’t necessarily mean they were opposed at the time or, more important, expressed their opposition at the time. In short, all these people could be lying. However, Alperovitz gives enough evidence to conclude, at the very least, that not all of them were lying. Some of the documents are memos written well before Aug. 6, 1945.The Weak Case for Using the Bomb
Even though it’s clear that not all of these opponents lied after the fact about their opposition, assume for a minute that they had. There still would be no good case for using the bomb. Roosevelt and Truman had made clear that they were seeking "unconditional surrender" from Japan. But Truman adamantly refused to clarify what "unconditional surrender" meant.
One of the key issues in the U.S. government’s call for the Japanese government’s unconditional surrender was whether the Japanese would be able to keep their emperor. Former President Herbert Hoover was very active in trying to end the war with Japan. On May 16, 1945, he sent a memo to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had been Hoover’s secretary of state, outlining his views on the war. On May 28, he met with President Truman and discussed how to end the war. At Truman’s request, Hoover wrote a memo in which he urged that the terms of Japan’s surrender be clarified. He emphasized that the U.S. government should make clear to Japan’s government that "the Allies have no desire to destroy either the Japanese people or their government, or to interference [sic] in the Japanese way of life." Truman gave the Hoover memo to Stimson and undersecretary of state Joseph Grew for comments. On June 14, fully seven weeks before the bomb was dropped, Stimson’s staff gave its assessment:
"The proposal of a public declaration of war aims, in effect giving definition to ‘unconditional surrender,’ has definite merit if it is carefully handled."
There is ample evidence that the Japanese government was willing to surrender months before Aug. 6 if only it could keep its emperor. Much of this evidence is given in Alperovitz’s book and much in Dennis D. Wainstock, The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996). Wainstock (pp. 22-23) tells of many attempts by the Japanese to clarify the terms and to make clear their willingness to surrender if they could only keep their emperor untouched. For example, on April 7, 1945, acting Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru asked Swedish Ambassador Widon Bagge in Tokyo "to ascertain what peace terms the United States and Britain had in mind." Shigemitsu emphasized that "the Emperor must not be touched." Bagge passed the message on to the U.S. government, but Secretary of State Edward Stettinius told the U.S. ambassador in Sweden to "show no interest or take any initiative in pursuit of this matter."
So the Japanese government tried another route. On May 7, 1945, Masutard Inoue, counselor of the Japanese legation in Portugal, approached an agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Inoue asked the agent to contact the U.S. embassy and "find out exactly what they plan to do in the Far East." He expressed his fear that Japan would be smashed, and he emphasized, "there can be no unconditional surrender." The agent passed the message on, but nothing came of it.
Three times is a charm, goes the saying. But not for the hapless Japanese. On May 10, 1945, Gen. Onodera, Japan’s military representative in Sweden, tried to get a member of Sweden’s royal family to approach the Allies for a settlement. He emphasized also that Japan’s government would not accept unconditional surrender and must be allowed to "save face." The U.S. government urged Sweden’s government to let the matter drop.
But if you can’t at first surrender, try, try again. On July 12, with almost four weeks to go before the horrible blast, Kojiro Kitamura, a representative of the Yokohama Specie Bank in Switzerland, told Per Jacobson, a Swedish adviser to the Bank for International Settlements, that he wanted to contact U.S. representatives and that the only condition Japan insisted on was that it keep its emperor. "He was acting with the consent of Shunichi Kase, the Japanese minister to Switzerland, and General Kiyotomi Okamoto, chief of Japanese European intelligence, and they were in direct contact with Tokyo." On July 14, Jacobson met in Wiesbaden, Germany with OSS representative Allen Dulles (later head of the CIA) and relayed the message that Japan’s main demand was "retention of the Emperor." Dulles passed the information to Stimson, but Stimson refused to act on it.
Interestingly, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy drafted a proposed surrender demand for the Committee of Three (Grew, Stimson, and Navy Secretary James Forrestal.) Their draft was part of Article 12 of the Potsdam Declaration, in which the Allies specified the conditions for Japan’s surrender. Under their wording, Japan’s government would have been allowed to keep its emperor as part of a "constitutional monarchy." Truman, though, who was influenced by his newly appointed Secretary of State James Byrnes on the ship over to the Potsdam Conference, changed the language of the surrender demand to drop the reference to keeping the emperor.
The bitter irony, of course, is that Truman ultimately allowed Japan to keep its emperor. Had this condition been dropped earlier, there would have been no need for the atom bomb. Rather than let Japan’s government "save face," Truman destroyed almost 200,000 faces.
Why did this happen? Why did Truman persist in refusing to clarify what unconditional surrender meant? Alperovitz speculates, with evidence that some will find convincing and others won’t, that the reason was to send a signal to Joseph Stalin that the U.S. government was willing to use some pretty vicious methods to dominate in the postwar world. My own view is that Truman and Byrnes wanted vengeance, plain and simple, and cared little about the loss of innocent lives. Let’s face it: dropping an atom bomb on two non-militarily strategic cities was not different in principle from fire-bombing Tokyo or Dresden.
Why is it that when people talk Hiroshima and Nagasaki today, the standard response from defenders of the decision is that dropping these bombs saved hundreds of thousands and, in some versions, millions, of American lives? The reason is that some of those who had most favored using the bomb, or who had gone along with the decision, participated in a highly successful attempt to craft history.
Even Jimmy Byrnes, the aforementioned secretary of state and one of the strongest advocates of using the bomb, claimed in his memoirs only the following: "Certainly, by bringing the war to an end, the atomic bomb saved the lives of thousands of American boys." But, by 1991, President George H.W. Bush was claiming that the decision to use the bomb "spared millions [emphasis mine] of American lives." What happened that made Americans take this kind of claim seriously?
Within a year of the war’s end, articles started appearing in the U.S. that questioned the need for dropping the bomb or that simply laid out, in very human terms, its devastating consequences. In a June 1946 article in Saturday Review, for example, editor Norman Cousins and co-author Thomas K. Finletter, a former assistant secretary of state and, later, secretary of the Air Force, raised the question of why the bomb was dropped. They speculated:
"Can it be that we were more anxious to prevent Russia from establishing a claim for full participation in the occupation against Japan than we were to think through the implications of unleashing atomic warfare?"
Other popular articles followed. On Aug. 19, 1946, the New York Times reported that Albert Einstein deplored the use of the bomb and speculated that it was a way of getting to Japan before the Russians did. On Aug. 31, The New Yorker devoted its entire issue to John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which laid out the horrible human tragedy. It didn’t help the proponents’ case that in July 1946, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey’s book, Japan’s Struggle to End the War, was published. It concluded that Japan would have surrendered without the bomb, without the Soviet declaration of war, and without even a U.S. invasion.
In the minds of proponents of using the bomb, something had to be done. James B. Conant, for example, Harvard University’s president and one of the leading advocates of the bomb’s use, concluded that an article was needed to counter this growing wave of criticism. The best candidate for the job, he concluded, was Henry Stimson. Stimson had been in both Hoover’s and Truman’s administrations and was highly respected. Conant suggested to Harvey Bundy, who had been one of the main overseers of the Manhattan Project that had developed the bomb, that he draft an article for Stimson’s signature. The actual author of the article was Harvey Bundy’s young son, McGeorge Bundy, who later figured so prominently as a Kennedy administration official in favor of the Vietnam war. Alperovitz tells the story so well (pp. 448-497) that I can’t do justice to it here. But here are two highlights of the points the article was to make:
- That if the bomb hadn’t been used, "thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of American soldiers might be [sic] killed or permanently injured."
- That "nobody in authority in Potsdam was satisfied that the Japanese would surrender on terms acceptable to the Allies without further bitter fighting."
As we have seen, both of these claims were false. Conant, moreover, successfully persuaded Bundy to drop mention of the issue of "unconditional surrender." This is like asking a sports writer writing about football player Terrell Owens’ conflicts to drop any mention of his criticism of Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb. Why confuse readers with the facts?
The final draft was published in the February 1947 Harper’s and widely reprinted. It silenced all but the most-independent critics. If you find yourself making claims about all the American lives saved and about the Japanese intransigence in the face of certain defeat, as I used to, you can probably thank McGeorge Bundy, Henry Stimson, and James B. Conant. But if you want the facts, read pp. 448-497 of Alperovitz.
1. Quoted in Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 563.
2. J. Samuel Walker, "The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update," Diplomatic History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 1990), pp. 97-114. (Quoted in Alperovitz, 1995.)
3. Quoted in Alperovitz, 1995, p. 336.
4. William D. Leahy, I Was There, pg. 441, quoted at http://www.doug-long.com/leahy.htm.
6. Cousins, Pathology of Power, 1987, p. 71, quoted in Alperovitz, 1995.
7. Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower, Vol I: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 (New York, 1983), pp. 425-426, quoted in Alperovitz, p. 358.
8. Quoted in Alperovitz, p. 44.
9. Quoted in Alperovitz, p. 44.
10. Quoted in Wainstock, p. 22.
12. James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947, p. 264.
13. Quoted in Alperovitz, p. 443.
Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.